On 13 June 1971, The New York Times published leaked documents from the US Department of Defense. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg – who had worked on a study of military activities in Vietnam (“Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”) – came to oppose the war and decided that the information contained in the Pentagon Papers should be available to the American public. He photocopied the report and in March 1971 gave the copy to The New York Times, which then published a series of scathing articles based on the report’s most damning secrets.
After publication of the third article, the US Department of Justice obtained a temporary restraining order against further publication of the material, arguing that it was detrimental to national security. In the now-famous case of New York Times Co. vs. the United States, the Times and the Washington Post joined forces to fight for the right to publish, and on June 30 the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government had failed to prove harm to national security and that publication of the papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.
In addition to being publishe in the Times, Post, Boston Globe and other newspapers, portions of the Pentagon Papers entered the public record when Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, read them aloud in a Senate subcommittee hearing.
The published portions revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had all misled the public about the degree of US involvement in Vietnam, from Truman’s decision to give military aid to France during its struggle against the communist-led Việt Minh to Johnson’s development of plans to escalate the war in Vietnam from as early as 1964, even as he claimed the opposite during that year’s presidential election.
Published at a time when support for US involvement in the Vietnam War was rapidly eroding, the Pentagon Papers confirmed many people’s suspicions about the active role the US government had taken in building up the conflict. Though the study did not cover the policies of President Richard M. Nixon, the revelations included within it were embarrassing, particularly as Nixon was up for reelection in 1972.
The Pentagon Papers can be viewed in full at https://www.archives.gov/research/pentagon-papers.