On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a documentary history tracing the ultimately doomed involvement of the United States in a grinding war in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia.
They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.
The Government sought and won a court order restraining further publication after three articles had appeared. Other newspapers then began publishing. They, too, were restrained, until finally, on June 30, 1971, the United States Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of 9 to 0, that publication could resume.
The fight over the top-secret papers, whose compilation had been ordered by Robert S. McNamara when he was Defense Secretary, became a pivotal moment in the ages-old struggle between the Government and the press. But few would have guessed at the time how much it would change the news media, how much it would change the public view of the news media and the Government and how little it would change the way the Government conducts its business.
Opponents of the Vietnam war, including Daniel Ellsberg, the onetime hawk turned dove who played a key role in making the papers public, hoped that doing so might persuade President Richard M. Nixon to change his policy on Vietnam. It did not. Less than a year after publication, Haiphong Harbor was mined, and the war dragged on.
The Pentagon Papers prompted the first attempt ever made by the Federal Government to impose a prior restraint on the press in the name of national security. In his new book, "The Day the Presses Stopped" (University of California Press), David Rudenstine argues that some of the papers (though not the ones printed) could indeed have compromised national security.
Few if any of the main players in the drama share that view. But even if it is correct, that ...