The New York Times Publishes the Defense Department's Secret History of the Vietnam War

June 13, 1971 The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers - the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post will begin publishing the papers later that same week.

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 only makes the precedent stronger; the Constitution, in the Court's view, makes prior restraint impermissible even if there is some danger to national security.

Victory emboldened the news media, and the contents of the Pentagon Papers themselves guaranteed, at least for the generation of journalists directly involved, that every Government utterance would be subject to skeptical (and too often cynical) scrutiny. The Nixon Administration responded by creating the Plumbers unit (so called because they were to deal with leaks like that of the papers). That step in turn led to the Watergate scandal and ultimately to Nixon's resignation. — R. W. Apple Jr., June 23, 1996

The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, were a top-secret United States Department of Defense history of the United States' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Commissioned by United States Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in 1967, the study was completed in 1968. The papers were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of the New York Times in 1971.

The study was classified as top secret and was not intended for publication. Contributor Daniel Ellsberg, however, turned over most of the Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, with Ellsberg's friend Anthony Russo assisting in their copying. The Times began publishing excerpts in a series of articles on June 13, 1971. Street protests, political controversy and lawsuits followed.
To ensure the possibility of public debate about the content of the papers, on June 29, US Senator Mike Gravel (then Democrat, Alaska) entered 4,100 pages of the Papers to the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. These portions of the Papers were subsequently published by Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Article I, Section 6 of the United States Constitution provides that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [a Senator or Representative] shall not be questioned in any other Place", thus the Senator could not be prosecuted for anything said on the Senate floor, and, by extension, for anything entered to the Congressional Record, allowing the Papers to be publicly read without threat of a treason trial and conviction.
Later, Ellsberg said the documents "demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates" He added that he leaked the papers to end what he perceived to be "a wrongful war".