June 13th, 2011

Gaslight: 40 Years Ago Today, New York Times Begins Publishing the Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers led to a landmark ruling on the First Amendment.

June 13, 1971: Forty years ago today, The New York Times began publishing a series of documents now known as the Pentagon Papers, ultimately setting off one the nation’s most pivotal cases in determining limits on freedom of the press. Leaked to the press by an employee at RAND Corporation named Daniel Ellsberg, the papers revealed a series of lies and misdeeds performed by the United States government from 1945 to 1967 relating to the war in Vietnam. All four Presidents during this period–Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson–were complicit in deceiving the American public as to their intentions abroad. Among the most embarrassing revelations was that, despite what he loudly professed, President Johnson had plans to broaden the war and bomb North Vietnam, even though the Democrats painted presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as a warmonger for wanting to do the same thing. It was also revealed that a primary aim for the government during the war was not for the good of the people of South Vietnam, but “to avoid a humiliating US defeat.”

The government stepped in and ordered the Times to stop publication of the papers, and when the newspaper refused, the government sued. An appellate federal court issued a temporary injunction on June 15 which halted further publishing by The New York Times. But by then, additional newspapers like The Washington Post had received portions of the documents and began publishing as well. An intense legal battle followed for the next two weeks in which other newspapers printing portions of the papers were required to cease publishing. On June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government did not provide sufficient proof to justify the injunction, marking a landmark victory for a free press under the First Amendment.

Although the papers have been published, both in the newspapers and in subsequent volumes of books, they have never been published in their complete form, entirely free from redactions. But today, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the leak, the National Archives and Records Administration is releasing the completely declassified document for the first time–all 7,000 pages, available here. Thank goodness for e-readers.

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