Year
1971

The New York Times publishes the “Pentagon Papers”

The New York Times begins publishing portions of the 47-volume Pentagon analysis of how the U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia grew over a period of three decades. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had become an antiwar activist, had stolen the documents. After unsuccessfully offering the documents to prominent opponents of the war in the U.S. Senate, Ellsberg gave them to the Times.

Officially called The History of the U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam, the “Pentagon Papers” disclosed closely guarded communiques, recommendations, and decisions concerning the U.S. military role in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, along with the diplomatic phase in the Eisenhower years. The publication of the papers created a nationwide furor, with congressional and diplomatic reverberations as all branches of the government debated over what constituted “classified” material and how much should be made public.

The publication of the documents precipitated a crucial legal battle over “the people’s right to know,” and led to an extraordinary session of the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the issue. Although the documents were from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, President Richard Nixon opposed their publication, both to protect the sources in highly classified appendices, and to prevent further erosion of public support for the war. On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled that the Times had the right to publish the material.

The publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” along with previous suspected disclosures of classified information to the press, led to the creation of a White House unit to plug information leaks to journalists. The illegal activities of the unit, known as the “Plumbers,” and their subsequent cover-up, became known collectively as the Watergate scandal, which resulted in President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

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