With decades of political and economic unrest behind them, Americans rushed with full force into the 60’s -- an era that would house the baby boom, the roots of the ‘Civil Right Movement, and a vast demographic change as the middle class left cities for the suburbs. Yet, even as the American economy rushed ahead at full speed, military spending and consumerism opening doors for unprecedented economic prosperity, the Cold War silently raged on. The threat of communism seeped under the materialistic facade of the 1960s, influencing Eisenhower's decision to deploy his first round of troops in Vietnam in 1961. His hopes of preventing the “domino effect” -- the ideology that should one South East nation fall to communism, the rest will follow -- were heralded at the time; yet, at the turn of the 70’s, the publication of one of the most controversial documents in American history would forever changed how the populus viewed the war and the U.S. Government.
The consolidation of top secret information concerning U.S. involvement in Vietnam was ordered in 1967 at the request of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. This classified study contained information concerning United States political and military involvement in the South-East Asian nation from the end of World War II until the present day. Although the documents would later become known as the “Pentagon Papers”, the study was stored under the title “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”. The data was recorded over 7,000 pages and confirmed that the U.S. Government had indeed been misleading the public about U.S. involvement in Vietnam since the French withdrew from their colonial enclave, leaving behind a fragile political scaffolding. In 1972 these documents were released to the public by Daniel Ellsberg, a former analyst at the Pentagon himself. They were published in a series of articles by the New York Times, bringing national attention not only to question involvement in Vietnam, but the very principles of free speech in America.
The Roots of Distrust
Ellsberg reported that he felt compelled to leak the Pentagon Papers after he realized the blatantly false information that the U.S. Government was publicizing. Perhaps one the most significant reveal the documents offered was that the war wasn’t to secure an “independent, non-communist South Vietnam” as Lyndon B. Johnson had initially confirmed with the public. Instead, McNamara stated that the underlying justification for involvement was “not to help a friend, but to contain China”. McNamara admitted, in a memorandum, that the containment of China would ultimately sacrifice a significant amount of America’s time, money, and lives. This underlying three-front plan to suppress communist China was known as the “China containment policy”, and the populous knew nothing of it.
"China—like Germany in 1917, like Germany in the West and Japan in the East in the late 30's, and like the USSR in 1947—looms as a major power threatening to undercut our importance and effectiveness in the world and, more remotely but more menacingly, to organize all of Asia against us." -- Robert McNamara
Aside from the true intention of the war, the Pentagon Papers also offered insight into the internal affairs of Vietnam. Such included the aid Truman offered the French in its war against the Communist-led VietMinh and the role the U.S. played in the rise of Southern dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The papers identified General Edward Lansdale, who served in the Office of Strategic Services, as a “key figure in the establishment of Diem as the so-called “president” of South Vietnam, backing his regime for years after. Ironically, the Pentagon Papers also revealed that the U.S. government played a key role in the 1963 South Vietnamese military coup to overthrow the increasingly unpopular Diem -- an incident that had previously been fully attributed to the military. This supposedly tactical move -- an attempt to strengthen opposition to the Communist Viet Cong -- actually implicated into even more political chaos then before, escalating U.S. involvement even further.
"We must note that South Vietnam (unlike any of the other countries in Southeast Asia) was essentially the creation of the United States" -- Pentagon Papers
The aforementioned actions were all indeed top secret. The ignorance of the American public on these matters led them to believe the Government’s reassurances that the war in Vietnam was actually on the decline. When the Pentagon Papers were drafted and Ellsberg learned of the intense abuse of public trust perpetrated over the past decade, he decided that the moral decision would be to leak said documents.
The Implications of Ellsberg's Expose
In February 1971, Ellsberg leaked 43 volumes of the 47 volume Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. The paper’s outside consult, Lord and Lord, advised against publication on legal grounds, yet the house consult, James Goodale, prevailed with the argument that the Times had the right to publish information crucial to citizen understanding of governmental regulations under the First Amendment. The New York Times began publication on June 13, 1971. And the public erupted with an unprecedented anger at the Federal Government. They had been betrayed by those they had sent their young men to fight under. A rumble of discontent vibrated throughout the populous as further information continued to surface.
President Richard Nixon’s first response to the publications was to leave them be, for they tarnished the reputations of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations rather than his. Yet, others in his cabinet argued that Ellsberg was guilty of felony under the Espionage Act of 1917. Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing the New York Times to cease publication on June 14th, yet the newspaper appealed the injunction. Soon the case had risen to the Supreme Court, bringing to national attention this question around the extent to which speech really was free in the United States. On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court decided, 6-3, that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required to for the prior restraint injunction. The Supreme Law of the land had spoken, declaring that free speech and a right to know triumphed over the government’s right to deceive its citizens. Censorship on this scale was no longer an option.
"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell." -- Justice Harry Blackman
The publication of the Pentagon Papers reopened the wound of free speech to stitch it back up with a new view on classification. As the New York times continued to reveal new information, public support for the war plummeted. A number of violent protests against the effort rocked the nation, and Americans began to view the government with a new cynicism. The Pentagon Papers had changed how Americans viewed their leaders.
The Question of Free Speech
"There should be at least one leak like the Pentagon Papers every year" -- Daniel Ellsberg
The boundaries of free speech have been challenged multiple times throughout American history. Perhaps the most recent infamous instance is the presence of WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to leaking confidential governmental information to the public. Although their anonymous publications of emails, documents, and other top-secret information is considered a breach of copyright and therefore illegal, U.S. law is almost completely helpless in stopping their actions. Wikileaks is based in Sweden, where protection is offered to “whistleblowers” -- it is illegal to investigate the identity of an anonymous source within the nation. This protection is a sharp juxtaposition to the legal scrutiny Ellsberg faced after leaking the Pentagon Papers; yet, like Ellsberg’s expose, Wikileaks is redefining what free-speech really means and the extent to which it is ethical. Is it worth breaching federal law in order to inform the public on the actions of their government? This question has yet to be answered in its entirety, yet the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks are helping us answer it one publication at a time.