NEW YORK -- A spate of articles and interviews hit street and screen this month to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the publication of "top secret" documents on the origins of the Vietnam War that became famous and infamous as "The Pentagon Papers."
The papers, if you remember, were diplomatic, military and intelligence memos and records under presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson. And they showed, quite convincingly, that our leaders, elected and not, had lied to us about many things happening in the three countries once known as French Indo-China -- Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We went to war there, and more than 55,000 Americans died for reasons hard to defend now. So did hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, though many of them had real reasons -- it was their war, their home, their history, their destinies at stake.
The New York Times began publishing the papers on Sunday, June 13, 1971, right next to the story of the White House wedding of President Nixon's daughter Tricia the day before. We (I was a reporter at The Times then) saw the publication as a signal act of journalistic duty and courage, knowing that the government might choose to arrest and prosecute the people responsible for challenging the official definitions and rules of "national security."
Nobody else paid much attention, at least not at first. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was on "Meet the Press" that morning, and no one even asked about the papers. President Nixon was annoyed, but he considered the publication more of a problem for the many defenders of the Democratic presidents who moved us into the war, Johnson and Kennedy. The president was also not that impressed with "top secret." He knew that more than 500,000 people were cleared at that level, including file clerks at companies that made gears for tanks and ships.
The person who was excited -- perpetually, it seemed to some -- was Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who was resting in California that week. He called the president with a 15-minute tirade, saying: "It shows you're a weakling, Mr. President ... these leaks are slowly and systematically destroying us. ... It could destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy. If other powers feel we cannot control internal leaks, they will not agree to secret negotiations."
Soon enough, Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was saying, "The two of them are in a frenzy." The rest is truly history. Within a couple of days, Nixon was urging his men to break into the Brookings Institution and other places to see if they had any of the 15 copies of the papers.
The government asked for and got restraining orders blocking publication of the material (temporarily, it turned out) by The Times and then The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and other publications being fed material by a disenchanted defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg. He got himself arrested, and Nixon formed a unit that called itself "The Plumbers," guys assigned to stop leaks; one of the bright ideas they had was to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. The next step was Watergate.
Looking back, I am not sure that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was quite as world-changing as we thought at the time. In fact, the questions in my mind now are these:
-- What lesson did the government take from the Pentagon Papers controversy and the ruling by the Supreme Court that the press pretty much had the legal right to publish whatever it could get its hands on? Perhaps less is put in writing (or on computer disks) now. Or perhaps the government has used cost-cutting arguments to slow down the release of sensitive information. For instance, the Foreign Relations of the United States volumes on Vietnam during the Nixon years were due to be released beginning in 1999, but they have not been.
-- Would The Times and the rest of the press be willing to spend the money and take the risks involved in challenging the government that way again? Millions of extra pages were printed then, and hundreds of lawyers were paid and retained to fight the Justice Department. Who would make such decisions now?
Thirty years is a long time. In government, the children and assistants of President Nixon and his men have regained power. On the press side, power has shifted in a more fundamental way. Editors and reporters ruled in 1971. Accountants, lawyers and stock analysts make the final decisions now.
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