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What Were the Pentagon Papers?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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In 1968, the American Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, commissioned a study analyzing the involvement of the United States in Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Laos. The resulting 7,000 page document later became known as the “Pentagon Papers” when it was leaked to the New York Times in 1971. The release of these papers to the American media marked a major shift in American opinion about the involvement of the United States in numerous Southeast Asian conflicts, and the resulting legal challenges set several precedents.

The Pentagon Papers examined United States policy and internal planning in Southeast Asia from the close of the Second World War to 1968. The papers were published internally in 1969, and consisted of a large assortment of original documents, accompanied by thousands of pages of analysis written by State Department officials. The documents contained a great deal of information which had not been released to the American public, including revelations that the United States had been more deeply involved in Southeast Asia than most citizens realized.

A former State Department official, Daniel Ellsberg, leaked the documents to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. The paper immediately began publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, along with analytical articles. When President Nixon learned of the publication, he sought an injunction to stop the Times from printing the papers. A temporary injunction was awarded, but the Washington Post picked up the story as well, and it began publishing supplemental excerpts. Ultimately, the case ended up in the Supreme Court, and the injunction was struck down, confirming the free speech rights of the journalists and papers involved.

Many historians point to the Pentagon Papers as a watershed moment in American history. Support for the Vietnam war had already largely waned among the American populace, but the revelations in the papers sparked a great deal of anger and backlash. Along with the Watergate scandal, they also had a powerful impact on the direction of the Nixon administration.

The publication of the top secret documents in major newspapers around the United States also ended up ultimately leading to greater protections for journalists. The Supreme Court decision affirming the right to publication was later used as justification for similar cases. However, journalists still voice concerns about publishing material which may have an impact on national security, pointing to the accusations of treason leveled by the White House against the publishers of the Pentagon Papers. Many journalists continue to fight for more rights and protections under the law, using the Pentagon Papers as an excellent example of why these rights are important.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon163436 — On Mar 27, 2011

@hanggugeo112: Spoken like a true american.

Do you even realize what you're saying? If the good ol' USofA stopped trying to be the world police, the world would be a much better place. Let's see how long it takes 'em to jump into Iran.

By Renegade — On Jan 10, 2011

There are so many whistleblowers for governments and misconduct on the part of politicians, etc. Perhaps we should have a whistleblower for the scientific community. Academia holds tremendous power of the minds of young people and often determines the political direction they will follow. Paired with the media, these easily form an underground propagandist power which has gone unchecked for a long time, basing itself on allegedly liberal ideas.

By Tufenkian925 — On Jan 08, 2011

Hollywood has made a fortune off of playing off of people's love for conspiracy theories and seeming "corruptness" in the government, especially in relation to the days of the Cold War and the Red Scare. It is sad to see that for many, education of how the world works comes from subpar media sources.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 06, 2011

It will be interesting to see if this comparatively small leak fades into oblivion in contrast to the recent massive leaks by Julian Assange. Few people were surprised by the ostensibly dark political actions of governments which were revealed in such leaks. Maneuvers like these, and war in general, are always operating in a grey area in which right and wrong actions are nonexistent, and one must choose the lesser of two evils. Civilians have trouble understanding this because they often never been exposed to wartime violence and situations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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