Tag Archives: Vietnam

The Pentagon Papers @ 50

From the Washington Post “Made by History,” June 13, 2021

Chris Daly

Made by History


Fifty years ago the Pentagon Papers shocked America — and they still matter today

We still confront questions about press freedom and the public’s right to know government secrets

Front pages from the The Washington Post and the New York Times when they published stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. (The Washington Post)
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By Christopher B. Daly

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”

The 1971 Supreme Court ruling on the issue has shaped the landscape for reporting on government secrets. It also reminded the American people of something essential for our democracy to function, then and now: Voters have the ultimate power to tell the government what to do and not do in their name. To accomplish that, though, they first have to know what their government is up to.

It all began in 1967, at the height of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could see that the United States was not winning, and he wanted to know why. So, he ordered an internal review of what had gone wrong.

One of the analysts who would produce an answer for McNamara was Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine who had served in Vietnam, come home to get a Ph.D. and worked at the Rand Corp. He had a high-level security clearance and a keen mind. Originally a supporter of the U.S. war effort, Ellsberg was undergoing a conversion into an opponent of the war.

Then, he faced the question of what to do about it. As a contributor to the study ordered by McNamara, he had access to a set of the final Pentagon report. He wanted the public to see what he had found: that Vietnam was a disaster, one into which president after president had led us deeper and deeper, always claiming that victory or “peace with honor” was just around the corner while knowing better.

With the idea of divulging its contents, Ellsberg began secretly photocopying the study in October 1969. Aside from the legal issues, copying the Pentagon Papers was a physical challenge. Each set ran to 47 volumes, about 7,000 pages of documents and analysis classified as “TOP SECRET — SENSITIVE.”

As Ellsberg well knew, the Pentagon Papers included secrets — everything from plots to carry out coups to estimates of other countries’ intentions. What it did not include was just as important. The Pentagon Papers contained almost nothing of any military value to an adversary. It was primarily a history of policymaking.

Ellsberg’s first thought was to get the Pentagon Papers released through a member of Congress, hoping that one of them would use his congressional immunity to introduce the papers into the Congressional Record. In the end, they all declined. So Ellsberg turned to the press.

In his mind, there was one obvious choice: New York Timesreporter Neil Sheehan. Earlier, Sheehan had covered the war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg believed (correctly) that Sheehan was opposed to continued U.S. involvement.

Sheehan, who died earlier this year, never identified Ellsberg as his source and never explained in detail how he acquired the Pentagon Papers. All he would say publicly was that he “got” or “obtained” the study — which was true as far as it went.

Once he did and the Times decided to commit to the story, the paper set up a secret “newsroom” at the midtown Hilton in New York City. The set held by the Times represented an unprecedented breach of the national security classification system, and anyone in possession of the report could face criminal charges, not merely of stealing government property but perhaps even of espionage or, ultimately, treason.

In one room at the hotel, Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger assembled the newspaper’s lawyers to help him decide whether to publish anything at all. In another room, he assembled a select group of the newspaper’s senior editors and top reporters to wade into the documents and help figure out what to publish.

It all came down to Sulzberger. He would have to put all his chips — the paper he loved, his family’s legacy, the good of his country — on the table. He decided to publish.

So, on Sunday, June 13, 1971, the New York Times carried this banner headline:



The lead article, written by Sheehan, reported that a “massive” study commissioned by McNamara showed that four presidential administrations “progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South and an ultimate frustration with this effort to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged.” Significantly, the Times promised more articles and more documents in the following days.

At first, President Richard M. Nixon did nothing. After all, the summary he got from aides suggested that the Pentagon Papers were mainly critical of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — both Democrats. But, fearing that he might look weak if he ignored the leak, Nixon eventually ordered a response.

On Tuesday, June 15, 1971, government lawyers asked the federal court in Manhattan to enjoin the Times from publishing anything further about the Pentagon Papers. That was a momentous step. It was the first time since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that the federal government had tried to impose “prior restraint” on a newspaper, on grounds of national security.

From the newspaper’s point of view, the issue was the plain meaning of the First Amendment, with its sweeping ban against abridging the freedom of the press. From the president’s point of view, the issue was his duty as commander in chief to safeguard the nation by keeping its military, intelligence and diplomatic secrets, particularly in times of war.

In court, both sides pounded the Constitution. Judge Murray Gurfein, who had just been appointed by Nixon, promptly granted the government’s request for a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for three days later. The Times obeyed this order.

Later that week, however, The Washington Post obtained its own set of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, and the newspaper’s staff swung into action, setting up a command center at editor Ben Bradlee’s house in Georgetown. In one room the writers got to work. In another room the editors and lawyers got busy trying to decide whether to publish at all. Like Sulzberger, Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post, was betting the house — the company, the newspaper, her family’s reputation. She, too, decided to publish.

That Friday morning, The Post carried a front-page story about the extensive Vietnam study, revealing that it now had the same classified materials as the Times. Government lawyers asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to impose prior restraint on The Post. While Judge Gerhard Gesell refused, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed him, forcing The Post to also stop sharing the Pentagon Papers with the American public.

By week’s end, the cases were headed to the Supreme Court on a fast track. Within a week the high court, acting with rare speed, heard arguments and made a ruling allowing the Times and The Post to resume publication. Although the justices wrote nine separate opinions, it was a clear-cut victory for press freedom and the public’s right to know. “The press [is] to serve the governed, not the governors,” as Justice Hugo Black put it.

An edited version of the Papers was soon published in book form, and the American people could finally see for themselves that one president after another had misled them about the war.

Even so, the victory for the people’s right to know left many issues unsettled.

In recent years, the issue of leaks to the news media has persisted. During the Trump administration, for example, officials gathered metadata about the phone records of Washington Post reporters and went after a CNN reporter’s phone and email records.

Democrats do it, too. Under President Barack Obama, the federal government set a record for criminal prosecutions of leakers, and those cases often involved journalists being hauled into court and ordered to reveal their sources or face time in jail.

Aside from punishment for government employees and contractors who leak, the issue of “publication” is more complicated than before. Thanks to the rise of digital platforms on the Internet, such as WikiLeaks, the notion of “prior restraint” is a bit antiquated, since publication now takes place globally at the speed of light.

The Pentagon Papers also pointed out another problem that remains unresolved: the excessive use of classification to keep all kinds of material away from the public.

The real issue for our time remains whether governments have (or should have) the power to chill unauthorized leaking by punishing individuals after the fact. Ultimately, however, the issue is not what rights leakers or journalists may have. In the end, the paramount issue is the public’s right to know what the government is doing. Lacking that knowledge, no people can long govern themselves.


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Surveillance State: An old-school leak of FBI docs

By Christopher B. Daly

History keeps happening.

Thanks to a new book by former Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger called The Burglary, 51HydAvzamL._AA160_Americans can now see another example of principled, patriotic, non-violent dissenters who made America a better place by risking jail to bring important truths to light. The New York Times has a good story today about it, including a terrific video. More is at NPR.

To set the scene:

–It was a time in American history when we were fighting an undeclared war halfway around the world.

–We were fighting against people whose history, culture, and language we did not understand.

–We could not tell friend from foe.

–With each passing year, the insurgency grew stronger and we never managed to “pacify” any territory.

–American citizens tried to stop the war and were castigated as disloyal, unpatriotic.

–The government engaged in a secret, illegal campaign to find and crush people it considered terrorists.

The year was 1971, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, not 2003 or 2004, at the height of the U.S. “war on terror.” (Instead of al Qaeda, the FBI was targeting domestic “terrorists” like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers) After years of peaceful protests, a small group of anti-war activists decided to try a new tactic: break into an FBI office, remove the files, and divulge the secret contents to the news media.

Here is a template for national security leakers. The break-in described in the new book took place in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971. That very same week, Daniel Ellsberg made his first contact with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to discuss divulging the massive secret files that became known as the Pentagon Papers. In both cases, people who found that they could not change policy through normal politics and who could not legally blow the whistle on wrongdoing decided to go outside the law — risking prosecution and jail — in the hope that disclosing secrets would lead to a desirable change.

The comparisons to Edward Snowden are obvious. As a contract employee for the NSA, Snowden learned that the government has built a vast spying operation since 9/11/01 that includes secret top-secret-stampsurveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans in peacetime and that officials hid and lied about.

The anti-war burglars in the Media FBI break-in hurt no one and did almost no property damage (they had to jimmy a lock to get in). As a result of their disclosures, no one died and the sky did not fall. Instead, the disclosures added fuel to the anti-war movement and provided vital clues to the wider disclosures that led to the Church Committee investigation and reforms.

In the Media break-in, the only apparent crime was simple burglary, and the statute of limitations expired long ago. So, there is no question of penalties as these American heroes emerge from the shadows.





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New AP book of Vietnam War photos

By Christopher B. Daly

Thanks to The Associated Press, there’s a new book of news photographs from the American war in Vietnam that will remind us of all the chaos, confusion, heroism, beauty, and tragedy of those years — as seen through the eyes of AP photographers and correspondents.

From today’s preview in the NYTimes:

Now, amid a flurry of anniversary commemorations of that tumultuous era and a surge of interest in war photography, The A.P. has, for the first time, culled its estimated 25,000 Vietnam photographs and reprinted some 250 in a book, “Vietnam: The Real War,” with an introduction by Pete Hamill, to be published by Abrams on Oct. 1.

Chuck Zoeller, the agency’s manager of special projects, said the dozens of rarely seen photographs in this collection include color plates of United States prisoners of war in a Hanoi prison in 1972 and historical images from the French colonial period. There is a photo of President John F. Kennedy in Florida, reviewing a commando unit back from action as early as 1962. And there are troubling scenes: Vietcong prisoners being kicked and subjected to water torture by South Vietnamese troops. A Vietnamese family of four, dead on a blanket, killed in a stampede as panicked refugees fled the advancing North Vietnamese in 1975.

Several of the most powerful photos from the era appear in my 2012 book, Covering America, because they not only documented the news but in several cases they also made news. They were that powerful. I am thinking of Mal Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in 1963 or the photo of the “napalm girl” in 1972 by Nick Ut. 

Here’s another heart-breaking photo from the new compilation, taken by the AP’s photo editor in Vietnam, Horst Faas (who died last year, as did Browne):

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.  Photo: Horst Faas.

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.
Photo: Horst Faas.


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Stanley Karnow, 1925-2013

Today brings news of the passing of Stanley Karnow, who wrote one of the most-cited works trying to figure out what happened during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He was an exemplar of the journalist-turned-historian.

Here is the Times obit, which mentions that Karnow was also on the Nixon “enemies list.”

Here is the AP version, which notes that Karnow got his start in journalism on his high school newspaper and at the Harvard Crimson.

The ultimate quote:

‘‘What did we learn from Vietnam?’’ Mr. Karnow later told AP. ‘‘We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’’



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Mal Browne, a great journalist, dies at 81

By Christopher B. Daly 

Today brings sad news: the death of Mal Browne, a real original and a great journalist. Probably best known for his famous photograph of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in protest against the government in South Vietnam, Browne was also a terrific reporter and writer.

You can read the obituary by The Associated Press, Browne’s employer when he was in South Vietnam in the 1960s, in the NYTimes, which was his eventual employer. (Browne, who studied chemistry before becoming a reporter, later became a war reporter and science writer at the Times.)

Also not to be missed is Browne’s memoir, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A War Reporter’s Life.

Browne also has some really worthwhile insights in this terrific PBS video.

You can also read about Browne in these excerpts from my book, Covering America.

In the early 1960s Halberstam was the only full-time reporter working in Vietnam for a U.S. newspaper, and since that paper was the Times, he was destined to become the most visible journalist in the country. But Halberstam was not the only American correspondent based in Saigon. There was a small contingent of other journalists, who were followed later by hundreds of reporters, photographers, television cameramen, producers, columnists, feature writers, spies, adventurers, and poseurs, along with brigades of military “public information officers” whose mission was the care and feeding of the vast and hungry press corps. But all that was still far off. In the early 1960s the Saigon press corps could have easily fit into one helicopter. They had a lot in common, this band of friendly rivals; as was typical of the era, they were all white and all male, and no one spoke Vietnamese.



Among the news agencies with a presence in Vietnam, two of the most important, because of the enormous size of their audiences, were the U.S.-based wire services the Associated Press and United Press International. The AP bureau was led by Malcolm Browne, who was raised a Quaker and began a career as a chemist but then was drafted into the army in 1956 and ended up driving tanks in Korea. He came home and worked for several newspapers in the States (including the Record in Middletown, New York, where he briefly worked alongside a young reporter named Hunter S. Thompson) before joining the AP and getting his wish—to become a foreign correspondent—in his early thirties. Tall, thin, and pensive, Browne might have been mistaken for a professor if not for his wide array of sources and the bright red socks he always wore. He shared a cramped office with Horst Faas, AP’s Saigon photo editor (who insisted that all AP reporters in the country carry cameras, just in case), and a young AP reporter from New Zealand, Peter Arnett. Fearless and relentless, Arnett became a legend in Vietnam. “He stayed longer, took more chances, and wrote more words read by more people than any war correspondent in any war in history,” notes one observer.9 At UPI, the AP’s major competitor, the bureau consisted of a single correspondent, Neil Sheehan, who had worked his way out of the old factory town of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and into Harvard, graduating three years after Halberstam. He then joined the army, went to Korea, and worked at Stars and Stripes before joining UPI. Like his rival Browne at AP, Sheehan was young and hungry. Nobody had ever heard of either reporter in 1962, but they would before it was all over. . .


As these correspondents went about their reporting in the early 1960s, they were on a fairly long leash. Given the state of communications, they were often hard to reach, so if their editors in New York had some brilliant idea, they might as well forget it, because by the time it arrived in Saigon, the reporter would probably be off somewhere else covering the action. Reporters thus had the happy burden of making up their own assignments. They also had pretty much the run of South Vietnam and could almost always get to the scene of any action. Sometimes the war would take place right in front of them, even in the middle of Saigon. In a guerrilla war, reporters soon realized, the battle was everywhere and nowhere. There was certainly no “front line,” as there had been since time immemorial. When fighting did break out, the U.S. military usually obliged with transportation, putting reporters into any available space aboard jeeps, armored vehicles, helicopters, ships, and jets. At other times, reporters could hire a car and driver or literally take a taxi to cover the news.



On the whole, there was remarkably little censorship in Vietnam. Officially, there was no military censorship in the traditional sense, although the United States did issue “guidelines” to all correspondents that covered the basics. To be sure, first Kennedy then Lyndon Johnson tried to have individual reporters fired, and they counted on the South Vietnamese government to expel any real trouble-makers. Especially in the early years, the Diem regime made life miserable for correspondents, particularly if their reporting was critical of Diem’s government. But the fact was that the United States, as a guest in an undeclared war, fighting for freedom against totalitarian communism, was in a bind and could not impose official censorship.



As a result, the Pentagon brass and officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations felt the need to try to sell the war, using the techniques of public relations and news management. One approach involved the selective withholding of information. Until 1967, for example, American officials did not provide a total count of U.S. troops killed and missing. At the same time, officials made a great effort to encourage reporters, especially in the early years, to “get on the team,” as generations of journalists had done in previous wars. They also borrowed techniques from public relations to try to convey the message that the United States was winning and the enemy was losing. Halberstam, for one, had seen enough of the war firsthand so that he was not buying what they were selling. Neither were most of the other young resident correspondents.


Stories revealing the conflict between the military and the press abound. To take one notorious case, in December 1961 the U.S. aircraft carrier Core docked at the foot of Tu Do Street in Saigon, towering over the nearby buildings. Plainly visible on the deck were dozens of olive drab Sikorsky H-21 helicopters. Mal Browne was among a half-dozen reporters who wanted to know what was going on, since the United States was officially only advising South Vietnam, not arming it. The reporters went to the U.S. Information Service office and asked the director about the massive ship.


“Aircraft carrier?” he asked. “What aircraft carrier? I don’t see any aircraft carrier.”

VC spies, of course, managed to see the ship and even record the serial numbers of the aircraft as they were unloaded.





. . .As the reporters in the Saigon press corps could see, the strategy was not working. More evidence came in 1963 in a series of events known as “the Buddhist crisis.” The crisis began in May, when Diem traveled to Hue to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his brother’s elevation to the Catholic hierarchy. For the occasion, the streets of Hue were festooned with flags, both the Vietnamese national flag and the Vatican flag. The problem was that a majority of Vietnam’s people (70 to 80 percent) were Buddhists. A few days later the Buddhists of Hue were celebrating the 2,587th birthday of the Buddha, and they wanted to fly their own flag. When the Diem government said no, the Buddhists took to the streets. Someone threw a grenade, and the conflict rapidly escalated. Monks began to venture out from their pagodas, and they quickly spread the protests to Saigon and other cities. The Diem regime embarked on a series of clumsy crackdowns, which only made matters worse. Halberstam pounced on the story and pushed it onto the front page of the New York Times.




In the White House, President Kennedy, an avid reader of the Times, was still learning about Vietnam. After reading Halberstam’s report about the Buddhists, Kennedy asked an aide: “Who are these people? Why didn’t we know about them before?”

On June 11, 1963, the Buddhist monks of Vietnam took center stage. For weeks as the crisis built, the AP’s Mal Browne had been filing stories, and he had spent a lot of time in pagodas, interviewing monks and getting a good understanding of their cause. On the night of June 10 Browne got a call from a contact among the monks, telling him there would be an important development the next morning at a small Saigon pagoda. Several Western correspondents got the same tip, but only a few showed up, including Browne and, later, Halberstam. Only Browne, under the AP photo policy, was carrying a camera. After a while, a seventy- three-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to a busy Saigon intersection and sat down in the lotus position, ringed by hundreds of other monks. Several monks doused him with gasoline, then he struck a match. As the flames rose, the monk never flinched. Browne kept working. “Numb with shock,” Browne later recalled, “I shot roll after roll of film, focusing and adjusting exposures mechanically and unconsciously, almost as an athlete chews gum to relieve stress. Trying hard not to perceive what I was witnessing I found myself thinking: ‘The sun is bright and the subject is self-illuminated, so f16 at 125th of a second should be right.’ But I couldn’t close out the smell.” Browne probably could not have intervened once the match was lit, even if he had been prepared. The hundreds of monks would have stopped him.

This incident, like much else that correspondents saw in Vietnam, dramatizes a problem that might be called the Journalist’s Dilemma. For obvious reasons, journalists often witness tragedies and catastrophes. In the course of reporting or shooting photos, they are sometimes confronted by an apparent conflict between continuing to work or stopping to render assistance. Should the journalist step out of the traditional role of observing news and try to help? If the journalist intervenes to prevent a tragedy or to offer aid and comfort to victims, does he or she thus enter the story as a historical actor and give up any claim to practicing journalism (and along with it, perhaps, any First Amendment rights)? Close examination of many cases reveals that the Journalist’s Dilemma is often an illusion. In most instances, the action unfolds so quickly that there is no time for decision making, while in others, the journalist is in fact able to observe the news, record it, and still rise to at least a basic level of humanitarian action. Still, it is in the nature of a dilemma to have no ultimate solution.


Browne’s photos, which were flashed worldwide, dominated the coverage and reached the desk of President Kennedy, who was clearly upset by what he saw. The president turned to a visitor and said, “We’re going to have to do something about that regime.”


While Kennedy pondered his relations with Diem and the Buddhists expanded their campaign against the government, Browne and Halberstam and the rest of the reporters in Saigon pressed on. . .





. . . By the mid-1960s television had become nearly universal in U.S. homes, and it was that change that made Vietnam the first “living room war.” Television also shaped the thinking of policymakers, including President Johnson, who had three TV sets installed in the Oval Office so he could keep an eye on the network news reports, which were reaching a combined audience of some 35 million Americans every evening. From the correspondent’s point of view, the technology of television was still crude. Mal Browne, after leaving the AP, worked for a few years for ABC Television and continued to cover Vietnam. Although his photos of the burning monk became a famous symbol of the war, Browne never considered himself a photographer, and he quickly came to appreciate the television cameramen, the guys who humped around the heavy equipment that made it possible to film the fighting in the field. He wrote: “A network of electric umbilical cords connected the Auricon to the soundman and his recording controls, and to a microphone clutched in the hand of the correspondent. Joined together as a cursed trinity, a television crew would leap together from an alighting helicopter and run in cadence through ground fire like three monkeys holding each other’s tails.”




Thanks, Mal.






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JFK on Vietnam

By Christopher B. Daly 

The folks at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston have announced the completion of the task of transcribing and releasing the secret recordings that Kennedy made in the Oval Office while president. (Kennedy, not Nixon, first came up with the idea of secretly taping his conversations — no doubt with the intention of writing his memoir someday.)

Can we really be sure that the keepers of the flame in these presidential libraries really divulge everything? I don’t know.

But for the time being, here is a tidbit from the Library’s newsletter featuring some of the fruits of what was probably one of JFK’s last discussions of Vietnam:

During a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil
war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration
with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military
and diplomatic advisors. General Victor Krulak and State
Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to
the President on their four-day fact-finding mission to South
Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military
leaders, was generally optimistic, while Mendenhall, a
Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread
military and social discontent.
These vastly different viewpoints caused President
Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to
the same country?”
After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean
how is it that you get such different—this is not a new thing,
this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the
one hand you get the military saying the war is going better
and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its
deterioration is affecting the military…What is the reason
for the difference—I’d like to have an explanation what the
reason is for the difference.”



Hard to say definitively, but this sounds like a man with serious doubts. Even all these years later, I think a lot of people would like “an explanation what the reason is for the difference” between the military advice and the political advice. If any president asks any military figure, Can we do X? The answer will certainly be, Yes, Sir! Is that really advice?

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