Pentagon Papers: The Glory Days of Journalism

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On June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the first explosive stories based on Pentagon studies of the decision-making that led the United States to war in Vietnam. After the Times was enjoined from publishing further, The Washington Post obtained much of the same material and produced its own stories. The Nixon administration, claiming a massive breach of national security, fought for restraint all the way to the Supreme Court, which on June 30, in the last opinion by Justice Hugo Black, decided 6-3 in favor of the newspapers. The outcome was a glorious victory for a robust press and launched an era of aggressive reporting about Washington. What a time it was.

While the excitement of what became known as the Pentagon Papers case was unfolding, I was on the other side of the world as a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Saigon. The high drama on the home front did not, as I recall, resonate on the fighting itself. Like so much about the conflict, the political and social turmoil in the United States operated on rhythms that meant little to the Vietnamese combatants and not a lot more to the GIs risking their lives on the battlefield. By 1971, the war in Vietnam had become so discredited in the minds of Americans that the country's leaders were determined to get out, recognizing that in all likelihood a "decent interval" was the best that could be achieved before the Communists prevailed.

The 47 volumes of documents and reports known as the Pentagon Papers were prepared on the orders of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose own gloomy judgments on Vietnam in that era were not publicly revealed until decades later in his memoirs. It has been so long since Vietnam entered American consciousness that the arrival off-Broadway of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers by Geoffrey Cowan and the late Leroy Aarons definitely feels like a historical artifact. Cowan, dean emeritus of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, and Aarons, who was a reporter at The Washington Post at the time of the case, wrote a version of the play in the early 1990s that was presented on National Public Radio. As revised by Cowan, a lawyer, writer, former director of the Voice of America, and cultural entrepreneur, a staged version of the drama has now toured the country and been featured at universities as well as theaters in Los Angeles and Washington.


For performances at the New York Theater Workshop (it runs until March 28), Cowan arranged for twelve benefit evenings on behalf of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Columbia Journalism Review, where panelists discussed the impact of the case and, significantly, its relevance to the issues of today. At the CJR evening (which was taped by C-SPAN for airing sometime in the near future), the panel had an all-star cast.

Daniel Ellsberg was a former Pentagon official who, having turned against the war, gave the papers to the The New York Times and The Washington Post in the belief that the revelations they contained would undermine the conflict. Ellsberg was the subject last year of an Oscar-nominated documentary called The Most Dangerous Man in America, which is what National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger once said of him on a Nixon White House tape. He clearly has never lost his outraged edge, calling the war against the Taliban "Vietnamistan" and insisting that officials critical of American policies in the region should publicly renounce them.

Leslie Gelb was project director for the Pentagon Papers and later gained eminence as a journalist at the Times and as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He revealed that in 1969, when he brought the finished papers to McNamara, then president of the World Bank, the former defense secretary sent them back. Gelb never asked McNamara why he rejected his own report and, to Gelb's personal relief, he was never asked to defend the papers.

James Goodale was, as general counsel of The New York Times, instrumental in the decision to publish the contents of the papers, despite warnings from outside counsel to the newspaper of dire consequences. Goodale, who is a commentator on media issues, focused on the resources and time the newspaper had devoted to the publication, clearly raising the question of whether any publication today would match that commitment.

Nicholas Lemann was a young reporter at The Washington Post in the years when the Post was still riding the crest of its role in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. He is dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Nowadays, he observed, classified documents would be posted on the Internet by an Ellsberg-like whistleblower, sidestepping the epic free press issues or at least raising different ones. But the great challenge now, Lemann said, is to maintain news-gathering enterprises with a zeal for old-school investigative reporting.

Ultimately, the contents of the Pentagon Papers mattered less to events than the great confrontation over whether the press could override government's objections to their release. So if you get a chance to see Top Secret or watch the panel on C-SPAN, here's what to remember: important decisions being made today by proprietors and journalists will be judged by history. Let's hope they meet the test.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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