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How The Pentagon Papers Changed Public Perception Of The War In Vietnam

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times published the first in a series of articles based on a classified Defense Department study that was leaked to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg. The study came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. It chronicled decades of failed U.S. policy in Vietnam and ways the American public was misled about how the war was conducted. The first article by Times journalist Neil Sheehan was published on June 13, 1971, when President Nixon was in office. He learned about it in a phone call with Al Haig, who was then an assistant to national security adviser Henry Kissinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: OK. Nothing else of interest in the world?

AL HAIG: Very significant, this goddamn New York Times expose of the most highly classified documents of the war.

NIXON: Oh, that. I see. I didn't read the story, but do you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?

HAIG: Sir, the whole study that was done for McNamara and then carried on after McNamara left by Clifford and the peaceniks over there. This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I've ever seen.

NIXON: Well, what's being done about it then? I mean, I didn't - did we know this was coming out?

HAIG: No, we did not, sir.

NIXON: Yeah.

HAIG: There are just a few copies of this.

NIXON: So what about the report? What about the - let me ask you this, though. What about the - what about Laird? What's he going to do about it? Now, I just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean, whoever - whatever department it came out of, fire the top guy.

HAIG: Yes. Well, I'm sure it came from Defense. And I'm sure it was stolen at the time of the turnover of the administration.

NIXON: Oh, it's two years old, then.

HAIG: Sure it is. And they've been holding it for a juicy time. And I think they...

DAVIES: After several articles appeared, the Nixon administration secured a court injunction preventing the Times from publishing further stories. Ellsberg then gave a copy of the classified report to The Washington Post, which started publishing its own series five days after the first article had appeared in the Times. In a landmark First Amendment ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually found the government had not met the burden required to restrain the papers from publishing the stories.

The meetings between Ellsberg and The Washington Post were dramatized in the Steven Spielberg film "The Post." In this scene, Ellsberg is hiding out in a motel room with piles of paper strewn about, meeting with Post editor Ben Bagdikian. Matthew Reese plays Ellsberg. Bob Odenkirk plays Bagdikian

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) The study had 47 volumes. I slipped out a couple at a time. Took me months to copy it all.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) What the hell?

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, we were all former government guys, top clearance, all that, McNamara wanted academics to have the chance to examine what had happened. He would say to us, let the chips fall where they may.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Brave men.

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) I think guilt was a bigger motivator than courage. McNamara didn't lie as well as the rest, but I don't think he saw what was coming, what we'd find. But it didn't take him long to figure out - well, for us all to figure out. If the public ever saw these papers, they would turn against the war - covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections. It's all in there. Ike, Kennedy, Johnson - they violated the Geneva Convention. They lied to Congress. And they lied to the public. They knew we couldn't win and still sent boys to die.

DAVIES: Ellsberg, then a national security analyst with top secret clearances, was arrested and tried under the Espionage Act. A judge dismissed the charges when it emerged that officials in the Nixon administration had directed covert actions to discredit or silence Ellsberg, including tapping his phone and breaking into his psychiatrist's office to obtain compromising information. I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg in 2017 about his book, "The Doomsday Machine." It's about his days before the Vietnam War, when he worked on American nuclear war strategies in the '50s and early '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You became famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. And you tell us at the beginning of this book that you copied not just the Vietnam study, but a lot of other material from your staff at the RAND Corporation about U.S. nuclear war plans. What were you going to do with that material?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I planned to release that as soon as the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, had had whatever effect they could have on the Vietnam War. The nuclear information, I thought then and now, was actually more important. But the bombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could.

DAVIES: You went to work for the RAND Corporation, where you worked on high-level military strategy. Explain what the RAND Corporation was and what kind of work you did.

ELLSBERG: RAND, which stands for R&D - research and development - was really essence on research for the Air Force, set up as a nonprofit corporation to do long-range research. And, in particular, when I came there in 1958 for the summer and then later permanently in 1959, our obsession really was trying to plan our strategic forces in such a way that they couldn't be destroyed in a first strike by the Soviet Union. Those were the years that we all believed in RAND and in the Air Force that there was a missile gap in favor of the Russians and that a Russian surprise attack was a real possibility. And the idea was to assure retaliation for that. So it was to deter it so that no war would occur.

DAVIES: You know, this wasn't just a job for you, was it? I mean, it was kind of a special place to be. And it wasn't just a nine-to-five paycheck thing for you, was it?

ELLSBERG: Not at all. I was working in the summer, especially when I arrived to get up to speed, probably 70-hour weeks there reading top secret or secret material. Most of it was secret, actually, in RAND. And working on trying to avoid a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, so nothing in the world seemed as important. In effect, we felt we were trying to save the world, although weren't very confident we'd be able to do it.

DAVIES: So you focused in your research and in your work at RAND on decision-making in circumstances where information is incomplete or ambiguous. And you wanted to study how commanders in the military at all levels, right down to pilots, would make decisions on whether to attack Soviet targets in certain circumstances. And the research is fascinating, as you describe it. What kind of access did you, as the civilian, have to military personnel?

ELLSBERG: Well, and a civilian consultant to the commander in chief Pacific - Admiral Harry D. Felt at that time - I was doing a study for the Office of Naval Research and looking at the actual reaction that could be expected at various levels to various execute messages, messages to go or - there weren't messages to not go, actually. There was no stop message. A little footnote here, but once a go message was received at any level, there was no provision whatever for stopping that or rescinding it or bringing it back.

DAVIES: This is one of the jaw-dropping things as we read the book. If there was a launch, there was literally no way to recall a bomber. You can't recall missiles. But, you know, things that had pilots - jet fighters and bombers - there was no way to send them - to bring them back?

ELLSBERG: Once they'd gotten an authenticated message that they would execute the war plans. But the startling thing that I discovered at every level was that the general image that people had then and to this day, that a message with the right code could only come from the president himself, was never true. That was always a myth, at least it was from the late '50s, when President Eisenhower had delegated authority - his authority - to launch nuclear weapons to theater commanders in case there was an outage of communication or Washington had been destroyed or even the president had been incapacitated, as President Eisenhower was a couple of times. That's almost essential, that there be a delegation like that in a nuclear era. Otherwise, a decapitating attack, as they called it, an attack on the command and control system, would paralyze us. A single bomb on Washington would paralyze our retaliation. Well, that could never be allowed, and it never has been allowed.

DAVIES: So not just the president, but theater commanders have the authority under some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack. And these are experienced, high-level commanders. But what you found - I know that when you looked in the Pacific - is that these theater commanders had to be in communication with dozens and dozens of bases throughout the Pacific. And the question arises then, what about a base commander who has a number of fighter pilots or some aircraft? Under what circumstances might they proceed on their own to launch an attack? What did you find?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, if they were out of communication with their superiors, a lot of them had authorization in the Pacific, I found, in the early '60s. As far as I know, that continued. I don't know if it's true today, and we ought to find out. But actually, there were people even at a lower, as at a single base - you probably read an anecdote I had about Kunsan in Korea, in South Korea, the base possibly closer to communist territory of any of our bases in the world. And the commander there clearly believed that he had the authority simply as a base commander to send his planes off if he thought they were endangered. So at that point, had there been what he thought was an attack - for example, an accident on some other base that he heard about or a crisis that was going on - he felt - he told me that he would send his planes off.

DAVIES: There is a remarkable chapter in your book called "Questions For The Joint Chiefs," when you write that President Kennedy coming into the White House - he did not have, nor did anyone on his team, have a copy of, essentially, our plan for nuclear war, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan and that when they asked for it, they were - you know, that the military was sort of reluctant. And then they gave a briefing, but not the actual plan itself. You had a copy. You examined it. And you wrote some questions. You - what troubled you about the plan that you saw?

ELLSBERG: Well, many things. It was a very strange plan. I'm not the only one who's called it the worst plan in human history. This was the plan for general war. It was an all-out attack on every city in the Soviet Union and China and attacks, in effect, in most of the Eastern Bloc because of air defenses and command and control that kept for no reserves, created fallout that would kill perhaps 100 million people in West Europe for our own weapons if the wind were in the right direction for that and many - and a hundred million in other contiguous areas of the Soviet Union, like neutrals like Austria and Finland and Afghanistan actually, but also several hundred million in the USSR and China, several hundred million killed. That added up to an intention in a U.S. first strike, if we preempted or if we escalated a war in Europe, to 600 million dead that they were calculating.

DAVIES: We're listening to my interview with Daniel Ellsberg. He'll tell us more about how he leaked the Pentagon Papers after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THE PAPERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation from 2017 with Daniel Ellsberg. Fifty years ago this week, the first in a set of stories which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was published in The New York Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: You're best known, of course, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of the Vietnam War. And you had spent many years for the government in Vietnam examining the war, concluding that it was futile, that there was no way to win it. And, you know, you had spent many years as a young man as a real patriot. I mean, you truly believed in the country. You believed in the security clearances, right?

ELLSBERG: Pardon me. I think - I'm going to make it clear, but I wouldn't even want the question - to raise that question in a way. I am a patriot.

DAVIES: I understand.

ELLSBERG: I have never changed in that.

DAVIES: And forgive me for putting it that way. I mean, you...

ELLSBERG: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...You are devoted to doing the right thing for your country. But at that time, you were - you respected all of the high-level security clearances that you had. And it must have been hard for you to take the step of taking this top secret document and making it public. What did it take to get you to make that step?

ELLSBERG: Without young men going to prison for nonviolent protest against the draft, men that I met on their way to prison, no Pentagon Papers. It wouldn't have occurred to me, simply, to do something that would put myself in prison for the rest of my life, as I assumed that would do. So obviously, that was not an obvious decision to make, except once I'd seen the example of people like Randy Kehler (ph), and Bob Eaton and others and David Harris, who did go to prison to say that this war was wrong, the Vietnam War was wrong, and that they refused to participate in it.

DAVIES: How hard was it to actually copy the material?

ELLSBERG: Well, in those days, it was one page at a time. We didn't have these zip zip multipage collators and what not, machines that they have now or the - of course, the digital capability. So it took me a long time, months actually.

DAVIES: So you would stay at night in the office copying and then come back to work during the day?

ELLSBERG: Yes.

DAVIES: Did night watchmen ever come upon you or anything?

ELLSBERG: Well, twice in that office, which was a small advertising office owned by a friend of a friend, really. Twice during that period, police came to the door because she had turned the key the wrong way and set off the burglar alarm. And on one of those occasions, my children were there. That was the one time police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine. No, I think I was running the Xerox machine. And he was collating or might have been the other way around. He was then 13. And my daughter, who was 10, was cutting off top secret from the tops and bottoms of the pages with the scissors.

The reason they were there was that I expected to be in prison very shortly. I'd hoped to get the papers out quickly, and that didn't happen in the Senate. But I wanted them to know that their father was doing something in a businesslike way, a calm, sober way that I thought had to be done. And I did let my older son know in particular that it might, in fact, would probably result in my going to prison. And that was an example that I was - actually wanted to pass on to my children, that they might be in such a situation.

DAVIES: So it was very clear that Nixon regarded you as a really dangerous man because, you know, he had information - you leaked these secrets, and there was information about his own internal thinking about Vietnam. And it was the actions of, you know, operatives of the Nixon administration that led to the dismissal of charges at your trial, because we learned that they, in fact, they planned a break-in at your psychoanalyst's office and some other things too. What else did they do?

ELLSBERG: Well, Bernard Barker - Macho Bernard Barker of the Bay of Pigs, a CIA asset - said that his mission was to break both my legs. But I don't think that would have shut me up totally in the hospital bed. I think they probably wanted something to happen to my jaw. But they were going to attack me in the course of a rally that I was speaking to on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1972 And they brought 12 of these CIA assets, mostly Bay of Pigs veterans, up and was shown my picture and said I was to be incapacitated totally.

And when their prosecutor told me this later, I said, well, what does that mean? Kill me? He said, the words were to incapacitate you totally. But you have to understand these guys never use the word kill - use neutralize - all right? - terminate with extreme prejudice. They use a lot of euphemisms, CIA people, for assassination.

DAVIES: You know, you - your trial ended when the government actions taken against you were exposed, and there was a - the charges were dropped. You took action to disclose government secrets then that you felt the American public needed to know. And I'm wondering what your attitude is today towards classified information and how you regard the actions of, you know, Chelsea Manning, say, and Edward Snowden.

ELLSBERG: You know, I said earlier, without draft resisters like Randy Kehler or Bob Eaton, no Pentagon Papers. Well, I was very gratified to have Edward Snowden say on a Skype meeting - a couple of times, actually - say that without Daniel Ellsberg, no Ed Snowden. That was very nice to hear because I'd never gotten feedback like that. I'd been urging people to use their judgment and their conscience for decades at that point, and it just hadn't happened - to put out information that the public needed to know, and it just hadn't happened.

For example, in the Iraq War, I think that if there had been an Edward Snowden or - and now that I've met him - at a higher level with greater access than he had - or a Chelsea Manning with greater access than she had in the - 2002, there would have been no Iraq War, no ISIS, no - nothing that we've seen later. That was a mad venture based on terribly unreal - totally unrealistic beliefs.

And I think that if the information had been put out, Congress would not have gone along with that war as they did - just as I'm very sorry to say if I'd put out the information in my safe in the Pentagon about our widening war that was projected in 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two senators who voted against that widening - the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - told me, if you'd put that out, there would have been no vote in the committee. It would have not passed the committee. And if they bypassed that to go to the floor of Congress, it would not have passed.

So he's telling me that I had had the power to avert the Vietnam War. I think that's true not only of me. That's a heavy burden to bear. I share it with a thousand others who had that kind of access. You know, when I said that Roger Morris had - did have the access to the nuclear target folders in 1969, and Nixon feared that I had those from Morris, I didn't because he didn't put them out. And later, Roger told me that was the failure of which he is most ashamed and that he most regrets in his life. He said, we should've thrown open the safes and screamed bloody murder because that's exactly what it was.

DAVIES: My interview with Daniel Ellsberg was recorded in 2017. Coming up, we'll hear about how the Nixon administration attempted to stop The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers with an interview from our archives with Ben Bradlee. Also, we'll remember actor Ned Beatty, known for his roles in the films "Network," "Deliverance" and "Superman." And our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new show "Physical." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're talking about the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam based on classified documents exposed by Daniel Ellsberg. The documents were first revealed in a series of articles by The New York Times 50 years ago this week. But the Nixon administration tried to prevent further revelations from coming out. To pick up the story, let's listen to an excerpt of an interview Terry did with Ben Bradlee, who, with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. Terry spoke with Ben Bradlee in 1995. He died in 2014 at the age of 93. Here's Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. The biggest story covered under Bradlee's watch was Watergate, which forced the resignation of President Nixon. The first big risk Bradlee took was publishing the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret documents that revealed the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The New York Times had already published several installments. But the Justice Department got an injunction against the paper, preventing it from publishing further excerpts. Then the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the Post. I asked Bradlee why it was important for the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers.

BEN BRADLEE: Failure to publish after The New York Times had published would have relegated The Post to a status of a kind of a pro-government establishment organization which didn't want to take on the government, didn't want to fight for its constitutional rights. And it seems to me, it would have forever relegated us to a sort of second-class citizenship. It wasn't my decision. But, I mean, I wanted to publish from day one, moment one. It was Katharine Graham's decision. And she was - it was a great decision. And it made all future decisions of an editorial nature at The Washington Post kind of automatic and easy.

GROSS: What were the risks?

BRADLEE: Well, there were some interesting risks because if we had been - this was a civil suit. If we had been enjoined - mind you, no newspaper in the history of the country, which was then 190-some years old, had ever been stopped from publishing something it wanted to publish beforehand, prior restraint. So that was a wonderful principle to fight for.

The other thing is that if we had been convicted of that, if the judge had stopped us from publishing something, the Nixon administration was - it was quite obvious - was going to go after us on criminal violations - violating the code against publishing confidential and national security matters. If had we been convicted of that - you cannot own television stations if you are a convicted felon, and that would have been a felony. And we had about a $100 billion of television stations that we would have lost.

The Post had just gone public in the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in The Post were offered for sale for the first time to the public. And that was seriously threatened. So it was no casual decision that was involved.

GROSS: There's a great story you tell about a phone call that I think really took a lot of chutzpah (laughter) to get...

BRADLEE: Who, me?

GROSS: ...(Laughter) To get a friend of yours, who is a judge, on the phone so you could get his advice. But, of course, he was arguing a case in court at the time. Tell us what you did.

BRADLEE: Well, he wasn't a judge. He was a lawyer.

GROSS: I mean a lawyer. I meant a lawyer.

BRADLEE: It was Edward Bennett Williams who was the famous defense attorney and a friend of mine for already 20 years. And he was - he would have defended us had he been in Washington, but he was trying a case in Chicago. I called up the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Hoge, and said, I need to get a message to Edward Williams - Edward Bennett Williams in such and such a courthouse immediately. And the message was, please, call me, urgent. And in a matter of minutes, Williams called me back.

And I talked for about 12 minutes and said, this is what we've got. This is what we want to do. These are the documents. This is what The New York Times has done. This is what the court with First Circuit New York had enjoined them from. And we want to publish. And I want you to tell me whether you think we should and why.

And he sort of was silent for a split second - a split minute and finally said, you got to publish it. You've just got to do it because it wasn't in a sense of Plessy v. Ferguson that we had the right to blah, blah, blah. But he just sensed in his guts that to become an important player in the American scene, we had to do it

GROSS: So how much of the decision to publish was so that The Post could become a more respected player and how much of it was all the lofty principles about freedom of the press?

BRADLEE: That's a good question, too, because, you know, in the last - it was 7,000 pages, although we only had 4,000 of them. We got them at 10:30 in the morning, and we published at 10:30 that night the - our first story. No one ever read the Pentagon Papers. They really didn't, you know? We could only read - each of us read sections of it. Then we - for about eight hours we read and then had a news conference and decided what we could publish.

The - what mystified us all was that the Pentagon Papers ended with matters - with the decision-making process in Vietnam before President Nixon took office, and, therefore, he was talking about the Johnson administration and the Kennedy administration and the Eisenhower administration. That's what the Pentagon makers - Pentagon Papers were about.

So I think, you know, it was - it dealt with the origins of the most important event in the middle of the 20th century, and, therefore, it had an intrinsic importance to it. But we also - it was a principle that is really fundamental to a free press. We've got to be able to publish what we want then get punished if we did wrong then get pursued by - privately by people that we may have libeled or publicly for violating the law.

GROSS: Now give me a sense of what your style was like when you were making your case to Katharine Graham and to the lawyers. Did you make speeches about freedom of the press? Did you insult your opponents in the newsroom? What was your style?

BRADLEE: No, I had no opponents in the newsroom. I had the lawyers to worry about.

GROSS: The lawyers - yeah, OK.

BRADLEE: We were - we had - it was - all of this was taking place in my house in Georgetown. We had two fairly large rooms. And one of them was sort of a temporary city room where a bunch of reporters and a couple of news aides and a copy editor or two were actually reading the documents, making up their mind what story to run, what story could they get into shape to run that night. And in the other room, we had the lawyers and the representatives of the owners and a couple of editors from the editorial page. And I shuttled between the two trying to make up my mind and learn the content and then trying to steer the conversation to the verdict I wanted.

There was no point in trying to say we've got to do it and threaten to quit because then if you - even if you won that, you'd win it leaving a - great scars and wounds in personal relationships. So we had to do it sort of gently and listen to everybody and listen to their arguments, try to understand them and then try to counter them.

GROSS: Do you thrive on making these complicated decisions or were these, like, Maalox moments for you?

BRADLEE: (Laughter).

GROSS: You'd be reaching for the medicine?

BRADLEE: Well, there's a wonderful quality of journalism. If you make a mistake, it's out there for everybody to see.

GROSS: Yeah.

BRADLEE: And it stays there and, you know, it goes right - bang - into the history books. And it's - there are no known device that you can erase a daily newspaper (ph). I love it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRADLEE: Yeah. I do love the - that sense that you're dealing with important issues and that you're going to be fair and you're going honest (ph), but you're not going to back down.

DAVIES: Ben Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post at the time The Post published the Pentagon Papers. Terry Gross interviewed him in 1995. He died at age 93 in 2014.

Coming up, we remember the great character actor Ned Beatty. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE'S "WEARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.