On June 13, 1971, readers of the New York Times woke up to an explosive story. A top-secret US government study of the Vietnam War, dubbed the “Pentagon Papers,” decisively showed how the US executive branch lied about the war to both the US people and Congress. The Times, thanks to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, had the study in its possession and was printing stories based on it. Those stories did not cast the US war machine in a flattering light.
The papers only implicated his predecessors, but President Richard Nixon reacted strongly anyway. In an unprecedented move, the administration actively sought to stop first the New York Times and then the Washington Post from printing the Pentagon Papers. Nixon became obsessed with the whistleblower Ellsberg, leading an illegal campaign against him that would help to ultimately bring down his presidency.
The Pentagon Papers have a double significance today, half a century since their initial publication. The papers were the center of a landmark battle for press freedom. They reveal how far the government is willing to go not just against a whistleblower but against the free press reporting their revelations. But the substance of what the Pentagon Papers actually revealed also can’t be overlooked. Ellsberg risked a life in prison to expose the Vietnam War as a crime of massive proportions, a crime that was possible in part thanks to the bipartisan lying of successive administrations over decades. It was the crime of the war itself that led to the American government’s attacks on press freedoms.
Ellsberg is perhaps today the most iconic whistleblower in US history. But during his early career, he was very much an insider in the US national security establishment. Ellsberg served as a marine commander after college and in 1959 began working for the Rand Corporation, a think tank closely tied to the US military. In 1964, he would be recruited to work in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Over his years there, he would interact with the likes of McNamara, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Kissinger.
At the Pentagon, Ellsberg got a front-row view of the deception at the heart of the US war in Vietnam. On his very first day in the Pentagon in 1964, he watched in real time as the Gulf of Tonkin incident unfolded. President Lyndon Johnson told the nation that for the second time in two days, the North Vietnamese had attacked a US ship, the USS Maddox. This was, Johnson claimed, an unprovoked attack in international waters during a routine patrol.
While claiming the US sought no wider war, Johnson asked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which stated, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” It was a blank check for war.
Johnson was lying when he said he sought no wider war. Plans for such a war were already underway. And the Congress’s delegation of war-making powers to the president would facilitate it.
But that wasn’t the only lie. While the first attack on the USS Maddox happened, serious questions were raised almost immediately about whether the second attack had even occurred or whether radar images were mistaken for torpedoes. The USS Maddox was on intelligence-gathering missions and frequently came as close as eight miles to the North Vietnamese mainland and four miles to North Vietnamese islands.
The North Vietnamese claimed “puppet forces” (a clear reference to the South Vietnamese) were shelling its coastal island. To the media and the US people, both the State Department and the Pentagon rejected these claims as false. Yet in a classified congressional hearing McNamara told select members of Congress the South Vietnamese had engaged in military actions, but they were out of the United States’ control.
This was also a lie. The attacks in question had been carried out by the CIA and US Navy and signed off on by top officials in Washington. The Commander of USS Maddox knew of these raids and asked for his patrols to be ended, given the likelihood of North Vietnamese retaliation against…