At a time when classified information is again in the news it might be worth remembering a different example of someone keeping – and then releasing – classified information. On June 13, 1971, the New York Times published documents from the secret Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force under the headline, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” Liberated by Daniel Ellsberg from his RAND Corporation office, the report covered sixteen years of Indo-China war policy, from 1945 to 1967, specifically concerning the Vietnam War. The report, known as The Pentagon Papers, revealed how multiple administrations lied to the American public about the scope and logistics of the war effort, counterinsurgency tactics, and the justifications for the war. The deception began with the lies and misinformation concerning the Gulf of Tonkin Incident from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
As this extensive and revealing report on the 50th Anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident by the New York Times explains, “Lies like McNamara’s were the rule, not the exception, throughout America’s involvement in Vietnam. The lies were repeated to the public, to Congress, in closed-door hearings, in speeches, and to the press. The real story might have remained unknown if, in 1967, McNamara had not commissioned a secret history based on classified documents — which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Releasing the documents changed Daniel Ellsberg’s life, the direction of US foreign policy, and trust in politicians. Ellsberg was persecuted, prosecuted, and targeted by powerful political forces. Ellsberg told his story in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. “The document set in motion a chain of events that ended not only the Nixon presidency but the Vietnam War. In this remarkable memoir, Ellsberg describes in dramatic detail the two years he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. State Department observer, and how he came to risk his career and freedom to expose the deceptions and delusions that shaped three decades of American foreign policy. The story of one man’s exploration of conscience, Secrets is also a portrait of America at a perilous crossroad.”
For more, check out the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America. The trailer is available here.
Click here for a clip from the documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, where McNamara admits that the incident used to justify the US official entrance into the Vietnam War “didn’t happen.”
“We’re Going to Publish,” is an Oral History of the Pentagon Papers compiled and edited by the New York Time.