The Documents

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Allen Ellender (D-LA), and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-PA) receive their first copies of the Top Secret Pentagon Papers—June 28, 1971, Washington Post

Scene 13: June 21, 1971—The courtroom. The Administration lawyers have just gone through an elaborate process of clearing the courtroom, bringing in a locked briefcase and a sealed envelope to present a document. Wilson frantically tries to recall where he has seen the supposedly secret document before.  WILSON:  (Excitedly interrupting in a loud whisper.) Brian, here it is! I found it in the open literature. (He shoves an open book at Sullivan.) SULLIVAN:  Your honor, could you excuse us for a moment? (Quickly passing from incredulous, to stunned, to thrilled as he scans the page.) Incredible. (Then, barely able to contain his excitement.) Your honor, this may be a sensitive document. Maybe it should even be a secret document. But it’s not a secret, despite the Academy Award-winning performances we have witnessed here this afternoon. The government gave this precise document to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Congress published it in a Hearing Report. (He hands the report up to the judge.) This is the Report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for February 20, 1968. I call your attention to page 34. This so-called secret document has been available to the public–and, need I add, to our enemies–for more than three years.


“The Pentagon Papers” as a term references the 7,000-page, 47-volume, 2.5 million-word product of the “Vietnam History Task Force.” Half documentary archive, half history, the work was written from 1967 to 1967 at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (pictured to the right with Pres. Johnson). The inspiration for the study came from faculty members at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where McNamara visited in November 1966, and where he was subject of protests by students; McNamara was urged to undertake a study of the decision-making process on Vietnam, modeled on the study of Kennedy administration’s rift with the British during the Skybolt Crisis written by former Kennedy advisor and then Kennedy School Dean Richard Neustadt.  The task was of compiling the report to the Morton H. Halperin, deputy director of the Department of Defense’s International Security Affairs (ISA) office; primary responsibility for the project’s editing fell to Les Gelb of the. Over 36 researchers contributed throughout the course of the project, including:

Morton Halperin, then and now: Halperin’s work on the Pentagon Papers began after he had finished teaching for six years at Harvard. In the years since, has enjoyed one of Washington’s most distinguished careers, holding top posts at the ACLU, Century Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Brookings, and the Center for American Progress.

    • Richard Ullman, history professor at Princeton University
    • Melvin Gurtov, defense expert from RAND
    • Hans Heymann, RAND economist and expert on Soviet air power
    • Richard Moorstein, former International Security Affairs staffer that the Pentagon
    • Richard Holbrooke, young foreign service officer who had been on the staff of Vietnam Ambassadors Max Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge and was serving as staff to Undersecretaries of State Katzenbach and Richardson, and who would go on to become U.S. Ambassador to Germany and the United Nations and negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
    • Richard Balzhiser, a White House Fellow
    • William Kaufman, from the Brookings Institution and MIT
    • Howard Margolis, researcher from the Institute
    • Martin Bailey, a former special assistant to the Secretary of Defense.
    • Col. Paul Gorman, counterinsurgency expert who later went to the Paris Talks
    • Maj. Charles Cooke, Vietnam assistant at ISA
    • Col. Robert Gard, military advisor to Secretary McNamara
    • Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND researcher who eventually leaked the papers

Les Gelb, then and now: Gelb was awarded a Distinguished Service Award for his work at the Defense Department, and in 1973 left to become a correspondent for the New York Times. After serving in the Carter Administration as Assistant Secretary of State, he returned to the Times in 1980s becoming deputy editorial editor, winning a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 became president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked in 1980.



The “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy, 1945-1967” when finally finished represented one of the most thorough retrospective studies for war decision-making, and was used as a basis for strategizing by government officials. Henry Kissinger, himself a consultant on the writing of the Papers, referred the final four-book ‘Negotiating Volumes’ as he formulated his own negotiating tactics in later years. McNamara did not himself have any involvement with the study other than commissioning it, and had resigned as Secretary before its completion Such a study was of remarkable nature because it brought together documents from across the government, from different agencies in one massive study. Ordinarily, such documents would have remained in the separate archives of the authors or recipient, been subject to loss or destruction, or simply never have been weaved into a single coherent retrospective narrative.  The research was conducted in confidence, researchers were promised anonymity, and the writers were not allowed to contact the authors for supplementary interviews for fear of disclosure.  THE CONTENTS Because of the size of the study and its efforts to track events reported to the public as well as the private communications of government officials, the report included both confidential and non-confidential information.  One of the main overarching themes of the collection was that succeeding American presidential administrations approached Vietnam with a narrow ‘domino effect’ worldview that both publicly and privately failed to distinguish between the different kinds of communist regimes, and assumed that the North Vietnamese were a puppets or clients for the Soviet regime. Because of this posture, each administration made choices, in steady but not necessarily intentional fashion, which eventually closed off options other than confrontation and eventual broad military engagement.  The leak of the Papers represented a challenge to the government because in many cases, through several administrations, the covert operations and objections did not match the public statements on the war. Information in the papers explained several previously expected but unconfirmed realities:

  • President Truman had directly involved the U.S. in Indochina by aiding France in its colonial war and set the course of American policy.
  • President Eisenhower had intentionally undermined the Vietnam Peace Conference in Geneva in 1954 because of a desire to try to rescue a fledgling South Vietnam from Communist takeover. Secret acts of sabotage and terror warfare began in 1954.
  • President Kennedy had expanded involvement to the level from ‘limited-risk’ to ‘broad commitment’. Efforts in 1963 encouraged and abetted the overthrow of President Diem.
  • President Johnson had long waged a covert war and had planned an overt war long before admitting as much to Congress or the public.
  • The controversial American strategy of bombing North Vietnam was completely ineffective militarily, but pursued only for the purpose of ‘provoking’ the North to attack as a way to justify a broader American involvement.
  • The infiltration of arms from North Vietnam into South Vietnam was not an important military problem for the Southern insurgents, but used as a justification for further U.S. involvement.
  • The continuance of air and ground attacks despite internal estimations that neither would achieve the desired result.  As Gelb described in his transmittal letter, the report was “not so much a documentary history, but a history based solely on documents–checked and re-checked with ant-like diligence.” The papers often featured ‘development of a decision’ or ‘development of the policy’ segments, which included a chronological log of memoranda, tracing the development of an idea from proposal to action plan.  The papers themselves included names of CIA agents, cables from diplomatic representatives to and from presidents, information on troop locations, and discussions about nations that covertly supported the U.S. involvement despite public opposition. All such information was excised from both the newspaper reports as well as eventual published versions (such as the Gravel edition). In the New York Times’ eventual book version, the perspective of Times reporters is incorporated; in the Gravel edition volumes (which are available online), there are concluding essays by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn to help readers understand the important points within the vast amounts of information available in the report itself. 
    The Pentagon Papers themselves were marked “Top Secret–Sensitive” a classification that itself did not exist at the time. One of the challenges that Pentagon Papers raised was whether all the information contained within need in fact to be secret. Early in the crisis over publication, the government offered to ‘review’ the information and begin to re-classify the information, but the charges of theft and unauthorized classified information remained in place against the leakers.  Under current U.S. law, there are three classification levels of classification:
  • “Top Secret” shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.
  • (2) “Secret” shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.
  • (3) “Confidential” shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe.  However, there is also the practice of “derivative” classification, in which an entire document, report, or compilation is deemed classified even though only portions of it contain secret information, which is why newspaper articles, congressional transcripts, and otherwise public reports are often marked ‘confidential.’ The theory is that information in such reports ‘connects the dots’ in ways that would not be ascertainable to the general public without government expert analysis, and that the disclosure of the decision-making and analytical process itself would present a risk.  The Pentagon Papers occasioned a debate on whether changes to the classification system were necessary, and the debate continues today. The head of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) has himself often expresses the belief that documents are overclassified.  In 2006, 20.3 million documents were marked classified, compared with 13.9 million in 2005, or 15.6 million in 2004.  And the effort to declassify documents once their perceived threat has passed is also slowing down substantially: for example in 2006, only 36.7 million documents were in fact declassified, compared with an average of about 188 million declassifications per year for the years 1980-1994, or the recent 1997 high of 204 million documents declassified.  Finally, the cost of securing classified information, which involves safeguarding facilities and personnel, has increased steadily from $3.4 billion in 1997 to $6.5 billion in 2003 to $8.2 million in 2006. And the amount of money spent on declassifying documents has been steadily reduced, from $113 million in 2002 to $54 million in 2003. By comparison, $231 million was spent in 2000. Several congressional committees are investigating methods of improving this system, and in December 2007, the Public Interest Declassification Board issued a new Report to the President on this topic.  The battle over classification and declassification is substantially active. As recently as June, the Office of the Vice President refused to report its classification activities to the ISOO, prompting Congressional investigation.There are, however, encouraging signs from other parts of the administration.  In June 2007 the CIA released two large batches of previously classified documents, including a collection of historically relevant classified documents referred to as “Family Jewels” as part of what it called its “social contract with the American people.” Request for government information are made through the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law signed by President Johnson on July 4, 1966, that provides public access to government documents. The Act has been amended several times, most recently in 2002 when the law blocked foreign governments or agencies or representatives from submitting FOIA requests. The ability for individual citizens, organizations, businesses (who comprise 60 percent of requests), and the press (who comprise 6 percent of requests) to access federal government documents hinges on FOIA, but many times costs, delays, exceptions, and exemptions can make it difficulty to obtain the needed documents. State documents are available through their own open records statutes. In Fall 2007, a Congressional Conference committee met to consider the Senate and House versions of reform bills earlier this term, in an effort to improve and streamline the FOIA process, and the bill was signed into law at the end of 2007.
    As a military study, the Pentagon Papers represented a retrospective sweep that was impressive in nature and provided a great deal of insight into the bureaucratic decision-making process. Such a study was unusual not only because of the amount of time and energy devoted to it, but because it was retrospective rather than prospective, and it exposed the official who commissioned it, Secretary McNamara, to criticisms. Laying bare the decision-making process exposed flawed logic and reasoning, as well as blind spots in judgment.  If a Vietnam History Task Force-style comprehensive study could be undertaken in advance of military decisions instead of after them, could this kind of prospective planning be beneficial to strategic planning?  Blind Into Baghdad, by James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly of January 2004, describes the process of the “Future of Iraq” project, undertaken by the State Department before the Iraq war, and how an extensive planning effort in that engagement was, in the end, never used or followed to the extent desired:  […] The State Department first publicly mentioned the project in March of 2002, when it quietly announced the lineup of the working groups.  […] The Future of Iraq project held the potential for harnessing, and perhaps even harmonizing, the expertise available from the exile groups.  It was also in keeping with a surprisingly well established U.S. government tradition of preparing for postwar duties before there was a clear idea of when fighting would begin, let alone when it would end. Before the United States entered World War II, teams at the Army War College were studying what went right and wrong when American doughboys occupied Germany after World War I. Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor a School of Military Government had been created, at the University of Virginia, to plan for the occupation of both Germany and Japan. In 1995, while U.S. negotiators, led by Richard Holbrooke, were still working at the Dayton peace talks to end the war in the Balkans, World Bank representatives were on hand to arrange loans for the new regimes.  […] Eventually there would be seventeen working groups, designed systematically to cover what would be needed to rebuild the political and economic infrastructure of the country. “Democratic Principles and Procedures” was the name of one of the groups, which was assigned to suggest the legal framework for a new government […] The “Transitional Justice” group was supposed to work on reparations, amnesty, and de-Baathification laws. Groups studying economic matters included “Public Finance,” “Oil and Energy,” and “Water, Agriculture and Environment.” […] But whatever may have been unrealistic or factional about these efforts, even more of what the project created was impressive. The final report consisted of thirteen volumes of recommendations on specific topics, plus a one-volume summary and overview. These I have read—and I read them several months into the occupation, when it was unfairly easy to judge how well the forecast was standing up. (Several hundred of the 2,500 pages were in Arabic, which sped up the reading process.) The report was labeled “For Official Use Only”—an administrative term that implies confidentiality but has no legal significance. The State Department held the report closely until, last fall, it agreed to congressional requests to turn over the findings.