WATERTOWN — On a Sunday morning in June 1971, President Richard Nixon prepared to pore over some newspapers to bask in their coverage of that weekend’s very special event.
His daughter Tricia held her wedding to Edward Cox the day before in the White House’s Rose Garden. The joyous event helped Nixon take his mind off the war in Vietnam, if only for a day.
So Nixon delighted in reading an account of Tricia’s wedding in the June 13 edition of The New York Times. A front page story showed him escorting his daughter through the garden before giving her away to the groom.
That should have satisfied Nixon’s desire for news that day. But it didn’t. Another front page article caught his attention — and it sent him down a rabbit hole that consumed his presidency.
New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan wrote a story with the headline “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Story Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” It was the first of a series of articles revealing information from a classified document titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force. It provided details of the U.S. government’s increased participation in the armed conflict in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
The report comprised about 7,000 pages of information on the actions of four presidential administrations. Alarmingly, it demonstrated “that the Johnson administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance,” according to an article published June 23, 1996, by The New York Times in reflecting on the influence the document had on the nation.
The report came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation, had worked on the extensive military project to chronicle U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, an initiative begun by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
By 1969, Ellsberg had turned against the war. He made photocopies of the portions of the Pentagon Papers to which he had access. He spoke with various legislators and journalists about publicizing the report.
On that day 50 years ago, The New York Times finally obliged Ellsberg. Had Nixon waited to see if the revelation would harm his administration, he could have salvaged his political career and legacy. Early in the day, the newspaper’s bombshell article registered hardly a blip.
“A major scoop, indeed, but the public might have found it as yawn-worthy as the headline,” according to a story titled “How Richard Nixon’s obsession with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers sowed the seeds for the president’s downfall,” published April 23 on TheConversation.com. “Later that day, when Defense Secretary Melvin Laird appeared on ‘Face the Nation,’ he didn’t get a single question about it. New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury’s first thought: ‘My God, the story is a bust.’
“Ellsberg’s significance — in 1971 and now, 50 years later — might have been a lot less had Nixon ignored the Pentagon Papers. After all, even before they were published, most Americans had already turned decisively against the Vietnam War,” the article reported. “One poll a month earlier showed that 71% of Americans believed it had been a mistake, and a remarkable 58% thought it immoral. For many people, the Pentagon Papers simply confirmed, in vast detail, a history of treachery they had long discerned or imagined. The Pentagon Papers might have slipped as quietly from the news as the 2019 exposure of the Afghanistan Papers, which, like their predecessors, revealed that U.S. officials were privately pessimistic about that war even as they told the public and Congress that it was essential and successful.”
But of course, Nixon couldn’t resist turning the article’s publication into a crisis. The leak of this classified document infuriated him. He held off taking action over the leak for a time, but he later grew anxious about what else might by dropped on a journalist’s desk for publication.
While the Pentagon Papers made no mention of his administration, he feared it would make Americans even more skeptical about the government’s activities in Vietnam. This could embolden the anti-war movement and leave the administration with less leverage to end the conflict on favorable terms. Nixon also was concerned that Ellsberg could leak information about his administration that would cause trouble.
Nixon’s reaction began a series of activities that ultimately led to his becoming the only president to resign from office. He wanted Ellsberg punished for leaking the Pentagon Papers, and The Plumbers were eventually created. Members of this group were tasked with discovering the source of leaks to the press and stopping them — by any means necessary.
This resulted in the June 17, 1972, break-in at the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel, the administration’s attempts to cover this up and Nixon’s downfall. His repeated lies and criminal behavior finally caught up with him.
The controversy over the Pentagon Papers also led to an important U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the role of the news media. The Nixon administration tried to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing additional information from the Pentagon Papers, arguing that prior restraint was essential to protect national security.
But the high court ruled that the government failed to meet its burden of proof for prior restraint. This gave news organizations much more leeway to publish classified documents and expose government corruption.
Associate Justice Hugo Black wrote: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”
The Pentagon Papers also turned Ellsberg into a hero among progressives. He became an anti-war activist and prevailed in the government’s case against him.
So Nixon’s paranoia over press leaks gave a huge boost to journalists and made one of his enemies a pop culture icon. June 12, 1971, was a day of joy and celebration for the president and his family. June 13 and thereafter, well, not so much.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.