Forty years after the Pentagon Papers were first leaked to the New York Times, the federal government today will officially release the fully declassified version of them. Their initial public disclosure helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War and sparked a historic First Amendment court battle. Declassifying the document now may appeal mainly to historians, but better late than never.
Long before the Internet and WikiLeaks, there was Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corp. analyst assigned to work on a lengthy, top-secret Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia from 1945 to 1967. What Ellsberg discovered was a two-decade pattern of lies and misinformation by the U.S. government to mislead Congress and the American people regarding the nation's rationale for military engagement throughout Indochina.
In 1971, in an act some considered treasonous and others patriotic, Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of the classified history to the New York Times. After the newspaper began publishing the contents, the Nixon administration won a federal court order barring it from further publication. Then the Washington Post and other newspapers began printing Ellsberg-supplied copies of the Pentagon Papers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the prior restraint and concluded the government could not block publication of the papers.
The exposure of the Pentagon Papers helped fuel the ongoing anti-Vietnam War effort and perhaps hastened the Paris peace talks, which formally ended the most divisive military conflict in U.S. history in 1973 after 60,000 American lives were lost.
Since 1971, the content of the Pentagon Papers has been widely published. And so the official government release of the documents on the same day Ellsberg contacted the New York Times, while welcome, is somewhat of a historical footnote.
Still, the government can never quite let go of every secret. Before reversing the decision, federal record-keepers announced that 11 words from the massive 47-volume, 7,000-page document would be redacted for security reasons. What are those 11 words? The government isn't saying. Perhaps we'll never know. But finally, after 40 years, the public is free to look for them.