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Context of 'June 18, 1971: Pentagon Papers Hearings Begin'

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The New York Times publishes the first of the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (see January 15, 1969 and March 1971). The Washington Post will begin publishing the papers days later. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 330; Moran, 2007] The first story is entitled “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement,” and is labeled the first of a series. [Moran, 2007] The opening paragraph, by reporter Neil Sheehan, reads, “A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations [Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon] progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort—to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 330]
Nixon Believes Publication May Discredit Predecessors, Not Him - President Nixon, who is not mentioned in the papers, at first is not overly worried about the papers being made public, and feels they may actually do him more good than harm. [Werth, 2006, pp. 84-87] In a tape-recorded conversation the same day as the first story is published, Nixon tells National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that in some ways, the story helps him politically, serving to remind the voting public that the Vietnam War is more the product of his predecessors’ errors than his own. Nixon says that the publication just proves how important it is for his administration to “clean house” of disloyal members who might take part in such a “treasonable” act. [Moran, 2007] “This is really tough on Kennedy, [Robert] McNamara [Kennedy’s secretary of defense], and Johnson,” he says. “Make sure we call them the Kennedy-Johnson papers. But we need… to keep out of it.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 331]
Kissinger Argues that Leak is a Threat to Nixon's Administration - However, Kissinger is furious, yelling to his staff: “This will destroy American credibility forever. We might as well just tell it all to the Soviets and get it over with.” Kissinger convinces Nixon to try to stop the Times from publishing the documents by in part appealing to his masculinity—Nixon would not want to appear as a “weakling” to his foreign adversaries, Kissinger argues. Kissinger himself fears that his former association with Ellsberg will damage his own standing in the White House. Kissinger says he knows that Ellsberg is a womanizer and a “known drug user” who “shot at peasants in Vietnam,” and that information can be used to damage Ellsberg’s credibility (see Late June-July 1971). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 334; Werth, 2006, pp. 84-87] One of the arguments Kissinger successfully uses to stoke Nixon’s ire is that the papers were leaked by one or more “radical left-wing[ers]” to damage the administration’s credibility. Nixon calls the leak a “conspiracy” against him and his administration. [Moran, 2007] Nixon soon attempts to stop further publications with a lawsuit against the Times (see June 15, 1971). The Post will also become involved in the lawsuit. [Herda, 1994] Nixon initially believes former Kissinger aide Leslie Gelb, now of the Brookings Institute, is responsible for leaking the documents. Although Nixon does not know this, he is quite wrong. Gelb has always worried that the documents would cause tremendous controversy if ever made public. Only 15 copies exist: five in Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s safe; copies under lock and key at the Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries; several copies in the hands of former Johnson administration officials, including McNamara and his successor, Clark Clifford; and two at the RAND Corporation. Nixon widens his speculation over the leak, telling his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman that someone on Kissinger’s staff may have leaked the documents, or maybe some unknown group of “f_cking Jews.” Regardless of who it is, Nixon says, “Somebody’s got to go to jail for that.” It is Kissinger who quickly figures that Ellsberg was the leaker. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 331-334]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, New York Times, Kennedy administration, Johnson administration, Washington Post, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

At the behest of President Nixon (see June 15, 1971), the Justice Department files a motion with the US District Court in New York requesting a temporary restraining order and an injunction against the New York Times to prevent further publication of articles stemming from the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971). The landmark case of New York Times Company v. United States begins. The government’s argument is based on the assertion that the publication of the documents jeopardizes national security, makes it more difficult to prosecute the Vietnam War, and endangers US intelligence assets. The Times will base its defense on the principles embodied in the First Amendment, as well as the argument that just because the government claims that some materials are legitimately classified as top secret, this does not mean they have to be kept out of the public eye; the Times will argue that the government does not want to keep the papers secret to protect national security, but instead to protect itself from embarrassment and possible criminal charges. The court grants the temporary restraining order request, forcing the Times to temporarily stop publishing excerpts from the documents. [Herda, 1994; Moran, 2007]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Richard M. Nixon, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

A federal court, issuing a ruling in the case of New York Times Company v. United States (see June 15, 1971), refuses to order the Times to turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers for government inspection, saying that it will not authorize a government fishing expedition into the files of any newspaper. [Herda, 1994] The court’s decision is overruled the next day, but by this point it is, for all intents and purposes, too late. The Washington Post prints its second installment and releases the article to the 341 newspapers that subscribe to its national news service. Within hours, newspapers across the country are publishing the Post excerpts. Daniel Ellsberg, who originally leaked the documents to the Times (see March 1971), is secretly traveling around the country, making the documents available to other news outlets. (Ellsberg is so successful at staying hidden that he is interviewed by CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite for a June 23 news special without the FBI being able to find him. Ellsberg will eventually surrender himself to the police (see June 28, 1971).) [Reeves, 2001, pp. 335-336]

Entity Tags: Walter Cronkite, CBS News, Washington Post, Daniel Ellsberg, New York Times, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

June 18, 1971: Pentagon Papers Hearings Begin

Hearings over the legality of publication of the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 15, 1971) begin in federal court. Although the main newspaper publishing the Papers is the New York Times, the legality of the publication of an article derived from the Papers in another newspaper, the Washington Post, is also challenged in the hearings. The Justice Department will file charges against the Post similar to those already filed against the New York Times. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: New York Times, US Department of Justice, Washington Post

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

After a series of rulings and appeals that fail to remove the temporary restraining order against the New York Times in the case surrounding its publication of the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 18, 1971), the newspaper files a request to have its case against the government heard in the US Supreme Court. Fearing that the articles will soon begin appearing in newspapers all over the country, the government asks the Supreme Court to block publication of the Papers in the press, and the Court agrees. Other newspapers hold off publication of similar articles until the Court can rule. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Opening arguments in the Pentagon Papers case of New York Times Company v. United States (see June 15, 1971 and June 24, 1971) begin in the Supreme Court. The government argues that the publication of articles based on the documents constitutes a “grave and immediate danger” to US interests, and that the “integrity of the institution of the presidency” must be protected. For the Times, the arguments are that, first, since it took days for the government to respond to the publication of the first articles, the documents must not be that sensitive; lower courts could not find a single sensitive document among the documents; the government had no right imposing restraints on a newspaper’s First Amendment rights to publish in this situation; and that many times in recent history the Times and other news outlets had published “leaked” information, often information that was deliberately leaked by government sources. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: New York Times, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Miller, Abrams, and Cooper speak to reporters during the Libby investigation.Miller, Abrams, and Cooper speak to reporters during the Libby investigation. [Source: Life magazine]Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter held in contempt for failing to obey a subpoena to testify before the Patrick Fitzgerald grand jury investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak (see October 7, 2004), tells her husband that she may go to jail. “Something bad is happening,” Miller tells Jason Epstein, her husband and a founder of the New York Review of Books. “I think I might be going to jail.” Epstein replies, “Going to jail—that can’t be right.” Miller says, “That is where this is going to lead.” Trying to lighten the mood, Epstein retorts, “Well, if that’s the case, get a lawyer from the Yellow Pages so it won’t cost so much.” Miller says she already has a lawyer, renowned First Amendment advocate Floyd Abrams. With another lawyer, Abrams had represented the Times in the Pentagon Papers case of 1971 (see June 15, 1971), and he helped to forge case law protecting journalists from being compelled to reveal their sources. Abrams is already representing another Times reporter, Philip Shenon, against Fitzgerald in the case of Shenon’s reporting on an FBI raid of two Muslim charities accused of supporting terrorism (see December 3-14, 2001). He is also defending two more Times reporters, James Risen and Jeff Gerth, in a privacy lawsuit filed by nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who is accusing the reporters of inaccurate and defamatory reporting. And he is representing Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who is also facing a subpoena from the Fitzgerald investigation (see October 13, 2004). Abrams has asked Fitzgerald to steer clear of subpoenaing reporters such as Miller and Cooper, fearing the effect those subpoenas might have on investigative reporting if successful. Fitzgerald told Abrams that he had thought through the issue, and was prepared to compel their testimony through the entire judicial system. [Vanity Fair, 4/2006]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Floyd Abrams, Jason Epstein, Matthew Cooper, Judith Miller

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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