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Context of 'Mid-June, 1971: Outrage over Pentagon Papers Sweeps Congress, Public'

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An exhaustive study of the US’s involvement in Vietnam since 1945 is completed. The study was ordered in early 1967 by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, partly to determine how the situation in Southeast Asia had gotten so out of hand. The study, entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” is by the “Vietnam Study Task Force,” led by Leslie H. Gelb, the director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs at the Pentagon, and comprised of 36 military personnel, historians, and defense analysts from the RAND Corporation and the Washington Institute for Defense Analysis. The study is huge, composed of 47 volumes and spanning 7,000 pages of material. It covers the time from 1945, when Vietnam was under French colonial rule, through the 1968 Tet Offensive. The study conclusively shows that each US administration, from Harry S. Truman through Lyndon B. Johnson, had knowingly and systematically deceived the American people over the US’s involvement and interventions in the region. Historian John Prados will later observe that the study, later dubbed the “Pentagon Papers” after it is leaked by RAND analyst and task force member Daniel Ellsberg (see September 29, 1969 and March 1971), represents “a body of authoritative information, of inside government deliberations that demonstrated, beyond questioning, the criticisms that antiwar activists had been making for years, not only were not wrong, but in fact, were not materially different from things that had been argued inside the US government.” (Moran 2007)

Book cover of the Pentagon Papers.Book cover of the Pentagon Papers. [Source: Daniel Ellsberg]The New York Times receives a huge amount of secret Defense Department documents and memos that document the covert military and intelligence operations waged by previous administrations in Vietnam (see January 15, 1969). The documents are leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official who worked in counterintelligence and later for the RAND Corporation while remaining an active consultant to the government on Vietnam. Ellsberg, a former aide to Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and a member of the task force that produced the Defense Department documents, has, over his tenure as a senior government official, become increasingly disillusioned with the actions of the US in Vietnam. (Herda 1994) The documents are given to Times reporter Neil Sheehan by Ellsberg (see May 1969). (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 313)
Ellsberg Tried to Interest Senators - After he and his friend Anthony Russo had copied the documents (see September 29, 1969), Ellsberg had spent months attempting to persuade several antiwar senators, including William Fulbright (D-AR), Charles Mathias Jr (R-MD), George McGovern (D-SD), and Paul “Pete” McCloskey (R-CA), to enter the study into the public record, all to no avail. But McGovern suggested that Ellsberg provide copies of the documents either to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Ellsberg knew Sheehan in Vietnam, and decided that the Times reporter was his best chance for making the documents public. (Reeves 2001, pp. 333; Moran 2007) Ellsberg originally gave copies of the documents—later dubbed the “Pentagon Papers”—to Phil Geyelin of the Washington Post, but the Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee decided not to publish any of the documents. Ellsberg then gave a copy to Sheehan.
Documents Prove White House Deceptions - The documents include information that showed former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made a secret commitment to help the French defeat the insurgents in Vietnam. They also show that Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, had used a secret “provocation strategy” to escalate the US’s presence into a full-blown war that eventually led to the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident. The documents also show that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had planned from the outset of his presidency to expand the war (Spartacus Schoolnet 8/2007) , and show how Johnson secretly paved the way for combat troops to be sent to Vietnam, how he had refused to consult Congress before committing both ground and air forces to war, and how he had secretly, and illegally, shifted government funds from other areas to fund the war. Finally, the documents prove that all three presidents had broken Constitutional law in bypassing Congress and sending troops to wage war in Vietnam on their own authority. (Herda 1994)
Times Publishes Against Legal Advice - The Times will begin publishing them in mid-June 1971 (see June 13, 1971) after putting Sheehan and several other reporters up in the New York Hilton to sift through the mountain of photocopies and the senior editors, publishers, and lawyers argued whether or not to publish such a highly classified set of documents. The management will decide, against the advice of its lawyers, to publish articles based on the documents as well as excerpts from the documents themselves. (Moran 2007)

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)

After the New York Times publishes excerpts from the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971), Attorney General John Mitchell sends a telegram to the Times at the behest of President Nixon demanding that the paper stop further publication of the excerpts. Mitchell argues that disclosing the information would cause “irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States,” and claims that the publication is in violation of laws against espionage. The Times “respectfully declines” to cease publication of articles based on the documents. (Herda 1994)

The New York Times publishes its third installment of the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971 and June 14, 1971). A furious President Nixon demands an immediate court injunction to keep the paper from printing more excerpts. He orders: “I want to know who is behind this and I want the most complete investigation that can be conducted.… I don’t want excuses. I want results. I want it done, whatever the cost.” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger informs Nixon that he believes Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the documents to the Times, is a “fanatic” and a “drug abuser.” Attorney General John Mitchell says that Ellsberg must be part of a communist “conspiracy” and suggests he be tried for treason. Nixon calls together a group of loyal White House aides to investigate Ellsberg’s leak of classified documents. The group will become known as the “plumbers” for their task to “plug the leaks” (see Late June-July 1971). Other undercover operators, including CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, are recruited by White House special counsel Charles Colson. (Herda 1994)

American citizens and lawmakers are outraged by the information revealed in the publication of portions of the so-called Pentagon Papers (see June 13, 1971, June 14, 1971, and June 15, 1971). Senator George McGovern (D-SD), a sponsor of legislation to withdraw all US troops from Vietnam by the end of 1971, says the documents tell a story of “almost incredible deception” of Congress and the American people by the White House. McGovern says he cannot see how any senator can ever again permit the president to make any foreign policy decisions without first going through Congress. Senate Majority Leader Hugh Scott (R-PA) expresses concern over the leaking of the documents, but calls their contents “shocking.” Representative Paul McCloskey (R-CA) says the papers show “the issue of truthfulness in government is a problem as serious as ending the war itself.” McCloskey complains that, according to the documents, the briefings he and other Congressional members had received regarding the war had been “deceptive… misleading [and] incomplete,” often while Army officials who knew more of the truth stood silently by his side. “This deception is not a matter of protecting secret information from the enemy,” McCloskey says, “the intention is to conceal information from the people of the United States as if we were the enemy.” (Herda 1994)

President Nixon tries to come up with ways to use the recently leaked “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971) to his own advantage. If the papers contain anything about former president John F. Kennedy’s supposed role in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, “I want that out,” he tells aide Charles Colson. “I said that [Diem] was murdered.… I know what those b_stards were up to.” Did former President Lyndon B. Johnson stop the US bombings of Vietnamese targets just before the 1968 elections to try to prevent Nixon from being elected? “You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff and it might be worth doing,” chief of staff H. R. Haldeman suggests (see June 17, 1972). (Reeves 2001, pp. 334-335)

Livid over the entire “Pentagon Papers” debacle (see June 13, 1971), President Nixon lectures his Cabinet on loyalty, secrecy, and not leaking information to the press. “From now on, [chief of staff H. R.] Haldeman is the lord high executioner,” he snaps. “Don’t come whining to me when he tells you to do something… you’re to carry it out.… We’ve checked and found out that 96 percent of the bureaucracy are against us; they’re b_stards and they’re here to screw us.… You’ve got to realize that the press aren’t interested in liking you; they’re only interested in news or screwing me.… Haldeman has the worst job that anybody can have in the White House.… [H]e’ll be down the throat of anyone here regarding leaks if they affect the national interest.” (Reeves 2001, pp. 337-338)

President Nixon authorizes the creation of a “special investigations unit,” later nicknamed the “Plumbers,” to root out and seal media leaks. The first target is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (see June 13, 1971); the team will burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, in hopes of securing information that the White House can use to smear Ellsberg’s character and undermine his credibility (see September 9, 1971). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who supervises the “Plumbers,” will later say that the Ellsberg burglary is “the seminal Watergate episode.” Author Barry Werth will later write, “[L]ike all original sins, it held the complete DNA of subsequent misdeeds.” During the upcoming court battle over the documents, Nixon tells his aide Charles Colson: “We’ve got a countergovernment here and we’ve got to fight it. I don’t give a damn how it’s done. Do whatever has to be done to stop those leaks.… I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done.” Whatever damaging information the “Plumbers” can find on Ellsberg will be itself leaked to the press, Nixon says. “Don’t worry about his trial [referring to Ellsberg’s arrest on conspiracy and espionage charges (see June 28, 1971) ]. Just get everything out. Try him in the press… leak it out.” (Werth 2006, pp. 84-87) As he is wont to do, Nixon refers to his own success in convicting suspected Communist spy Alger Hiss in 1950. “We won the Hiss case in the papers,” he says. “We did. I had to leak stuff all over the place. Because the Justice Department would not prosecute it.… It was won in the papers…. I leaked out the papers. I leaked everything.… I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury.” (Kutler 1997, pp. 10; Reeves 2001, pp. 337-338) In July 1973, FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt, the notorious “Deep Throat” (see May 31, 2005) will tell reporter Bob Woodward that Nixon created the Plumbers because the FBI would not do his bidding in regards to Ellsberg. Had the FBI agreed to investigate Ellsberg to the extent Nixon wanted, he would not have created the “Plumbers.” “The problem was that we [the FBI] wouldn’t burglarize” (see June 30-July 1, 1971), Felt will say. Ehrlichman will later testify, “Those fellows were going out as substitutes for the FBI.” (Woodward 2005, pp. 107)

Eugenio Martinez.Eugenio Martinez. [Source: public domain]President Nixon’s “Plumbers” unit, tasked to plug media leaks from administration officials and outsiders to the media, burglarizes the Los Angeles office of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding to find damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst and patient of Fielding who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the media. (Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum 7/3/2007) Ellsberg is a former Marine captain in Vietnam and protege of Henry Kissinger who had a change of heart over the war; he then leaked a secret set of Pentagon documents to the New York Times detailing how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had secretly escalated the war in Vietnam (see June 13, 1971).
Watergate Connection - One of the burglars is Eugenio Martinez, who later is arrested as one of the five Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Martinez and two others—Felipe de Diego and the mission leader, E. Howard Hunt, who will supervise the Watergate burglary—are all old “CIA hands” heavily involved in anti-Castro activities. Martinez is still active in the CIA, as is Hunt, whom he often refers to by his old CIA code name of “Eduardo.” Another Watergate burglar, CIA agent Bernard Barker, is also involved in the Ellsberg burglary.
Martinez: Burglary a Near-Disaster - Hunt tells Martinez and Diego that they are to burglarize the offices of a “traitor” who is spying for the Soviet Union, and that the mission was ordered by the White House, where Hunt is now an aide. Barker tells the Cubans, “We have to find some papers of a great traitor to the United States, who is a son of a b_tch .” The men will become a unit outside the normal law enforcement and intelligence channels, operating within but not part of the CIA, FBI, and “all the agencies,” Martinez will later recall. They buy photographic equipment at Sears, and Hunt and Diego use disguises—wigs, fake glasses, false identification, and voice-altering devices. “Barker recognized the name on Hunt’s false identification—Edward J. Hamilton—as the same cover name Eduardo had used during the Bay of Pigs,” Martinez will recall. The planning, Martinez will recall, is far looser and less meticulous than “anything I was used to in the [CIA].” A disguised Hunt and Diego, masquerading as delivery men, deliver the photographic equipment to the office; later that night, they and Martinez break in and rifle the office. Martinez will write that Hunt and de Diego looked “kind of queerish” in their disguises, with their “Peter Lorre-type glasses, and the funny Dita Beard wigs” (see February 22, 1972). Before the break-in, Barker, who does not enter, whispers to Martinez, “Hey, remember this name—Ellsberg.” Martinez does not recognize the name. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974; Reeves 2001, pp. 369)
Comedy of Errors - The burglars wait for hours until the cleaning lady leaves for the night, and find the door to the building locked. At that point, a fifth man, “George,” whom Martinez learns is G. Gordon Liddy, another of the Watergate burglars also involved in the Ellsberg planning, appears and tells them to break in through a window. (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Three burglars—Bernard Barker, Felipe de Diego, and Eugenio Martinez—perform the actual break-in, while Hunt and Liddy act as lookouts. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369) The burglary is quickly turning into a comedy of errors, Martinez will recall. “This was nothing new. It’s what the Company did in the Bay of Pigs when they gave us old ships, old planes, old weapons. They explained that if you were caught in one of those operations with commercial weapons that you could buy anywhere, you could be said to be on your own. They teach you that they are going to disavow you. The Company teaches you to accept those things as the efficient way to work. And we were grateful. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had any help at all. In this operation it seemed obvious—they didn’t want it to be traced back to the White House. Eduardo told us that if we were caught, we should say we were addicts looking for drugs.” Martinez finds nothing concerning Ellsberg in the office except for Fielding’s telephone book, which Martinez photographs. Before leaving, Martinez spills some pills from Fielding’s briefcase—“vitamin C, I think”—over the floor to make it seem as if the burglars had broken in looking for drugs. As they leave the office, Martinez spots a police car trailing them, but they are not stopped. “I thought to myself that the police car was protecting us. That is the feeling you have when you are doing operations for the government. You think that every step has been taken to protect you.”
Failure; Training for Bigger Mission? - Martinez feels that the burglary is a failure, but Hunt insists that they celebrate anyway. Martinez tells Diego that the break-in must either be a training exercise for a more important mission to come, or it was a cover operation for something else. “I thought to myself that maybe these people already had the papers of Ellsberg. Maybe Dr. Fielding had given them out and for ethical reasons he needed to be covered. It seemed that these people already had what we were looking for because no one invites you to have champagne and is happy when you fail,” he will write. Martinez’s CIA supervisor is strangely uninterested in the incident. “I was certain then that the Company knew about his activities,” Martinez will write. “But once again my CO did not pursue the subject.” (Martinez and Barker 10/1974) Hunt telephones Plumbers supervisor Egil Krogh at 4 a.m. to report that the burglary was a success but they found no files on Ellsberg. (Reeves 2001, pp. 369)

John Ehrlichman.John Ehrlichman. [Source: PBS]After years of protracted legal wrangling, selected portions of former President Richard Nixon’s secret White House recordings (see July 13-16, 1973) are made public. In a January 2, 1997 panel discussion on PBS, two former Nixon aides, John Ehrlichman and Monica Crowley, and former New York Times reporter Tom Wicker, discuss the content and dissemination of the tapes. All three have listened to the released portions of the tapes, currently housed at the National Archives.
Context - Ehrlichman complains that the selections lack context: “The archivist has snipped little tiny segments, in some cases six or eight seconds, and you don’t know what was said before or after. And it’s tough on a listener.… I think there could be a lot more context given. What they’ve done is try and select out the things that embodied abuses of government power under their regulations, and that’s what they’re giving you.” Wicker says it is hard to know when Nixon’s “popping off” about this or that supposed enemy was ever acted upon and when his instructions to “get” a particular person were ignored. Crowley says: “I think all presidents say things in the heat of disappointment, frustration, anger, even fatigue, that they never intend to have acted upon. And Nixon’s rantings have become a lightning rod for criticism because we can hear his but we can’t hear those of other presidents.”
Brookings Institution Burglary Halted - Ehrlichman explains why Nixon’s 1972 order to burglarize the Brookings Institution (see June 30-July 1, 1971) was never carried out: “because I shot it down.… I tracked down who had followed up—who was proposing to do this thing and I told ‘em to stop. It sounded ridiculous to me. So that was the end of it.”
Comparison of Ellsberg and Hiss - Ehrlichman says that, listening to the tapes, it seems as if Nixon was comparing Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the notorious “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971), to his “Communist” nemesis of the 1950s, Alger Hiss. Hiss, prosecuted by Nixon for allegedly selling US intelligence to the Soviet Union, helped Nixon vault to national prominence. Ehrlichman now says Nixon seemed to hope that Ellsberg could provide him with another, similar boost to his political stature before the 1972 presidential elections. In general, Ehrlichman says, Nixon was “very sensitive” to press leaks, especially those that he considered a threat to national security, and “his reaction in some cases was pretty extreme.”
Mentions of Jews - Ehrlichman goes on to address Nixon’s well-documented diatribes against Jews (see September 1971), and says that such outbursts were not confined to Jews: another day “it was major Italian donors to the Democrats, and [the next] it would be black contributors.… He broke it down along ethnic lines. He broke it down along socioeconomic lines. I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the fact that he was talking about Jewish people in this particular segment.” Wicker says the tapes largely confirm the public impression of Nixon as a “dark… evil man” because of his blatant orders of criminal behavior and his rampant ethnic slurs. (PBS 1/2/1997)


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