Pentagon Papers: Definition & Summary

Pentagon Papers: Definition & Summary
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  • 0:03 Background to the…
  • 1:10 Release of the Pentagon Papers
  • 2:39 Impact & Aftermath
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Learn about the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government document about the history of the Vietnam War, which turned public opinion against the conflict and influenced many Americans' views of politics.

Background to the Pentagon Papers

Given the contemporary widespread skepticism of government, it's important to remember that until the Vietnam War, the majority of Americans trusted politicians. The leak and publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971 played a large role in stoking Americans' distrust of political authority. This document, published by The New York Times, demonstrated that the government had misled the public with regard to the country's involvement in the war in Vietnam.

After World War II, the U.S. became engaged in a Cold War with the communist Soviet Union. Though the two countries never directly engaged in combat, they sought to limit each other's spheres of influence. Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, became a hotspot in America's goal to stop the spread of communism. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered U.S. ground troops to Vietnam in 1965 to stop communist incursions from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, which was an American ally. The U.S. soon became mired in a conflict with no clear end, and American combat deaths mounted throughout the 1960s.

Release of the Pentagon Papers

Despite the difficulties in Southeast Asia and a growing antiwar movement, during the first few years of the war most Americans still did not question the government's rationale for fighting in Vietnam. Most Americans believed that the U.S. needed to combat the spread of communism in Vietnam in order to protect freedoms at home. This trust quickly eroded when a former Department of Defense employee, Daniel Ellsberg, leaked to The New York Times a classified government document entitled 'The History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy, 1945-1967,' which became known as the Pentagon Papers.

The release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 illuminated the fact that presidential administrations since the 1940s had misled the public with regard to America's stake in Vietnam. The documents showed that some presidents had directly lied to Congress and the public. President Johnson, for instance, had lied about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in order to garner congressional and public support for the introduction of ground troops in Vietnam. Elsewhere in the Pentagon Papers, it was clear that successive U.S. administrations didn't believe Vietnam was a central battleground to contain communism, did not consider the improvement of the lives of the South Vietnamese a worthy goal, and could have ended the war in the 1950s but continued U.S. involvement only to avoid international embarrassment. That American troops remained in Vietnam until 1973 only soured the public's attitude even more.

Impact & Aftermath

The Pentagon Papers eroded the American public's trust in their political leaders and in their government. The information in the documents led citizens to question whether American blood and money should be used to fight communism in a far-off country, and whether a communist victory in Vietnam would really threaten the freedoms and way of life of American citizens.

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