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Pentagon Papers: Overview & Revelations

Margaret Stone, Jason McCollom
  • Author
    Margaret Stone

    Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English from Mississippi State University. She holds a Mississippi AA Educator License.

  • Instructor
    Jason McCollom

    Jason has a PhD.

Learn about the Pentagon Papers and their revelations about the war in Vietnam. Discover why this major leak changed the way people think about the USA. Updated: 03/25/2022

The Pentagon Papers

What were the Pentagon Papers? The Pentagon Papers are secret documents that indicate that government officials deceived the United States Congress and the public regarding the Vietnam War. Officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, the Pentagon Papers were commissioned in 1967 by the United States (U.S.) Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The information in the report was gleaned from documents held by the U.S. Department of Defense, State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Only a few copies of the report were made, and the documents were classified as Top Secret.

Daniel Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense, believed the public should be aware of the information contained in the report. Ellsberg first approached Congress, which refused to take up the issue, so he secretly passed the report to the press for publication. Richard Nixon, who had been President only a short time when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, sought to stop the publication of the report through the courts. Nixon's attempts to stop the release of information about the Vietnam War were highly controversial. Eventually, the Pentagon Papers case was settled when the Supreme Court decided the report could be published.

The Pentagon Papers showed what many who opposed the war had believed all along. The war in Vietnam was unwinnable, those in charge had lied to Congress and the public to keep the war going, and the United States had acted illegally and immorally during the war.


Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned the report on Vietnam that came to be called the Pentagon Papers.

Photograph of Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson in conversation.


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.

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The Vietnam War

From Harry S. Truman to Richard M. Nixon, every U.S. president became embroiled in the Vietnam War. The United States originally became involved in Vietnam during President Harry S. Truman's administration. France had controlled Vietnam for a quarter of a century when the French Indochina War broke out in 1946. France met resistance when it again attempted to take control of Vietnam. As the Pentagon Papers revealed, Truman had provided military aid to help France regain traction in Vietnam. These events represent the United States' first foray into Vietnam.

Belief in the Domino Theory led President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 to engage further in the conflict in Vietnam. The Domino Theory asserts that when one country becomes communist, neighboring countries will fall under communist rule as well. The Pentagon Papers showed that Eisenhower decided to financially and militarily assist South Vietnam in its clash with the communist regime in North Vietnam.

President John F. Kennedy committed additional military aid, continuing the United States' involvement in Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded covert operations in aid of the war. He ordered the 1965 bombing of North Vietnam, despite the intelligence community's warning that doing so would not stop North Vietnam's support of the insurgents in South Vietnam.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the American public's opposition to the war grew. Protesters lined the streets. Attempts to squelch the protests resulted in violence often. The Pentagon Papers confirmed the public's darkest suspicions about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite Nixon's attempts to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers Vietnam War secrets, the truth had now entered the public sphere. American troops were finally withdrawn while Nixon was in office.

The Leak

After becoming convinced that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, decided to provide photocopies of the report to the press after Congress refused to take up the matter. When were the Pentagon Papers leaked? The papers were leaked in March 1971 to The New York Times, which began to publish front-page articles detailing the most incriminating information about U.S. participation in the war. The first article appeared on June 13, 1971.

Ellsberg had given parts of the report to Times reporter Neil Sheehan. After three articles had been published in The New York Times, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the report involved national security matters. The Justice Department obtained a temporary restraining order, but the Supreme Court ruled that the government had not proven that the publication of the Pentagon Papers would harm national security. The Court also stated that the First Amendment allowed for the publication of such material. The full release of the Pentagon Papers occurred in 2011.

What did the Pentagon Papers reveal? The Pentagon Papers showed that various military and government officials had ratcheted U.S. involvement in an unwinnable war. They had deceived the public into doing so.

Who Published the Pentagon Papers

In an interview before his death, Neil Sheehan revealed that Daniel Ellsberg only intended for him to read the Pentagon Papers. Sheehan had secretly copied the papers of his own accord, just as Ellsberg had done. Sheehan and the newspaper had kept the imminent publication a secret, fearing the Justice Department would attempt to stop the publication. When were the Pentagon Papers published? After months of reporters and editors sorting through the information in the report, the first public reporting of the Pentagon Papers appeared in The New York Times on June 13, 1971.

National and international reaction to the Pentagon Papers was swift. Despite decades of deception, it became clear that there was no moral or legal reason for the escalating involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal soon followed the publication of the Pentagon Papers. These two events cemented Americans' simmering mistrust of government officials.

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What did the Pentagon Papers Reveal?

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States had been involved in nefarious activities in Vietnam. They also revealed that several American presidents had committed additional troops to an unwinnable war.

Who leaked the Pentagon Papers?

Daniel Ellsberg, a security analyst at the Defense Department and Rand, leaked the Pentagon Papers. He leaked the Pentagon Papers to a New York Times reporter named Neil Sheehan.

What did the Pentagon Papers prove about the Vietnam War?

The Pentagon Papers proved that the Vietnam War could not be won despite public statements to the contrary. This fact was concealed from the public as the United States sent more and more American soldiers to Vietnam.

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