The Press & the Pentagon Papers

The New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers on this day in 1971. Though the leaked documents showed how four successive presidents had been duplicitous regarding American involvement in Vietnam, it was the current Nixon administration that made most of the headlines. Outraged at the “treasonable” breach of security and determined to “destroy the Times,” the Nixon White House not only authorized legal action against the Times but covertly pursued its own rough justice through the so-called Plumbers. Their first operation, later described as “the seminal Watergate event,” was to burglarize the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to discredit the man responsible for the document leak.

Although voicing a complaint about the press rather than the politicians, Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, may have been the first to articulate the most enduring legacy of these events. The following is excerpted from an Oval Office conversation between Haldeman and Nixon the day after the publication of the first Pentagon Papers installment:

But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing…you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the – the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.

James Goodale was chief counsel for the Times during the newspaper’s Supreme Court battle with the White House. In his recent memoir Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles, Goodale argues that the Timesvictory for free speech did not win the war:

This is the story of those weeks in June when the press’s freedom of speech came under its most sustained assault since the Second World War. It is also the story of efforts by the government to silence the press since that time, and the response of the press to those efforts.… In many respects, President Obama is no better than Nixon. Obama has used the Espionage Act to indict more leakers than any other president in the history of this country. His Justice Department is threatening to indict Julian Assange. Obama is ignoring the Pentagon Papers case at his peril — and the nation’s peril. It is a case for the ages and matters as much, or more, today.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.