A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


Introducing a reading assignment

            Throughout most of the thirteen years of the Vietnam War, the government encouraged the American people to believe that the United States would prevail, that the light would soon be seen at the end of that long tunnel.
This optimism was not, however, shared within the government itself. How can I state this with confidence? I can so state, because the government was writing its own secret history of the war. How do I know if it was a secret? I know, because the secret was stolen in the early 70’s and published by The New York Times.

            Within the Pentagon--the headquarters of the American military--government researchers had long been at work compiling a secret government history of the war. It was not a history in the traditional sense. That is, it contained little narrative. Rather it was comprised of secret government cables juxtaposed with public statements that officials had made about the war. Moreover, it was organized topically rather than chronologically.

            Two of the researchers working on the history became convinced that the American people were being lied to and deserved the truths that were presently stamped “secret,” and reserved for the government. The researchers names were Daniel Ellesberg and Tony Russo. They proceeded to smuggle the papers, page-by-page, out of the Pentagon and to the nearest xerox machine. Soon the FBI was on to them and a nationwide manhunt ensued, with xerox machines being checked coast-to-coast for some hint of where Ellsberg and Russo might be hiding. In 1971, before they could be caught, they turned over the history--now known as the Pentagon Papers-- to The New York Times. When government officials learned that The Times was about to publish, the Nixon administration sued the newspaper to stop the presses. This was the first attempt by the government to affect “prior censorship” in the entire history of the country. The Supreme Court ruled against the government, 9-0, upholding the free press rights of The New York Times to publish--and publish it did. At about the same time, Senator Gavin of Alaska read the entire 5 (fat) volumes of the Papers into the Congressional Record.
            As a postscript, please know that Ellsberg and Russo did give themselves up once the Papers were in print, and they were tried in federal court for stealing government property. In the midst of the trial, President Nixon offered the judge the directorship of the FBI; this improper offer forced the judge to declare a mistrial. Ellsberg and Russo went free. Finally, during the Watergate investigation that would ultimately cause President Nixon resign, it was discovered that a secret White House group called “the plumbers” had, at Nixon’s direction, broken into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in hopes of stealing medical records that would discredit this new anti-war hero.

            A last thought: the Pentagon Papers raised in a most dramatic manner the difficult problem of balancing a government’s need to keep secrets with the right of citizens in a democratic society to be informed of what their government is doing.

Your assignment

            Please read the selection of the Pentagon Papers that accompanies this introduction. Because I have reshuffled the pages to be in near-chronological order, the numbers on the pages will make little sense.  I have also included a few fairly recent clipping involving new disclosures about the war, though some of these “disclosures” were long-buried in the Pentagon Papers. I have also included two articles (from The Times and The Globe) about Robert McNamara’s recent book. These articles do overlap, but each does contain some different information.

            You need not write anything, but please highlight carefully and be prepared to tell the class--crisply!--when  called upon, the “secrets” on each page. By the way, in the Papers, public statements are printed in italics. Good luck. Do the best you can; this won’t be easy.




All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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