President Trump’s incessant threats to limit freedom of the press and the timely release of the Steven Spielberg-directed movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (The Post) has shown a bright light on the past legal battles between the press and the president. In 2004, UPK published Inside the Pentagon Papers which addressed legal and moral issues that resonate today as debates continue over government secrecy and democracy’s requisite demand for truthfully informed citizens. In the process, the book also illustrated how a closer study of this signal event can illuminate questions of government responsibility in any era.
When Daniel Ellsberg leaked a secret government study about the Vietnam War to the press in 1971, he set off a chain of events that culminated in one of the most important First Amendment decisions in American legal history. That affair is now part of history, but the story behind the case has much to tell us about government secrecy and the public’s right to know.
Commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “the Pentagon Papers” were assembled by a team of analysts who investigated every aspect of the war. Ellsberg, a member of the team, was horrified by the government’s public lies about the war-discrepancies with reality that were revealed by the report’s secret findings. His leak of the report to the New York Times and Washington Post triggered the Nixon administration’s heavy-handed attempt to halt publication of their stories, which in turn led to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Nixon’s actions violated the Constitution’s free speech guarantees.
Inside the Pentagon Papers reexamines what happened, why it mattered, and why it still has relevance today. Focusing on the “back story” of the Pentagon Papers and the resulting court cases, it draws upon a wealth of oral history and previously classified documents to show the consequences of leak and litigation both for the Vietnam War and for American history.
“ A wonderful and significant story. . . . The issues raised by the Pentagon Papers—presidential power, the role of the courts and the press, government secrecy—are all still with us,” Anthony Lewis wrote. “And this book throws fresh and important light on those issues.”
Included for the first time are transcripts of previously secret White House telephone tapes revealing the Nixon administration’s repressive strategies, as well as the government’s formal charges against the newspapers presented by Solicitor General Erwin Griswold to the Supreme Court. Coeditor John Prados’s point-by-point analysis of these charges demonstrates just how weak the government’s case was-and how they reflected Nixon’s paranoia more than legitimate national security issues.