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How The Pentagon Papers Exposed Government Lies About The Vietnam War

US involvement in the Vietnam War was well-entrenched and under heavy scrutiny by the time the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971. United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the State Department commissioned the study in 1967 on the political and military involvement in the Vietnam War. Going all the way back to 1945, the study assessed the origins of the war, contained secrets about why America continued fighting in Vietnam, revealed government actions taken during the conflict, and uncovered lies they'd told the American people about the war itself. Government insider Daniel Ellsberg, once a supporter of the US presence in Vietnam, took it upon himself to reveal the governments' lies to the public.

The task force that carried out the study was made up of 36 people, including Ellsberg for a time, and produced a 4,000 page, 47 volume document after 18 months. Called the "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force," the findings from the study were highly classified until Ellsberg released photocopies to the media in 1971.

By publishing the Pentagon Papers, Washington Post and New York Times reporters - among others - not only used military strategist Ellsberg's documents to expose many of the dirty little secrets of the war but also set a precedent for the freedom of the press. The June 1971 case of The New York Times vs. the United States quickly ruled in the publication's favor, citing the First Amendment. Ellsberg and collaborator Anthony Russo were tried under the Espionage Act for leaking the papers, but the case was ruled a mistrial once it was revealed Ellsberg had been wiretapped and spied on by the government. The release of the Pentagon Papers also set up Richard Nixon for a fabulous fall from grace as he tried to save the reputation of the presidency and the US in the process. 

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  • The US Paid Lip Service To South Vietnam's President But Played A Role In His Assassination
    Photo: manhhai / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    The US Paid Lip Service To South Vietnam's President But Played A Role In His Assassination

    The Pentagon Papers exposed the role the US played in the overthrow and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. The US had been "advising" the South Vietnamese up until Diem's demise, but his death prompted a much larger role for the US in the region. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued his policy of increasing US participation in the war. 

    According to the Pentagon Papers, the US government knew much more about the insurgency, the coup, and the actions against Diem - a Catholic leader - by the Buddhist majority. 

    In August 1963, the Kennedy Administration sent another, more forceful message to the coup plotters, saying that the US would support the coup if it had a high chance of succeeding, but the participation of U.S. forces would not be permitted.

    In October, Diem was told to resign by the leaders of a coup against him, including his own generals, and was later captured and killed. The US had been aware of the coup, but the assassination was not part of the plan. 

  • Lyndon Johnson Lied About Attacks To Justify Sending More US Troops To Vietnam
    Photo: Yoichi Okamoto / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lyndon Johnson Lied About Attacks To Justify Sending More US Troops To Vietnam

    On August 4, 1964 - the day Daniel Ellsberg started working for the Department of Defense -  President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the North Vietnamese had attacked two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin two days prior. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was used as a justification for war, and President Johnson took it to Congress to get the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed, funding an increased US presence in Vietnam. 

    The problem was the Gulf of Tonkin incident didn't take place the way the President Johnson and his advisors, especially Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presented it. Perhaps due to miscommunication or out of desperation, the facts behind the Gulf of Tonkin incident reveal that the US destroyers may not have been the targets of the North Vietnamese on that day in August and, without question, a second attack that the US claimed happened never took place

  • President Johnson Expanded The War Into Cambodia And Laos But Lied About It When Asked

    President Lyndon B. Johnson told the American public that the US sought "no wider war" and that he would not send troops into Cambodia and Laos, but he did.

    Between July 1970 and February 1971, according to the Pentagon Papers, US planes conducted 3,634 tactical air strikes to help support Cambodian government forces. These attacks were disguised as having been carried out in South Vietnam.

    Revelations about President Johnson's actions continued. He built up a covert war and moved toward overt war a full year before the public was told. He bombed North Vietnam in 1965 even though the intelligence community told him that it would have no effect. 

  • Truman, Eisenhower, And JFK Were Involved In Vietnam Much Earlier Than The Public Realized
    Photo: Department of Defense. Department of the Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Truman, Eisenhower, And JFK Were Involved In Vietnam Much Earlier Than The Public Realized

    According to Erwin N. Griswold, the Solicitor General of the United States, there were 11 classified facts in the Pentagon Papers; in the larger "Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force" there were "drop dead" secrets. A separate document including 17 "irreparably damaging secrets" was submitted to a court in New York state, all intended to keep the restraining orders against the media in place. 

    Griswold claimed that the names of CIA agents still in the field would be exposed, Russia would gain access to the US agenda in Southeast Asia, South Vietnam would be increasingly vulnerable, and the US communication network in the region would be compromised, among other assertions. 

    What they didn't want the public to know, however, was more about what role the US had played in the war as it developed. When the French were the colonial power in Indochina, President Harry S. Truman and the US had supported their efforts and ignored their warnings after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The report discussed how Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had intervened to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam and escalated a policy of “limited-risk gamble” to one of “broad commitment," respectively. 

  • The Papers Revealed That 70% Of The Reason For Continuing The War Was Avoiding US Humiliation
    Photo: United States Army Heritage and Education Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Papers Revealed That 70% Of The Reason For Continuing The War Was Avoiding US Humiliation

    The reasons for US involvement in Vietnam varied - sometimes the government claimed it was to help the South Vietnamese government hold off Communists. Other times, it was to contain China and prevent the spread of Communism in the region. 

    In 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara articulated a breakdown of reasons: 

    "70% - to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat. 20% - to keep SVN (South Vietnam) territory from Chinese hands. 10% - to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also - to emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used." 

  • Charges Against Ellsberg Were Dismissed When It Was Revealed Nixon Had Men Spy On Him
    Photo: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Charges Against Ellsberg Were Dismissed When It Was Revealed Nixon Had Men Spy On Him

    The charges against Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers were weak. They completely lost credibility after it was discovered the government had wire-tapped Ellsberg and broke into his office. President Richard Nixon was convinced that the leak was part of a conspiracy against him and employed his "plumbers" to plug up the leak.

    The "plumbers" included G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent; E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent; and John Paisley, a liaison to the CIA. They tried to find a link between Ellsberg and Communism by breaking into his psychiatrist's office to find something that would discredit him in court. When it came to light that the "plumbers" had illegally tried to get evidence against Ellsberg, the judge declared a mistrial and the charges against him and Anthony Russo, who helped Ellsberg copy the documents, were dropped.