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.
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."
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.
The judge in Ellsberg's trial, Matthew Byrne, found out about the "plumbers'" actions against Daniel Ellsberg from the Watergate trials, which were also taking place in 1973. E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, and other Watergate burglars were indicted in September 1972. During the next two years, numerous President Richard Nixon's advisors resigned, and the president came under Congressional investigation for his involvement in the burglary. President Nixon resigned in August 1974.
The New York Times published the first of three articles based on the documents Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo gave them on June 13, 1971. Because the government information, now known as the Pentagon Papers, was "top secret," the government was granted a temporary injunction against The New York Times after their third article was published. According to the Nixon administration, the information was a threat to national security.
On June 18, 1971, The Washington Post published an article excerpting the Pentagon Papers, but was also issued an injunction to stop.