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How The Pentagon Papers Exposed Government Lies About The Vietnam War

Updated 31 Jul 2019 37.7k views11 items

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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