In the Suburbs / Finally understanding the real impact of the Pentagon Papers

When newspaper coverage of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret, 47-volume study of the United States’ role in Indochina from World War II through the Vietnam War in 1968, first broke in 1971 in The New York Times and The Washington Post, I was a young language arts teacher in a Chicago suburb. I was sadly very ignorant about the impact of these highly classified papers on then-President Richard M. Nixon. I only knew many of our friends were either serving in Vietnam or trying to avoid being drafted.

Shame on me for not taking more interest at the time, especially since my minor in college was history and I had many informal teachers lounge discussions with colleagues about the war. After all, these documents spanned the terms of five of our presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. They were part of a study prepared by the United States Department of Defense.

The Pentagon Papers were given to The New York Times and Washington Post by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst, who had worked on the study, eventually surrendered and explained he had given the papers to the media because he believed it was his responsibility as an American citizen not to conceal information that four former presidents and Nixon had misled the American people about the controversial Vietnam War and the thousands of soldiers who died needlessly.

I learned the most critical component of the publication of the 1967 study, as chronicled in the new Steven Spielberg movie, “The Post,” was that President Nixon, determined to control the media, sought legal action against The New York Times. As a result, according to a Wikepedia entry, “The Department of Justice tried to obtain a temporary restraining order against The New York Times contending ‘that further public dissemination of the material would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to U.S. national defense interests.

“The Times … fought the order through the courts for the next 15 days, during which time, publication of its series on the Pentagon Papers was suspended.”

This amazing movie actually focused on The Washington Post and its dogged reporters, who were determined to get the truth in front of the American people. “The Post” highlighted the courage of the late Katherine Graham, then the publisher of the Post, who courageously decided to print Ellsberg’s information from the Pentagon Papers on June 18, defying the restraining order and challenging the White House.

The ensuing battle between the White House and the media ended up in the United States Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971, in what is regarded as one of the most significant First Amendment and prior-restraint cases in history, the court, in a 6-3 decision, freed the newspapers to resume publishing the material.

In the exact words of the late Justice Hugo Black, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

The story behind “The Post” becomes even more significant because of President Donald Trump’s reaction to Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” book. Trump demanded that Wolff’s publisher cease and desist in the publication of the book, but the publisher refused to back down. That reaction was like 1971 all over again and copies of “Fire and Fury” continue to be printed. Only time will tell if Trump’s edict to overhaul the libel laws will ever happen.

According to a Wikipedia entry, “Ellsberg was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of Government property, but the charges were later dismissed after prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal discovered that the staff members in the Nixon White House had ordered the so-called White House Plumbers to engage in unlawful efforts to discredit Ellsberg.”

With the dismissal of charges against Ellsberg and other events that occurred after Watergate, I watched much more carefully as the Nixon presidency unraveled and he resigned on Aug. 8, 1974. That was a very momentous day, especially since it occurred on my birthday.

Today, since the Pentagon Papers were declassified and publicly released in 2011, anyone is free to study the nightmare of the Vietnam War.

Don’t miss “The Post.” It is an amazing film.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at