"We're Going to Publish": The New York Times' Oral History of the Pentagon Papers

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tags: Vietnam War, First Amendment, Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers, Free Press

On Oct. 1, 1969, Daniel Ellsberg walked out of the RAND Corporation offices, where he worked as a Defense Department consultant, into the temperate evening air of Santa Monica, Calif. In his briefcase was part of a classified government study that chronicled 22 years of failed United States involvement in Vietnam. By then, the war had killed about 45,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. He had been posted in Vietnam, and even worked on the study he now carried. Having become convinced that the war was not only unwinnable but also a crime, he was now determined to stop it. Over the course of the next eight months, he spent many nights photocopying the rest of the study in secret.

He quit RAND, moved east for a fellowship at M.I.T. and for the next year tried to persuade members of Congress to help him expose the study — later known as the Pentagon Papers — to the world. It was not working. On the night of March 2, 1971, he was in Washington, D.C., and looked up Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he had first met in Vietnam. The two started discussing the vast dossier.

DANIEL ELLSBERG I had actually given a talk at the National War College of all places. I did call Sheehan and asked if he had a bed for the night. He said he did, in the basement. His wife was actually away for the weekend or something. And so I went over there.

NEIL SHEEHAN When he walks in the door, I gave him a cup of coffee, and we started talking.

ELLSBERG I always thought what you need are hearings. Get these people under oath. They have to answer in some way or other. A newspaper can’t subpoena people. Neil said, “No, no, the best way is a big spread in The New York Times.” And I thought, well, he could be right.

SHEEHAN So Ellsberg and I made this agreement: If I could get The Times to agree to publish the whole thing, they’d do their best to protect him. He’d give us the whole thing. He wouldn’t be publicly announced as a source.

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