Pentagon Papers Project

In a follow on to the announcement that the NDC Director Sheryl J. Shenberger made in her Second Bi-Annual Report, I am presenting an outline of the Pentagon Paper Project.

A Short History

There is a considerable body of literature that discusses what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, so I will not go into any details of this fascinating story.  Suffice it to say that during June 1967, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a task force to write a history of the U.S. decision making during the Vietnam Conflict using primary source documents.  McNamara appointed Leslie Gelb to lead the task force, which ultimately employed 36 staff members and took eighteen months to complete.  Gelb’s organization published a 47 volume document known as the Report of the OSD (Office of Secretary of Defense) Vietnam Task Force and given the title United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967.  The entire report was classified at the Top Secret level, although certain volumes of the report contained public statements that were considered unclassified.

The Department of Justice and OSD investigations into the leak of the classified report determined that at least fifteen original copies were made (it’s not clear if more than fifteen were printed) with the distribution made roughly as follows:

RAND (2 copies)

State Department (2 copies)

NARS (National Archives and Records Service, now NARA) (2 copies with one copy going to the Kennedy Presidential Library and one copy going to the Johnson Presidential Library)

Robert McNamara (1 copy)

Clark Clifford (1 copy)

Paul Warnke (1 copy)

Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (1 copy)

OSD safe (5 copies)

 The Project

 The basis of the Pentagon Papers Project at the National Archives at College Park is two record series from Record Group 330, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  Both of the series originated in OSD’s Office of General Counsel.  This material is supplemented by two small series in RG 60, Records of the Department of Justice, which contain records pertaining to DOJ’s Pentagon Papers case.  The two OSD record series include possibly three complete sets of the OSD Vietnam Task Force report.  One of the sets in the series served as the basis of the redacted version of the report that was submitted to Congress and was published by the Government Printing Office (GPO) in 1972.  The rest of the OSD series contain backup documentation for the original report along with records concerning OSD’s investigation into the leak of the report.  The DOJ series contain one of the RAND copies of the report along with some investigatory material.  The DOJ copy of the report may well be the document copied by Daniel Ellsberg, although further investigation will be required to make that determination.

 The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Libraries also have their own copies of the report, although the provenance of these copies differs somewhat from what the DOJ investigators determined as stated above.  The Kennedy Library’s copy is identified as Robert McNamara’s, while the Johnson Library’s copy once belonged to Clark Clifford.  The provenance of the Nixon Library’s copy is unknown at this time.

 The object of the Pentagon Papers Project is to release as much of the OSD and DOJ record series as possible.  Our priority is focused on processing the report first, so that we can release as much as possible of the report held in four different NARA locations (the Kennedy Library, the Johnson Library, the Nixon Library, and the National Archives at College Park ).  As soon as the processing of the report is complete, then the declassification of the backup documentation and the investigation documentation will begin.  The DOJ series are being handled separately in accordance with standard archival practice.

 One matter to keep in mind concerning the Pentagon Papers is that there is no complete record of the report in the public domain.  The most comprehensive public version of the report, the Senator Gravel Edition published by Beacon Press in 1971, did not publish three volumes of the original narrative report nor did it publish most of the source documents that appeared as Part V of the original report.  In addition, Ellsberg did not leak any of Part VI, the segment of the report that deals with the peace negotiations with North Vietnam.  The GPO version of the report was heavily redacted, but it is the only official version of the report that is available to the public.  Our target in the Pentagon Papers Project is to significantly surpass the amount of information made available in either the Senator Gravel Edition or the GPO publication.

 The project is both an interagency and intra-agency effort.  NARA is working closely with its partners in the intelligence and defense communities, and the Department of Justice to ensure that we make available as much of this historical collection as possible.  In a similar fashion, NARA’s National Declassification Center and Office of Presidential Libraries are collaborating to ensure that we make these records available to as wide a segment of the research public as possible.

 I look forward to updating everyone on the progress of this exciting project.

9 thoughts on “Pentagon Papers Project

  1. Congrats! This is such an exciting and important project. I’m looking forward to updates as progress is made.

    1. Thank you, Meredith. We are quite optimistic in moving forward with these significant records. My personal wish is that we could have the whole report declassified tomorrow. However, the information still belongs to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and we have specific processes to follow to make available as much as possible of this report to the public. We are making steady progress in that direction.

  2. I am the co-director of the 2009 documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I would like to keep up to date on your progress. Is there a email list or listserve i can be put on? Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this historic declassification effort, NARA. I and many others interested in the Vietnam era look forward to being able to read the complete report, for the first time in 43 years. And thank you, A.J., for the excellent recap of the various existing editions of the Papers and what’s missing from them.

  4. Hi, AJ, Don and Declass friends,

    Thanks much for the great recap and update on the “Pentagon Papers.” I certainly remember listening to President Nixon’s reaction to their publication when I was employed by NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project/Tapes Unit. It’s been so long since I worked at what then was NLNP. If you’re able to, could you refresh my memory as to which records series at what now is the Nixon Presidential Library contains its set of the “Pentagon Papers?”

    It appears from Secrecy News as if Steve Aftergood is calling for bulk declassification rather than item review. You’ve already answered that issue to some extent. As I noted in an archivists’ forum earlier this week, “For an article about some item versus bulk declassification issues that came up over a decade ago (my sister Eva then still worked in NARA’s records declassification unit), see George Lardner’s 2001 WaPo article, “DOE Puts Declassification in Reverse” at As the article suggests, it was a difficult situation with people from a different agency (and culture) parachuting in to tell NARA’s officials “UR Doing It Wrong.” Never easy to work through those situations. Also, it’s easy for outsiders such as Aftergood (who actually is well regarded in advocacy circles from what I hear) to say ‘just shortcut the whole process.’ It’s not his professional reputation (individually or institutionally) that’s on the line! As with everything NARA, it seems, ‘it’s complicated.'”

    The only other thing I would add is that this project is involves matrixing with other components within and outside NARA. That always means dealing with somewhat different cultures, to some extent.

    All my very best to you and your colleagues as you work on this and other worthwhile endeavors.

    Maarja Krusten
    Federal historian and former NARA Nixon Project archivist

    1. Maarja,

      Thanks for your kind words. I will do the research on the location of the Nixon Library copy and post the result.

  5. It’s worth noting that the Pentagon papers volumes on the Vietnam negotiations have been declassified in full for some years. They’re in the McNamara papers at the LJBL library I believe. That will save your team so work!

    1. Bill,

      Thank you for the information. We have been working with our colleagues in NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries, and they advised us early in our project that Part VI C had been declassified in full by the Department of State. That knowledge allowed us to focus resources and attention on other parts of the Report that required attention.

      We have been making good progress on the project, so please stay tuned.

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