The Real Pentagon Papers

The pending release of the Report of the OSD Vietnam Task Force (aka the Pentagon Papers) has brought forth the question of relevancy. After all the Papers were made public 40 years ago, right? What’s the big deal?

The fact of the matter is that no one, outside the people properly cleared to view Top Secret, has seen the real Pentagon Papers. There are any number of books out in the public domain that discuss the Pentagon Papers; however, the history of the unauthorized release of the Report that occurred nearly 40 years ago indicates what the American public really read.

The original leak (the New York Times publication of what it termed the Vietnam Archive) began on June 13, 1971. The source document of that leak, along with the leaks to more than a dozen other media outlets, was a copy of the Report created by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. That copy, the product of long nights of copying that was well documented in Mr. Ellsberg’s 2002 work, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, was not the pristine document that came from Leslie Gelb’s task force. The conditions under which the copies of the Report were made and distributed, coupled with the speed with which the copies were distributed and the urgency to publish the material, meant that the newspaper and magazine releases of the Papers covered only a very small portion of the 7,000 page Report.

The copies of the Report that were leaked to Congress ultimately had better luck in publication. Ultimately, Senator Mike Gravel (D, Alaska) made available his copy of the Report to the publishing house of Beacon Press, located in Boston. The Beacon Press editions, published in 1971 in both hard and soft cover versions, were the definitive account of the Report until now. However, Beacon Press had its own copy problems that led to words, paragraphs, and even full pages of the Report being deleted, possibly due to the quality problems in the copy received from Senator Gravel. In addition, the Beacon Press editors completely rearranged the volumes of the Report they received, so the Beacon Press volumes do not reflect the original order of the Report. In addition, Ellsberg and Russo did not leak Part VI of the Report. Part VI documented the various negotiations between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United Sates. The State Department declassified Part VI in 2003 at the Johnson Presidential Library.  Also, this release contains three volumes that were never published as part of the Gravel Edition: Part IV.A.1., NATO and SEATO: A Comparison; Part IV.A.4., U.S. Training of the Vietnamese National Army, 1954-1959; and Part IV.C.10., Statistical Survey of the War, North and South: 1965-1967.  Finally, the Gravel Edition does not contain 80% of the Internal Documents located in Part V.B. of the Report.

NARA’s June release of the Report of the OSD Vietnam Task Force will present the American public with the first real look at this historic document. There have been several different versions of this historic document available to the public over four decades. However, this is the first time that anyone can see the Report as then-Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford saw it on January 15, 1969, the day Leslie Gelb delivered the study whose creation Robert MacNamara directed only eighteen months before. The reader will not find any smoking guns here—one really has to invest the time to read the Report to understand the enormity of the Vietnam conflict and how the United States became so engaged in such a divisive event. However, we in the NDC are quite proud of this effort that could not have come about without significant help from the Intelligence Community, the Defense Community, and the Department of State.

6 thoughts on “The Real Pentagon Papers

  1. Outstanding effort by you and the NARA team. As a former Nixie and the sis of a Declass archivist, I have some idea of what was involved in the disclosure review, of course. I really appreciate all the good updates and look forward to the release.

    Best to you and all your peeps, A.J.

    1. Thanks so much, Maarja. I’ll pass that word along. This was a great project for the NDC to work and finally get out to everyone.

  2. Thank you for providing the context for this. It is important to note that these few words that are redacted come from previously non disclosed (non-leaked, non published) volumes.

  3. For the record, I was the Beacon Press”editor” referred to here. I was working at the Institute for Policy Studies when Mike Gravel called and recruited me to help him release, and then publish, the Papers.
    As a footnote, as we were about the publish, I called Leslie Gelb, then at Brookings, to see if he would like to write an introduction to the Papers. He refused, saying that he thought what we were doing was unpatriotic! Clearly a very different view of the significant of the Papers’ release.

  4. One other note: The version of the Papers that Gravel received lacked a Table of Contents, so we did the best we could to create a reasonable order. We did not deliberately change the order of the chapters.

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