This is one of a series of stories and videos in which TheWrap explores the background, history and repercussions of the events depicted in the film “The Post,” from the commission and leak of the top-secret Vietnam chronicle the Pentagon Papers to the legal battle over their publication.
By 1967, the United States had been involved in Vietnam for 22 years, a period dating back to the Truman administration. The public knew little about it.
That all changed in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon military analyst, gave The New York Times thousands of pages of a secret government report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, ordered four years earlier by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Ellsberg helped prepare the report, which chronicled the true and violent history of US activities, proving that four administrations had been lying to the public. Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America.”
Ellsberg’s disclosure, by the Times and later the Washington Post, became known as the Pentagon Papers. Their publication culminated intense debate within both newspapers over the legality of publishing secret government documents and led to a 1971 Supreme Court decision that put First Amendment considerations over the government’s effort to block publication.
Here’s how it all went down:
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara orders a report on the complete 22-year political and military history of US involvement in Vietnam for the sake of future policy decisions.
JANUARY 15, 1969
McNamara’s successor, Clark M. Clifford, receives the 47-volume, 7,000-page report. Fourteen other copies of the top-secret document are also made, including two that go to the RAND Corp.
With public opinion against the war building, former Pentagon military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, a one-time proponent of U.S. intervention now working at RAND, reads the report, which concludes that the war cannot be won. Ellsberg realizes that four administrations — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — were untruthful in their public pronouncements, shielding the disclosure of bombing in Cambodia and Laos and military incursions in North Vietnam.
He offers a copy of the report to members of Congress. Finding no takers willing to make it available to the general public, he offers a substantial part of it to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter.
Campus and street demonstrations become almost daily occurrences.
JUNE 13, 1971
The Times publishes its first story about the report under the headline “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon’s Study Traces Three Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.”
The Nixon administration secures an injunction to block further stories by charging that Ellsberg committed a felony by leaking the papers. The Times appeals and the case quickly goes to the Supreme Court.
After internal debate led by new publisher Katharine Graham, the Washington Post begins publishing its own series, based on copies provided by Ellsberg. The Post’s first story runs under the headline “Documents Reveal U.S. Effort in ’54 to Delay Viet Election.”
A federal court refuses the Nixon administration’s request for an injunction. More than a dozen other newspapers start publishing their own stories.
Ellsberg is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking the Papers. He surrenders in Boston and admits his role in making the material public.
The Supreme Court rules in favor of the Times and the Post, clearing the way for publishing to resume.
With Ellsberg awaiting trial, Nixon campaign operatives G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and others, at the behest of the Nixon White House, devise a plan to discredit Ellsberg. Known as “The Plumbers,” they decide to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to seek information that would prove him unstable — a precursor to the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate complex that will eventually lead to Nixon’s resignation. They fail to discover anything damaging, and the break-in remains secret until Ellsberg goes on trial 20 months later.
MAY 11, 1973
Ellsberg and a co-defendant, Anthony Russo, are set free after the judge declares a mistrial, in part over the revelation of the break-in.
APRIL 30, 1975
U.S. involvement in Vietnam ends with the fall of Saigon. The war accounts for the deaths of more than 58,000 American troops.
MAY 4, 2011
The National Archives and Records Administration announces that the Papers will be declassified and released to the Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson Libraries as well as the National Archives.
Ellsberg becomes a founding member if the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for freedom of the press and free speech.
Ellsberg expresses public support for more recent leakers of government material, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, for their efforts to “protect and defend” the Constitution.
FEBRUARY 16, 2017
Speaking at Georgetown University, Ellsberg concedes that the release of the Papers revealed government dishonesty but “didn’t shorten the war by a day.”
Ellsberg, now 86, continues to advocate for transparency and press freedoms.
Click here to watch the full interview with Lawrence O’Donnell.
Below, watch a segment from an interview with Morton Halperin, former Defense Department and National Security Council official in the LBJ and Nixon administrations, or click here to watch the full interview .