Fifty years ago this month, on June 13, 1971, The New York Times published its first in a series of articles exposing previously undisclosed information about how the United States gradually entered the Vietnam War, based on classified U.S. documents that were leaked to the paper.
The documents, popularly called "the Pentagon Papers," shined an unflattering spotlight on four presidential administrations -- from Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson -- for their actions and decisions related to U.S. involvement in Indochina.
The Times articles, as well as similar ones published by The Washington Post, prompted then-President Richard Nixon's Justice Department to seek a court injunction against the papers to cease publication. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices issued a 6-3 decision on June 30, 1971, siding with the newspapers on the grounds that the government had failed to meet the "heavy burden" of proving any threat to national security.
Before the decision, Gallup polling found informed Americans also agreeing with the newspapers.
Gallup first asked U.S. adults if they had heard or read about The New York Times articles, and 57% said they had. Those familiar were then asked if they thought the newspapers did the right or wrong thing in publishing them. The results were 2-to-1 in favor, 58% vs. 30%, with little difference between Republicans and Democrats who had heard about the articles.
|U.S. adults who had heard about New York Times articles
|Based on U.S. adults who had heard or read about "the articles first published in The New York Times about how we got involved in the Vietnam War."
|Gallup, June 25-28, 1971
Gallup's original news report on the data, which can be found at the bottom of this article, quoted respondents on both sides of the issue explaining their answers.
One man exclaimed, "People should know what the hell is going on in this country. Why do things always have to be so hush-hush? The Pentagon's not worried about national security -- they're afraid of being embarrassed."
Another said, "If the newspapers don't publish the true facts, how are we going to know? I think the public is being kept in the dark too much."
One person opposed to publication argued, "This is top-secret material. The government hasn't changed that classification and it certainly isn't up to the newspapers to change it on their own."
The episode has since become an important landmark in the evolution of press freedoms, signaling what one-time Columbia University law professor Benno Schmidt described as "the passing of a period when newspapers could be expected to play by tacit rules in treating matters that government leaders deem confidential."
On June 13, 2011, 40 years after the Times first published its excerpts, the National Archives and Records Administration fully declassified the papers and released them to the public.
(Daniel Ellsberg, the U.S. military analyst who contributed to the Pentagon Papers documents and provided them to The New York Times, is pictured in the accompanying photo.)
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