The Pentagon Papers, top secret Defense Department documents that were leaked during the Vietnam War, are finally declassified. The documents shocked the U.S. public at the time of their release 40 years ago, and helped end the Vietnam War. Just like today’s WikiLeaks revelations, the Pentagon Papers helped to wake people up to the falsehoods and atrocities of our overseas wars. This is the story of how Marcus Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), and others played a key role in the release of the Pentagon Papers.
“My hope, you see,” explained Raskin, “was that the Papers would be treated as proof of war crimes.”
Raskin remembers well the afternoon that he met Daniel Ellsberg, the man who became the whistleblower who brought the Pentagon Papers into the public eye. It was on a Saturday in the early 1960s. Raskin was working as special staff to the National Security Council. Ellsberg was working for the RAND Corporation, which was contracting with the Pentagon. They were called to a meeting of the top minds on nuclear policy in the United States for a discussion on decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons. (Raskin’s opinion: “Don’t use them, lest the cockroaches inherit the earth.”) The group included McGeorge “Mac” Bundy, President John F. Kennedy’s national security advisor, who came in with his tennis racket and left early. It was a Saturday, after all.
Ten years later, both Raskin and Ellsberg found themselves in dramatically different circumstances. Raskin had left the government and co-founded IPS as a center where intellectuals could discuss policies that could support peace, justice, and the environment. Ellsberg had served two years at the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam, and had come to view the Vietnam War as a mistake. He had also worked extensively on the top-secret study officially called the McNamara Task Force on History of U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945-68. This 7,000-page study came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
The Pentagon Papers revealed, among other things, that the United States had expanded its bombing campaign to Cambodia and Laos, in addition to Vietnam, which was a surprise to the U.S. public. They detailed the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the event widely seen as starting the Vietnam War. They also revealed that President Lyndon B. Johnson had been planning to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam while campaigning on a platform of de-escalation from the U.S. war in Vietnam.
In 1969, Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo, a former colleague at RAND, secretly stole away the Pentagon Papers, photocopying volume after volume at the offices of Russo’s girlfriend. They attempted to find a senator or other public official to release the Papers, but could not find anyone willing to do so.
Sometime in 1970, Ellsberg and Raskin met again. The two met at the office of Carl Kaysen, who was slated to become Bundy’s deputy. In a subsequent meeting, Ellsberg implied to Raskin that he had a document that would greatly interest him, which revealed that top officials had been lying to the public about the Vietnam War. Raskin said that he would like to take a look, and so would his colleague Richard Barnet, the Institute’s other co-founder. A few weeks later, Raskin and Barnet received a document that Raskin describes as “a mountain of paper, some 2,000 to 5,000 pages.” These documents were mostly kept at the offices of IPS, at the time located near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.
Raskin set to work reading through the hefty document. He and Barnet had only one copy, and they traded sections back and forth. Some nights, Raskin would stay up late, reading through the many pages in bed. He remembers many sections of the document being sort of a tribute to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Some of the sections were alarming, including the classified description of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Raskin and Barnet became convinced that this document needed to get into the public sphere.
A former student of the international law scholar Quincy Wright, Raskin was concerned that certain incidents such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident may be flagrant violations of international norms. “I cared about what seemed indubitable to me, that the Papers could have reflected a violation of international law,” said Raskin.
Reaching out to The New York Times
Initially, Raskin met with a reporter with Newsweek, whom he had known through an employee at IPS, to discuss the Papers. The reporter was very interested, but Raskin was a bit skeptical about the reporter’s commitment to keeping his sources secret. In the end, he decided to look in another direction for the Papers’ release.
Neil Sheehan was known to Raskin through a review that Sheehan had written in The New York Times on “Conversations with Americans” by Mark Lane, a book that detailed discussions with U.S. soldiers who had been engaged in possible war crimes in Vietnam. Sheehan, who had served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962, became a Times correspondent in 1964. Based on his book review and his other work, Raskin got the sense that Sheehan might want to write about the Papers, and that he would not under any circumstances disclose his sources.
Raskin picked up the phone to call the New York Times. When he finally reached Neil Sheehan, he wanted to explain that he had a document of interest to him. But it was a delicate question, so he broached it carefully. He made small talk. He learned that Mitchell Rogovin, a lawyer acting as counsel to IPS, lived just across the street to Sheehan. Raskin changed the subject to the Papers, leaked documents on the Vietnam War. Raskin’s intuition had been spot on: Sheehan was interested, and agreed to take a look at them.
The two made arrangements for a young New York Times reporter to come and pick up the volumes. A careful hand-off of sensitive material, Raskin remembers the young man walking through the doorway of the IPS offices and hauling away “many thousands of sheets of paper.”
Raskin says that he urged Ellsberg to contact Sheehan, in order to form his own connection with Sheehan. Raskin was unsure, he says, whether Ellsberg did so. According to the account by historian David Rudenstine in “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case,” (University of California Press, 1996), Ellsberg did call Sheehan and told him that he had a study that would interest him. Sheehan had already heard of the Papers, most likely because Raskin had already spoken with him (p. 47).
Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Rudenstine also notes in his book that Sheehan did not get the classified accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident from Ellsberg. This was because Ellsberg had refused to release this part of the Papers to Sheehan, though Ellsberg had discussed with Sheehan that the Papers contained the classified historical account of this important incident. But Sheehan found a source for this material. Though Sheehan has never named this source, Rudenstine states that the source was likely Raskin: “What is more likely is that [Sheehan] obtained the documents from Marcus G. Raskin and Richard J. Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies” (p. 50).
In addition to the copy made for the Times, a copy of the Papers were made for then-Sen. Mike Gravel, an Alaska Democrat who had become known for his public opposition to the war in Vietnam and played a key role in ending the draft. Gravel wanted a clean copy of the documents so that he could enter them into the record in his Senate subcommittee. This action made the Papers a matter of public record, entered into the Congressional Record, and available for general public discourse. The Papers that Sen. Gravel used, about 4,100 pages, had been photocopied on a copier at IPS offices by a young IPS employee. They became an important resource, enabling citizens and reporters to discuss the top secret documents openly.
“The Pentagon Papers tell of purposeful withholding and distortion of facts,” Gravel wrote in an introduction to the Papers that Beacon Press published in 1971. “No one who reads this study can fail to conclude that, had the true facts been made known earlier, the war would long ago have ended, and the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese would have been averted. This is the true lesson of the Pentagon Papers.”
After a few months, Raskin got a phone call that The New York Times was planning to publish the Papers. Raskin was surprised that the Times had moved so fast. On June 13, 1971, the Times began churning out front-page coverage of the shocking content of the Papers. The government quickly won an injunction against the newspaper, blocking it from publishing more reports, prompting The Washington Post to pick up this project on June 18, until the government also forced it to stop.
The Times and anyone found to be involved was indicted for criminal activity for their release, including Sheehan. Rogovin was a good neighbor, and defended Sheehan against the charges. Sheehan did not reveal the involvement of Raskin and others with whom he had discussed the Papers. The case quickly made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled on June 30 to lift the publication restraints.
Ellsberg was charged with espionage, along with his friend Russo. Both stood trial, and the charges were dismissed in 1973. Neither Ellsberg nor Russo disclosed the involvement of Raskin, Barnet, and many others involved in the release of the Papers. Ellsberg became known as the quintessential whistleblower for his role in ending to the tragic Vietnam War. Ellsberg got crucial help from the peace movement, which was there for him when he was ready to start blowing that whistle. And there were many people, like Raskin and his Institute for Policy Studies colleagues, who were ready and willing to help Ellsberg speak truth to power.