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How the Globe became the third US newspaper to publish the Pentagon Papers

The Boston Globe was the third newspaper in the United States to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers.
The Boston Globe was the third newspaper in the United States to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers.

The new Steven Spielberg movie, “The Post,” depicts the internal drama as The Washington Post decided to publish the Pentagon Papers after a federal court blocked The New York Times from continuing its coverage.

There was another player in the constitutional battle that gripped the country at the time. On June 22, 1971, The Boston Globe became the third US newspaper to defy the US government and publish details from the top-secret document, a 7,000-page history of US involvement in Vietnam that revealed lies and blunders by five presidents (Truman to Nixon).

The man who leaked the papers to the press, former government analyst Daniel Ellsberg, chose the Globe because “it had been great on the war,” he told former Globe editor Matthew Storin, who recounted the paper’s role in the saga in a 2008 opinion essay. The Globe was one of the first US newspapers to oppose the Vietnam War on its editorial page.

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The Globe had been the first newspaper to report the existence of the Pentagon Papers. Earlier in 1971, reporter Tom Oliphant had interviewed Ellsberg and learned of the documents’ back story and of their embarrassing revelations about US policy.

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The lead-up to the Globe’s publication of the Pentagon Papers sounds like something from a Cold War-era spy novel.

Then-editor Tom Winship was contacted by someone who identified himself as “Mr. Boston” and offered to provide the documents, wrote Storin, who had just left the paper’s Washington bureau to take up duties as metropolitan editor in Boston. Because Storin had reported from South Vietnam earlier that year, Winship tapped him to join other editors and reporters in an out-of-the-way conference room on another floor of the paper’s Dorchester headquarters.

“Two editors were instructed to stand by phone booths in Cambridge and Newton. The Newton ‘drop’ was the fruitful one, and Tom Ryan, national news editor, walked triumphantly into the Globe with a red plaid zipper suitcase full of Pentagon Papers excerpts.”

Storin estimates that the discussion about whether or not to publish took no more than 10 minutes. (“The fact that by then both the Times and Post had already published probably meant that our decision to go took less courage than theirs.”)

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The next day, readers were treated to four front-page stories and four inside pages of coverage devoted to the documents. What made the papers so explosive? They revealed the alarming divide between the optimism expressed publicly by the nation’s leaders and their increasingly grave private doubts about the direction of the war.

Fearing the government’s reach, a top Globe editor locked the copies of the documents in the trunk of a car. Later, under a court order, the newspaper’s copies of the documents were secured in a downtown bank vault, where only Jack Driscoll, who later preceded Storin as editor of the Globe, was empowered to “visit” them.

For the Globe, the national conversation surrounding the Pentagon Papers helped elevate the paper’s national reputation. Three years later, in 1974, Time magazine listed the Globe as one of the country’s top 10 newspapers.

Ellsberg was charged under the US Espionage Act, but the charges were dismissed in May 1973. When Storin asked him what he would do with the Pentagon Papers today, Ellsberg said he would “just put them on the Internet.”

View: Cover of June 22, 1971, Boston Globe

Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene.