Opinion

Opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

The Pentagon Papers were ‘secret’ — but what made them important?

6/28/1971 Daniel Ellsberg (foreground, right center) pushes through crowd on the way to give himself up at Federal Court on charges related to the leaking of the Pentagon papers. story slug: 08MIT BGL Boston Globe staff photo/William Ryerson Library Tag 08082010 National/Foreign
William Ryerson/Globe Staff
Daniel Ellsberg, foreground, pushes through a crowd on June 28, 1971, on the way to give himself up at federal court on charges related to the leaking of the Pentagon papers.

The Steven Spielberg movie about the famous Pentagon Papers case, “The Post,” opens today, lionizing The Washington Post. This has annoyed The New York Times, which broke the story, but then when it comes to glamour, how could the Times possibly compete with legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham and her larger-than-life editor, Ben Bradlee?

It is hard to explain to a younger generation what a celebrated case this was in the pre-Internet days. What seems astonishing today, almost a half-century later, is that the Nixon administration went to such lengths to keep secret the Pentagon’s history of how we got into the Vietnam War, obtaining an injunction to block publication. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which decided against the government, thus giving the press a historic First Amendment victory.

Governments tend to over-classify as a matter of course, making things secret for no real national security reason. The Pentagon Papers were just a history of our involvement in Vietnam. They contained nothing that could compromise the security of the United States, nothing to do with troop movements, ongoing operations, secret agents, sources and methods, or anything else that could justify keeping the information out of the public eye.

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The Pentagon official who directed the secret study was Leslie Gelb, who would later become head of the Council on Foreign Relations. Back in 1971, when the papers were published, the Nixon administration was deep into negotiations with Hanoi on how to end the Vietnam War. At the time Gelb was passionately convinced that publishing how we got into the war would hurt those negotiations. Of course Hanoi was less interested in how we got into Vietnam than how it was going to get us out, but it didn’t seem that way to Gelb back then.

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As so often happens, things that seemed so urgent at the time lose their urgency as history moves on. And in due course Gelb changed his mind about the publication of the papers. When I asked him about it a few years ago, he said: “The Pentagon Papers were, and are, an invaluable source of understanding how government worked then, and still does.” The public had a right to know. So why was he so adamant that the papers remain secret back then? Perhaps it was because he was in charge of the entire project, he said, that it was “my baby unduly influenced my thinking at the time.”

Ben Bradlee had, on occasion, been willing to keep government secrets if there was a real and demonstrable national security reason for doing so — “probably more times than I should have,” he told me shortly before he died. Regarding the Pentagon Papers, “I have come to realize,” Bradlee said, “that the mystery and (expletive deleted) secrecy doesn’t stay important very long . . . And too often it was just reputations they were trying to protect, not preventing people from getting killed.

“The first criterion is that you (the editor) make the decision” when it come to whether a story should be held back or published, not the government. “But that comes with the responsibility to listen to their arguments. If it might cost lives you have to listen . . . But you have to enter the fight with the determination to print. Your driving impetus must be getting at the truth along with your desire to print it.”

And that to me is why we who were fortunate enough to work for Bradlee and Graham in their glory days felt like Knights at the Round Table.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”

Correction: A previous version of this column misspelled Katharine Graham’s name.