2000-10-22: The Day the Presses Stopped

The Day the Presses Stopped

A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (1996)

by David Rudenstine (?)

Having recently reread my copy of the Pentagon Papers, from 1971, I was curious to see what might be currently available. To my surprise, the Pentagon Papers is apparently not available on the Web. There are a few references to them in some articles, but more common were references to the Supreme Court case, of interest to those concerned with preserving freedoms under the First Amendment. The county library catalog does not list the Papers themselves. One of the books listed was this one, which I checked out primarily in the hope of getting pointers to other recent information; I didn’t actually plan to read the book.

To my surprise, this is a very interesting book. Rudenstine covers the origin of the papers, their publication, the related legal proceedings, and the aftermath. He is a law professor, and quite able to make a potentially dry subject very lively. His approach is to describe the players as they enter the story, their behavior and motivations, and the effects of their actions on the other players. It is all very human-oriented, as opposed to the more abstract legal or Constitutional view that might have been taken. His writing is interesting, dragging only occasionally where he summarizes legal opinions; however, these summaries are always pertinent to the story. He describes (and is neutrally critical of) legal and strategic mistakes made by the players in the legal proceedings, providing insight for those of us without the depth of knowledge to recognize all the nuances.

His basic premise is that the Nixon administration’s intent was primarily to prevent the uncontrolled disclosure of classified material. This differs from the common view that they feared embarrassment or were out to get the press for political reasons. Somewhat to my surprise, the prime mover behind the campaign was Henry Kissinger. In 1971 his office in the White House had come under Nixon’s suspicion as a source of leaks, and Ellsberg had been closely involved with Kissinger. Kissinger recognized immediately that Ellsberg was probably the discloser, and that his power in the White House could be seriously damaged when the fact became known. Nixon’s initial reaction to the NY Times series was that it would prove embarrassing to the Democrats, and might prove useful in his 1972 campaign. Kissinger persuaded him that he and the Government would appear weak to other nations unless he took vigorous action against the disclosures.

The primary legal strategist was Robert Mardian, who tried to make the legal case as sweeping as possible, basically contending that the mere fact that the papers were classified was sufficient to impose prior restraint on their publication. Of course, this approach proved disastrous in court.

Rudenstine describes how the case became an opportunity for the Washington Post to enhance its reputation, continuing publication after the NY Times was restrained. This allowed Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham to advance their ambitions to make the Post a great newspaper, with a national reputation as great as the Times. Bradlee has said that this experience gave him the confidence and stature to take a leading role when the Watergate story broke.

When Rudenstine describes the aftermath, he emphasizes the opinion of insiders that the Pentagon Papers case was pivotal to Nixon’s attitude, essentially sending him “around the bend”. The case led directly to the creation of Plumbers unit, and the abuses that became the Watergate scandal.

For the case before the Supreme Court, Rudenstine describes in considerable detail the attitudes of the Justices beforehand, their questions during the arguing of the case, and the content of their opinions. The lawyers for the Times anticipated that the case would ultimately go the Court, and developed their strategy with an eye to appealing to a majority of the Justices. In this regard they were well ahead of the Government lawyers.

This book was very interesting, and certainly contributed to my understanding of the case. Near the end, Rudenstine describes the three books that were published shortly after the Court’s decision in favor of the papers. Only the Bantam edition was widely popular (over a million copies sold); it contained only about 5% of the papers, but “an impressive amount of the cream from the original study”. The Government published an edition in twelve volumes at $50, of only 500 copies. Beacon Press published an edition put together by Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) with 4,100 pages, printing 20,000 copies but apparently selling far fewer. In 1983 Professor George C Herring edited and published the last remaining unpublished parts of the Pentagon Papers, the four volumes dealing with diplomacy between 1964 and 1968. As near as I can tell, none of the Pentagon papers is available online.

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