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COVER STORY: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War

[TIME for June 28, 1971]

(TIME, June 28, 1971) -- "To see the conflict and our part in it as a tragedy without villains, war crimes without criminals, lies without liars, espouses and promulgates a view of process, roles and motives that is not only grossly mistaken but which underwrites deceits that have served a succession of Presidents." -- Daniel Ellsberg

The issues were momentous, the situation unprecedented. The most massive leak of secret documents in U.S. history had suddenly exposed the sensitive inner processes whereby the Johnson Administration had abruptly escalated the nation's most unpopular -- an unsuccessful -- war. The Nixon Government, battling stubbornly to withdraw from that war at its own deliberate pace, took the historic step of seeking to suppress articles before publication, and threatened criminal action against the nation's most eminent newspaper.

The dramatic collision between the Nixon Administration and first the New York Times, then the Washington Post, raised in a new and spectacular form the unresolved constitutional questions about the Government's right to keep its planning papers secret and the conflicting right of a free press to inform the public how its Government has functioned. Yet, even more fundamental, the legal battle focused national attention on the records that the Government was fighting so fiercely to protect. Those records afforded a rare insight into how high officials make decisions affecting the lives of millions as well as the fate of nations. The view, however constricted or incomplete, was deeply disconcerting. The records revealed a dismaying degree of miscalculation, bureaucratic arrogance and deception. The revelations severely damaged the reputations of some officials, enhanced those of a few, and so angered Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield -- a long-patient Democrat whose own party was hurt most -- that he promised to conduct a Senate investigation of Government decision making.

The sensational affair began quietly with the dull thud of the 486-page Sunday New York Times arriving on doorsteps and in newsrooms. A dry Page One headline -- VIETNAM ARCHIVE: PENTAGON STUDY TRACES 3 DECADES OF GROWING U.S. INVOLVEMENT -- was followed by six pages of deliberately low-key prose and column after gray column of official cables, memorandums and position papers. The mass of material seemed to repel readers and even other newsmen. Nearly a day went by before the networks and wire services took note. The first White House reaction was to refrain from comment so as not to give the series any greater "exposure." But when Attorney General John Mitchell charged that the Times's disclosures would cause "irreparable injury to the defense of the United States" and obtained a temporary restraining order to stop the series after three installments, worldwide attention was inevitably assured.

A Study Ignored

The Times had obviously turned up a big story. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon analyst and superhawk-turned- superdove, apparently had felt so concerned about his involvement in the Vietnam tragedy that he had somehow conveyed about 40 volumes of an extraordinary Pentagon history of the war to the newspaper. Included were 4,000 pages of documents, 3,000 pages of analysis and 2.5 million words -- all classified as secret, top secret or top secret-sensitive.

The study was begun in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had become disillusioned by the futility of the war and wanted future historians to be able to determine what had gone wrong. For more than a year, 35 researchers, including Ellsberg, Rand Corporation experts, civilians and uniformed Pentagon personnel, worked out of an office adjoining McNamara's. With his backing, they were able to obtain Pentagon documents dating back to arguments within the Truman Administration on whether the U.S. should help the French in their vain effort to put down Communist-led Viet Minh uprisings in Vietnam. The work was carried up to mid-1968, when it was delivered to McNamara's successor, Clark Clifford, who says he never took the time to read it. One of the scholars called in early to help guide the project was Harvard's Henry Kissinger, who is now President Nixon's national security adviser and chief White House strategist on the war. Yet the study was so completely ignored that until last week even he had not examined it.

By early 1964, the U.S. was supporting and directing a number of covert operations: air strikes over Laos by CIA-hired civilian pilots and by Thai flyers, South Vietnamese harassment raids (Operation 34A) along the North Vietnam coast, and U-2 reconnaissance flights over the North. Announced U.S. retaliatory air strikes against the North started in August 1964. A sustained air campaign (Rolling Thunder) was ordered to assault the North in February, 1965. The first U.S. ground troops landed in force in South Vietnam during the spring of 1965. By the end of the year, 184,000 U.S. troops had been deployed in the South.

The Cast of Characters

Each step seems to have been taken almost in desperation because the preceding step had failed to check the crumbling of the South Vietnamese government and its troops -- and despite frequently expressed doubts that the next move would be much more effective. Yet the bureaucracy, the Pentagon papers indicate, always demanded new options; each option was to apply more force. Each tightening of the screw created a position that must be defended; once committed, the military pressure must be maintained. A pause, it was argued, would reveal lack of resolve, embolden the Communists and further demoralize the South Vietnamese. Almost no one said: "Wait -- where are we going? Should we turn back?"

As the documents bared the planning process, they also demolished any lingering faith that the nation's weightiest decisions are made by deliberative men, calmly examining all the implications of a policy and then carefully laying out their reasoning in depth. The proliferation of papers, the cabled requests for clarification, the briskness of language but not of logic, convey an impression of harassed men, thinking and writing too quickly and sometimes being mystified at the enemy's refusal to conform to official projections.

Ambassador to Saigon Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, candidly declared in November 1964: "We still find no plausible explanation of the continued strength of the Viet Cong if our data on the Viet Cong losses are even approximately correct. Not only do the Viet Cong units have the recuperative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale." The experienced Taylor sounded downright naive when, on assuming his post in Saigon, he advised the JCS: "No sophisticated psychological approach is necessary to attract the country people to the GVN [Government of Vietnam, Saigon] at this time. The assurance of a reasonably secure life is all that is necessary." That assurance was at the core of the conflict -- and has still not been wholly achieved.

Yet the articulate Taylor, who read the French and German newspapers at breakfast, could make prophetic sense. Reporters remember him rejecting the idea of U.S. ground troops in South Vietnam put to him for the hundredth time: "No, that was what the French did. The last thing we want is American boys from Maine and Georgia running through the jungles shooting at friend and enemy alike because they can't tell the difference."

Beneath the patina of the published papers, other images form from those turbulent days. Early on, there was the alert, trim Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sitting at his huge Pershing desk, the believer of 1963, the man who thought it could be done and who kept saying "Things are getting better." Then, gray and pinched in 1967, trying to explain why he had become the first to turn publicly against the war. There was his tall, taut Assistant Secretary, John McNaughton, now dead, sweeping confident eyes across the map of the world and talking fast, very fast. Speaking ever so precisely of the potential of yet another of Saigon's revolving governments, the coatless Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy stretched out on his leather couch. Brooding over all loomed the peaked profile of Lyndon Johnson, secretive, holding his options open until the final moment, seemingly unwilling even to confide in himself what he would do next.

Allegiance Dominoes

That it lacked the minutes of Johnson's mind was only one of the serious weaknesses in the Pentagon study. The papers were gathered mainly at the Pentagon by researchers who were given full cooperation but had to specify what they wanted to see; they could not browse freely through files of the Joint Chiefs. There were no minutes of National Security Council meetings or transcriptions of telephone calls. The Times was able to print only about 35% of the documents in its possession, and critics would certainly wonder if its long antiwar perspective had influenced, however unconsciously, its selection. Nonetheless, publication of the papers opened a wide window on what had been the largely invisible world of policymaking.

One vista revealed a U.S. Government far less interested in negotiations on either Laos or Vietnam than its public stance indicated. In fact, the U.S. sought ways to avert international pressure for talks. It continually withheld from the American people a full disclosure of its increasing military moves against North Vietnam, but often briefed Hanoi, Peking and Moscow on precisely what it intended. Moreover, the documents, while showing a stubborn allegiance to the domino theory of Vietnam's critical significance despite CIA doubts, also reveal a shifting rationale for the massive U.S. commitment.

The most surprising specific disclosure of the Times's papers include:

WAR AIMS. Both publicly and in a National Security memorandum in March 1964, President Johnson insisted that the central U.S. aim was to secure an "independent, non-Communist South Vietnam." McNamara used identical wording in a memo to L.B.J. the same month, but fuzzed the goal by adding the far broader view of Vietnam as a "test case of U.S. capacity to help a nation meet a Communist war of liberation---not only in Asia, but in the rest of the world." Then, in January 1965, McNamara penciled his approval on a statement by his assistant, McNaughton, that the real U.S. goal was "not to help friend, but to contain China." A month later, McNaughton, demonstrating the McNamara team's fondness for figures, put the U.S. aims in a far different order: "70% -- to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat. 20% -- to keep SVN (South Vietnam) territory from Chinese hands. 10% -- to permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also -- to emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used." That was hardly an idealistic statement of U.S. purposes.

PESSIMISM ABOUT SAIGON. While higher officials sought to knock down persistent reports by newsmen in Saigon that the war was going badly, McNaughton in a memo on Nov. 6, 1964, offered a firm evaluation and prediction: "The situation in South Vietnam is deteriorating. Unless new actions are taken, the new government will probably be unstable and ineffectual and the VC will probably continue to extend their hold over the population and territory. It can be expected that, soon (6 months? two years?), (a) government officials at all levels will adjust their behavior to an eventual VC takeover, (b) defections of significant military forces will take place, (c) whole integrated regions of the country will be totally denied to the GVN, (d) neutral and/or left-wing elements will enter the government, (e) a popular front regime will emerge which will invite the U.S. out, and (f) fundamental concessions to the VC and accommodations to [Hanoi] will put South Vietnam behind the Curtain." Generally, officials put a carefully cheerful face on matters and berated the U.S. press for its position while privately agreeing.

CONCEALMENT OF AIR STRIKES. The documents reveal that, in Operation Barrel Roll, the CIA was regularly using U.S. civilian pilots flying U.S. planes to make air strikes along infiltration routes in Laos early in 1964. In December, this campaign was stepped up to semiweekly attacks by regular U.S. Air Force and Navy flyers, but the National Security Council ordered: "There would be no public operations statements about armed reconnaissance [a euphemism for operations in which pilots are allowed to attack any target they find rather than limited to assigned targets] in Laos unless a plane were lost. In such an event the Government should continue to insist that we were merely escorting reconnaissance flights as requested by the Laotian Government."

CONCEALMENT AT TONKIN. The North Vietnamese PT-boat attacks on the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 were among the most pivotal and controversial events of the war -- and the Johnson Administration clearly deceived the public about them. U.S. officials claimed to be unaware that South Vietnamese naval units had been covertly operating in the area shortly before the Maddox was fired upon. McNamara was asked at a press conference on Aug. 5, 1964: "Have there been any incidents that you know of involving the South Vietnamese vessels and the North Vietnamese?" His reply: "No, none that I know of." Yet the secret Pentagon study declares that "at midnight on July 30, South Vietnamese naval commandos under General Westmoreland's command staged an amphibious raid on the North Vietnamese islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu in the Gulf of Tonkin. Apparently [the North Vietnamese boats that attacked the Maddox] had mistaken Maddox for a South Vietnamese escort vessel." The rapidity of U.S. air reprisals -- within twelve hours of Washington's receipt of the news -- argued that the U.S. had been positioned to strike as soon as attacked.

CONCEALMENT ABOUT TROOPS. Similarly, when U.S. Marine battalions in South Vietnam were authorized for the first time to take offensive action, Johnson directed that "premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions" and that steps be taken to "minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy." The whole question of introducing ground troops into South Vietnam was so cloaked and confusing that Ambassador Taylor cabled Secretary of State Dean Rusk: "I badly need a clarification of our purposes and objectives." Taylor was especially angry at the fact that though he had sharply opposed the introduction of more U.S. troops into the area, his ostensible subordinate, General William Westmoreland, had been assigned an airborne brigade without Taylor's knowledge.

ORDERING ALLIES AROUND. Throughout the papers, U.S. officials indicate that the various Saigon governments, the non-Communist Laotian Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, other U.S. allies and even the U.S. Congress were too often regarded as entities to be manipulated in order to accomplish U.S. foreign policy aims. Administration officials framed a Tonkin Gulf-style resolution long before the PT-boat attacks but failed to ask Congress for concurrence on what they were doing in Vietnam. The State Department's Bundy writes of how Canada's J. Blair Seaborn, a member of the International Control Commission in Vietnam, could be "revved" up to carry secret messages to Hanoi. McNaughton described the Saigon government as being "in such a deep funk it may throw in the sponge."

The most abrasive treatment of an ally was Taylor's schoolmaster scolding of a group of young South Vietnamese generals, including Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, after they had dismissed the civilian High National Council. Said Taylor: "Do all of you understand English? I told you all clearly at General Westmoreland's dinner we Americans were tired of coups. Apparently I wasted my words. Now you have made a real mess. We cannot carry you forever if you do things like this." Taylor's irritation seemed justified, but, as General Nguyen Khanh said last week, "He was convoking me as if he were MacArthur on occupation in Japan."

PROVOCATION PLANS. Although the option apparently was never exercised, secret documents indicate that U.S. planners were seriously considering provoking the North Vietnamese into attacking U.S. units so that an open retaliatory air attack could be made against the North, a key escalation of the conflict. The step would be a prelude to sustained air strikes against the North. A Pentagon "Plan of Action For South Vietnam," drafted by McNaughton in September 1964, proposed actions that "should be likely at some point to provoke a military response [and] the provoked response should be likely to provide good ground for us to escalate if we wished." He suggested that the downing of any U.S. reconnaissance plane over the North by U-2 aircraft would be an appropriate incident.

When the Times was enjoined from publishing any more of its series, the Washington Post began carrying its own summary of the papers -- up through L.B.J.'s sudden decision to seek negotiations in 1968 -- until it, too, was enjoined. The Post carefully refrained from reprinting the classified documents, but paraphrased or quoted briefly from them. The papers, it reported, absolved the U.S. of any complicity in preventing elections throughout North and South Vietnam in 1955, despite a Geneva agreement calling for them. According to the study, it was South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem who, fearing a Communist victory, blocked the election.

The Post articles indicate that divisions emerged, mainly between the State and Defense departments, about the desirability of declaring halts in the U.S. bombing of the North -- but each approached the idea cynically. When a temporary halt was agreed upon in March 1968, the State Department promptly advised all U.S. embassies that it did not really expect Hanoi to make any reciprocal response and thus the enemy would "free our hand after a short period"; meanwhile the planes could be used to bomb Laos. The Defense Department's McNaughton saw bombing pauses as useful "ratchets," placating public opinion and freeing the U.S. to bomb a notch harder after Hanoi had failed to respond.

One of the first breaks in the official hard-line thinking occurred in 1966, when the imaginative McNaughton advocated a "lowering of sights from victory to compromise." He warned that this might "unhinge" Saigon and give the North "the smell of blood," and that it would require careful preparation to get in position for compromise. "We should not expect the enemy's molasses to pour any faster than ours. And we should tip the pitchers now if we want them to pour a year from now." McNamara raised the possibility of compromise with Johnson, but did not urge it, and Johnson chose to unleash more Rolling Thunder. The papers also reveal that Johnson authorized serious consideration, including consultation with academic scientists, of the idea of creating an electronic and manned "fence" that would cut the infiltration trails across South Vietnam's northern border. The proposal was abandoned as impractical.

One of the unresolvable controversies that the study raises is whether or not President Johnson had already decided to initiate a U.S. air campaign against North Vietnam when he was insisting in his 1964 re-election campaign against Barry Goldwater that "we seek no wider war." The documents leave no doubt that Johnson was being strongly urged by his subordinates to authorize such strikes on more than a tit-for-tat reprisal basis and that aircraft had been positioned to do so since before the Tonkin clash. Johnson flatly denied that he made such a decision before the election. Goldwater, who was sharply criticized for urging such attacks, claims he knew of the plans but did not raise the issue during the campaign because he felt that he would not be believed if Johnson denied their existence.

The records bear out Johnson's claim that he rejected several requests to authorize retaliatory strikes after the election, finally yielded only when a devastating Viet Cong raid on Pleiku airfield in February 1965 destroyed or damaged numerous U.S. planes. "Mr. President, this is a momentous decision," Secretary of State Dean Rusk told Johnson at the time, and Johnson agrees that it was. He approved Rolling Thunder's sustained air attacks a month later.

Winners and Losers

Johnson emerges from the Pentagon history with added credibility problems. Although he is portrayed as a restraining influence on his more military-minded advisers -- and he did move more slowly than many of them wished -- he eventually adopted most of their escalation options. He, too, vastly underrated the tenacity of the Communists, and continued to employ massive airpower even after his own experts had discovered that it might actually be strengthening the North's determination to resist. Badly buffeted by events and advisers, Johnson was both commendably hesitant and condemnably conniving. As usual, he both infuriates and elicits sympathy.

Also tarnished was the man who courageously initiated the study, Secretary McNamara. His bloodless passion for systems management did not permit him to grasp the matters of spirit and motivation that technology could not conquer -- until the human price had far exceeded the value of the attainable ends. Too much a proponent of the Defense and State Department plans that reached him, McGeorge Bundy failed to perform his role of giving the President a wide and honest range of choices. His brother Bill, like McNaughton, comes across as too cute and manipulation- minded for his own -- and the nation's -- good. The two men spun elaborate and dangerous scenarios that frequently underestimated North Vietnamese strengths.

Characteristically, the quiet Secretary of State appears too seldom in the papers to be either hurt or helped -- although his reluctance to put every hasty thought on paper now looks wise. The Joint Chiefs played their usual strong, if myopic role, continually urging sterner measures, but not with any overblown certainty of victory.

The CIA Was Right

The one Government agency that emerged from the Vietnam debacle with its honor intact was the CIA. Its director in the years of escalation was John McCone, a conservative Republican who believed the U.S. had to try for a knockout blow in Vietnam or get out. He argued constantly against the consensus policy of gradual escalation.

Shaken by McCone's vigorous dissent, Johnson submitted a searching question to the CIA: Would the rest of Southeast Asia fall into Communist hands if South Vietnam and Laos did? The reply took issue with the conventional application of the domino theory. "With the possible exception of Cambodia," said the CIA, "it is likely that no nation in the area would quickly succumb to Communism." The spread of Communism would not be "inexorable."

McCone kept badgering the President. On a flight to New York with Johnson on late 1964, he argued that limited bombing of North Vietnam would be ineffective. "They'll turn their collars up around their ears, pull in their necks and ride it out." Finally, in April 1965, he put his thoughts on a paper circulated among the top-level Government officials. The memo predicted events with uncanny accuracy. The bombing strikes had not demoralized the North Vietnamese, McCone argues. "If anything, the strikes to date have hardened their attitude. With the passage of each day and each week, we can expect increasing pressure to stop the bombing. Therefore time will run against us in this operation and I think the North Vietnamese are counting on this. We can expect requirements for an ever-increasing commitment of U.S. personnel without materially improving the chances of victory. We will find ourselves mired down in combat in the jungle in a military effort that we cannot win, and from which we will have extreme difficulty extricating ourselves."

In a sense, McCone and the CIA were only doing what they were paid $600 million a year to do: provide accurate information to guide American policymakers. Allowed to go its own way, largely immune to the pressures that cause other agencies to oversell policies, the CIA takes pride in its detachment. When he once briefed McNamara, the late respected operations chief, Desmond FitzGerald, expressed doubt that the data reflected the actual situation. "Why?" demanded McNamara. "It's just a feeling," replied FitzGerald. McNamara gave him a stony stare and later ordered: "Don't ever let that man in here again."

Equally prescient and independent was Under Secretary of State George Ball. Unswayed by the technocrats around him, he kept warning respectfully that their course was wrong. His memo to President Johnson on July 1, 1965, took account of souls, and French history, as well as weapons. It concluded: "No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong or even force them to the conference table on our terms, no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign [U.S.] troops we deploy. Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat, it will become a war between the U.S. and a large part of the population of South Vietnam. U.S. troops will begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill-equipped to fight in a noncooperative if not downright hostile countryside. Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot -- without national humiliation -- stop short of achieving our objectives. I think humiliation would be more likely -- even after we have paid terrible costs."

Congressional Outrage

The revelations of the Pentagon papers angered war critics on Capitol Hill, who claimed vindication for their long-held feeling that Congress had been misled by the Executive Branch. "These documents," fumed Idaho Democrat Frank Church, "secure Johnson's position as a liar." Declared Maryland Republican Charles Mathias: "I am outraged -- but I'm worn down with outrage." Yet the Congress made no immediate move to grasp control of the war from the Nixon Administration.

The Senate promptly defeated the McGovern-Hatfield amendment to cut off all funds for the war by the end of this year. The vote was 55 to 42, a margin only six votes smaller than that on a similar motion last year. A compromise to set the deadline at next June 1 also failed, 52 to 44. The House easily rejected (254-158) the Nedzi-Whalen amendment, which would have cut off military procurement funds for Vietnam by Dec. 31. The Pentagon study revealed "a humiliation of Congress," agreed Michigan Democrat Lucien Nedzi, "but it simply hasn't filtered down yet." Vermont's Republican Senator George Aiken contended that the Congress had grown all too accustomed to its inferior role. "For a long time, the Executive Branch has tended to regard Congress as a foreign enemy -- to be told as little as possible," he charged.

No Diverting Debate

Whether the papers will have any impact on next year's presidential campaign seems to hinge partly on the outcome of the legal contest now under way and on what the rest of the papers reveal. With the documents beginning to circulate, more disclosures seem inevitable as other publications probe the war's history. Certainly Hubert Humphrey's tentative candidacy for the presidency has been weakened. Although his aides insist he so persistently opposed Johnson's war policies that he was finally excluded from planning sessions, Humphrey cannot completely sever his ties with L.B.J. in the public mind.

What lessons can be lifted from all of those pages of secret papers? The most instructive revelation may be how little faith the leaders had in those they led -- a classic case of the arrogance of the powerful. The deceptions and misrepresentations stemmed from a conviction that the public would not face up to the harsh realities of Vietnam. Even within the Government, sound intelligence estimates were often rudely ignored if they failed to fit policy preconceptions. There was a self-deception that if the U.S. unfailingly demonstrated its determination to persevere, Hanoi would buckle. But the North Vietnamese always knew that the struggle was ultimate for them, peripheral for the U.S.

Partly because they held secrecy so dear, the Johnson officials rarely had to face publicly those questions that Bill Bundy described as "disagreeable," and thus they never had to think through the tough answers. Although complete candor is not always possible, policies that must stand the test of grueling public debate tend to be better policies, as Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith argued last week. Through it all, there seemed to be no time for quiet contemplation. Exhausted men concentrated on immediate means rather than eventual ends. A poignant example of this thinking was recalled by TIME Correspondent Jess Cook. In the spring of 1967, after a long and fruitless retrospective interview, he asked McNamara: "Isn't there anything you regret at all about how the war was conducted?" There was a long pause. "Yes," replied the weary Secretary. "There is one thing. We should have been able to come up with a better technique for population control."

Pointers from History

The man who directed the Pentagon study, Brookings Historian Leslie Gelb, recently declared in a Foreign Policy article that the question is not "Why did the system fail?" but "Why did it work so tragically well?" The men who had decided that Vietnam must not fall into Communist hands -- "and almost all of our leaders since 1949 shared this conviction" -- dominated the decisions. The paradox and tragedy of Vietnam, argues Gelb, was that "most of our leaders and their critics did see that Vietnam was a quagmire, but did not see that the real stakes -- who shall govern Vietnam -- were not negotiable. What were legitimate compromises from Washington's point of view were matters of life and death to the Vietnamese."

How can this kind of thinking be changed? Gelb contends that a President must demand much more of his security advisers; they must probe more deeply into what really is in the national interest. The President must also take the risk of "re-educating the public and congressional opinion about Communism." If Nixon and his predecessors, it now seems clear, had not spoken so often about the need for "victory" and the humiliation of "defeat," and had more coolly assessed the real stakes -- as well as the terrible price -- in Vietnam, there would be less trauma over withdrawal and countless lives might have been saved.

Learning From the Past

Has the Nixon Administration learned any such lessons? How much different is the Nixon Administration's decision-making process? There have been qualitative changes. Nixon is a more orderly, more disciplined and less instinctive thinker than Johnson. He would rather read than talk; he probably demands and gets better briefs. Henry Kissinger is a more brilliant thinker than Walt Rostow or McGeorge Bundy. Under Nixon, there have been efforts to elicit a more systematic range of views from federal agencies, but whether they get any closer to the top man is doubtful. There is no convincing indication that the psychology and life-or-death motivation of the enemy is clearer to Nixon officials, and fears of a U.S. "defeat" still unduly haunt the White House. The exaggerated claims of success in Laos and Cambodia carry hints of continuing attempts at deception. But Nixon is of course disengaging, however slowly, and that is in itself proof of a new realism.

Last week the Administration seemed more intent on proving that, as one White House source put it, the New York Times "has taken stolen goods and printed them." As for the war, a high Administration official argued that "when the records of this Administration are stolen, they will show that we made monumental efforts to end the war. But the question is whether it is possible to end the war when everybody is kicking and shoving you to surrender." Conceding that this Administration, too, has lost credibility with its critics, the official declared: "Ultimately we can disarm our critics only by our performance. All we can do is prove by deeds that we meant what we said."

That is fair enough. Whether Daniel Ellsberg has advanced the end of the war by his transmission of the stolen documents remains doubtful. But his larger purpose may yet be served. If the Government and the public come to understand the atmosphere, the pressures, the false and strained hopes, and the futile decisions that pervade the whole secret history of Vietnam, the wrong decisions may not be made again -- or at least not so easily.

The Legal Battle Over Censorship

The confrontation was historic. For the first time in U.S. history, the Government had gone to court to suppress publication of a major article in a major newspaper. In so doing, the Nixon Administration revived that ancient antithesis of a free press, the long discredited practice of "prior restraint." For its part, the Government claimed that never before had a newspaper published top-secret infomration that would endanger the national interest.

The drama began last Monday night after the New York Times had already published two installments of its massive report. After researching what action he could take, Attorney General John Mitchell finally sent a telegram to the paper, citing a provision in the espionage law that carries a possible ten-year sentence or $10,000 fine for any one convicted of willingly disclosing secret defense information that could jeopardize the safety of the country. The Justice Department chose not to file criminal charges because its main concern was to prevent publication of the documents. Instead, Mitchell asked the paper to stop printing the report and return all the material in order to avoid "irreparable injury" to the U.S.

The Problem of Proof

When the Times refused to comply, Assistant Attorney General Robert Mardian began the Government's legal attack by seeking a temporary restraining order -- the prelude to a permanent injunction -- in Manhattan's federal court. By chance, the case went before a recent Nixon appointee, U.S. District Judge Murray I. Gurfein, who was serving his first day on the bench. Last Tuesday the new judge issued the restraining order and set a Friday hearing to consider the injunction. Meanwhile, the Government showed concern about its key legal problem: how to prove the alleged injury. It asked Judge Gurfein to order the Times to turn over its "stolen documents" for examination. Though Gurfein barred any such "fishing expedition," the paper provided a list of the documents in its possession.

When the hearing (much of it in camera) began on Friday, a new development complicated the case. The Washington Post started to publish its own version of the Pentagon report. It did not print the classified memos verbatim as the Times had done, but it quoted liberally from them. The story also went out to the 345 client newspapers that subscribe to the combined Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service. In addition, both the A.P. and U.P.I. picked up the story for the benefit of hundreds of other papers.

During the Manhattan hearing, Yale Law Professor Alexander Bickel, representing the Times, suggested that the Post's move had mooted the case against his client. As he saw it, the injunction was now academic and the Times itself had become the injured party. "The readers of the New York Times alone in this country are being deprived of the story," Bickel argued. That became even more evident when U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell in Washington rejected the Government's request for a temporary injunction against the Post. Lacking clear proof that the pre- 1968 report was damaging to current national security, Gesell refused to give the Government the right "to impose a prior restraint on publication of essentially historical data." The Government's only remedy, he said, was to bring criminal charges against the paper after it published the material. He also warned the Post that it was in "jeopardy of criminal prosecution."

Some five hours later, a three-judge appeals court reversed Judge Gesell's ruling. By a vote of 2 to 1, the higher court halted further Post disclosures pending a full hearing in which the Government must prove the need for a permanent injunction. Meanwhile in Manhattan, the Government failed to prove that need to Judge Gurfein's satisfaction. Denying the injunction against the Times, Gurfein reported that Friday's secret hearing had produced no evidence of damaging data. "Without revealing the content of the testimony," he wrote, "suffice it to say that no cogent reasons were advanced as to why these documents, except in general framework of embarrassment, would vitally affect the security of the nation." But the Times was still blocked from publishing the report until the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on the case the following Monday. The U.S. Supreme Court may well have the final say on the subject.

If the Government ultimately prevails, it could compromise the basic principle of a free press. As far back as 1644, John Milton fought against prior restraint in Areopagitica, his famous protest to Parliament "for the Liberty of Unlincenced Printing." Hard-won democratic trasition insists that a free press is vital to an infomred electorate: Anglo-American law has generally rejected any Government right to license a newspaper or censor its publication for any reason. William Blackmore, the great 18th century English jurist, stated the basic proposition: "The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publication, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matters when published. Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press."

Artillery of the Press

This principle was embodied in the First Amendment, which shields virtually all free speech and printed matter. Jefferson, a target of bruising journalistic attacks, spoke ruefully of "the artillery of the press." But like most Presidents since, he recoiled from censorship and cheered the demise of the infamous Sedition Act, which had enabled the Government to jail critical newspaper editors. In various wars the Government has often tried to penalize a newspaper for something it has published -- but only after the article appeared, not before. In 1931 the Supreme Court reinforced that principle in the case of Near v. Minnesota. Under a Minnesota statute, the state government shut down a scandal sheet that had printed articles lambasting official graft. The Supreme Court declared the law uconstitutional. Calling the closure "the essence of censorhip," Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote: "That the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any the less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraints in dealing with official misconduct."

In the case of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Government claims that it is simply trying to recover "stolen" documents that are vital to American security. It is the issue of security that colors the case and sets it apart from earlier precedents. In their more feverish moments, Government officials have argued that disclosure of the documents will enable the Communists to break the American codes. They would only have to compare the deciphered cables in the Times with the coded U.S. messages they have on file for the same day. They might then acquire enough information to break up any number of secret U.S. missions and capture the agents. But experts tend to doubt this particular nightmare. Modern cryptography, they feel, is so sophisticated that enemies would face an all but insuperable task in trying to learn anything from the scattered documents in the Times.

Other Government objections are more solidly based. A certain amount of privacy is necessary both in dealings between agencies in Washington and in diplomatic negotiations with other nations. Officials may be less likely to be candid even in private if they are afraid that their remarks will be published. Many more will adopt Dean Rusk's practice of communicating orally and putting very little in writing. Says longtime Public Servant Averell Harriman: "If governments can't have private papers kept in confidence, I don't know how you can do business in government."

But the Government's case is weakened by the fact that it has removed so much information from the public eye in recent years. In the name of national security, it has often classified material that simply embarrasses it. Historians, for example, are not allowed access to State Department records of any event that occurred less than 25 years ago. A Court of Appeals decision last year upheld the right of the U.S. Army to prevent a reputable historian from examining files on the forced repatriation of Soviet prisoners after World War II.

Arbitrary Silence and Leaks

Meanwhile bureaucrats freely use secret information to suit their own purposes; the U.S. Government almost runs on calculated leaks. Many important state papers, classified as secret, have been passed surreptitiously to favored members of the press. The Yalta Conference papers were one example, the Gaither report on national defense another. Just last week, a Defense Department study on the dovish side was leaked to the Washington Post. It revealed that the multiple warheads on the Soviet SS-9 intercontinental missile lack the accuracy to destroy U.S. ICBMs in a surprise attack. Once they leave Government service, innumerable officials bring out memoirs bristling with once- classified material intended to put the author in the best possible light.

No less than any other American institution, the press has a responsibility to consider the national interest when it covers the news. But it is also true that a free press is a vital part of the national interest. This is especially true of the U.S.; unlike Britain's Parliament, Congress does not have an automatic right to question members of the Executive Branch, who wield increasing power over the lives of Americans. Such scrutiny falls to the press, which must be unhindered in its honest endeavor to seek out the truth. This pursuit surely outranks the squeamishness and even the reputations of public officials -- unless it can be proved beyond cavil that the national interest is seriously endangered. And that takes a lot of proving.

Three Principals Defend Themselves

General Maxwell Taylor, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam during the period of initial troop buildups covered by the Pentagon papers. In an interview with TIME Correspondent Frank McCulloch last week, he noted: "We -- all of us -- are up against a very fundamental issue here, and there seems to be little chance at this moment that we will approach it rationally." The issue, as Taylor sees it, is simply how much undigested information can be made public in a complex and dangerous world; in other words, what is the proper role of a free press v. the role of the government in a free society?

But is not publication that is apt to offend some sensibilities -- even large ones -- part of the price of maintaining a truly open society? "We have never paid it before. To my knowledge, this is the first time in history that a government's right to carry on some of its business outside the public eye has, in effect, been challenged."

Taylor does not recall the exact chronology of decisions that led to U.S. takeover of the prime combat role in Vietnam. "Those decisions," he says, "were all reached in Washington. But I was reluctant to concur in them." At the time Taylor argued that at some indeterminate point, perhaps when the number of U.S. troops reached between 100,000 and 125,000, a "Plimsoll line" would be reached: for every American soldier invested, a Vietnamese soldier would be lost. The war-weary Vietnamese, as the then ambassador saw it, would be only too glad to hand over the fighting to the Americans.

Was there any deliberate deception? "No. One of the problems here is exactly what is meant. In the practice of foreign policy, a President owes a good deal to certain elements of Congress -- the leadership -- in the way of openness. But the President does not by any means owe that to all of Congress."

Nor does Taylor think that L.B.J. was guilty of duplicity with regard to the bombing of the North. He points out that the issue is one of timing. If the President indeed made the decision to bomb the North before the 1964 election, Taylor admits, then he is guilty because he clearly said in that campaign that he had been urged by others to bomb but had refused. Yet, Taylor says, even after the election Johnson was still rejecting recommendations for bombing, so "it seems highly unfair to accuse him of having made up his mind before the election but putting it off for political reasons."

Lyndon Johnson, of course, is the principal figure in the published articles. He feels strongly that the documents do not tell the true story because they are mostly contingency plans, some of which neither he nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk ever heard of. In 1964 Johnson sincerely hoped to be able to negotiate his way out of a major war in Vietnam. At one point, he told his advisers not to come to him with any plans to escalate this war unless they carried with them a joint congressional resolution.

The former President is particularly sensitive to charges that he misled the people about U.S. involvement in the Asian ground war. His position is that at the time he vowed not to send American boys to do the fighting that Asians should do for themselves. With some casuistry, Johnson believes he fulfilled this pledge, since there were thousands of South Vietnamese under arms -- and still the situation was critical -- before the major U.S. troop buildup began. The U.S. only did what the Asians could not do for themselves.

In retrospect, Johnson thinks his greatest mistake was waiting too long -- 18 months in office -- before putting more men in, for by then Vietnam was almost lost. Another mistake, he feels, was failing to institute censorship -- not to cover up mistakes, but to prevent the enemy from knowing what the U.S. was going to do next. As for trying to hide the troop buildup, L.B.J.'s rationale is that he was trying to avoid inflaming hawk sentiment in the U.S. and to avoid goading Hanoi into calling on the Communist Chinese for help.

Contrary to rumor, intimates say that Johnson does not plan to rewrite his memoirs because of the articles; rather, he believes that all of the material on Vietnam in the book will successfully parry their implications.

The man responsible for the newspapers' series, in one sense, is Robert McNamara, who ordered the Pentagon study while he was Secretary of Defense. McNamara is said to hope that the entire report will be declassified soon for use in libraries and archives, but feels the sensational way in which the documents were released is tragic.

He is known to believe that if the more delicate messages between allies come out, there will be enormous embarrassment and distrust of the U.S. in a number of countries that jeopardized their diplomatic credibility to aid the U.S. Even more serious is the likelihood that young people are now just not going to believe in the Government, in their institutions, and in their history.

Yet McNamara is credited with the most pragmatic view of the incident: now that the documents are out, the country should forget about the man who leaked them and get on with the task of learning from the Pentagon papers.

Man with the Monkey Wrench

"If I could find the proper forum, I would be willing to risk 20 years in jail. I must expose the duplicity of the Government."

Daniel Ellsberg, 40, one of the authors of the documents he has made public, is a nervous, intense and brilliant man. He is seen by his associates as possessing the mind of a Niels Bohr and the soul of a tortured Dostoevsky hero. As a former Pentagon colleague put it: "Dan would have been an excellent Jesuit in another time. He has a perfect logical mind and an unbending sense of morality." Ellsberg was for a time one of those faceless bureaucrats who sit at the fulcrum of decision making and are privy to the most guarded information. Yet he has a marked capacity for excess. One friend says that his reversal from a pro-war to an unequivocal antiwar position is completely in character. "That's the kind of guy Dan is. He's sensitive and passionate, as well as being immensely intelligent. When he was a hawk, he wanted to be up along the DMZ fighting. When he became a dove, he became an active dove."

Born in Chicago, he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1952. During his junior year, he was editor of the Advocate, the school's literary magazine, a rare post for an economics major. As a senior, he served on the Crimson, stayed on at Harvard to win his master's and eventually a Ph.D. His thesis on the nature of the decision-making process, titled "Risk, Ambiguity and Decision," was so complicated and so incisive that he became an overnight star in the rapidly developing field of systems analysis. Ellsberg joined the Rand Corp., where he became the protege of Henry Rowen, currently the corporation's president.

The critical step in Ellsberg's career came in 1964, when he went to the Pentagon as a special assistant to John McNaughton, then assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He landed the job because of McNaughton's role in nuclear issues, such as the test-ban treaty. As a former professor put it: "Ellsberg just got drawn into Vietnam, the same way all of us did." He became so drawn in that he seriously wanted to re-enter the Marine Corps, in which he had done a stint as an officer. He once gloomily said: "If I went back into the corps, they'd never give me a company anyway. Once they learned that I wrote speeches for McNaughton and Robert McNamara, they'd have me writing speeches for some general." He consoled himself by inserting such stridently militant phrases into McNaughton's and McNamara's speeches as "The only way to think of the Viet Cong is to think of the Mafia."

Ellsberg did finally get to Vietnam -- as a member of Major General Edward Lansdale's senior liaison office of elite intelligence agents. Later he was put in charge of evaluating the new pacification program for the U.S. embassy. In this sensitive post, Ellsberg traveled all over Vietnam, had access to the highest civilian officials and saw the ugliest face of the war: the corruption, manipulation and terrorism on both sides. He must have also seen more than his share of civilian casualties, for it was the Vietnamese victims that eventually came to plague his conscience. Still, while he was serving his tour with Lansdale and the U.S. embassy, his only reservations about the war revolved around its conduct. Otherwise, as he wrote in the class notes for his 15th Harvard reunion, his role as a combat observer compensated for "a somewhat unfulfilled career as a Marine platoon leader and company commander during peacetime."

When he wrote that, Ellsberg was laid up in Bangkok with a severe case of hepatitis. He felt that "the alternatives before me are to stay on with the Government in Vietnam or to return home to search and consult: a choice between the engine room and the belly of the whale." The hepatitis helped him to make up his mind, and Ellsberg returned to the Rand Corp. in 1967, working basically out of the Santa Monica, Calif., office. He kept all of his top-level security clearances and remained active as a Government consultant. Ellsberg worked with Henry Kissinger -- his former teacher -- to smooth the transition from the Johnson to the Nixon Administration, and has said that he drew up the option for a Nixon Vietnam policy. According to Ellsberg, Kissinger adopted all of his proposals almost verbatim except one: a fixed withdrawal date.

Soon Ellsberg, who seemed set for a brilliant Government career, was beginning to feel the lash of collective guilt. Even before the Tet offensive in 1968, he began to voice his doubts about the war; his initial attack came during a gathering of intellectuals in Bermuda under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Endowment. As the war dragged on, his sense of personal guilt heightened and his torment deepened. His conflict had developed to the point that even Kissinger was reluctant to include Ellsberg in the Nixon planning group.

Ellsberg disconcerted Rand officials by organizing a group of five associates to write a sulfurous letter to the New York Times and the Washington Post denouncing the war. He also wrote a scathing piece for the New York Review of Books on Nixon and the Laos incursion. He began to see not only himself but everyone who did not demonstrated actively against the war as a "war criminal." He seemed obsessed, and his friends found it impossible to get him to talk of other topics; many were put off when he called them "good Germans" for not protesting against the war.

By the spring of 1970, he realized that his views were becoming an embarrassment to Rand, so he resigned and accepted a fellowship at M.I.T., aiming to write a book on Vietnam. He remarried (he has two teenage children by a previous marriage) and settled down in Cambridge, Mass. But Ellsberg could not keep his singular mind off the war. He had the support of his wife Patricia, a Radcliffe graduate and daughter of Toy Manufacturer Louis Marx, a Nixon supporter.

By week's end, Ellsberg had not emerged from underground. He disappeared Wednesday afternoon from his house near Harvard Square. When he does come back into public view, no one is quite sure just what will happen to him. As one friend notes: "If the Government decides to prosecute him, it's going to be one helluva trial because he's really a very impressive figure. I think he'd like a platform like that."

In a sense, Ellsberg symbolizes the national torment that the brutal, seemingly interminable war has created. He grew to believe that the war would not end in the foreseeable future unless a massive monkey wrench was thrown into what, in his view, was a perpetual-motion machine. The documents were the wrench. Ellsberg had earlier offered them to Senator George McGovern, who decided not to make them public.

In a broad sense, Ellsberg is but the latest in a series of Government elitists -- McNaughton, McNamara, Clark Clifford -- who have turned away from the war they once so fervently supported. He himself is particularly scornful of the war's apologists, such as Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Goodwin. Ellsberg has put it this way: "My role in the war was as a participant, along with a lot of other people, in a conspiracy to commit a number of war crimes, including, I believe, aggressive war." He especially takes issue with Schlesinger's view that Vietnam resulted from a series of small decisions and that it is unfair to seek out guilty men. "The only trouble with that account of our decision making," he said, "is that it's totally wrong for every Vietnam decision of the last 20 years."

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