The Day the Presses Stopped

The heart of the First Amendment skipped a beat twenty-five years ago, when THE NEW YORK TIMES published parts of the government’s secret analysis of the Vietnam War: the Pentagon Papers. Their publication proved that the U.S. military was lying about the war and also provoked the federal government to try to suppress the press.

As David Rudenstine’s new courtroom-thriller version of the Pentagon Paper episode shows, the decision to publish was not easy or quick. Editors and lawyers agonized about the choice. (Attorneys for THE NEW YORK TIMES flatly warned journalists that publishing would be unpatriotic and criminal.) Using dozens of interviews with key players in the events, Rudenstine, a law professor, effectively retraces the events and emotions of that time, when pressures built and arguments exploded around people who grappled with a momentous choice: to give the people the truth, or give an increasingly hostile and dishonest government another benefit of a serious doubt.

Newspapers’ main source for the Pentagon Papers was Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked information from the highly classified report which totaled forty-seven volumes and seven thousand pages of documents. The report was the end of an assignment began in 1967 at the behest of Defense Secretary Robert McNamera. The exposure sparked anxiety and anger about how and why the United States had become involved in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam...

(The entire section is 462 words.)