What were the Pentagon Papers and how did they impact the Vietnam War?  

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Pentagon Papers were a compilation of government reports for the Defense Department on the progress of the war in Vietnam. They represented reports for a number of years during the course of the war. A Defense Department Employee, Daniel Elsberg, photocopied the papers with the intent of leaking them to the Press. He gave them to a reporter for the New York Times which made plans to publish them. The government attempted to stop publication, arguing that it was a matter of national security. The Supreme Court in New York Times Co. vs. United States ruled 6-3 that the Government had not met its burden to allow prior restraint of publication. In a concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

The decision itself emphasized the heavy burden required for prior restraint on freedom of the press. The papers themselves made the public aware that the war had not progressed as had been reported. The end result was rising opposition to the war and disillusionment with the government. The opposition to the war which arose at least in part from the Pentagon Papers ultimately led Lyndon Johnson to abandon plans to seek re-election.