The Pentagon Papers Summary


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Pentagon Papers case is one of the most important cases involving freedom of the press. When Robert McNamara was secretary of defense during in the 1960’s, he became disenchanted with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Before he left office in 1968, he ordered a secret study of all Defense Department documents relating to how the United States had gotten involved in the war. The completed study contained three thousand pages of text and four thousand pages of documents—which collectively became known as the “Pentagon Papers.”

The study and documents were kept secret (although not all its documents had been classified as secret) because they detailed several incidents in which McNamara and other national leaders had lied to Congress and the public about the U.S. entrance into the war. The study also disclosed that the United States had supported South Vietnamese military actions against North Vietnam before the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident that could be regarded as provocative, if not illegal, under international law. Such actions could have been seen as having the North Vietnamese in their actions in the Tonkin Gulf incident, and, therefore could have made the U.S. retaliation a violation of international law, instead of an act of self-defense. The papers also included diplomatic documents between U.S. and foreign governments that were regarded as highly secret because they might embarrass other governments into retaliating for their disclosure...

(The entire section is 565 words.)