ON THIS day in 1971, The Boston Globe became the third American newspaper to publish the top secret Pentagon Papers, an authorized but embarrassing US history of the Vietnam War. The
The 47-volume history, revealing deception and missteps by five presidential administrations (Truman to Nixon), dominated the news that spring. It poured accelerants on a raging debate over the war. But for the Globe it was a significant milestone in the effort of the Globe's editor, Tom Winship, to lift a formerly modest local paper to national prominence. Before that day in 1971, the Globe had won a single Pulitzer Prize. Since then, it has won 19 more.
Ultimately the issue of government censorship, or "prior restraint" went to the US Supreme Court with the Times and Post winning. By the time the high court acted (the Globe's case, in the Federal District Court in Boston, was made moot), the whole world knew that Daniel Ellsberg, a former State Department analyst in Vietnam, was the man behind the leaks.
In a recent interview, Ellsberg, now 77 and living in California, said, "I definitely chose the Globe . . . because it had been great on the war." Under the guidance of Winship, who died in 2002, the Globe had been one of the first newspapers in the United States to oppose the war on its editorial page. Ellsberg, then working with a top security clearance for the Rand Corporation, had been secretly duplicating Rand's copy of the study. Though not first with publication of the papers, the Globe was first to report on their existence, and triggered a series of events that in Ellsberg's opinion might have influenced the Supreme Court.
Earlier in 1971 Globe reporter Tom Oliphant had interviewed Ellsberg and pried out the fact that the study existed and outlined a bankrupt policy. After Oliphant broke his story in March, Ellsberg's wife, Patricia Marx, was alarmed. The Ellsbergs feared a knock on the door by FBI agents with a search warrant, so they began making numerous copies of the study.
Ellsberg credits the Oliphant story with being a key to winning the court cases. "There were enough copies out there, people to distribute them, and newspapers to print them," he recalled. By the time the Supreme Court took up the case it was like "herding bees," he said. If the flow of revelations had been squelched by the Times injunction, he believes enough justices would have balked at the decision to at least greatly delay the further publication.
This was the situation on June 21, when Winship had been contacted by someone identifying himself simply as "Mr. Boston," offering the possibility of the documents. Two editors were instructed to stand by telephone booths in Cambridge and Newton. The Newton "drop" was the fruitful one, and Tom Ryan, national news editor, walked triumphantly into the Globe with a red plaid zipper suitcase full of Pentagon Papers excerpts. The Globe produced four front page stories and four inside pages of stories and texts the next day.
This was serious business in a tense time for the nation. Ellsberg, in his 2002 book "Secrets" said he expected his stealing the papers and making them public "would probably put me in prison for the rest of my life."
For the newspapers, there were also risks. Sharing some of Ellsberg's anxiety about the FBI, Jack Driscoll, later a successor to Winship, locked the copies of the documents in the trunk of a car at the Globe.
Ellsberg ultimately was charged with 12 felony counts and faced a possible 115 years in prison. He was acquitted 35 years ago last month.
Asked what he would do in a similar situation today, Ellsberg said he "would have just put them on the Internet." That would not have saved him from prosecution, but the legal victory of press freedoms vs. government restraint might never have occurred.
Matthew V. Storin teaches journalism at the University of Notre Dame. He was editor of the Globe from 1993 to 2001.