Pentagon Papers cite misgivings on Vietnam aid

As final section is released, entire report put online

Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg talked to reporters in Los Angeles during a recess in his 1972 trial. Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg talked to reporters in Los Angeles during a recess in his 1972 trial. (George Brich/ Associated Press/ File)
By Calvin Woodward
Associated Press / June 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A missing section of the Pentagon Papers, which were declassified yesterday, concludes that the United States got little in return for more than $2 billion in aid it sent to Vietnam in the 1950s, nearly 80 percent for security.

Four decades ago, Daniel Ellsberg, a young defense analyst, leaked the top-secret study packed with damaging revelations about America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Yesterday, the study finally came out in complete form.

The declassified report includes 2,384 pages missing from what was regarded as the most complete version of the Pentagon Papers, published in 1971 by Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, a Democrat.

One volume missing from the Gravel edition and released yesterday details US miscues in training the Vietnamese National Army from 1954 to 1959.

In words that echo today’s laments about money misspent in Iraq and Afghanistan, the report says, “Very little has been accomplished.’’

Bureaucratic compromises between the Pentagon and State Department also undermined the training program in Vietnam, according to the document. Increasingly, the United States was “selecting the least desirable course of action.’’

The Pentagon Papers chronicle failures of US policy at seemingly every turn. One was a focused attempt from 1961 to 1963 to pacify rural Vietnam with the Strategic Hamlet Program, combining military operations to secure villages with construction, economic aid,and resettlement.

The report concludes the United States had learned lessons of the past, namely that Vietnamese villagers would resist attempts to change their lives. The hamlet program “was fatally flawed in its conception by the unintended consequence of alienating many of those whose loyalty it aimed to win,’’ it said.

The papers have became a touchstone for whistle-blowers everywhere — and just the sort of leak that gives presidents fits to this day. And the documents show that almost from the opening lines, it was apparent that the authors knew they had produced a hornet’s nest.

In his Jan. 15, 1969, confidential memorandum introducing the report to the defense chief, the chairman of the task force that produced the study hinted at the explosive nature of the contents. “Writing history, especially where it blends into current events, especially where that current event is Vietnam, is a treacherous exercise,’’ Leslie H. Gelb wrote.

Asked by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to do an “encyclopedic and objective’’ study of US involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1967, the team of three dozen analysts pored over a trove of Pentagon, CIA, and State Department documents with “ant-like diligence,’’ he wrote.

Their work revealed a pattern of deception by the Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and prior administrations as they secretly escalated the conflict while assuring the public that, in Johnson’s words, the United States did not seek a wider war.

The National Archives released the Pentagon Papers in full yesterday and put them online, long after most of the secrets had already spilled. The release was timed 40 years to the day after The New York Times published the first in its series of stories about the findings, on June 13, 1971, prompting President Nixon to try to suppress publication and crush anyone in government who dared to spill confidences.

Prepared near the end of Johnson’s term by Defense Department and private analysts, the report was leaked primarily by Ellsberg, in a brash act of defiance that stands as one of the most dramatic episodes of whistle-blowing in US history.

As scholars pore over the 47-volume report, Ellsberg said the chance of them finding great new revelations is dim. Most of it has come out in congressional forums and by other means, and Ellsberg plucked out the best when he painstakingly photocopied pages that he spirited from a safe night after night and returned in the mornings.

He said the value in yesterday’s release was in having the entire study finally brought together and put online, giving today’s generations ready access to it.

At the time the papers were leaked, Nixon was delighted that people were reading about bumbling and lies by his predecessors, which he thought would take some antiwar heat off him. But he called the leak an act of treachery and vowed that the people behind it “have to be put to the torch.’’

Nixon’s attempt to avenge the Pentagon Papers leak failed. First the Supreme Court backed the Times, The Washington Post, and others in the press and allowed them to continue publishing stories on the study in a landmark case for the First Amendment. Then the government’s espionage and conspiracy prosecution of Ellsberg and his colleague Anthony J. Russo Jr. fell apart in a mistrial.

Ellsberg had served the Nixon administration as an analyst, tied to the Rand Corporation.