He quit RAND, moved east for a fellowship at MIT and for the next year tried to persuade members of Congress to help him expose the study — later known as the Pentagon Papers — to the world. It was not working. On the night of March 2, 1971, he was in Washington, D.C., and looked up Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he had first met in Vietnam. The two started discussing the vast dossier.
The Xerox Operation
Daniel Ellsberg: I had actually given a talk at the National War College of all places. I did call Sheehan and asked if he had a bed for the night. He said he did, in the basement. His wife was actually away for the weekend or something. And so I went over there.
Neil Sheehan: When he walks in the door, I gave him a cup of coffee, and we started talking.
Ellsberg: I always thought what you need are hearings. Get these people under oath. They have to answer in some way or other. A newspaper can’t subpoena people. Neil said, “No, no, the best way is a big spread in The New York Times.” And I thought, well, he could be right.
Sheehan: So Ellsberg and I made this agreement: If I could get the Times to agree to publish the whole thing, they’d do their best to protect him. He’d give us the whole thing. He wouldn’t be publicly announced as a source.
Max Frankel: I was the Washington bureau chief, and Neil was the Pentagon correspondent. He briefs me on it and I say, “Can you get a sample of the papers?” So he goes off and he brings back an envelope with a sample of the narrative, but attached to it were some obviously top-secret documents of exchanges between the Pentagon and Saigon headquarters — government decision-making types of documents. I had no doubt that they were legitimate; I’d seen enough government documents in my life. So I said, “Go to it, and see what you can get.”
Sheehan: So I went up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get a copy of the papers Xeroxed. And ho-ly Jee-sus Christ, I realized there’s no way you could protect Dan Ellsberg. He was having multiple copies made, and he was paying for them with personal checks, and he had them in his apartment. He had a guy making microfilms.
He said I could read it, but he’d changed his mind: He wasn’t going to let me copy a set for the Times.
Ellsberg: I don’t think Neil realized — and I took it for granted — there was no question the FBI already knew who the source of this would be. There was no question of keeping that secret. I already expected to go to prison either way.
An undated handout photo shows Daniel Ellsberg circa 1968. He spent considerable time in Vietnam and came to oppose the war deeply. (Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg via The New York Times
Sheehan: Normally, when you deal with sources, you protect the source and you allow the source to control the material. Well, he and Patricia [Marx, Ellsberg’s wife] were going on vacation, I think it was in the West Indies. They were going to be away for several days.
Frankel: One night, I get this call from the national editor of the Times and he says, “What the hell is going on up in New England?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I’ve got this request that Sheehan wants $ 600,” which in those days was a lot of money. I said: “Oh, I think I know what it is, but I can’t tell you, certainly not on an open phone. And in any case, don’t worry about it. It’s a foreign desk matter.” This is the Xerox operation. Neil had to seize this opportunity not just to read them — which is what Ellsberg thought he was giving him — but to copy the whole thing.
Sheehan: The first place, their machines broke down. So [my wife, Susan, and I] found another guy — an ex-Navy man who was running a Xerox shop. He knew enough; these were really high classifications. So he got scared. So I said: “I understand you’re nervous about this. There’s nothing to be nervous about. This is a study that’s being done at Harvard, by a bunch of professors. And they’ve lent us these materials and they’ve put a time limit on how long we can have them out. I’ve got to get them back to them right away. As you can see the dates on this stuff, it’s pretty old. This is 1971 and that’s a ’66 document, or ’67 or ’68. There’s nothing to be afraid of. This stuff has all been declassified in bulk.” So he accepted that. He later on told the FBI about the whole thing.
Frankel: Abe Rosenthal, who was the managing editor, and Jim Greenfield, the foreign editor, they said, “Look, let’s move this to New York and we can get more people to work on it and get a better handle on it.”
Sheehan: I told Abe: “I will not tell you who the sources are. You will not get the names of the sources from me.” He said, “We don’t want ’em.” The only question Abe asked me was: “How do you know this stuff is authentic? How do you know it wasn’t put together by a bunch of hippie kids in a cellar somewhere, out in California?” I told him, “I know the sources and I know the material and it’s genuine.” He didn’t take my word entirely for it. He told Jimmy Greenfield to go through this stuff and see if it’s authentic.
James Greenfield: I was the foreign editor at the time, and Abe chose me to lead the project. His instructions were very simple: Get a grip on all this and see how much we can get in the paper. I began by getting the material delivered to my apartment in New York. I had called Mosler [Safe Company] for a big safe, but when it came it occupied the entire entryway, so that wasn’t going to work. The material had come in several mailbags, so my wife and I sat on them to crush them, and then we pushed them underneath our bed. It wasn’t very secure. Then, eventually, when we rented the space in the Hilton Hotel, we got two or three suitcases and had a kind of a shuttle from our apartment, and we got all 7,000 pieces of paper there.
Allan Siegal: I do remember that I suggested the Hilton because we had worked on some things there previously and I had the distinct impression you could walk through the lobby leading a camel on a tether and nobody would take notice, it was so big and impersonal.
Sheehan: They brought safes in. Abe set up a rule that you could not leave a room without somebody staying in the room, 24 hours a day — either sleeping in the room or sitting in the room working.
Greenfield: Abe and I sat down and said, “How do we want to approach all this?” We decided the first thing to do was to make sure they were real. More than 20 books had been written by participants in the government over this period or about this period, so we took 3-by-5 cards and notated instances of internal discussions that were revealed in their books. We also took several small stories from within the documents and checked them out to see if they were true. We found no instances of contradictions. And also, I had been in government for part of that time, and many of the documents had my signature on them!
The stories were long, complicated and hard to write. Not easy. And I had to approach Neil — these were his papers, this was his story — and say, “Neil, we have to have several writers, not just you,” and that pretty well crushed him. But there was no way one man could write this series.
Sheehan: Initially, Abe wanted me to get full credit for the whole thing. He wanted me to write the whole thing. I couldn’t handle it. It was too much.
Greenfield: I wanted to work with people I knew and trusted. Jerry Gold and Al Siegal were deputies on the foreign desk, and they were both really superb editors, so they were my natural choices. Fox Butterfield had been a stringer whom we hired when he was living in Taipei. And then it was Rick Smith and Ned Kenworthy. They all had experience reporting on the war, on Vietnam.
Fox Butterfield: My phone rings and it’s Abe Rosenthal’s secretary, and she says, “Fox, Abe wants to see you in his office right away. Can you get here in an hour?” He called me into his office, closed the door, and he said, “Fox, do you have any objection to working with classified government documents?” Finally, I said, “Well, Mr. Rosenthal, I guess if you don’t have any objection to working with those classified government documents then I don’t.” He said: “That’s a good answer, Fox. I’d like you to go over to the New York Hilton Hotel right now. Neil Sheehan has gotten a hold of this big secret inside history of how we got into Vietnam.”
Hedrick Smith: We started working on it. And I mean, it was just mind-blowing. I mean, Neil is going crazy: “Look at this, here’s this message from Saigon military command to the White House. Was it true? Was the United States administration really involved, and behind the coup that overthrew [the South Vietnamese president] Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963?” Yeah, it was. There were one after another sort of startling disclosures. But in all honesty, initially it was just overwhelming: There was so much material. I mean this was, in journalistic terms, a nuclear weapon. It was way beyond a bombshell, because of the documents that backed up the narrative.
Robert Rosenthal: I was 22 years old and had started at the Times in September 1970, my first job out of college. In early ’71, around the beginning of March, people started disappearing from the newsroom, and no one knew what was happening. One night I was at a friend’s house on Long Island. We’d actually been in the attic doing our illicit smoking of pot. And my friend’s mother calls me and says, “Robert, there’s a phone call for you.” I go downstairs, and it was Jerry Gold. And I said, “How’d you find me?” He said, “I called your mother.” And then he says to me: “Come to Room 1111 tomorrow, at the Hilton Hotel. Bring enough clothes for a few weeks or a month. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going, not even your parents.”
Linda Amster: The Times had a news research staff — the first that any newspaper ever had. There were five of us initially — all young women in our 20s — and when we were hired we might have doubled the number of women in the newsroom. We were at the back of the newsroom, which was a huge space of about an acre. James Greenfield came over to me and said, “Follow me.” That’s all he said. So I followed him. He turned his back on me and walked to the front of the newsroom, which was a long walk — didn’t say a word. We got to the front, where all the newsroom executives were — including Peter Millones, who was an assistant to the managing editor in charge of news administration. Jim presented me at his desk. Peter got up. Without saying a word, Jim got on my right side; Peter got on my left side. And they walked out of the newsroom, to the elevators, down to the lobby, through the lobby — not a word said — and got into a cab. Peter told the driver, “Hilton Hotel.” And the driver took us to the Hilton Hotel. Not a word was said. We got to the hotel, went through the lobby to the elevators, to the 11th floor. And Peter did a secret knock on the door, just the way they do it in all the spy movies. I was beyond flabbergasted. The door opened, and in the room I noticed a few people that I knew from the newsroom. Finally, I think it was Peter who said, “Well I guess you want to know why you’re here.” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, we have obtained a secret history of the war in Vietnam commissioned by [former Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara. It’s top secret. We can all be arrested and imprisoned because we have it, and we’re planning to publish it. And we need research, and we wonder if you will do it.” And I said, without blinking an eye, “Show me the papers.”
Greenfield: We began writing drafts, and the first drafts were the Pentagon Papers often mixed up with the writers’ own past reporting and commentary. I said, “We’re going to start over. If this is going to be called the Pentagon Papers, it can’t be the Pentagon Papers and The New York Times Papers.” So we came up with a system. Each writer got a packet of the papers, for which he was responsible. And Jerry Gold’s job was to check almost every line in every story and match it with a reference in the documents. He would go to a writer and say, “Well, show me where you got that line. Here’s your packet. Show me.” And if they couldn’t, he would edit it out.
Amster: What they needed was to ensure that everything that was published by The New York Times was accurate, because if there were even one slip-up, the whole project could be undermined. So my job became to verify or discredit information in the Pentagon Papers. If I couldn’t verify it, then it couldn’t be used. And actually, when we went and looked at the footnotes to see which sources the authors of the papers had used, those sources were often The New York Times, which made it easier to dismiss the question of, “Would our publishing this pose a danger to national security?” Not only was it public knowledge, but it was public knowledge from the Times’ own reporting. The other responsibility I had was to determine whether the documents themselves were actually being published for the first time or not. We wanted to make sure that, if we were saying these were secret papers, we weren’t misinforming the public.
Greenfield: I certainly got worried about how long it was taking. But we were going to do this thoroughly and professionally. We kept on expanding from room to room in the Hilton, so that we had a whole group of suites, finally, with people working, poring over the papers. Weeks passed, and the pressure was building up. Frankly, we thought at any moment the FBI would swoop in and arrest all of us.
Siegal: There was a suite of rooms for writers and a suite of rooms for editors, and we tried to stay out of one another’s way. It was generally collegial, but at times when we got close to deadline we got on one another’s nerves.
Butterfield: I think we were all concerned that one of the maids would notice something, because we brought over all these big steel file cabinets from The New York Times and the big typewriters. But after several weeks and then a month, almost two months, it just didn’t happen. The men who brought in the room service trays on their little folding tables with wheels, they didn’t ask either. After a while, we just said: “Well, apparently they’re not interested. Who knows what goes on in hotel rooms in Manhattan?” We were just doing another strange thing in a hotel room in Manhattan.
Smith: We got really sick of the hotel food. I mean, there’s just so many hamburgers and so many BLTs you can eat.
Greenfield: I had to talk to them about having too much orange juice delivered. We were running up tremendous bills.
Amster: I think it was Al who said the most impressive thing about the Pentagon Papers was that no one leaked anything. I didn’t tell a soul what I was working on, not even my husband.
Greenfield: Jerry Gold read so diligently and so long that he stopped going home. He stayed in the hotel, and he lived in Levittown, and his neighbors noticed he wasn’t coming home. So one of them reported this to the local rabbi, who called me and said, “Is there any counseling I can do for him?” And I said: “Rabbi, wait a few months. It’ll all be cleared up.”
Sheehan: By the end, I think there were about 50 people in the hotel, counting all the editors.
Smith: We were in the engine room, generating the power and the steam. But the drama was going on up on the admiral’s deck.
The 15th Floor
Greenfield: I discussed it with Abe and said, “To make this thing really work and make an impact, we have to print the actual secret documents, in the paper, so that the reader can check our story and our reporting. It’s only fair.” That did not go over well with some of the executives. Punch [Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher] didn’t say no, but he was wary. He’d been a Marine. He was patriotic. And the idea of printing top-secret documents in his paper didn’t sit well with him. But we persisted. Every day, I was hearing rumors from the 15th floor [of the Times, home to its executive offices] of who was against running it. But my colleagues and I couldn’t imagine not printing this material.
James Goodale: I was a vice president and the general counsel, so my role at the Times was both the newsroom counsel and the general corporate counsel. I was ordered to get an opinion from the outside lawyers for The New York Times, Lord, Day and Lord. The meeting took place in the board of directors room of the old New York Times building on the top floor — probably one of the more powerful floors in the United States at that time. There was a long polished mahogany table, and Punch Sulzberger sat at one end. Next to him sat the former attorney general of the United States, Herbert Brownell Jr. Next to him, the former president of the New York City Bar Association, Louis Loeb. And then the ranking New York Times people, including James Greenfield and Abe Rosenthal.
Greenfield: Punch asked Abe and I to brief the outside lawyers. So we sat in the 15th floor conference room and said we would not reveal how we’d gotten the documents, but we were in possession of them, and they went from secret to top secret. One of the partners asked me, “How many?” And I said, “A little over 7,000 pieces of paper.”
Goodale: Louis Loeb got up and he said: “If you in fact publish the Pentagon Papers, you will all go to jail. We do not want to look at them because they are classified. And if we touch them, we feel that we will be implicated in your crime. Therefore, my advice is that you do not publish them.”
Sheehan: Louis Loeb, that bastard. He told Punch, “Not only will the government seek an injunction, they will succeed in getting the injunction, and I will not defend you.” Can you imagine that? And Jim [Goodale] said, “You’re wrong, Louis. We will prevail. If they come after us with an injunction, we’ll win. And what we’re doing is legal.”
Smith: Multiple times, during our three months of working together, Neil said, “I’ve got to go babysit my source. I want to make sure the source doesn’t go to somebody else with the Pentagon Papers.” I didn’t know it at the time, but obviously Ellsberg had gone to a couple of senators already before he ever came to The New York Times.
Sheehan: About two weeks before we went to press, I wanted to signal him that something was going on at the Times, that we were moving. And so I called him up, and I said, “Dan, I need to get a copy of the whole study, and I know you’ve got one in [your wife] Patricia’s apartment in New York. And I need to have it.” He called the doorman. They let me in, and they helped me carry this stuff out. I put it in the taxi, and I massively overtipped the doorman, hoping he would lie when the FBI came around.
Ellsberg: I gave it to him on the understanding, OK, it’s out of my control now, whatever you do with it.
Sheehan: Punch wanted to see samples of what we were writing. And they sent him samples of what we’d finished, and he said: “It’s too long. This is going to bore people out of their minds. Cut it in half!” Jesus Christ, Jerry Gold and Al Siegal were furious.
Frankel: Because we were afraid of the legal consequences, they also decided to package it very modestly as a piece of history and not have a dramatic headline. So that’s why it came to be called “Vietnam Archive.” It was given a fairly modest space at the top of the page. Nixon’s daughter’s wedding on the other side overshadowed our presentation of the Pentagon Papers.
Greenfield: We had the whole package, all 10 installments. We finished them, edited them, annotated them, sorted out the secret papers we wanted printed with it. The whole thing was done. We always knew we could be stopped at some point, but it also didn’t make sense to run the whole damn thing in one day. It would have been longer than “Gone With The Wind.” We couldn’t just go down to the composing room and say, “All right, fellas, here you go.” We were afraid they would report us. So we moved some Linotype machines up to a private section of the Times, and we actually set the stories there.
Rosenthal: The papers came off the press around 6:30 and I ran them back to the Hilton. Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, Fox Butterfield and Al Siegal were all in one room, and I remember throwing the papers to everybody so they could grab them and look.
Smith: After that long an effort, there’s just this enormous sense of relief when it’s actually out, and you can feel the papers in your hand. We couldn’t believe we were seeing it. There it was, finally happening.
Frankel: We were stunned the next day. Sunday was the first day out. Mel Laird, the defense secretary, was a guest on one of the morning talk shows. The subject never came up. It probably would have died a quick death if the government had not tried to censor it.
Butterfield: The AP didn’t do anything. UPI didn’t do anything. The radio stations didn’t do anything. Nobody seemed to have noticed. We were very let down. We were in one of the rooms at the Hilton at 6, and we turned on the television. There was David Brinkley, and he got on the camera and he held up a Sunday New York Times and he said, “Something extraordinary has happened today,” and he just started reading it.
Frankel: This turned into a battle between the Times and Nixon, even though Nixon’s first reaction was, “This is all about the terrible things that Democrats did. Why should I care?” It’s only [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger who persuaded him that “Oh, Mr. President, one secret gets out there, all the secrets will be out, and the Chinese won’t trust you, et cetera. So we got to go to these guys.”
Rosenthal: I was back in the newsroom that Monday. I think the Times had been tipped that there might be a message coming in over one of the wire machines from the White House or the attorney general, John Mitchell. And I was standing there literally when the thing started clacking. And I see a Telex coming, “To the publisher of The New York Times, from Attorney General John Mitchell, blah, blah, national security.” And I ripped it off — which you don’t do normally because the guys who rip stuff off the machines are in a different union — and I ran down and I just handed it to Greenfield.
Goodale: I rushed into a cab and got over there as quickly as I could. As I got out of the elevator, I could hear screaming going on. I walked into the room, and there’s Sydney Gruson, the newly anointed assistant to the publisher, and Abe Rosenthal shouting at each other — Gruson saying Rosenthal is going to destroy the Times, Rosenthal saying we have to publish, [Times executive vice president Harding] Bancroft acting as the referee. And no Punch, because he had left to go to Great Britain on a business trip.
Rosenthal: I was sitting on the phone line with the London bureau chief, who was waiting for Punch at Heathrow Airport on an open line.
Goodale: I came to the Pentagon Papers knowing that an order not to print, which is known as a prior restraint, was not protected under the First Amendment or under the law of the United States. There was one law that possibly applied other than the First Amendment, and that was the Espionage Act. But the Espionage Act was for espionage, and what was given to me as the facts with respect to the leak to Sheehan was not espionage, obviously. So I looked at the message. And I said: “You can’t obey a telegram. If you obey this, do you know what the fate of journalism will be in this country? You can’t do it.” We were all gathered around the speaker. And Punch said, “OK, send a telegram back and tell the government we’re not going to do it.”
Rosenthal: We went back into the newsroom, and the pressmen in their little newspaper hats were gathered around the foreign desk, a big crowd. Abe walked in and goes, “We’re going to publish.”
Goodale: We knew the government was going to sue us the next day. And we had no lawyers — other than me, and the only time I’d been in court was on two uncontested divorce cases. Alex Bickel and Floyd Abrams had been working with me on another case, so I thought if I could get Alex on the phone and get him on board, we could probably get Floyd’s firm to back him up.
Floyd Abrams: At something like 1 in the morning, James Goodale called. The Times’ law firm had refused to represent them, so he decided to call Alexander Bickel, who had been my professor at Yale Law School, and me to represent the Times on the case. Bickel was supposed to be on a sabbatical at Stanford, but he happened to be in New York visiting his mother. So we met and took a cab to my office at 1:30, 2 in the morning. And we spent the night there. There were none of the modern tools of legal research, so I had to find the place in our library where all the federal statutes could be found and then look for the Espionage Act. And that was the beginning.
Goodale: By morning, the news has broken. There are headlines all over the place that this case is going on. We go to Foley Square [where the courthouse is], and the place is filling up. People are protesting and yelling.
Abrams: Murray Gurfein was the judge, and it was his first day. He said: “We’re all patriotic Americans here, and we all want to do the right thing. I’m sure of that. So why don’t you agree to stop publishing now, just to give me a chance to get into the case, to learn enough about what’s in the papers so I can do the job that I have to do?” We had no idea what the Times had, other than the news articles that had run. But Goodale was with us, so he called the Times.
Daniel Ellsberg and Patricia Marx, his wife, centre, at the Watergate hearings in Washington in 1973. Nine months before the Watergate break-in, the so-called plumbers had ransacked the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in search of incriminating files. (Mike Lien/The New York Times)
Goodale: This was in the days when there were old-fashioned telephone booths, so I walked out and called Harding Bancroft to get instructions, told him the deal. He says, “I’ll call you back.” So I’m stuck in this phone booth. There wasn’t much air-conditioning at this point in time, so the heat starts building up. And the line of people wanting to call somebody is going down the stairs while I’m waiting and waiting for an answer. They start banging on the booth. So I call him back and say, “What are we supposed to do?” And finally he says, “We shouldn’t stop publication voluntarily.” I went back and gave Alex the news, and then the judge had to order us to stop. First prior restraint of all time of the sort.
Abrams: A prior restraint is a sort of injunction — a ban on speech to prevent some sort of harm. Prior restraints on speech are common in other democratic countries like England or Canada in a case like this. But because of the First Amendment, since the beginning of this country they’ve been almost always verboten in the United States. The status quo is the right to publish.
Frankel: The publisher of the Times said, in the end, we will abide by whatever the courts decide.
Goodale: So at this point, we have a few days to prepare for our next hearing. We’ve put a team together, and Floyd Abrams and Alex Bickel start working on a brief.
Abrams: It took some time to get a handle on what the Times had. There was so much to do, and the risk was so high — for the paper and in a sense for the country.
Goodale: The government tried to persuade the judge that the world would come to an end if The New York Times continued to publish. But the best way we made our case was by cross-examining the government witness, and we were sort of surprised that they couldn’t justify why they’d classified things. On Saturday morning, Judge Gurfein issued his decision, and he decided in favor of us and dissolved the injunction, subject to it being reinstated by the next court above him. He even pointed out that he thought the legislative history was pretty clear that the Espionage Act did not apply to this sort of thing. I felt so giddy, I called up the newsroom and said: “We won! Roll the presses!” But a few minutes later, another judge reinstated the injunction. We were going up to the appellate court. And in the meantime, The Washington Post has published [their own portion of the Pentagon Papers], so now there are two cases going on.
Sanford Ungar: There was tremendous drama, and I think what stunned the Post is that this was a Washington story that the Times scooped. It was a very macho thing for [the Post’s executive editor, Ben] Bradlee. The young reporters like me certainly felt solidarity with the Times when it first published the papers and when they were in court. But I think we were happier when, the Times having been stopped, we were next.
Goodale: When we got to the court of appeals, we thought we were in good shape. But Judge Henry Friendly, who was the chief judge of the court in New York City, turned out to be very unfriendly. He excoriated Alex. And when the decision came out, he had decided that we should go back to Judge Gurfein and do the case all over again. It was an absolute disaster for us.
Abrams: In the meantime, The Washington Post case was going on, and so the Post and the Times both asked the Supreme Court to step in.
Goodale: I was very conscientious that we were not just representing the Times: We’re representing all journalism. And we must have a good First Amendment standard come out of this case. This was going to be a train the government couldn’t stop, because Ellsberg was handing out parts of the documents to The Washington Post, The Boston Globe. He had a similar packet he gave to Knight, which was a chain with another dozen or so newspapers. So the government was really looking pretty foolish. And now, we’re on our way to the Supreme Court.
Smith: Neil and I were just delighted. This thing is not going to stop. The Times has broken the dam. We’ve gone first, and others are going to follow. And then when we started to see it go to the Globe and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there was a great sense of satisfaction and achievement, and a kind of common patriotism to the values of America. The national security state cannot shut down the American media.
Ellsberg: By the time the Supreme Court got to it, it had been in 15 papers. And while they were considering it, I gave it to two more — Newsday on Long Island and The Christian Science Monitor. It came to be 19 altogether. As one of the judges said, it’s like trying to herd bees.
The Highest Court
Goodale: The argument before the Supreme Court was handled by Alex Bickel. And on the government side, there was Erwin Griswold, former dean of Harvard Law School, who was the solicitor general of the United States.
Butterfield: Before the lawyers started their arguments, there was a meeting called in the publisher’s office. Everybody was there. Max Frankel had come up from Washington, and he led the discussion. The publisher was asking, “How will the different justices respond to this?” And Frankel went around as if he knew each of them, describing what arguments would appeal to them.
Frankel: One thing always fascinated me about the judges: They had this notion that secrets stolen from the government can be returned. The chief justice talked about it like the White House silver. You know, “If somebody brought you the White House silver, wouldn’t you feel obliged to return it?” What is a newspaper supposed to do with information once it has it, whether or not you return the piece of paper? You have to use that information, and it has to inform everything you do, whether you publish that particular sentence or not. How they dealt with information as a tangible piece of property, I found it mind-boggling.
Abrams: I think it helped the cause enormously that the Times could describe its editorial process. They could say, we went through every page, matched every event. And we didn’t publish a lot of stuff that we had.
Goodale: There was an absolute magic moment in the case when Justice Potter Stewart said to Alex, “Suppose I go back and open up these documents, and I find that 100 US servicemen will lose their lives as a consequence of what The New York Times will publish. Would you go ahead and publish anyway?” The moment he asked it, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was on the edge of their chair, wondering what he was going to answer. I mean, the question is a terrible one. The right answer would be, under the First Amendment, “So what?” But you can’t say that out loud in a major case: That would be the only thing people would remember. But Bickel did such a great job. He said: “No. My devotion to humanity is greater than my devotion to the legal principle. But I will tell you, it will make very bad law if that is what sways your opinion.”
Abrams: I thought we had four very likely votes on the court — the four most liberal and free speech-oriented jurists. But as to whether we could get one or more of the others, I don’t think any of us were filled with confidence about it. The country was deeply divided then about the war, divided about Nixon, divided about policies. And so it was very hard to make an intelligent prediction of the takes of the other members of the court.
Goodale: When you argue a case in the Supreme Court in June, you think maybe you’ll find out about it in August. But just a few days later the word came. I rushed for that famous elevator up to the executive floor and everyone was there. Punch was back from England, Harding was there, Sydney, Abe Rosenthal, and we’re acting like 2-year-olds who just won the Kentucky Derby — jumping up and down, slapping thighs, throwing our arms around each other.
Amster: It was really elation. And the embargo was lifted — the restraining order — and we published the rest of it.
Siegal: We were jubilant, and it cannot have been more than a day or two before we started publishing. All of our coverage had been made up in metal type and put away under lock and key, so we knew what we would be printing, it was just a question of when.
Frankel: Griswold, the solicitor general, he had defended the administration’s policy right up to the Supreme Court. He finally admitted, years later, that he never understood what the government was trying to defend, that there were no secrets there that compromised national security.
Smith: I didn’t feel safe until the prosecution of Ellsberg was dropped. There was nothing in the Supreme Court decision that said the government couldn’t prosecute us; what the court said was that the government couldn’t pre-censor. And I figured if the government was going to go after Ellsberg for stealing and revealing top-secret government documents, then the persons to whom he handed the secrets were inextricably involved in the case.
Goodale: I think Rick was right to worry about being indicted. We thought Sheehan for sure was going to be. In fact, we wrote out a press release that was ready to go.
Smith: So until the case against Ellsberg was quashed and thrown out, I don’t think I felt relaxed. At that point, the legal issue was over. And as to the political argument — which was about “was the media wrong” and so on — with the Pulitzer Prize and all the other accolades, it was perfectly clear where the media in America stood, and where the majority of Americans did, too.
Amster: On the first installment, they ran the names of everyone who worked on the Pentagon Papers. It went through all the significant editors, the reporters. And it didn’t have my name. I was very, very upset. I had worked as hard as anyone else! So I went to Jim Greenfield and said to him, “Why isn’t my name on here?” He said, “Well, you’re a woman, and we were afraid that we might have to go to prison, and so we didn’t include your name.” I was so furious, and I still am to this very day, about that. It said a lot about the Times, and the time. I knew we might go to jail. I was told that before I started. I deserved to be included. There were others as well: Betsy Wade was indispensable — she was in charge of copy editing on the project and did a magnificent job — and Linda Charlton wrote biographies for all the key figures in the papers. None of the women who worked on it were given credit.
Abrams: It is telling that presidents have come and gone, including some very hostile to the press, but the broad lesson that they have learned from the Pentagon Papers is that you can’t win. It has had an enormous impact in transforming what had been thought of as a very difficult remedy for the government to seek to one that has become viewed as near impossible.
Goodale: The case stands as an ironclad rule that you cannot censor the press from the judicial bench. That is a lasting legacy.
Amster: All along as we were working, I was thinking: “This is going to end the Vietnam War. We’re going to publish these papers. Nixon’s going to read them. He is going to be so thrilled to throw a lot of dirt at Johnson and seize this as an opportunity to scale down the war.” I would have bet anything on it. And then, of course, what happened was that Nixon was so neurotic that instead of seizing the occasion he went looking for who had leaked the papers. He had a team in the basement of the White House that became known as the Plumbers.
Butterfield: The Plumbers were formed to go after Ellsberg. And they were the same people who, a few years later, staged the Watergate break-in.
Greenfield: We really thought this would blow the top off of how an administration treats a war. I mean, Congress had been lied to. We thought, “Well they won’t let that happen again! And the American people will know a lot more about what actually happened.” We thought we were on a mission.
Butterfield: Early in September, I got a call saying Abe Rosenthal wanted to see me in his office. “Fox,” he said, “You did a good job on the Pentagon Papers, so we’re sending you to Saigon as a correspondent.” And from that time, I more or less didn’t leave until the last day of the war. It was pretty clear that the revelations in the Pentagon Papers were undermining the rationale for the war, which would inevitably lead to a big drawdown in American forces. It just took a lot longer than I thought.
Smith: The point wasn’t whether or not to end the war. The point was to share something that the secretary of defense himself thought was so important that he had some of his best talent inside the Pentagon pull this history together so that he could understand and report it to the president, and so the Pentagon would forever have that record. Well, if it was that important for those people, then it was certainly important to share with the American public. That was the point.
Sheehan: The war was killing a hell of a lot of people for nothing and maiming a lot of people for nothing. The Vietnamese were suffering. And we had no right to do this to another people. We were sucking people into the pit. This thing really rankled me, I mean it really bothered me. I was committed to try to do something about it, to write the truth.
Ellsberg: For the Times and for Neil, the point of the Pentagon Papers was that it’s history — “These guys lied to us, to me” — but I wasn’t going to prison in order to clarify the historical record in ’69 or ’70 or ’71. I copied the papers because I believed, correctly it turned out, that the course Nixon was on would prolong the war for years, at least through his second term. We were getting into a bigger war. It was happening again. History was being repeated. I never dreamed the Pentagon Papers had any chance of stopping the war, but that they might contribute to shortening the war and averting escalation.
Sheehan: Dan never called me again. I ran into him on the street in New York at Christmas that year. And I told him what had happened. And he said, “So you stole it, like I did.” And I said to him: “No, Dan, I didn’t steal it. And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it. We didn’t steal anything.”
©2021 The New York Times Company