The Pentagon Papers: The Department of State Reacts

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began publishing articles based on a “Top Secret” Office of the Secretary of Defense study of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.  The study had been leaked to that newspaper by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts who worked on the project.

The study, entitled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967,” was produced by the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara established the Task Force on June 17, 1967.  He asked for a study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to that point.  The project took 18 months and was the product of the work of 36 professionals.  The result was 37 studies and 15 collections of documents in 43 volumes.  Between the time the Task Force was created and delivery of the result on January 15, 1969, McNamara resigned as Secretary of Defense and was replaced by Clark Clifford, to whom the report was delivered.  And just five days later, Richard Nixon became President.

Publication of the leaked documents created a firestorm of controversy.  During the ensuing media frenzy, the underlying study became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” 

Given the nature of the study and the potential effects of its release on U.S. foreign relations, the Department of State took numerous actions.  Among the first steps was to provide its overseas posts with guidance on how to handle the inevitable questions about the issue from host governments.  To do this, the Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA), responsible for the U.S. overseas information program, developed the following INFOGUIDE.  In it, the two agencies attributed the study to the previous administration, downplayed the completeness of the study, tried to assert that the new administration’s policy in Vietnam was different, noted that the leaking of classified documents was illegal, and stated that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the result of Communist aggression.

talking points when discussing publication of Pentagon Papers
Infoguide 71-24 p.1, June 15, 1971 (NAID 594728)
US regrets any embarassment to foreign govts, Nixon's policy is working
Infoguide 71-24 p.2, June 15, 1971 (NAID 594728)

Convinced that his many critics would use the information in the papers to attack his policies, President Nixon had his administration secure an extraordinary pre-publication injunction to prevent further revelations.  The legal wrangling took place in the Federal court in New York, where the New York Times was located. 

The day after sending the INFOGUIDE, concerned about the foreign policy implications of the release, wanting to keep its overseas staff informed, and endeavoring to collect information, the Department sent the following telegram to all U.S. diplomatic posts.  In it, the Department noted the publication of articles by the New York Times, mentioned that the government had obtained a temporary injunction against further publication, and asked for a report on reactions by the host government and if and how the revelations would affect U.S. relations with that government.  Response to that last item was of particular interest for use in the legal proceedings.

Telegram to all Diplomatic and Consular Posts p. 1, June 16, 1971 (NAID 594728)
informs a temporary injunction was obtained to restrict further publication of Pentagon Papers
Telegram to all Diplomatic and Consular Posts, June 16, 1971 (NAID 594728)
requests report on any reactions rec'd from host govts
Telegram to all Diplomatic and Consular Posts p.3, June 16, 1971 (NAID 594728)

Next: The Courts


  • INFOGUIDE 71-24, USIA Telegram 10153, June 15, 1971, file POL 27 VIET S (NAID 594728)
  • Department of State to all Diplomatic and Consular Posts, Telegram 107556, June 16, 1971, file POL 27 VIET S (NAID 594728), 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.