The Pentagon Papers

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13677

Most Americans supported the Vietnam War in the 1960s because they believed it was a small war to stop the spread of communism. The truth, however, was being hidden. Discover how it got out.


Government, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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During the 1960s, most Americans were unaware of what was occurring in Vietnam.

The public was allowed to believe that only a few thousand American soldiers were fighting in the war and that this fighting was only happening far away from the Vietnamese cities in the hillsides. This was not the case.

Watch this short edited clip from the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam showing a radio announcer who witnessed a bombing in the city, wanting to report this news. Pay attention to how the officers handle his desire to tell the truth.

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The officers in charge would not allow that story to be told because the most important part of continued engagement in the Vietnam War was maintaining American support. 

  • How did American citizens eventually learn about all these events and the true scale of the war?


military helicopters

The Vietnam War began when the United States agreed to help France keep control of its colony, Indochina. However, once the leader of the Vietnamese independence movement, Ho Chi Minh, began to align himself with communism, the United States got steadily more involved.

The U.S. government was convinced that it had to stop the spread of communism everywhere because if one country fell to communism, the entire region might. This thinking brought the rapid escalation of involvement in this war during the 1960s.

The principal president during this period, who kept sending more and more troops to Vietnam, was Lyndon Johnson.

As you watch the following video, pay attention to the conflict between Johnson's public and private views of the war.

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"I don't think we can win, and I don't think we can get out..."

Lyndon Johnson knew the Vietnam War was a mess by 1965; however, in America, only protesting college students saw it similarly.

  • Because the sitting president knew this, the war was de-escalated, right?

Wrong. After this phone call in 1965, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were sent into the small country of Vietnam, and thousands of pounds of bombs were dropped all over its jungle.

Not knowing what to do and feeling a responsibility to respond to the communist threat, Johnson chose to try and overwhelm the country as the only way to win the war potentially. However, LBJ was right all along. A real victory just was not possible.

  • Was it responsible for escalating the war so much while also recognizing there was no clear exit strategy?

Daniel Ellsberg

Ellsberg in 2020

Daniel Ellsberg was an employee at the Pentagon and one of the few Americans who knew that over 500,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam. He also saw the reports on the massive civilian casualties being suffered in the country.

  • What was he supposed to do?

He participated in a study of the Vietnam War in 1967, but nothing had changed by 1971. Everything was even worse.

Lyndon Johnson meeting with Richard Nixon, 1968

While Richard Nixon was in office, Ellsberg began photocopying the private war reports and did so over many months. In 1971, he gave them to The New York Times.

In 2009, a documentary about Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers was made. Watch the opening of the video below about this movie and pay attention to whether you think Ellsberg was a hero or a traitor.

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Nixon was furious over what he considered a traitorous act and was committed to charging Ellsberg under The Espionage Act and locking him up for decades. However, the charges were eventually dropped after Nixon decided he wanted to try to destroy Ellsberg's credibility instead.


The New York Times logo

  • So newspapers had this report, but was it legal to distribute this classified document to the American people?

After three months of thinking about it, The New York Times decided to publish the papers. The Nixon administration immediately sued The Times, preventing them from publishing more top-secret content. Nixon was furious and tried to stop the Pentagon Papers' full publication at all costs.

At this point, the papers were sent on to The Washington Post in the hopes that it would publish the information even though The New York Times was actively being sued over it.

The Washington Post logo

The owner of The Post, Katharine Graham, had to decide what she was going to do. There was a genuine possibility that knowingly disobeying the U.S. government and publishing would destroy the company and incur countless unforeseen consequences.

As you watch the following video, pay attention to her reasoning for publishing something that The New York Times was directly being sued for at the time.

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Supreme Court

The resulting court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, was decided for The New York Times in the lower courts. So the United States government appealed its case to the highest court in the country.

The Times claimed its First Amendment right to freedom of the press protected its ability to publish these papers.

The Nixon Administration claimed two things: the president had executive authority to block the spread of classified information, and The Espionage Act of 1917 forbade the classified document's publication.

The second assertion was based on the following from Section 2 of The Espionage Act of 1917.

"Whoever, with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation, communicated, delivers, or transmits, or attempts to, or aids, or induces another to, communicate, deliver or transmit . . . any document . . . or information relating to the national defense , , , in time of war shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for not more than thirty years . . ."

Despite the attempts of the Nixon administration, the Supreme Court also ruled in favor of The New York Times. The case opinion stated the following.

"In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."

Continue to the Got It? section to review what was so important about the Pentagon Papers.

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