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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Pentagon Papers revealed government lies

I arrived in Vietnam in June 1966, days after I graduated from college, to work with an organization called International Voluntary Services, a kind of Peace Corps in a war zone. My assignment was to work with countryside families displaced by the war and living in refugee camps along the coast outside Tuy Hoa in central Vietnam.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I found in those camps. The war, which was largely taking place in the countryside, had devastated the lives of these Vietnamese. I was struck by the ocean of disconnect between what was being reported by the U.S. press, still largely touting the official line that progress was being made in the war, and what I was witnessing at the time. Until January 1968 and the Tet offensive, when North Vietnamese soldiers began capturing segments of Vietnamese cities, including Hue and Saigon, the story being manufactured by the U.S. embassy and military command was that we were slowly “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people through the U.S. “pacification” program.

It was not until publication of the Pentagon Papers, the 47-volume, top-secret study covering a period from World War II to May 1968, that the American public could systematically see behind the veil of lies built to cleanse the image of the war and hide the truth from the American public. For many Americans, particularly those who had been protesting the war, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, was an immediate hero.

The papers, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in June 1967, were assembled by a team of analysts, including Ellsberg, who was responsible for leaking them to The New York Times, which published articles based on them beginning on June 13, 1971. The Nixon administration immediately obtained a federal court injunction to stop their publication. For a harrowing week, a free press and free society seemed to hang in the balance. On June 18, with the Times holding back, The Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles, also from materials leaked by Ellsberg. The White House then filed an injunction against the Post.

The outcome was in question until June 30 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the injunctions were unconstitutional. Publishing resumed and the articles revealed no “national security” secrets had been exposed, save the pattern of government lies under a series of U.S. presidents.

On June 28, Ellsberg, who had gone into hiding, surrendered to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston. Charged with theft, conspiracy and espionage, he was taken into custody. All charges against Ellsberg were eventually dropped.

-- Tom Fox

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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