For his book about the Nixon presidency, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (2008), Fox News Washington Correspondent James Rosen intensively researched the Pentagon Papers and interviewed many of the key players in the case. Among them was Daniel Ellsberg, the disaffected former Marine and Defense Department consultant who turned against the Vietnam War and leaked the documents to the New York Times. The Times’ series of excerpts from the top-secret study began forty years ago Monday, triggering both a historic Supreme Court ruling on the scope and limits of press freedoms and also the domestic spying that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation. Here, James examines five prevalent myths about the Pentagon Papers.
Myth # 1: ON MONDAY –THE FORTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’ FIRST PUBLICATION OF EXCERPTS FROM THE PENTAGON PAPERS – THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES RELEASED TO THE PUBLIC A VAST AMOUNT OF MATERIAL FROM THE PAPERS NEVER AVAILABLE BEFORE.
“Approximately 2,384 pages or 34% of the Report will be opened for the first time,” the National Archives’ website claimed on Monday. But John Prados, the acclaimed historian of the Vietnam War and the U.S. intelligence community, told Fox News he was able to find, using the Archives’ website, only a few scattered pages of previously unreleased material – perhaps “a couple hundred” at most, consisting largely of footnotes and containing nothing that dramatically changes our understanding of the war or the Ellsberg case. A National Archives official agreed with the latter conclusion, telling Fox News the most recently uploaded material contained “no smoking guns.”
Myth # 2: THE PENTAGON PAPERS REFLECTED POORLY ON THE NIXON ADMINISTRATION.
In fact, the 7,000-page, forty-seven-volume classified report, entitled “History of U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam Policy,” had been commissioned by Robert S. McNamara, the Defense Secretary who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was completed five days before Richard Nixon was sworn into office as the nation’s thirty-seventh president on January 20, 1969. Nixon’s legal battle to halt publication of the documents in the New York Times, and his zeal in prosecuting the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, stemmed chiefly from his conviction that foreign nations would recoil from negotiations with the U.S. if top officials in Washington could not be trusted to keep vital government secrets off the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.
Myth # 3: THE PLUMBERS’ BREAK-IN AT THE OFFICE OF DANIEL ELLSBERG’S PSYCHIATRIST WAS UNSUCCESSFUL.
In May 1971, year before the same cast of current and former C.I.A. operatives broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, the “Plumbers” – the Nixon White House group created to stanch the flood of unauthorized leaks of classified material – staged a covert break-in at the Los Angeles office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. Most accounts of the break-in suggest that the Plumbers, aside from trashing the office to make the burglary appear the work of drug addicts, accomplished nothing in their search of Dr. Fielding’s files. In fact, one of the burglars, Felipe De Diego, claimed at the time to have photographed Ellsberg’s records. Fred Graham reported on the “CBS Evening News” on May 10, 1973 that Dr. Fielding had told him that “Ellsberg’s medical file and other material were found in plain view, indicating the burglars did see them and probably photographed them, after all.” Ellsberg himself said at the time, of his psychiatric files: “[T]hey obviously had been pawed over; that was very evident to the doctor when he returned to his office.”
Myth # 4: THE ELLSBERG BREAK-IN WAS UNDERTAKEN IN ORDER TO FIND INFORMATION THAT COULD DISCREDIT ELLSBERG AT TRIAL.
The primary concern on the part of Nixon’s aides – who undertook the Fielding operation without the president’s prior knowledge – was whether Ellsberg might be preparing to leak still more documents from the Nixon era. After all, Ellsberg had been a protégé of Henry Kissinger at Harvard and had written position papers for Kissinger during the presidential transition period in late 1968. “I just read this the other day,” Ellsberg told James Rosen in their March 2004 interview for The Strong Man, “[that] they went in there for stuff to discredit me, as if they were going to print it and discredit me. That was a very subsidiary objective…[T]heir primary objective was to find information with which to block me from finding out more information. Very simple….[Plumbers supervisor Egil] Krogh confirmed that was his predominant concern. What he was up to was not finding stuff to hurt my reputation or whatever – it was to see what I might reveal, and to keep me from revealing it.”
Myth # 5: IT WAS HENRY KISSINGER WHO PERSUADED PRESIDENT NIXON TO PROSECUTE DANIEL ELLSBERG.
In his post-Watergate memoir, The Ends of Power (1978), FORMER Nixon White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman claimed Kissinger aggressively needled Nixon to impress upon the president the seriousness of the Times’s challenge to his authority. “It shows you’re a weakling, Mr. President,” Haldeman quoted Kissinger as saying. Domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman agreed, writing in his 1982 memoir Witness To Power: “Without Henry’s stimulus, the president and the rest of us might have concluded that the Papers were Lyndon Johnson’s problems, not ours.” Likewise legal historian David Rudenstine, author of The Day the Presses Stopped (1995), the most serious attempt at a comprehensive account of the Pentagon Papers controversy, concluded Kissinger’s “pressure, especially his contention that Nixon would appear weak if he did nothing, made the major difference.” In fact, the White House tapes from this period, declassified in 1999, show that Kissinger, at least at the early stages, agreed with the prevalent initial view that the Times’s disclosures “will help us a little bit.” The national security adviser argued that the Papers offered “a gold mine of showing how the previous administration got us in there [Vietnam].” Nor did Nixon need Kissinger to persuade him that a criminal violation of law had occurred. What Kissinger did introduce into the mix was the idea of exploring legal action—and the need to involve Attorney General Mitchell. “I’m absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws,” Kissinger told the president on June 13, 1971. “What do we do about it?” Nixon asked. “I think I should talk to Mitchell,” Kissinger replied tamely.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).