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Informed Archives: The Pentagon Papers and the Fight to Know

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The celebration of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism prompted an exploration of our collections to  celebrate the work and achievements of the Fourth Estate. Given our current political moment and its disputes over government disclosures, it seems especially timely to revisit that watershed event in the modern history of press freedom, the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division is especially suited to do so, as it holds The New York Times Company records, over thirty collections and one hundred linear feet of archival material that document the work of the Times and its publishers, editors, reporters, and columnists.

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing a combination of reportage and reproduction of documents from a 7,000-page government study classified as “top secret/sensitive,” now known as the Pentagon Papers. This report, commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and provided to the Times by Daniel Ellsberg, documented the history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam. Dubbed “Project X” and developed under the strictest confidentiality, the series constituted a significant intellectual and logistical effort. For its printing, the Times created a special composing room, where close to 100 production team members set and proofed each issue’s type—90,000 words for the first day alone.

 composing room staff for the New York Times' Pentagon series
Memo regarding composing room staff for the New York Times' Pentagon series

After three installments of the Pentagon series, the Nixon administration sued The New York Times in federal court, seeking an injunction against further publication of the series on national security grounds and marking the first attempt at prior restraint of the press by the U.S. government. On June 15, Judge Murray Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order against the Times, which effectively stayed in place for the duration of the case. Injunctions were later sought against The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who published their own takes on the McNamara report.

Memo from A.M. Rosenthal to Seymour Topping on the significance of the Pentagon Papers and freedom of the press
Memo from A.M. Rosenthal to Seymour Topping on the significance of the Pentagon Papers and freedom of the press

To say that the timeline for the Pentagon Papers litigation was expedited is an understatement. It quickly moved through the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court issued its decision only six days after granting certiorari. On June 30, the Court decided 6-3 in favor of the Times, calling the injunction, in Justice Hugo Black’s words, “a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment.” The Times resumed its publication of the Papers the very next day, completing the series with five further installments. At a press conference held on July 1, Times publisher A.O. Sulzberger, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal, and general counsel James C. Goodale gathered to mark, as Rosenthal put it, “a joyous day for the press and for American society.”

Photographs of typesetting and printing the July 1, 1971 issue of The New York Times
Typesetting and printing the July 1, 1971 issue of The New York Times
Photograph of James C. Goodale, A.M. Rosenthal, and A.O. Sulzberger
A.M. Rosenthal, A.O. Sulzberger, and James C. Goodale at the July 1, 1971 press conference

Throughout the month of June, The New York Times received encouragements and accolades from fellow journalists and publishers for their work on the Pentagon series. Beyond this professional praise, the editorial team took steps to gauge the public’s reaction, following opinion polls and receiving periodic internal updates from Letters to the Editor staff.  June saw a sharp uptick in letters to the editor—almost 6,000 in total, up from the 3,000 to 4,500 average monthly rate—with a largely positive response.

Memo from Kalman Seigel to John Oakes about Pentagon Papers letters to the editor
Memo from Kalman Seigel to John Oakes about Pentagon Papers letters to the editor

For its work on the Pentagon series, the Times received the 1971 John Peter Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press and the People’s Right to Know. In his acceptance speech, A.M. Rosenthal emphasized the significance of the Pentagon Papers in exposing the chain of government decision-making that formed American foreign policy in Vietnam. The suppression of this information, he argued, escalated the conflict and dramatically illustrated the need for an informed public.  Rosenthal noted that the Times’s legal victory did not negate the chilling effect of attempted press regulation by the government. “Yes, there was a chill introduced,” he said, “but there is a vast difference between being chilled and being stifled.  A press operating in a chill is testing itself and can prove its worth and vitality by going ahead despite it.”

A.M. Rosenthal's acceptance speech for The New York Times’s John Peter Zenger award
A.M. Rosenthal's acceptance speech for The New York Times’ John Peter Zenger award

Further Reading

The material highlighted in this blog post originates from the New York Times Company records, A.M. Rosenthal papers, boxes 99 and 100.

In addition to those connected to The New York Times, the Manuscripts and Archives Division holds several collections supporting the study of journalism and news media, including the records of the New Yorker and New York Native, and the papers of Tom WolfeDorothy Schiff, Horace Greeley, Herbert MitgangWilliam A. Casselman, and Don Carlos Seitz.  For published sources, including those informing this blog post, consider reading the following:

About the Informed Archives Series

Archival collections and rare printed works at The New York Public Library preserve unique evidence of human activity and achievement that form a basis for the study of political, social, economic, and cultural history. These materials have special importance not only to scholars, but also to citizens interested in historic parallels with current events. The Informed Archives blog series aims to inspire community engagement by highlighting particular collections, contextualizing their creation, and promoting their contents. Through illustrating the vitality of our shared documentary record, we hope to encourage conversation and new readership.

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