The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

July 2004
OFF THE SHELF
 
 

Perpetual War

REVIEWED BY GEORGE HERRING

Inside the Pentagon Papers by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, University Press of Kansas, 272 pp., $29.95

At a time when we are once again at war and government attitudes bear an eerie resemblance to those of the Nixon years, this important and timely book reminds us of the threat posed by government secrecy to our fundamental rights and liberties.

Inside the Pentagon Papers is based on a variety of new sources, especially some fascinating oral history interviews with participants. It provides much new information about one of the most important and controversial episodes of the Vietnam War era.

John Prados and Margaret Porter offer the best account to date of how the papers originated and how they were put together. Daniel Ellsberg has recounted in his memoirs his decision to leak them to the press, but Inside The Pentagon Papers adds interesting detail on the New York Times's decision to publish andironicallythe heavy cloak of secrecy surrounding publication.

Prados, who contributed the narrative portion, uses Richard Nixon's telephone tapes to
demonstrate that it was the president himself who decided to challenge publication of the papers. Inside The Pentagon Papers argues persuasively that Nixon was less concerned about the diplomatic consequences of the leakan excuse concocted after the factthan with maintaining government secrecy for its own sake. Nixon's dismissal of the public's right to know during private discussions of these issues is especially chilling in today's Nixonian environment. "That's, of course, a goddamn code-word," he snorts, "right to know. The public has no right to know secret documents."

In one of the most interesting and telling sections of the book, Prados closely analyzes those documents from the Pentagon Papers the government cited as damaging to the national security. He finds nothing that comes close to meeting that test. Nor, Prados argues, did the leak of the papers have any significant impact on ongoing negotiations or the national security.

The greatest impact of the publication of the Papers was at home. The documents confirmed much of what the antiwar movement had been saying about the war and government deceit. The Supreme Court upheld the newspapers' right to publish the Papers, and this significant victory for the First Amendment made journalists more willing to challenge the government.

The authors nevertheless caution that the Pentagon Papers case represented only one battle in an ongoing struggle between government secrecy and the public right to know. Over-classification and excessive secrecy remain serious threats to our constitutional rights and civil liberties. "As the perpetual war on terrorism unfolds," notes contributor Michael J. Gaffney in his chapter on Legal and Constitutional Issues, "the public must be vigilant in safeguarding its rights and liberties, particularly when claims of national security are asserted to justify their erosion."

Incredibly, the original Pentagon Papers remain classified and safely tucked away in government vaults.

George Herring, Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, is the author of numerous books, articles, and essays, including America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975; LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War; and The Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War: The Negotiating Volumes of the Pentagon Papers.

   

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