OFF THE SHELF
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
andironicallythe 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 leakan excuse concocted after the
factthan 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
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.