LBJ Library Releases Pentagon Papers On 40th Anniversary Of Leak

LBJ with soldiers

Long before WikiLeaks, there were the Pentagon Papers.

A top-secret study of American policy in Vietnam, the papers were partially leaked by the New York Times on June 13, 1971. They shook public perceptions of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and led to a landmark Supreme Court Case that ruled in favor of a free press.

Forty years later, all 7,000 pages—about 34 percent of which were never leaked—have finally been declassified. Today the release was announced at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, where the original set of papers—held in an unassuming set of beige boxes—is now available to the public. The papers are also available online.

The declassification is unlikely to reveal any major discoveries, but it still represents an important moment in American political history, said LBJ Library supervisory archivist Claudia Anderson. “There’ll probably be no smoking gun,” said Anderson, “but for the first time the papers will be seen exactly as they were created.”

LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, commissioned the secret study of high-level U.S. decision-making in 1967. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who had worked briefly on the study, leaked classified documents to the New York Times.

The Times’ analysis revealed that LBJ had expanded the Vietnam War despite publicly vowing not to do so. Claiming that the release threatened national security, the Justice Department tried to prevent publication of the leaked information, but in Times v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the newpaper’s right to print the papers.

Archivists at the LBJ Library and the other presidential libraries worked in conjunction with the National Declassification Center to release the papers in time for the 40th anniversary of the leak. Declassifying such high-level documents takes decades because the many government agencies mentioned in the papers had to agree to the release, said LBJ archivist John Wilson.

Asked if he believed the declassification would shed new light on the history of the Vietnam War, Wilson said he didn’t think so. “But it’s one more thing coming out of the closet,” he said.

LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto


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