Almost as soon as the WikiLeaks story broke on Sunday, officials and commentators were making comparisons between these 91,000 documents and the Pentagon Papers, the 4,000 page classified study on Vietnam leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. The White House and other critics were quick to reject the analogy. Even supporters of WikiLeaks’ decision to release the documents are hesitant to put this event in the same league as the Pentagon Papers, which have come to hold such an important place in progressive history.
There are important differences between WikiLeaks’ potential influence on the war in Afghanistan and the Pentagon Papers’ actual influence on the war in Vietnam. But, contrary to the heroic story of the Pentagon Papers, these differences reveal the actual shortcomings of what happened in 1971. For all of their accomplishments, the Pentagon Papers were in key respects, a failure. Understanding the limits as well as the achievements of the Pentagon Papers is an important step in maximizing the potential influence of the WikiLeaks documents. This is one of those cases where the negative lessons of history are as valuable as the positive ones.
First, there is the claim that the Pentagon Papers actually revealed high-level secrets about the Vietnam War, while WikiLeaks hasn’t revealed anything that wasn’t already known to the public. In truth, however, aside from the details of what officials knew and when they knew it, there was not much in the Pentagon Papers that surprised ardent critics of the war. In many ways, the documents merely confirmed previous revelations of the war made by incisive and intrepid journalists. By 1971, David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh had already written books and articles that opened a window onto virtually every level of the war—from the National Security Council meetings of the Kennedy administration to the massacres at My Lai. These and other heavy-hitting journalists were concerned not only with the specific details of Vietnam, but also with challenging the Cold War consensus that fueled it.
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By 1971, while the anti-war movement had severely weakened that consensus, it had not altogether broken it. In fact, in response to Nixon’s curtailment of the draft and initiation of troop withdrawals from Vietnam, opposition to the war actually subsided in the year that Ellsberg photocopied the classified documents and gave them to the New York Times and Washington Post. Contrary to the image of an America galvanized against the war, the Pentagon Papers were released in a time of relative apathy about Vietnam.
In addition to the lull in the antiwar movement, the influence of the Pentagon Papers was paradoxically limited by the scandal that their publication prompted. Almost from the beginning, the story of the war was marginalized by accounts of the government’s injunction against the newspapers. At a press conference on June 21, 1971, just one week after the Pentagon Papers were published, a reporter exclaimed, “We want to emphasize the issue is not the one of the Vietnam War but rather why didn’t management support freedom of the press.”
The landmark judgment on behalf of the newspapers was a major victory for the cause of a free press. However, it did little to further Ellsberg’s original intention—to end the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg himself has lamented this much in The Most Dangerous Man, the recent film in which he tells his story. The central failure of the Pentagon Papers is that they did not end the war in Vietnam, which continued for another four years.
For Nixon, of course, the Pentagon Papers were nothing less than fateful. Despite the fact that the documents covered events in Vietnam only up to 1968, before he took office, Nixon reacted to them as though he had been personally attacked. It was the leak of the Pentagon Papers that prompted the infamous Plumbers Unit whose first task was to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. This would be good practice for the break-in of the Watergate hotel the following year. As Ellsberg notes, the biggest accomplishment of the Pentagon Papers was indirect. By sparking Watergate, it helped bring about an end to Nixon’s reign.
There are at least two ways to interpret the implications of this story for WikiLeaks. One is to conclude that, like the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam, WikiLeaks will not have a major impact on the war in Afghanistan. The American populace remains largely disconnected from the war, which is being fought by a post-Vietnam volunteer army. It is easy to envision how, in the coming days and weeks, the reporting and commentaries will shift the focus away from the war itself to follow the drama of WikiLeaks and the fate of suspected leaker, Bradley Manning.
But there are some signs that, in reporting on the WikiLeaks story, the press, at least, is breaking with the legacy of the Pentagon Papers. The lead story in the New York Times on Sunday night focused on the Pakistan intelligence agency and not the leak itself.
Subsequent coverage on the paper’s website has continued to highlight the content of the documents, even as it features stories about Assange and Manning.
Those who oppose the war in Afghanistan should keep the momentum going and use this disclosure to continue pressing the points about Pakistan’s cross-purposes, about corruption in the Afghan government and security forces, and about the real extent of civilian casualties. Only in this way can WikiLeaks help end the war, and in so doing, accomplish what Ellsberg could not.