“We’re Going to Publish”: The opening section of a New York Times oral history of the Pentagon Papers

The opening of a New York Times story headlined “‘We’re Going to Publish’: An Oral History of the Pentagon Papers”:

On Oct. 1, 1969, Daniel Ellsberg walked out of the RAND Corporation offices, where he worked as a Defense Department consultant, into the temperate evening air of Santa Monica, Calif. In his briefcase was part of a classified government study that chronicled 22 years of failed United States involvement in Vietnam. By then, the war had killed about 45,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. He had been posted in Vietnam, and even worked on the study he now carried. Having become convinced that the war was not only unwinnable but also a crime, he was now determined to stop it. Over the course of the next eight months, he spent many nights photocopying the rest of the study in secret.

He quit RAND, moved east for a fellowship at M.I.T. and for the next year tried to persuade members of Congress to help him expose the study — later known as the Pentagon Papers — to the world. It was not working. On the night of March 2, 1971, he was in Washington, D.C., and looked up Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he had first met in Vietnam. The two started discussing the vast dossier.

Ellsberg: I had actually given a talk at the National War College of all places. I did call Sheehan and asked if he had a bed for the night. He said he did, in the basement. His wife was actually away for the weekend or something. And so I went over there.

Sheehan: When he walks in the door, I gave him a cup of coffee, and we started talking.

Ellsberg: I always thought what you need are hearings. Get these people under oath. They have to answer in some way or other. A newspaper can’t subpoena people. Neil said, “No, no, the best way is a big spread in The New York Times.” And I thought, well, he could be right.

Sheehan: So Ellsberg and I made this agreement: If I could get The Times to agree to publish the whole thing, they’d do their best to protect him. He’d give us the whole thing. He wouldn’t be publicly announced as a source.

Max Frankel: I was the Washington bureau chief, and Neil was the Pentagon correspondent. He briefs me on it and I say, “Can you get a sample of the papers?” So he goes off and he brings back an envelope with a sample of the narrative, but attached to it were some obviously top-secret documents of exchanges between the Pentagon and Saigon headquarters — government decision-making types of documents. I had no doubt that they were legitimate; I’d seen enough government documents in my life. So I said, “Go to it, and see what you can get.”

Sheehan: So I went up to Cambridge, Mass., to get a copy of the papers Xeroxed. And ho-ly Jee-sus Christ, I realized there’s no way you could protect Dan Ellsberg. He was having multiple copies made, and he was paying for them with personal checks, and he had them in his apartment. He had a guy making microfilms.

He said I could read it, but he’d changed his mind: He wasn’t going to let me copy a set for The Times.

Ellsberg: I don’t think Neil realized — and I took it for granted — there was no question the F.B.I. already knew who the source of this would be. There was no question of keeping that secret. I already expected to go to prison either way….

Frankel: Abe Rosenthal, who was the managing editor, and Jim Greenfield, the foreign editor, they said, “Look, let’s move this to New York and we can get more people to work on it and get a better handle on it.”

Sheehan: I told Abe: “I will not tell you who the sources are. You will not get the names of the sources from me.” He said, “We don’t want ’em.” The only question Abe asked me was: “How do you know this stuff is authentic? How do you know it wasn’t put together by a bunch of hippie kids in a cellar somewhere, out in California?” I told him, “I know the sources and I know the material and it’s genuine.” He didn’t take my word entirely for it. He told Jimmy Greenfield to go through this stuff and see if it’s authentic.

James L. Greenfield: I was the foreign editor at the time, and Abe chose me to lead the project. His instructions were very simple: Get a grip on all this and see how much we can get in the paper. I began by getting the material delivered to my apartment in New York. I had called Mosler [Safe Company] for a big safe, but when it came it occupied the entire entryway, so that wasn’t going to work. The material had come in several mailbags, so my wife and I sat on them to crush them, and then we pushed them underneath our bed. It wasn’t very secure. Then, eventually, when we rented the space in the Hilton Hotel, we got two or three suitcases and had a kind of a shuttle from our apartment, and we got all 7,000 pieces of paper there….

Sheehan: They brought safes in. Abe set up a rule that you could not leave a room without somebody staying in the room, 24 hours a day — either sleeping in the room or sitting in the room working.

Greenfield: Abe and I sat down and said, “How do we want to approach all this?” We decided the first thing to do was to make sure they were real. More than 20 books had been written by participants in the government over this period or about this period, so we took 3-by-5 cards and notated instances of internal discussions that were revealed in their books. We also took several small stories from within the documents and checked them out to see if they were true. We found no instances of contradictions. And also, I had been in government for part of that time, and many of the documents had my signature on them!

The stories were long, complicated and hard to write. Not easy. And I had to approach Neil — these were his papers, this was his story — and say, “Neil, we have to have several writers, not just you,” and that pretty well crushed him. But there was no way one man could write this series….

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