40 Years Later—Full Declassification of One of the Worst-Kept Secrets in History

Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 348, by John Prados (For more information contact him on 202/994-7000), June 10, 2011, Updated June 13, 2011.

… Upon entering office, the Obama Administration encountered a backlog of over 400 million pages of still-secret documents that had also passed their reasonable expiration dates. Among other actions, it created the National Declassification Center to introduce uniformity into secrecy policy and issued orders that the backlog be eliminated. The release of the Pentagon Papers represents the most substantial achievement to date of the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce the mountain of no-longer useful secrets.  The National Security Archive extends its appreciation to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for this action.  We look forward to the opening of the remainder of these materials and others as well.

Different Versions of the Pentagon Papers: 

The full version of the Pentagon Papers contains a wealth of new material. Unlike the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series (the official historical record of U.S. diplomacy), which has also covered this period in its published volumes, the Papers focus on specific, thematic subjects in considerable detail. Also distinct from FRUS, which is assembled by professional historians at least 30 years after the fact, the Pentagon Papers were compiled by defense analysts in the immediate aftermath of the events they cover, when developments were still fresh in their minds and they could put their hands on relevant material. In comparison with the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) print of 1971, which until today was the only officially released version of the Pentagon Papers, the declassified volumes will illuminate findings of the Pentagon Papers analysts and data that have long been suppressed. To give just one example, the study contains a selection of data on the war in both North and South Vietnam covering the period of and immediately after the U.S. ground intervention (1965-1967), which is represented in the HASC edition simply by summary charts. The original study contains an estimated 2,000 pages of documents, many of them pertaining to U.S. strategy during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The HASC edition contains very few documents dated later than 1963, thus excluding almost all the Johnson evidence, and some Kennedy material. In addition, the HASC version of the Papers was heavily expurgated, in particular on such subjects as a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, cross-border operations, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization matters, U.S. bombing policy, and some materials on U.S. training of the South Vietnamese military.

Another important comparison is with the version of the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg actually leaked, which obviously never passed through the hands of government censors. These were published as The Senator Gravel Edition: The Pentagon Papers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). Editors of the Gravel edition either lacked access to, did not have space for, or were not as interested in certain other material. The Gravel edition also lacks the statistical section mentioned above, plus it is much less ample for the early period in Vietnam, excluding documents for the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and the Geneva conference. In contrast to the HASC version, the Gravel edition contains many documents dated after 1963, but without an item-by-item juxtaposition it will be impossible to tell what is new and what is not. It is in fact possible that documents in the Gravel edition were extracted from the narrative of the original or from a different source altogether.

Neither previously released version of the Papers includes the background papers written by project analysts. This very significant material will be entirely new. The Gravel edition also lacks the footnotes that were separately gathered, and of course both editions omit the Diplomatic Volumes. Again, careful dissection will be required to highlight other new advances in our knowledge.

What Are We Posting Today? … (full text and Notes 1 – 2).

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