Miller Center

First Domino: Nixon and the Pentagon Papers

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara found himself struggling with a mounting sense of frustration over the Vietnam War. McNamara concluded in early 1967 that a comprehensive analysis of the history of U.S. involvement in post-1945 Vietnam was needed, partly out of a need to answer his own questions about how things had gone wrong. McNamara ordered his Second Military Assistant, Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Gard, to initiate a study into the history of America’s role in Vietnam, with an emphasis on the internal policy-planning and decision-making within the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, on June 17, 1967, the Vietnam Study Task Force was officially created under the direction of Leslie H. Gelb, the director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.

When work was completed on January 15, 1969, Gelb’s team of 36 military personnel, historians, and defense analysts from the RAND Corporation and the Washington Institute for Defense Analysis had produced 47 volumes and 7,000 pages. United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, more commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, represented a documentary and analytical record of the evolution of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II through the aftermath of the Tet Offensive of 1968. Most importantly, however, this highly classified study conclusively revealed that the administrations from Harry S. Truman through Lyndon B. Johnson had knowingly deceived the American people in their conduct of the war. As historian John Prados argues, the Pentagon Papers represented “a body of authoritative information, of inside government deliberations that demonstrated, beyond questioning, the criticisms that antiwar activists had been making for years, not only were not wrong, but in fact, were not materially different from things that had been argued inside the U.S. government.”

Like most classified documents, McNamara’s study could have been filed away in obscurity, leaving its most important message untaught for decades to come. However, due to the intervention of one of the study’s authors and a New York Times reporter, the Pentagon Papers became public. The leak of this study to the Times became a turning point in the history of Richard Nixon’s presidency and a crucial catalyst in his downfall. Ultimately, it was this leak that convinced President Nixon that he was in the battle of a lifetime, not only to protect his own presidency, but to protect the nation. In his eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed that there existed, throughout the government and media, a radical, left-wing conspiracy whose purpose it was to topple his administration and undermine his authority as the President of the United States. Faced with this embarrassing security breach, Nixon eventually concluded that he would have to fight back against the “conspiracy” with every tool at his disposal, even if that meant breaking the law. Unfortunately, this decision would ultimately carry over to other battles against this imagined conspiracy and would cost him the very thing he was fighting to protect, his presidency. 

Richard Nixon


To understand the ending, one must first learn the entire story from its conception, and this particular tale begins with Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. A defense analyst specializing in nuclear weapons strategy and counterinsurgency theory, Dr. Ellsberg had previously served in the Defense Department and in the State Department as a civilian analyst in South Vietnam. After the latter assignment ended, Ellsberg returned to the United States and the RAND Corporation. It was from there that he was later invited by Leslie Gelb to become a member of the Vietnam Study Task Force. For Ellsberg, though, this brief stint with the task force had the effect of confirming what he had already come to suspect, namely, that the history of the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam was one of deception. Upon returning to RAND, Ellsberg became increasingly frustrated with the Nixon administration, believing that its conduct in Vietnam was merely a continuation of his predecessors’ pattern of deception and escalation. As his frustration grew, Ellsberg began to contemplate leaking the study so that its contents and its lessons could be made public.

Over the course of several weeks in the fall of 1969, Ellsberg managed to sneak out and photocopy the study with the help of another former RAND employee. With these copies in his possession, Ellsberg, who soon thereafter moved to the MIT Center for International Studies, became convinced of the need to find an outlet through which to leak them. If the public’s eyes could be opened to this history of dishonesty, he thought, the war in Vietnam might be brought to an end. Initially, Ellsberg turned to members of Congress such as Senator J. William Fulbright [D-Arkansas], Senator Charles Mathias Jr. [R-Maryland], Senator George McGovern [D-South Dakota] and Congressman Paul (Pete) McCloskey Jr. [R-California], all in the hope that one of them would be willing to enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. Despite his pleas, all four declined. But Ellsberg’s efforts were not entirely fruitless. Senator McGovern suggested that he provide his copies to either the New York Times or the Washington Post. In March 1971, Ellsberg decided to show the study to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

Sheehan and the Times understood how big a story they had. Shortly after he returned with thousands of photocopied pages from the study, the Times put Sheehan and a few select reporters up in the New York Hilton to sift through the mountains of photocopies while the newspaper management decided whether to take the risk of publishing such a highly classified document. On June 10, word reached Sheehan that against the advice of Lord, Day & Lord, the paper’s attorneys, the management of the Times had decided to go ahead. Not only were many pages of the Times to be filled with articles based on the classified study, but dozens of the government documents that comprised nearly 4,000 of its pages would be published as well. Certain that the need to reveal the history of deception that Ellsberg had seen in the study outweighed the danger of possible criminal prosecution, the New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers article on Sunday, June 13, 1971. The paper’s front page carried an article by Sheehan, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” It was, the Times announced, part one of a series.

Taking legal action against the Times was not Nixon’s first reaction. In a June 13, 1971, conversation with National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, the President recognized that in some ways the publication of the Pentagon Papers helped him politically, since the study reminded readers that the Vietnam War was more the product of his predecessors’ mistakes than his own. Nixon and Kissinger both assumed, mistakenly, that the release of the study was timed to affect an upcoming vote on the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would require the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. To be sure, Nixon denounced the publication as “unconscionable” and worse, but the lesson he drew from it was that the administration should just plow ahead and make sure to “clean house” of disloyal people who might partake in such a “treasonable” act.

Conversation 005-059

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June 13, 1971 | 3:09-3:22 pm

President Nixon: Well, that’s—[Al] Haig was very disturbed by that New York Times thing. I thought that—

Henry A. Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, I think—

President Nixon: Unconscionable damn thing for them to do.

Kissinger: It is unconscionable [unclear]—

President Nixon: Of course, it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s unconscionable on the part of the people that leaked it. Fortunately, it didn’t come out on our administration.

Kissinger: That—

President Nixon: That appar—according to Haig, it all relates to the two previous administrations.

Kissinger: —that—

President Nixon: Is that correct?

Kissinger: That is right.

President Nixon: But I hope the—but I—my point is if—are any of the people there who participated in this thing, who—in leaking

it? That’s my point. Do we know?

Kissinger: In public opinion, it actually, if anything, will help us a little bit, because this is a goldmine of showing how the previous administration got us in there.

President Nixon: I didn’t read the thing. Tell—give me your view on that in a word.

Kissinger: Oh, well, it just shows massive mismanagement of how we got there. And it pins it all on [former President John F.] Kennedy and [former President Lyndon B.] Johnson.

President Nixon: [laughing] Huh. Yeah!

Kissinger: And McNamara. So from that point of view it helps us. From the point of view of the relations with Hanoi, it hurts a little, because it just shows a further weakening of resolve.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And a further big issue.

President Nixon: I suppose the Times ran it to try to—try to affect the debate this week or something.

Kissinger: Oh, yes. No question about it.

President Nixon: Well, it—I don’t think it’s going to have that kind of effect.

Kissinger: No. No. Because it’s—in a way, it shows . . . what they’ve tried to do—I think they outsmarted themselves, because they had put themselves—they had sort of tried to make it “Nixon’s War,” and what this massively proves is that, if it’s anybody’s war, it’s Kennedy’s and Johnson’s.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: So that these Democrats now bleating about where it went wrong—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —or what we’re doing wrong, this graphically shows that—that who—who is responsible for the basic mess.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: So I don’t think it’s having the effect that they intend.

President Nixon: Well, you know . . . it’s—it may not have the effect they intend. They—the thing, though, that Henry, that to me is just unconscionable, this is treasonable action on the part of the bastards that put it out.

Kissinger: Exactly, Mr. President.

President Nixon: Doesn’t it involve secure information, a lot of other things? What kind of—what kind of people would do such things?

Kissinger: It has the most—it has the highest classification, Mr. President.

President Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Kissinger: It’s treasonable. There’s no question it’s actionable. I’m absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws.

President Nixon: What—what do we do about it? Don’t we ask for an—

Kissinger: I think I—I should talk to [Attorney General John N.] Mitchell.

President Nixon: Yeah.

President Nixon: Well, that’s a long trip for you, but I wouldn’t—that’s—and I—don’t worry about this Timesthing. I just think we’ve got to expect that kind of crap, and we just plow ahead, plow ahead.

Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, if we succeed in two out of three, as you said—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —this summer—

President Nixon: Yeah. Yeah.

Kissinger: —[unclear] will look like pygmies.

President Nixon: If we can—[laughs.] But, boy, you’re right about one thing. If anything was needed to underline what we talked about Friday—or Saturday morning, about . . . about really . . . really cleaning house when we have the opportunity, by God, this underlines it.

Kissinger: Oh, yes.

President Nixon: And people have got to be put to the torch for this sort of thing. This is terrible.


President Nixon: Well, I just wish that we operated without the bureaucracy.

Kissinger: [laughing] Well, Mr. President.

President Nixon: We do.

Kissinger: [Laughs.] All the good things that are being done—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —are done without—

Kissinger: We do. We do. We do. Well, anyway, I’ll tell you what. On the Mitchell thing, I’d just have them—have him examine what the options are.

As promised, Monday, June 14, brought the second installment in the Times’s series and another front-page article by Sheehan entitled, “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed before ’64 Election, Study Says.” Nevertheless, the second day saw little change in Nixon’s disposition as he remained seemingly resigned to allowing the Times to continue printing. In fact, during a conversation with John D. Ehrlichman, who was calling to tell the President that Attorney General John Mitchell was interested in warning the paper against further publication, President Nixon explained that it was his intention to leave the Times alone and instead punish the individual who leaked the study. Clearly, Nixon’s early reaction was primarily concerned not with the nature of the specific leak itself, but with the desire to prosecute the person who had done something he viewed as an expression of disloyalty in the extreme. 

Conversation 005-068

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June 14, 1971 | 7:13-7:15 pm

John D. Ehrlichman: Mr. President—

President Nixon: Hi, John.

Ehrlichman: —the Attorney General [John N. Mitchell] has called a couple times about these New York Timesstories, and he’s advised by his people that unless he puts the Times on notice—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: —he’s probably going to waive any right of prosecution against the newspaper. And he is calling now to see if you would approve his putting them on notice before their first edition for tomorrow comes out.

President Nixon: Hmm.

Ehrlichman: I realize there are negatives to this in terms of the vote on the Hill.

President Nixon: You mean to prosecute the Times?

Ehrlichman: Right.

President Nixon: Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to them.

Ehrlichman: Yeah, if you can find out who that is.

President Nixon: Yeah, I know.

The next day, Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who feared that the government would forfeit the right to prosecute the Times if it did not respond to their articles immediately, asked the President’s permission to send the newspaper a legal warning to cease publication. Nixon was reluctant to interrupt the airing of the Democrats’ dirty linen, but in a quick phone call he agreed to Mitchell’s plan, reasoning that the Times was an “enemy.”

Conversation 005-070

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June 14, 1971, 7:19–7:22 pm

President Nixon: What is your advice on that [New YorkTimes thing, John? You would—you would like to do it?

John N. Mitchell: I would believe so, Mr. President. Otherwise, we will look a little foolish in not—

President Nixon: Mm-hmm.

Mitchell: —following through on our legal obligations and—

President Nixon: Has this ever been done before?

Mitchell: A publication like this, or—

President Nixon: No, no, no. Have you—has the government ever done this to a paper before?

Mitchell: Oh, yes, advising them of their—

President Nixon: Oh.

Mitchell: —yes, we’ve done this before.

President Nixon: Have we? All right.

Mitchell: Yes, sir. I would think that—

President Nixon: How—how do you go about it, you do it sort of low-key?

Mitchell: Low-key. You call them and then send a telegram to confirm it.

President Nixon: Mm-hmm. And say that we’re just—we’re examining the situation, and we just simply are putting you on notice.

Mitchell: Well, we’re putting them on notice that they’re violating a statute because—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Mitchell: —we have a communication from—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Mitchell: —Mel Laird as to the nature of the documents—

President Nixon: Right.

Mitchell: —and they fall within—

President Nixon: Right.

Mitchell: —a statute. Now—

President Nixon: Right.

While Nixon was under the impression that the telegram to the Times was going to be a low-key request for a cessation of publication on the Pentagon Papers, the telegram sent by the Department of Justice was anything but low-key. It demanded that the paper halt publication of the Pentagon Papers and threatend criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act, Title 18, United States Code, Section 793. The message also conveyed the expectation that the Times would make immediate arrangements to return the documents in question to the government. The newspaper responded that publication would continue, but it would accept the final decision of the courts.

Nonetheless, on the evening of the 14th, President Nixon remained relatively unconcerned with what he saw as an unremarkable episode in a troubled relationship with a cantankerous press. Other members of the administration, however, were livid over the leak of a highly classified Pentagon study. According to most accounts, Kissinger was visibly incensed by both the leak and the Times’s articles, fearful that these actions would jeopardize both the United States’ chance to develop closer relations with China and its negotiations with the North Vietnamese, and committed to getting the President to appreciate the gravity of the situation and the breadth of the “conspiracy” facing him. (For a different view of Kissinger’s role in shaping Nixon’s response to the leak, see “A Rough Guide to Richard Nixon’s Conspiracy Theories” by Ken Hughes.) By the morning of Tuesday, June 15, Nixon was convinced there was a conspiracy.

Conversation 520-003

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June 15, 1971, 9:56 am - 10:37 am | Oval Office

President Nixon: This is a very bad situation. This guy is a radical that did it. A radical, we think. Radical left-wing—

H. R. “Bob” Haldeman: [Daniel] Ellsberg? [Unclear.]

President Nixon: [Unclear.] No, we don’t know who the hell he is. But maybe it’s him. Or maybe it’s [former Director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs Leslie H.] Gelb. One of the two. Either is a radical. So he takes out papers and does it—now goddamn it, [pounding desk] somebody’s got to go to jail on that. Somebody’s got to go to jail for it. That’s all there is to it. Our people here just can’t, however they think about the war, can’t go saying, “Well, we’re doing this and that.” We’ve got to fight it just like hell.

Haldeman: Yeah.

President Nixon: Huh. It really is a tough one. But I think . . . [Attorney General John N.] Mitchell wanted to do it. I said, “Fine. Go.”

President Nixon: But, Bob, we’re doing the right—just got—I’m convinced that, you know, the more you think of the situation, I think the more you just have to—you have to fight. The Times thing just really convinced me that we’re up against—I mean, as [National Security Adviser] Henry [Kissinger] said, it’s a conspiracy, Bob. What do you think? Don’t you agree?

Haldeman: It’s absolutely clear. Look at the timing that they put that thing in up there.

President Nixon: [New York Times reporter] Neil Sheehan is a vicious antiwar type. Sure, we’re all against it, but goddamn. And if they’re going to go to this length, we’re going to fight with everything we’ve got. And I—I’m just—I just—we’ll just take some chances.

Nixon thought the White House needed to disassociate itself from what he termed the “Kennedy-Johnson Papers,” and convey that its response to the situation was motivated solely by its interest in fulfilling the duties of the government. Hoping to gain an injunction that would prevent it from publishing any more of the study, President Nixon had ordered the Department of Justice to initiate legal action against the New York Times. He remarked to Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, a White House political operative, that the Times’s actions simply could not be tolerated or left unchallenged in a free country.

Conversation 005-081

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June 15, 1971, 6:21–6:27 pm

President Nixon: We’re going to be stuck with it. But on the other hand, we can’t say much. But . . . but I think it’s very important to—to build a backfire on these people. Understand, I personally think that if we cast this in the right direction, Chuck, this could backfire on the Times. I—

Charles W. “Chuck” Colson: Oh, I think absolutely.

President Nixon: They’re playing to their own constituency. Now, we’ve got to get across several points. One, it’s the [former President John F.] Kennedy-[former President Lyndon B.] Johnson papers.

Colson: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: Basically, that’s what we’re talking about, the Kennedy-Johnson papers, and that gets it out of our way. Second, it’s a family quarrel. We’re not going to comment on them.

Colson: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: But what we have is the larger responsibility to maintain the integrity of government.

Colson: Wholly unrelated to—

President Nixon: That’s right.

Colson: —these papers.

President Nixon: And—wholly unrelated [unclear] integrity of government, like as [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers said in his press conferences, he had inquiries from foreign governments today as to whether their papers were classified, or, you know.

Colson: Right.

President Nixon: And that this also involves . . . it really—it really does involve this. I mean, it really involves the ability to conduct government. How the hell can a president or a secretary of defense or anybody do anything?

Colson: That’s right.

President Nixon: And how can they make a contingency plan if it’s going to be taken out in a trunk and given to a goddamn newspaper?

Colson: Well, I don’t think there’s any question, Mr. President, that it’ll—my own feeling is that it will backfire against the New York Times and we can help generate this. I—as a matter of fact, we have a meeting going on at the moment that I—

President Nixon: Oh, good.

Colson: —that I—

President Nixon: All right.

Colson: —came out of to talk to you but—

President Nixon: All right, fine. Well, then—

Colson: —it’s—

President Nixon: —go ahead and meet.

Colson: No, no. The purpose of it is to generate some editorials in the—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: —other newspapers that are highly critical, like the Chicago Tribune or to give us a good play. The New York Daily News should.


Colson: I think the Times’ position is indefensible. I think that it’s—it’s distinguishable from any other case, in that here we went to them and said, “You can’t publish that, it’s a violation of security.” And they said, “To hell with you, we’re going ahead and publish anyway.” So we would have been very, very remiss in our duties had we not taken whatever legal means were available to prevent it. And—

President Nixon: That’s right.

Colson: —I think we—I think you’ll find a great deal of popular support for—

President Nixon: If we can generate. Now they’re—they’re running the line, Chuck, of “right to know.” Raise that with Price. Ask him how do you answer “right to know?” That’s of course a goddamn code word, “right to know.” The public has no right to know secret documents.

Colson: Well, we’ve been—

President Nixon: I don’t want to know.

Colson: No, of course not. And . . . you can make the point that—

President Nixon: Mm-hmm.

Colson: —”right to know” does not include things—

President Nixon: Right.

Colson: —which will compromise the—either the security of the nation—

President Nixon: Which will injure the country.

Colson: —or—

President Nixon: And right—and freedom of the press does not—is not the freedom to destroy the integrity of the government, to print . . . well.


President Nixon: Now the point is that here, what the Times has done, is placed itself above the law. They say, “The law provides this, but we consider this an immoral war, it’s our responsibility to print it.” Now goddamn it, you can’t have that thing in a free country.

It is important to note that President Nixon’s conclusion that taking the Times to court was necessary to protect the sanctity of the government was not based on fears that dangerous national security secrets would be released if the Times continued to publish. Actually, the President’s recorded conversations reveal that the legal battle waged against the New York Times was undertaken as part of a political strategy to assert the authority of the administration and deter all would-be leakers and conspirators by demonstrating that it would never tolerate such behavior. Despite his newfound determination to pursue an injunction against the Times, President Nixon was unconcerned with specific secrets the Times might reveal if allowed to resume printing the Pentagon Papers, a point he made clear on June 16 during a call to Ehrlichman. While the Justice Department was currently basing its suit against the Times on arguments that further publication of the Pentagon Papers represented a grievous threat to national security, President Nixon had already decided that it didn’t matter if the Times printed any more. By this time, he was only concerned about the potential impact the case’s outcome would have on the second stage in his battle to defend the presidency. An adverse ruling, he feared, might hurt his plan to launch a grand jury to indict Ellsberg. 

Conversation 005-101

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June 16, 1971, 8:22–8:25 pm

John D. Ehrlichman: It just occurred to me today as I read the pleadings—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: —that there was a possibility that we could get the kind of an adverse finding on the merits—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: —in this—

President Nixon: Right.

Ehrlichman: —hearing that we really ought to have a chance to take a look at. If we once—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: —launch that grand jury and then—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: —get an adverse ruling from the court and stop it, then I think we’ve got a bad—

President Nixon: Well—

Ehrlichman: —face off.

President Nixon: —what does it really get down to? If you delay it, does that mean the Times goes ahead and—the temporary restraining order apparently applies for four days only, is that right?

Ehrlichman: It expires by its terms Saturday at noon—or one o’clock.

President Nixon: So they’d go ahead and print.

Ehrlichman: They’d print the Sunday edition anyway, regardless of what the grand jury did.

President Nixon: Yeah. . . . I’m not too concerned about what they print now. . . . The point is you don’t want to have an adverse—

Ehrlichman: I don’t want to appear to be calling off a grand jury in midflight.

President Nixon: Right. Right. That makes a lot of sense.

A pivotal meeting took place in the Oval Office the following day. Interestingly, it was at this meeting that Kissinger himself provided some insight into why he was initially incensed by the leak while the President was not. Kissinger told President Nixon that he had known Ellsberg personally as a brilliant young analyst. In fact, Ellsberg had lectured for one of Kissinger’s classes at Harvard in 1959, and he had personally consulted with Kissinger about the future administration’s options for the Vietnam War in 1968, only weeks before President Nixon took office. However, as he recounted to the President, their friendship had soured. During the question-and-answer period following a lecture that Kissinger had given at the MIT Center for International Studies, Ellsberg had repeatedly interrupted him with a question about the administration’s estimates of Vietnamese casualties that would result from Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. It appears clear that Kissinger’s anger over the leak, as well as his role in fanning the flames of Nixon’s anger, can be partially attributed to a personal sense of betrayal by a former professional friend.

The June 17, 1971, meeting saw the birth of two important presidential initiatives. Not complacent that sympathetic editorials would be enough to stymie the flood of negative publicity that had been beating against the administration since the Times’s first article, the President had already begun to search for other public relations tools. One was former President Johnson himself. Throughout the week, the administration had been attempting to get President Johnson to speak out about the Pentagon Papers because it was believed that the barrage of criticism that had heretofore been directed at President Nixon would suddenly find itself a new target. These efforts to use Johnson as a media shield were only met with frustration. In the face of these failures, it was Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, who suggested that President Nixon blackmail Johnson into taking a public stand by threatening to release a file containing damaging information about the putative political motives behind Johnson’s 1968 decision to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. When told that the Brookings Institution was holding the “bombing halt” file, an irate President Nixon ordered a break-in to steal the file. Now, for the first time since the Pentagon Papers articles had run off the presses, the President of the United States had advocated the use of undeniably illegal action. It would prove not to be the last. 

Conversation 525-001

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June 17, 1971, 5:15 pm - 6:10 pm | Oval Office

President Nixon: Why did they have him in the Defense Department?

Henry A. Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, he’s a funny guy.

President Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: He’s a funny kid. He’s a genius. He’s the brightest student I’ve ever had. He was a hard-liner. He went—he volunteered for service in Vietnam. He was so nuts that he’d drive around all over Vietnam with a carbine when it was guerrilla-infested, and he’d shoot at—he has My Lai cases on his—he’d shoot at peasants in the fields on the theory everyone in black—

John D. Ehrlichman: He’s a born killer.

President Nixon: Go ahead.

Kissinger: [Unclear—overlapping voices.] Then—well, he’s always been a little unbalanced.

Kissinger: —and just totally wild. And he’s moved into a more and more intransigent, radical position. I haven’t myself seen him now for a year and a half except once at a meeting at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] where I talked to a group of students. And 

I . . . I got the students, but he then started up and heckled me and accused me of being a murderer and being associated with a murderer. And then he wrote an article called “Murder in Laos.” I don’t know whether you ever saw that, in which he, in effect, accused me in writing of the same thing.

President Nixon: Well, now, how did he get the papers out then? They backed up trucks to get these out [unclear]—

Kissinger: Well—

Ehrlichman: He was with [the] RAND [Corporation].

Kissinger: —well, what I suspect he did, Mr. President, is RAND had two documents. Now why in the name of Christ RAND was given two sets of documents, I don’t know. I think he stole one set of the RAND documents, filmed them or Xeroxed them, and put them back in. This was—

President Nixon: Just like [Whittaker] Chambers and [Alger] Hiss.


H. R. “Bob” Haldeman: You may just blackmail [former President Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff.

President Nixon: What?

Haldeman: You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.

President Nixon: How?

Haldeman: The bombing-halt stuff is all in the same file. Or in some of the same hands.


Haldeman: We have a basic history of it constructed our own, but the—there is a file on it.

President Nixon: Where?

Haldeman: [White House Aide Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at [the] Brookings [Institution].

Kissinger: I wouldn’t be surprised.

President Nixon: All right, all right, all right. Do you remember—

Haldeman: In the hands of the same kind—

President Nixon: Bob—

Haldeman: —the same people.

President Nixon: Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.

Kissinger: But couldn’t we go over—now, Brookings has no right to have classified documents.

President Nixon: [Unclear—overlapping voices.] You know, I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

Haldeman: They may very well have cleaned them by now, with this thing getting to—

Kissinger: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.

Haldeman: Well, my point is, Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them.

Kissinger: But what good will it do you, the bombing-halt file?

Haldeman: The bombing halt—

President Nixon: To blackmail him—

Haldeman: —the bombing halt—

President Nixon: —because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.


President Nixon: Anyway, why won’t Johnson have a press conference in your view?

Haldeman: Because he’s smart enough not to. From Johnson’s viewpoint, if he has a press conference, it does—he will see exactly what we see, which is that the thing that that will accomplish is clearly put this as a battle of Lyndon Johnson’s credibility versus the world.

Despite his anger with Johnson, President Nixon’s interest in waging the battle for public opinion was already fading by the end of the fifth day. His interest in the covert struggle against the putative conspiracy, however, was on the rise. By the time the Supreme Court agreed on June 25 to hear United States v. New York Times Co. (403 U.S. 713 [1971]), several other papers had already joined the Times in publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers, including the Times’s codefendant in the Supreme Court case, the Washington Post. With the Supreme Court’s decision only a day away, President Nixon was anything but disheartened. His attention had shifted to the the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg and the putative conspiracy. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, President Nixon explained that his singular focus was now to head off the alleged conspiracy, and any future leaks, by making an example of Ellsberg.

President Nixon’s conversation with the Attorney General also reveals the administration’s frustrations with J. Edgar Hoover. As director of the FBI, Hoover was in charge of the official investigation into Daniel Ellsberg’s role in the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. However, the administration was concerned that Hoover, who was friends with Ellsberg’s father-in-law, Louis Marx, might be personally conflicted by the case. President Nixon asked Mitchell to persuade Hoover to do everything he could in going after Ellsberg. Not long after, however, President Nixon began to wonder if the administration would have to find a way to do the investigation that he feared Hoover wouldn’t do.

Conversation 006-021

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June 29, 1971, 11:22–11:27 am

President Nixon: John, the way I feel about this case is that . . . first, in terms of discipline, [Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar] Hoover is right; in terms of his decision he was wrong. You know what I mean, about not—not questioning [Louis] Marx, because he—of personal considerations. But in terms of our overall situation, he just cannot—and I really feel that you have to tell him this—he cannot, with my going tomorrow to address the FBI graduation, and also with the [Daniel] Ellsberg case being the issue, he cannot take anything which causes dissension within the FBI ranks. It’s just—it’s just going to raise holy hell. They’ll say, “This cotchety—crotchety old man did it again,” see. That’s my feeling about it.

John N. Mitchell: Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, Mr. President. I think this might be the last straw as far as he’s concerned.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Mitchell: They—and this of course, as you point out, he does have a paper case.

President Nixon: Sure.

Mitchell: The only question that I had in my mind whether he will take this from me or whether you have to talk to him about it.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Mitchell: That’s the only question I have.

President Nixon: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I’ll tell you what I’d like to do. Why don’t you just say that I—it came to my attention, that I’ve heard about it, that I feel very strongly—I’ll be glad to talk to him about it, but I—I feel—I understand the disciplinary thing, but I think the primary consideration is, we must not have anything with regard to Ellsberg to reflect on Edgar Hoover, and I—and he just has got to find a way to handle it that does not do that.


President Nixon: But—absolutely. But he just—he just—I just don’t—I just say that we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We’ve got to get this son of a bitch. And . . . and you know, I was talking to somebody over here yesterday, I mean one of our . . . the PR [public relations] types, and they’re saying, “well, maybe we ought to drop the case if the Supreme Court doesn’t sustain and so forth.” And I said, “Hell, no.” I mean you can’t do that. You can’t be in a position of having, as I said this morning, we can’t be in a position of—of ever allowing—just because some guy is going to be martyr, of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. Don’t you agree?

Mitchell: Quite. I think that we’re just going to have to do this.

President Nixon: That’s right.

Mitchell: Otherwise, we lose all credibility.

President Nixon: Well, and let me say, too, don’t figure the PR is too bad either. It can turn around the other way. People don’t like people that are thieves.

Just as his previous conversations revealed that significant political motivations drove his earlier support for legal action against the Times, President Nixon’s recordings expose another motive behind his quest to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was to be tried, not simply as an alleged lawbreaker, but to strike fear into the hearts of would-be conspirators and stem the flow of leaks that might otherwise occur. As far as Nixon was concerned, there was little risk that a trial would make Ellsberg a martyr, at least on the political right. Yet, as confident as he was in the message that Ellsberg’s trial would send, President Nixon remained suspicious of Hoover’s loyalty and dedication to the effort. He took steps to launch a parallel investigation. 

Conversation 006-023

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June 29, 1971, 2:28–2:32 pm

Charles W. “Chuck” Colson: Bob [Haldeman] gave me a report on the Cabinet meeting and I was elated on—

President Nixon: Uh-huh.

Colson: —two points: one, the—the [Daniel] Ellsberg point and the other the laying down the law to these guys, which . . . I feel right now is the most important thing we can do to get—

President Nixon: Well, with—the point is that the Ellsberg case, however it comes out, is going to get all through this government among the intellectual types, and the people that have no loyalties, the idea that they will be the ones that’ll determine what’s good for this country.

Colson: That’s right.

President Nixon: Goddamn it, they weren’t elected, and they’re not going to determine it that way.

Colson: Well, on the other side of that problem, Mr. President, is that if you allow something like that to go unpunished, then you just encourage—

President Nixon: Mm-hmm.

Colson: —an unending flow of it.

President Nixon: That’s right.

Colson: And on the other hand, if you nail it hard, it helps to keep people—

President Nixon: Right.

Colson: —in line and discourage others.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: That to me is—

President Nixon: You know, I consider this whole problem of the—making a martyr and all that sort of thing, and I just don’t agree with it. You’re not hearing too much of that on that side are you? Or how much are you?

Colson: Well, you’ll hear some from the—

President Nixon: From some PR’s [public relations personnel].

Colson: Yeah, from the Left. Yeah, and . . . the argument is, “Well, he’s—he’s made a hero of himself, and the harder we hit him the more we build him up.” But the way I sized the fellow up—building him up doesn’t—doesn’t help the other side because he’s not an—

President Nixon: Because he’s a natural enemy.

Colson: He’s not an appealing personality. He’s a damn good guy to be against.

President Nixon: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Colson: We’ve had all sorts of reports as you know of his tie-in with other people. I think an awful lot of this will fall out. [American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) International Affairs Director] Jay Lovestone called me today to say that we haven’t even scratched the surface. He said this fellow is really tied in with some bad actors and—

President Nixon: Of course, if you could get him tied in with some Communist groups that would be good.

Colson: Well, Jay thinks—Jay think he is, but of course that’s—

President Nixon: That’s my guess, that he’s in with some subversives, you know.

The next day, by a vote of 6-to-3, the Supreme Court ruled that “the government had not met the ‘heavy burden’ of showing justification for a prior restraint.” In other words, the Times and the Post, as well as scores of other newspapers around the country, were free to resume publication of the Pentagon Papers. Believing the court case to no longer be meaningful, President Nixon’s initial reaction upon hearing the news of the decision was to note that he had been wrong in his prediction of the exact distribution of votes, not the outcome. Once again, President Nixon explained to Colson that nothing, not even the Court’s ruling, would stand in the way of his putting Ellsberg in jail. 

Conversation 006-059

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June 30, 1971, 3:08–3:09 pm

President Nixon: Hello?

Charles W. (Chuck) Colson: Yes, sir, Mr. President.

President Nixon: Well, they got out—came out just like I predicted, didn’t it?

Colson: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: Six—except the interesting thing that I—we held [John M.] Harlan, lost [Byron R.] White. I thought it would be the other way around.

Colson: I—I thought we might get five-to-four out of it. I was—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: —kind of hoping. Of course, the principle remains intact, I gather. I haven’t seen the decisions, but I understand from what I’ve been told that the principle at least of . . .

President Nixon: Classification?

Colson: Of—well—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: —of classification and of being able to prevent unauthorized—

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: —disclosures if the evidence supports it.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: So that really what—what it says is that the evidence in this instance doesn’t support it. Now—

President Nixon: Mm-hmm.

Colson: —to say—

President Nixon: Well, I just saw [Attorney General John N.] Mitchell, though, and I said, “Now, don’t—don’t let—don’t give up on [Daniel] Ellsberg.” He says—and he said, “well, it’s just they’re going to try to make him a martyr in this.” I said “Goddamn it, don’t worry about his being a martyr! I don’t think they can get away with that one.”

Colson: I don’t either.

President Nixon: Do you?

Colson: No, sir.

With the Supreme Court’s decision having officially concluded his struggle against the newspapers, President Nixon focused on formulating a plan for the battle against Ellsberg. If the administration was going to successfully make an example out of Ellsberg, Nixon concluded that the White House was going to have to do the its own investigation, using whatever means necessary to get the job done, even if it meant authorizing illegal activities. Nixon would resort to extralegal means because, as Nixon explained to Haldeman on the night of the 30th, “It’s a tough game.” 

Conversation 006-062

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June 30, 1971, 7:22–7:27 pm

President Nixon: Most important is, we’ve got to know on this [Defense Secretary Melvin R.] Laird [unclear] I want that Brookings Institution and break into their files and get them messed up now. [Unclear] and out it comes. [Unclear] and also we’ve got to get all this information with regard to [unclear], find it and get it out. Now, we—I don’t know. I guess that—I—we don’t have anybody on our staff that can work with us other than—except [White House Aide Tom Charles] Huston. Huh? Is that right? Do you agree?

H. R. “Bob” Haldeman: No, we’ve got others. [White House Counsel John W.] Dean [III]—Dean can and his crew.

President Nixon: Well, but they—do they understand how we want to play the game or do you—

Haldeman: Oh, sure.

President Nixon: —can you tell them?

Haldeman: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: Do they know how tough it has to be played?

Haldeman: Yep.

President Nixon: Dean, you said?

Haldeman: Yeah. I think we may—what we may want to do is . . .

President Nixon: Good to have two pockets.

Haldeman: Yeah.

President Nixon: Believe me, it’s a tough game.

The leak of the Pentagon Papers was the catalyst behind the Nixon administration’s amplified willingness to break the law in pursuit of its own agenda. Rather than entering the history books as just another leak of classified material, Ellsberg’s actions managed to institutionalize a profound paranoia in the psyche of a presidential administration, convincing the President that he would never be safe from a vast radical “conspiracy” seeking to destroy him. It was this paranoia that led to the creation of the White House Special Investigations Unit. Informally referred to as the Plumbers, this unit was the ultimate manifestation of Nixon’s determination to use covert and extralegal means not only to investigate Ellsberg, but to fight back against the putative liberal “conspiracy.”

The establishment of the SIU was an important step on the way to the break-in at the Watergate complex, which was carried out by a group that included members of the Plumbers. The Pentagon Papers leak set in motion the series of events that ultimately cost Nixon that which he had sought to defend at all cost, his presidency. As Sanford Ungar contends, “There’s an absolutely clear line, if it hadn’t been for the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate would have occurred later, maybe it would have been different, but the abuses would not have been so great.” Thus, on June 13, 1971, the New York Times published its first article on the Pentagon Papers, and in so doing, toppled the first domino in a President’s downfall.

See also: Senator Gravel news conference


Jordan Moran is a research intern with the Presidential Recordings Program. Special thanks to Ken Hughes for his assistance with this material.