June 9, 2001
ABROAD AT HOME
When Truth Is 'Treason'
By ANTHONY LEWIS
Despite all the gains for democracy in the world, in many countries anyone
who wants to publish truths unwelcome to the government risks suppression
and criminal punishment. If Henry Kissinger and Richard
Nixon had had their way, that would be so in the United States, too.
On June 13, 1971, 30 years ago next Wednesday, The New York Times began
publishing a series on the secret official history of the Vietnam War that
became known as the Pentagon Papers. That afternoon President Nixon spoke
on the telephone with Dr. Kissinger, his national security adviser. The
conversation has now been declassified, and published by the National
"It's treasonable, there's no question," Dr. Kissinger said. "It's
actionable, I'm absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security
Dr. Kissinger suggested that he talk with the attorney general, John
Mitchell. President Nixon agreed. Two days later Mr. Mitchell asked the
courts to bar further publication of the Times series.
An extraordinary legal struggle followed. It ended 15 days later, when the
Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, rejected the Nixon administration's claim.
The First Amendment and other legal doctrines, the court said, protect the
right to publish even these highly classified documents unless, as Justice
Potter Stewart put it, publication would "surely result in direct,
immediate and irreparable damage to our nation or its people." The
government had not made that showing.
So it was judges who saved this country from the repressive spirit that
prevails in so many others. The Pentagon Papers case stands today as a
barrier to silence by official edict.
But there is another meaning in the Pentagon Papers episode. It was caught
in an exchange between President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger later in that same
June 13 conversation.
"My God," the president said, "can you imagine The New York Times doing a
thing like this 10 years ago?" Dr. Kissinger replied, "And then, when
[Senator Joseph] McCarthy accused them of treason, they were screaming
Mr. Nixon was right. Ten years earlier The Times was unlikely to have
published such a volume of classified documents on a national security
matter. What had changed? That was the question Mr. Nixon did not ask, and
did not understand.
What changed the attitude of The Times and other mainstream publications
was the experience of the Vietnam War. In the old days in Washington the
press respected the confidence of officials because it respected their
superior knowledge and good faith. But the war had shown that their
knowledge was dim, and respect for their good faith had died with their
false promises and lies.
Reporters and editors of The Times in the past had accepted the need for
some secrecy. (James Reston, the great Times reporter and columnist, knew
for years but did not write that we were flying U-2 spy planes over the
Soviet Union.) Now they were all for publishing the Pentagon Papers. The
decision was up to the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, and it was not an
easy one. He was a former U.S. marine with a deep concern for national
security. But when we were fighting a dubious war by dubious means, where
did that security lie? Mr. Sulzberger gave the go-ahead for publication.
This country is now firmly committed to freedom of expression on even the
most sensitive subjects. So we believe. But it would be a great mistake to
think that the Pentagon Papers case settled the issue forever on the side
Just last year Congress passed a bill that would have made publication of
any classified information a crime. The press paid little attention to the
menacing legislation until it had gone through both House and Senate and
been sent to the White House. President Clinton then saved the day by
vetoing the bill.
Every generation has to relearn the lesson of the Pentagon Papers case.
William B. Macomber, deputy under secretary of state at the time,
testified for the government, saying that diplomatic disclosures might have
"irreparably damaged the chance of free government to endure." But years
later he said:
"Even though . . . nothing is more important to me than the security of the
United States, the First Amendment is, in another way, the security of the
United States. You can't save something and take the heart out of it."
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