Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pentagon Papers Opened the Way for a Questioning, Untamed Press

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pentagon Papers Opened the Way for a Questioning, Untamed Press

Article excerpt

It has been 25 years since the decision that, more than any other, established the modern independence of the American press - its willingness to challenge official truth. That was the decision of The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers.

We were a much tamer press before 1971, more closely tied to the government. In Washington, most of us unskeptically accepted the main themes of U.S. foreign policy. We assumed the good faith of officials and respected their knowledge as superior to ours.

Telling readers about the Pentagon Papers was a sharp break from those attitudes. The papers were a secret history of the Vietnam War, highly classified. Their 47 volumes raised profound doubts about how and why this country had gone into a war that by then many regarded as a disastrous mistake.

The premises of the old press-government relationship had been shattered by Vietnam. Officials had told so many lies about the war that no rational journalist could any longer accept their word on faith. Far from having superior knowledge, officials had repeatedly shown themselves less informed than correspondents on the ground.

Nevertheless, it was not an easy decision for The Times to publish stories and pages of text. The war was still raging, and soldiers were coming home in body bags. Moreover, the law firm that had advised The Times for decades said it would be a crime to publish.

Publication began Sunday, June 13. On Tuesday the Nixon administration went to court to stop it.

President Richard Nixon had been pressed to act by his national s ecurity adviser, Henry Kissinger, who told a White House meeting that unless such "wholesale subversion" was stopped, "we might just as well turn it all over to the Soviets and get it over with."

U.S. District Judge Murray Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order, and The Times stopped its series. Gurfein, a former military intelligence officer, had just gone on the bench; this was his first case. But he then acted with the probing skepticism of an experienced judge. In a closed hearing, he kept asking government witnesses exactly what in the papers might endanger national security. …

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