COLUMBIA — It’s been more than 30 years since the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the New York Times. The top secret report delved into the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, and its publication tested the boundaries of the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.
It’s a different war in the news today, but some say the lessons of the Pentagon Papers have become increasingly relevant.
On Wednesday, MU will host a forum called Battle of the Pentagon Papers. Panelists will include Charles Davis, executive director of National Freedom of Information Coalition and associate professor of journalism at MU; Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies; and Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder professor of law at MU.
On Saturday, the Concert Series will present a dramatic rendering of the papers by LA Theatre Works.
Wednesday’s forum will focus mainly on the Pentagon Papers and their significance more than 30 years later, Davis said.
The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret report commissioned in 1966 to study U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, including the Vietnam War. The report was completed Jan. 15, 1969, and showed that the U.S. had deliberately become more involved in the war than they claimed they had. A copy of the study was leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by a former defense department employee, Daniel Ellsberg. The publication of the papers played an important role in altering public opinion and perception of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Davis said the Pentagon Papers are particularly relevant considering the situation in Iraq right now.
“When I think about it, there are many parallels, even 37 years later,” Davis said. “It’s eerie.”
Loory agrees that government secrecy is still an issue.
“If people want to find out about how the government is dealing with information from Iraq, they should look at the past,” he said.
Loory was working at the Los Angeles Times as a White House correspondent at the time of the Pentagon Papers’ publication. After they appeared in the New York Times, many newspapers were looking for them, and he was able to acquire some, but not all, for the Los Angeles Times. He remembers the public’s reaction clearly.
“The reaction was huge,” he said. “At the time of the publication in the Times, it was a worldwide story, not just a nationwide story.”
Wells said it was a very important case because it solidified the idea that injunctions and restraints on speech are wrong, but from a legal standpoint it might be considered detrimental to journalists.
Davis said he hopes people will come out and think about some of the parallels between current events and the Pentagon Papers.
“We’re talking about universal values of democracy and big-picture ideas,” he said.
Wednesday’s forum is the latest in a series of forums on global issues sponsored by the chancellor’s office and the MU Difficult Dialogues Program, which is funded by the Ford Foundation.
According to the MU Difficult Dialogues Web site, the goal is to stimulate intellectual discussion and to teach students to express opposing view points respectfully.