There are a couple of Boston angles to the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents were leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, who died Friday at the age of 92.
Most people know that the papers were published first by The New York Times and then by The Washington Post. The story of the Post’s race to catch up with the Times is depicted in “The Post,” a 2017 film starring Tom Hanks. What is less well known is that The Boston Globe was the third paper to publish the documents. Former Globe editor Matt Storin wrote about the Globe’s role in a 2008 reminiscence (free link):
It was a significant milestone in the effort of the Globe’s editor, Tom Winship, to lift a formerly modest local paper to national prominence. Before that day in 1971, the Globe had won a single Pulitzer Prize. Since then, it has won 19 more. [And seven more since then.]
It was no accident that the Globe was one of the first three papers, either. “I definitely chose the Globe … because it had been great on the war,” Ellsberg told Storin. The tale Storin relates is pretty wild. Ellsberg, who had access to the documents as an analyst with the RAND Corp., had made a copy of them. The news of the documents’ existence was broken by Globe reporter Tom Oliphant after he interviewed Ellsberg, which in turn led Ellsberg to make still more copies and start disseminating them to the press before the FBI could come calling.
The whole story, including phone-booth document drops and the decision to hide the papers in the trunk of a car parked at the Globe, is well told by Storin.
The other Boston angle is that Beacon Press, a small independent book publisher that is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, published the Pentagon Publishers after a number of other houses passed on the opportunity because of the legal risks involved. The Beacon Blog quotes Gayatni Patnaik, Beacon’s current director:
Daniel Ellsberg’s incredible fortitude stands as an example for all who believe in fighting for democracy and government accountability and who oppose war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are incredibly proud to have taken the stand we did in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Today, over 50 years later, we are still guided by the principles that led to that brave decision.
Thanks to Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub for flagging that item. And by the way, Beacon is also the publisher of “What Works in Community News,” co-authored by Ellen Clegg and me, which is scheduled to be released in early 2024.