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Hylander Provides a Look at Daniel Ellsburg & the Pentagon Papers

Jul 30, 2018 01:00PM ● By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Hylander demonstrates how Ellsburg & Russo got the classified documents out of the Pentagon 

story & photo by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Contributing Writer 

Historian Gary Hylander continued his lecture series on the 1960s when he visited the Bellingham Senior Center near the end of June to talk about Daniel Ellsburg and the infamous Pentagon Papers. 

Typical for a historian, Hylander took the group through Ellsburg’s background. Still alive, Ellsburg only recently published a book, The Doomsday Machine. The Pentagon papers, however, were not a book, per se; rather, they were a report compiled by the Rand Corporation, at U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s request, for a full review of America’s involvement in Vietnam. 

According to Hylander, McNamara knew by 1967 that the war in Vietnam was lost, but he believed that if he understood how the U.S. had gotten involved in Vietnam, he, McNamara, would be able to figure out how to extricate the country from its involvement there.

As part of understanding how Ellsburg came to decide to publicize the Rand Corporation’s report to the Pentagon, Hylander walked us through some background of Ellsburg’s history. A marine who went to Vietnam in the 1950s to serve as an advisor to South Vietnamese, Ellsburg trained S. Vietnamese Soldiers in how to use weapons made in the U.S. and supplied to the S. Vietnamese.

Hylander also reminded the group at the Senior Center about the “domino theory,” which was prevalent at the time, the belief that if one country turned to communism, others were sure to fall to the same totalitarian system, in succession. 

“The governing principle was that it was atheistic Communism vs. God-fearing western powers,” Hylander noted. He also pointed out, “ This was when the phrase ‘Under God’ was inserted into the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.”

We learned that Ellsburg, once discharged from the Marines, joined the Rand Corporation, a center/right think tank. From there, Ellsburg moved to the Defense Department. 

Hylander explained that Ellsburg had top security clearance and could, therefore, read the field reports coming in from Vietnam; in doing so he discovered a big difference between what these filed reports were saying and what the American generals were saying.

Hylander said, “There was no truth in the public reports about how the war was going.”

Ellsburg was sent to Vietnam, under the auspices of the Defense Department, on a fact-finding mission, and when he returned, he resigned and returned to the Rand Corporation.

In what seemed to be a side note, Hylander went further back in time to immediately after WWII, noting that Ho Chi Min, later the nemesis that the U.S. battled in Vietnam, had been a staunch ally of the U.S. against the Japanese during WWII. 

When Ho Chi Min declared independence for Vietnam in 1947, the U.S. initially gave its support, promising not to let France go back into Vietnam, which it had held as a colony.

“But the cold war changed things,” Hylander noted. “At this same time in the post-WWII era, the U.S. was propping up Western Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, but this was seen as a threat to France, which had twice been invaded by Germany, in WWI and WWII.” 

Hylander continued, “To gain France’s cooperation, the U.S. allowed that country back into Vietnam and was permitted to use Marshall plan funds [U.S. money] to help finance their return to Vietnam.”

Ellsburg, along with a man he partnered with, Anthony Russo, learned through reading the classified reports that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which had been used to prompt a declaration of war on Vietnam, had been a lie—the U.S. had not been attacked; rather, we were inside territorial Vietnamese waters. “They realized they had been lied to for the past four previous administrations,” Hylander said.

All this background, including understanding Ellsburg’s past as a Marine, led Hylander to explain Ellsburg’s “whistle-blowing” actions of sharing classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, as the actions of a patriot.

“Ellsburg felt he had to make the truth know,” Hylander said. He then described Ellsburg’s and Russo’s method of getting highly classified documents out of the building where they worked. 

Security was tight, but Ellsburg and Russo each took out ten pages at a time, nonchalantly walking out with these small packages, carefully keeping track of the page numbers, and quietly replacing each section, in order, the next day.

They got the cooperation of Russo’s girlfriend, who owned a copy shop, and photocopied each section, eventually resulting in 47 volumes of documents.

Ellsburg gave the first full copy of the Pentagon Papers to Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who began reading from the documents into the public record from the Senate floor. 

“Fulbright was protected from prosecution because of a Senate rule that protected sitting congressmen,” Hylander explained.

Ellsburg made an additional copy and gave this copy to a reporter at The New York Times. By this time Nixon had been elected, and he was advised to do all that was needed to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. 

“This was the beginning of the ‘plumbers’ of Nixon fame,” Hylander noted. “Ellsburg was in hiding, and G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who were later convicted in the Watergate scandal, raided Ellsburg’s psychiatrist’s office, looking for dirt on Ellsburg, but his records were not at the psychiatrist’s office.”

Both Ellsburg and Russo were charged by Nixon’s justice department under the Espionage Act, but the judge in the case, William Byrne, Jr., dismissed the charges.

“Byrne was a straight arrow,” Hylander explained. “He was told by administration sources that he was the top choice to lead the FBI after Hoover’s then-recent death, but only if Ellsburg and Russo were convicted.”

Hylander noted, “Byrne dismissed all charges, but the case still took two years.”

Check with the Bellingham Senior Center for Hylander’s next visit, as he continues to bring to life what for some of us feel like quite recent events!








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