Gulf of Tonkin Recordings and Portion of Pentagon Papers Released

Jun 06, 2003

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library has opened two small but significant additions to the historical record of the Vietnam War. The first is a series of recordings of telephone conversations on August 4 and 5, 1964, concerning the attacks on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. These recordings were made in the Department of Defense and compiled in late August. In all, there are 51 conversations -about 2 hours, 15 minutes of recorded time--between high-level military officials, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as well as duty officers at the Pentagon and Hawaii reporting on events as they unfolded on those days. The conversations are available in the Library's Reading Room and on two CDs.

Thirty-eight conversations were transcribed by the Department of Defense, and this 74-page transcript is also available. Researchers should be cautioned, however, that the transcripts are not always reliable and should never be used without checking them against the actual recordings to assure accuracy. The Library has also fully declassified what has become known as the "Negotiating Volumes" of the Pentagon Papers. Officially titled United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, the Pentagon Papers were compiled in the Department of Defense to document US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. In a highly controversial move, Daniel Ellsberg, who had gained access to the Papers while working as a consultant at the RAND Corporation, leaked the bulk of the study-but not these sections dealing with peace negotiations--to the New York Times in 1971. The Nixon Administration attempted to suppress publication of the Papers but in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the government's request for a restraining order.

While the papers themselves revealed few new secrets about US involvement in the war, their publication undoubtedly contributed to increased opposition to the war and public distrust of the government. A sanitized version of the previously unreleased negotiating volumes was opened in 1977 and subsequently published in 1983 by the University of Texas Press in a volume edited by George Herring. Now, the 115 pages that were previously restricted have been declassified and opened. While the new material is a small fraction of the entire Pentagon Papers, its release marks a significant milestone in the history of this controversial and significant study.

The events surrounding the journey of these documents from government secrets to publication and release are perhaps even more interesting and are very topical at the moment. How are we to manage government secrecy, freedom of the press, and individual rights in the interests of both national security and democracy?