Punch Sulzberger’s Pentagon Papers Decision
Excerpt from “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times,” by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, published by Little, Brown and Company, 1999
On a blustery Friday in late March 1971, Neil Sheehan, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife, Susan, a writer for The New Yorker, arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and checked into the Treadway Motor House near Harvard Square, registering as Mr. and Mrs. Thompson. Hours later Sheehan called Bill Kovach, the Times’ Boston bureau chief, from a pay phone. “I need some help,” he said. After weeks of negotiation, Sheehan had persuaded Daniel Ellsberg, a researcher at MIT’s Center for International Studies, to let him see a top-secret historical study of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The forty-seven-volume work had been commissioned in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had grown increasingly disenchanted with the war and had ordered a historical study to trace the roots of the United States’ engagement. Lyndon Johnson had known nothing about the study, and of the fifteen copies distributed at the time of its completion in 1969, only one went to an official in the Nixon Administration: National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.…
Twelve weeks later Punch [Sulzberger] gave the green light to publish what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, despite having been advised by the paper’s lawyers that the Times might be sued and driven into financial ruin and that he himself might go to jail. The far greater worry, by his own reckoning, was that readers might judge the Times to be treasonous. Punch had weighed all these factors carefully, but once he finally made up his mind, he became immovable. When Louis Loeb, the paper’s outside counsel, refused to defend the paper’s actions in court, Punch dismissed the man who had represented the Times, and the Sulzberger family, since 1948, and sought legal advice elsewhere. “We are going to look back on these days as some of the most exhilarating in the history of the Times and…in the history of American journalism.” Punch wrote managing editor Abe Rosenthal after the Pentagon Papers episode was over, with the Times more secure than ever in its greatness.
The same could be said of Punch. The publication of the Pentagon Papers was his grand, defining moment, a moment in which he took his bearings from his heritage and his own values and instincts, and steered the paper safely and surely toward the “right” decision.…
Punch was deeply anxious about the consequences of his decision, but he had no real qualms that his choice was correct. He had not consulted his mother or his sisters, but simply informed them of his decision shortly before publication. Likewise, the Times’ directors had no idea ahead of time that the paper was about to put itself at risk. The board doesn’t discuss editorial matters,” Punch explained….
It took Sheehan a month to sort through the papers and prepare his presentation. In a meetings with the Times’s top editors, he briefed them on the origin and scope of the Pentagon study. All agreed that this secret history of the Vietnam War should be published.
…in a conference room off the Times’ third-floor newsroom, [Abe] Rosenthal, Scotty [Reston], and other top editors told Punch about the Pentagon report for the first time. “The more I listened, the more certain I became that the entire operation smelled of twenty years to life,” Punch would recall more than two decades later. At the time, he said little. “I’m not sure we should publish this stuff,” he muttered to Sydney Gruson as they went back upstairs. “The question is not whether we should publish it,” Gruson replied. “The question is how we’ll publish it. That’s all.”
A few days later Punch convened a conference of editors, senior executives, and lawyers in the Times’ boardroom to discuss what should be done. With Adoph looking down from his portrait above the fireplace, the meeting quickly turned tense. Louis Loeb argued passionately against disclosure of secret information. By publishing classified material, the paper not only would be in violation of the Espionage Act, he warned, it would violate its own tradition of responsible journalism. Executive vice president Harding Bancroft, a former legal adviser in the State Department, agreed: to publish would be to invite economic and political ruin.
The editors lined up unanimously on the opposing side. The Times had published classified documents many times in the past, they pointed out. After all, hadn’t Scotty Reston won a Pulitzer Prize for his stories on the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which were based on privileged information? Of the lawyers present, only [James] Goodale, the Times’ general counsel, allied himself with the editors. If the stories were presented carefully, he said, higher courts would never sustain an injunction or criminal conviction against the Times.
After listening to the debate, Punch told Rosenthal to continue preparing the material but that he had not yet made up his own mind about whether the Times should publish it. Though Punch almost never interfered in the news judgments of his editors, in this case, he said to Rosenthal, he and he alone would make the final decision….
Meanwhile, the battle for the soul of Punch was in full cry. About three weeks after the acrimonious meeting in the boardroom, a delegation from Louis Loeb’s law firm, Lord, Day & Lord, convened with Punch and three of the paper’s senior executives; this time no editors were invited. Accompanying Loeb was senior partner Herbert Brownell, an éminence grise of the Republican Party. As Eisenhower’s attorney general, Brownell had drafted the presidential executive order establishing the system for classifying documents. In the publisher’s back sitting room he solemnly predicted that if the Times printed the Pentagon history, Punch and others would probably go to jail and the Times would be damaged beyond imagining. “He scared the bejesus out of me,” recalled Punch. Goodale, who was present, urged Loeb and Brownell to at least look at the documents before they made such a rigid judgment, but they refused, claiming that even to read them constituted a crime. Loeb then invoked a name certain to resonate with Punch. He was absolutely certain, he said, that Arthur Hays Sulzberger would never publish such material.
For weeks Punch had wrestled with every aspect of the dilemma, knowing full well that the decision before him was actually a series of decisions. First he had to choose whether to publish anything at all; then, how much material; and finally, in what form. Each element provoked a roiling debate. His gut told him that Goodale was right: even if the government went after the Times, the courts would ultimately leave the newspaper alone. “I did not believe that the risks were what Herb Brownell had told me,” he said. “I didn’t think they were going to come and lock me up, but I thought they could fine us one hell of a lot, and we didn’t have all that much money.”
One of Loeb and Brownell’s strongest arguments was that by disclosing top-secret documents, the Times risked losing its credibility with readers. Punch, however, was equally concerned about losing credibility with his editors, who had told him that not publishing the account would forever bring dishonor on the Times. “After all, [the report] should be in the public domain because it was history, and it was not secret; it had been illegally stamped SECRET,” said Punch….
Early on, Punch had told Rosenthal that he wanted to read what was intended for publication before making his final decision. In late May Rosenthal, with barely contained glee, wheeled a grocery cart containing the relevant documents into Punch’s office. Until then, remarked Punch, “I did not know it was possible to read and sleep at the same time.” He found the material so turgid that he began to wonder whether it was worth the expense of releasing it.
The tentative publication date of June 10 was fast approaching, and Punch still had not given a clear signal of his intentions. While he ruminated, he found himself returning again and again to the question Turner Catledge [then Managing Editor] had posed years ago over drinks in his back-office Club, the place where Punch had gotten his real journalistic education: Who are you writing this paper for? “That cleared it up, pretty much,” acknowledged Punch. “We weren’t writing for the benefit of the government; we were writing for the benefit of the reader, who is entitled to know.”
That still left the thorny issue of whether to publish the classified documents themselves or merely quote or paraphrase them. The day before he was to render his final judgment, Punch dispatched his stalking horse, Sydney Gruson, to see if Rosenthal could be persuaded to alter his position about printing the documents verbatim. Gruson made his pitch in the early evening while driving Rosenthal home.… “No documents, no story,” said Rosenthal, who felt so strongly that he had privately resolved to resign if Punch did not agree. Gruson relayed the message back to Punch.
On Friday morning, June 11, Rosenthal and Frankel gathered in Punch’s office to hear his decision. Neither editor had gotten much sleep; both were in a fog after weeks of worry and hard work. With a serious, deadpan expression, Punch made his pronouncement: “I’ve decided you can use the documents”—at which point there was a slight pause, and then he added—“but not the story.” In their glassy-eyed state, it took Rosenthal and Frankel a moment to get the joke. So there would be no question about his position, Punch had prepared a formal memo that stated: “I have reviewed once again the Vietnam story and documents that would appear on Sunday, and I am prepared to authorize their publication in substantially the form in which I saw them.” The secret history was to appear as a series of articles over several days rather than in a single issue. If the federal government secured an injunction to stop publication, the Times would honor it.…
After two days of publishing the “Vietnam Archive,” the Attorney General’s office threatened the paper with a lawsuit.
Bancroft called Loeb, who advised the Times to obey the attorney general, but when Bancroft seemed inclined to agree, Rosenthal demanded that Punch make the final call. At about 2:00 A.M. London time, Punch was roused from an untroubled sleep at the Savoy Hotel. In New York, his voice was broadcast over a speakerphone, and as Goodale recalled, “Punch sounded like ‘I wish I weren’t publisher of The New York Times. I wish this would go away.’” Punch asked what everyone thought, and as Goodale listened to the various opinions, he sensed that the publisher was especially influenced by the arguments of Bancroft and Loeb and that he was going to halt publication. Defiance of the attorney general would almost certainly mean a court fight starting the next day. The Times had done its duty and published the first two installments, and there was every incentive not to tangle with Washington over classified documents. Finally, Punch asked Goodale whether continuing to publish would increase the paper’s liability. “Not by five percent,” he replied.
With that, Punch indicated, albeit with great ambivalence, that the paper should continue publication. “He really never was comfortable with the whole thing,” Goodale said later. “He was generally persuaded that it was a crime.” When Rosenthal returned to the third-floor newsroom, the 150 people waiting to hear the publisher’s verdict erupted in cheers. Punch’s decision to proceed with the series was in many respects more courageous than his original one. No longer were the stakes theoretical, and the penalties were potentially grave.…
On Tuesday, June 15, the third installment of the Pentagon Papers appeared, along with a front-page account of [Attorney General] Mitchell’s telegram, his telephoned threat to Brownell, and the Times’ response. “The most satisfying headline I’ve ever seen in the Times is the one that read ‘Mitchell Seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam but Times Refuses,’” Rosenthal told Time magazine. Later that day, as expected, the attorney general went to federal court and persuaded a judge who had been sitting on the bench for only five days to issue a temporary restraining order to halt further publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Although Punch had made it clear that he was willing to defy the attorney general’s request, he had made it equally clear that he would abide by the courts. The New York Times suspended publication, marking the first time in the nation’s history that a newspaper was restrained in advance by a court from publishing a specific article.
…The attorney general’s attempt to muzzle the Times accomplished what the Pentagon Papers themselves had been unable to: it provoked the outrage of the national media and focused attention on what the purportedly explosive documents actually revealed. As important, the relationship between the press and government became the subject of public debate, with the nation’s most respected and Establishment-minded paper leading the charge. Punch and the Times staff suddenly found themselves regarded as heroes in certain circles.…
Punch flew back to New York the day after the restraining order was issued. At an airport press conference, and in the many interviews he gave over the next few days, he eloquently argued the Times’ case. “This was not a breach of national security,” he explained. “We gave away no national secrets. We didn’t jeopardize any American soldiers or marines overseas. These papers…are part of history.” As for charges that he had published classified material, he remarked, “I think that is a wonderful way, if you’ve got egg on your face, to prevent anybody from knowing it; stamp it SECRET and put it away.” When he was asked who had made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, Punch gestured to his chest with his pipe and silently mouthed, “Me.”
© 1999 by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones. By permission of Little, Brown and Company (Inc.).