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Pentagon papers finally released

Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Jacqueline Kennedy at Chamkarmon Palace during her visit to Cambodia in November of 1967.

THE United States government has released the full version of the Pentagon Papers, a once top-secret report that details US actions in countries including Cambodia as the Vietnam conflict escalated and was leaked in partial form 40 years ago.

The US National Archives declassified the report on Monday, 40 years after the New York Times published selections leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on part of the study with the Defence Department. Ellsberg had tried to leak the documents to the Senate in the hope that it would convene hearings on the war.

Some 2,384 pages, or about 34 percent of the original 7,000-page report, have been released publicly for the first time, the National Archives said in a statement.

The report was commissioned by US defence secretary Robert McNamara and catalogues US policy-making in Indochina from 1945 to 1967. 

The leak showed that four successive American presidents had misled their citizens about US policy in Southeast Asia, as they spoke publicly of restraint while simultaneously expanding US commitments in the region. 

The report also exposed the involvement of the Kennedy Administration in the 1963 coup d’etat that led to the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, President Lyndon Johnson’s approval to bomb North Vietnam and decisions to expand military operations from Southern Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos. 

Among other topics, officials raised concern over the stationing of North Vietnamese troops in the Kingdom and debated how to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was used as a supply route between North Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam.

Historian David Chandler, an expert on Cambodia who served as a US diplomat in Phnom Penh in the early 1960s, said it was “very exciting” when the papers came out.

“It was a good move. I approved of what Ellsberg was doing,” he recalled.

Chandler said the information contained in the report wasn’t “wildly surprising” at the time for those closely studying the region, though its leak may have been the most significant breach of US government secrecy in American history, igniting a battle at the Supreme Court and an eventual victory for press freedom.

The National Archives said that the newspaper and magazine releases from Ellsberg’s leak contained “only a very small portion” of the complete papers, and Monday’s release marks the first time they have been available in full.

“The fact of the matter is that no one, outside the people properly cleared to view Top Secret, has seen the real Pentagon Papers,” the agency said in a statement. About two-thirds have been made available previously, as US Senator Mike Gravel published portions in 1971 and US the State Department declassified an additional section in 2002.

Chandler said he had not yet trawled through the final version of the documents that was released on Monday, but did not expect any “surprises” for Cambodia, noting that the most controversial US actions toward the Kingdom came under President Richard Nixon, who approved the infamous bombing campaign that released at least half a million tons of bombs in Cambodia from 1969 to 1973.

Though Cambodia is less of a concern in the papers, the documents do show that trying to eliminate Northern Vietnam’s use of both Cambodia and Laos for supply routes and military operations was a persistent challenge for US policymakers.

One internal document from the Kennedy Administration contained in the papers shows that officials had raised alarm over the issue at least as early as December 1962. A US State Department official says in the document that Northern Vietnamese forces had been using Eastern Cambodia as a base from which to stage hit-and-run attacks in Southern Vietnam since 1960.

On numerous occasions, military officials called for “hot pursuit” of Northern Vietnamese forces into Cambodian territory. A 1967 document reveals pressure within the US government for Johnson to expand the Vietnam War into neighbouring countries, presaging the devastating consequences Cambodia would endure as it was dragged further into the conflict.

“The military had once again confronted the Johnson Administration with a difficult question on whether to escalate or level-off the US effort. What they proposed was the mobilization of the Reserves, a major new troop commitment in the South, an extension of the war into the VC/NVA [Viet Cong/North Vietnam] sanctuaries (Laos, Cambodia, and possibly North Vietnam) the mining of North Vietnamese ports and a solid commitment in manpower and resources to a military victory,” the US document states.

“The recommendation [from the military] not surprisingly touched off a searching reappraisal of the course of US strategy in the war.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KRISTIN LYNCH



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