IT was on a Sunday morning, June 13, 1971, that The Times published its first installment of the Pentagon Papers. Few readers may have been more excited than a circle of aspiring undergraduate journalists who’d worked at The Harvard Crimson. Though the identity of The Times’s source wouldn’t eke out for several days, we knew the whistle-blower had to be Daniel Ellsberg, an intense research fellow at M.I.T. and former Robert McNamara acolyte who’d become an antiwar activist around Boston. We recognized the papers’ contents, as reported in The Times, because we’d heard the war stories from the loquacious Ellsberg himself.
But if we were titillated that Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear that this internal government history of the war had mass appeal. Tricia Nixon’s wedding in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday received equal play with the Pentagon Papers on The Times’s front page. On “Face the Nation” the guest was the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, yet the subject of the papers didn’t even come up.
That false calm vanished overnight once Richard Nixon, erupting in characteristic rage and paranoia, directed his attorney general, John Mitchell, to enjoin The Times from publishing any sequels. The high-stakes legal drama riveted the nation for two weeks, culminating in a landmark 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision in favor of The Times and the First Amendment. Ellsberg and The Times were canonized. I sold my first magazine article, an Ellsberg profile, to Esquire, and, for better or worse, cast my lot with journalism. That my various phone conversations with Ellsberg prompted ham-fisted F.B.I. agents to visit me and my parents only added to the allure.