The Times and the Pentagon Papers

Mark Levin of Fox News recently called into question the reputation of the New York Times as a paper "of record."  He pointed to pro-Nazi reporting by Times reporters in Germany during the 1930s, ignoring and downplaying reports of the Holocaust, covering up Stalin's crimes, and a pro-Castro disinformation campaign that helped bring Castro to power. 

Daniel Ellsberg purloined the secret study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and gave it to the Times.  The paper then published a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War in 1971.  It was already late in the, war and in the effort to shift blame, a myth grew that the military caused a gradual buildup with a series of incremental troop requests until finally secretary of defense Robert McNamara became disillusioned.  This book was part of the effort to create the myth.

The book did not contain the study.  It contained some of the papers and was divided into sections, with four journalists writing extensive interpretations to explain what happened for those of us too lazy or dumb to check it themselves. 

To set the stage, McNamara developed a three-phase plan to win the war by early 1968.  Phase I was to raise U.S. troop levels in Vietnam to 175,000 by the end of 1965 with a goal of "stop losing."  Phase II was to add an additional 100,000 in the first half of 1966 with a goal of "start winning."  Once there was a more detailed analysis, the exact number for Phase II was 112,430.

The numbers were based on rates of infiltration from North Vietnam.  "Winning" would start when the "crossover point" was reached.  The crossover point was defined as the point at which American forces killed the enemy faster than he could be replaced.  There would be additional forces for Phase III over the next 18 months, or until early 1968, when victory would be achieved.

The Phase I deployments went as planned, and the level of killing surpassed McNamara's expectations.  In early November 1965, President Lyndon Johnson approved the 112,430 Phase II deployments scheduled for the first part of 1966.  In late November, McNamara was at a NATO meeting where he received a disturbing intelligence report.  Despite the pleasing (for him) level of killing, enemy strength had significantly increased.  The infiltration rates upon which the troop numbers were based had been wrong.  It is McNamara's reaction to this news that the Times manipulated to help build the disillusioned myth.

McNamara decided to go from Europe to Vietnam.  He cabled U.S. commander General William Westmoreland that he was coming to receive Westmoreland's recommendation for what needed to be added to Phase II deployments.  He provided an insight to his views by asking, "Will it not be necessary to add one or two divisions to the 28 battalions proposed in order to provide more forces in the Delta?"  In response, Westmoreland requested an addition of 41,500 troops to Phase II.

The book explained the above this way.  "Suddenly," meaning, apparently, out of the blue, Westmoreland asked for "a vast increase ... of 154,000 more men."  This allegedly shocked McNamara.

But the request was for 41,500.  Did the Times make it up?  The answer is, pretty much so.  The 112,430 Phase II troops had been approved but were not yet deployed.   If we add 41,500 to 112,430, we get 153,930, or approximately 154,000, which is what the editors of the Times did.  So the total yet to deploy from that point would be 154,000, but the bulk of that number had already been approved.

Is there anything about the Times version that is fair?  What is "sudden" about responding to "will it not be necessary to add one or two divisions?"  One hundred fifty-four thousand might be considered "vast" when compared to the Phase I 175,000, but is 41,500 "vast" when compared to the 287,430 already approved?

Since this only put a Band-Aid in the immediate problem, McNamara scrambled to calculate new numbers to reach the crossover point.  Throughout the first seven months of 1966, he consistently pressured the military to deploy more troops faster.  He was not disillusioned.  It was his plan.  The Times manipulated the information in support of a false narrative.  But it did it cleverly.  To find it out requires a lot of detailed research, so that the risks of going with a false narrative were small.  But, for what it is worth, they have been found out, and this story can be added to Mark Levin's list.

Image: N.Y. Times.

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