Ken Burns Classroom

The Pentagon Papers: National Security versus the People’s Right to Know

Ken Burns Film: The Vietnam War

Collections: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1-2 class periods


Students will view selected video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and examine various viewpoints in regard to the legality of the publication of the Pentagon Papers. After viewing the segments and completing graphic organizers, students will engage in a class discussion about the video. The lesson culminates with students writing a persuasive essay answering the question of whether it is morally and ethically acceptable for a “leaker” to release classified information, even if it might embarrass the government or endanger national security.

Lesson Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the impact of the Pentagon Papers on public opinion over the war in Vietnam.
  • Understand the historical evolution of freedom of the press and the government’s need to protect citizens and protect American policy.
  • Recognize issues related to freedom of the press in opposition to national security and government secrecy.
  • Determine issues related to instances where government officials might attempt to manipulate press coverage for personal benefit or political goals.
  • Develop persuasive skills by defending viewpoints in a public forum, and collaborative skills by listening to and respecting the viewpoints of others.

Lesson Procedure

  1. Begin the lesson by writing the text of the First Amendment dealing with freedom of speech and the press on the chalkboard or LCD projector:
    Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech, or of the press.

  2. Ask students to speculate as to whether freedom of speech or the press is absolute; in other words, are there instances in which the government can restrict freedom of the press? Students may say that press freedom can be restricted during wartime. They may also note that press freedom can (or should) be restricted in instances where national security may be threatened. Some students may note that press freedom ought to be limited in instances where individuals’ reputations may be harmed.
  3. Suggest to students that clashes between press freedom and the government’s right to maintain national security and conduct a war are not unknown in American history. Explain to students that the Espionage Act of 1917 prohibited individuals from obtaining or delivering information relating to national defense to other individuals not authorized to have it. Note to students that in 1919, the Supreme Court upheld the Espionage Act in the case Schenck v. US.
  4. Next, explain to students that in 1931, the Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that neither the state nor national government could exercise prior restraint, or censorship before publication. The court did hold, however, that the government could censor publications in cases where national security may be in jeopardy.
  5. Distribute “The Pentagon Papers Graphic Organizer” and watch the video segments as a class. Students may need to view the clips more than once to complete their handouts. (Note: If time is a concern, you may assign both video clips and the graphic organizer as a homework activity.)
  6. Once students have completed the graphic organizer, lead a class discussion focused on the following questions. Alternatively, you could also review with students other instances of information leaks in history, including Watergate and Deep Throat, the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, or the release of sensitive information by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks.

Questions for Video Clip #1

  • Who had commissioned the study of American entry into the Vietnam War? Why was the study commissioned?
  • Why did Daniel Ellsberg copy the report? Why did journalist Neil Sheehan feel it was necessary to publish the study?
  • What do you think is the more important issue, that government documents were leaked or that the US government hadn’t been totally honest in its assessment of the Vietnam War?
  • What was President Nixon’s original thought about the publication of the study? Why did he eventually change his mind?

Questions for Video Clip #2

  • Why do you think Nixon was so vigorous about trying to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers? In your view, is this a violation of the newspapers’ First Amendment freedom? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think the Nixon administration planned to go to such extremes to discredit Ellsberg (breaking into his psychiatrist’s office, leaking personal information about him)? Could there have been a justifiable reason for Nixon’s conduct in this matter? What would it be?
  • Were Ellsberg or Nixon justified in their behavior, or did they both cross the line of responsible behavior by government officials? Explain why you think the way you do.

Lesson Conclusion: Essay Assignment
After discussion has concluded, assign students the task of writing a persuasive essay on the statement below. Have students use their graphic organizers to help them organize and write their essays.

Include answers to the following question in your essay:

Daniel Ellsberg felt it was morally important for the public to know the information included in the Pentagon Papers, even though the information in the study was classified. Is it ethically and morally acceptable for someone to leak this type of information, even though it might be embarrassing or damaging to the government or national security?   Explain your point of view.

Extension Activities

  • Conduct a mock trial of Daniel Ellsberg, who was accused of violating the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking the Pentagon Papers. (Because of illegal wiretaps and searches by the government, charges against Ellsberg were dropped.) A similar sample mock trial can be found at  
  • Have students access the “The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, Lies, and Audiotapes” page on the National Security Archive of the George Washington University website. Ask them to listen to one (or more) of the Nixon tapes dealing with the Pentagon Papers case and write summaries of what they hear on the tape.
  • Ask students to review the facts and decision in the 1919 Supreme Court decision in Schenck v. US. Ask them to write position papers as to whether the Supreme Court would have reached the same decision if the Schenck case had been heard today as opposed to in 1919.
  • President Nixon ordered the Justice Department to obtain a court order to prohibit publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds of national security. Have students write a position paper on whether it was morally or ethically acceptable for President Nixon to attempt to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, primarily for personal, political purposes.

National Standards for History

10.1A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the Nixon administration’s involvement in Watergate and examine the role of the media in exposing the scandal. [Formulate historical questions]

10.1A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues raised by the Watergate affair and evaluate the effects of Watergate on public opinion. [Examine the influence of ideas]

10.1C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess Nixon’s policy of detente with the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. [Analyze multiple causation]

10.1C.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the reformulation of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

10.2D.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the desegregation of education and assess its role in the creation of private white academies. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.1B.7 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between superpower rivalries and the development of new military, nuclear, and space technology. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.1C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the significance of research and scientific breakthroughs in promoting the U.S. space program. [Examine the influence of ideas]

9.2C.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the Vietnam policy of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and the shifts of public opinion about the war. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.2C.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the composition of the American forces recruited to fight the war. [Interrogate historical data]

9.2C.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate how Vietnamese and Americans experienced the war and how the war continued to affect postwar politics and culture. [Appreciate historical perspectives]

9.2C.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the provisions of the Paris Peace Accord of 1973 and evaluate the role of the Nixon administration. [Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations]

9.2C.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the constitutional issues involved in the war and explore the legacy of the Vietnam war. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.2E.2 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze interconnections between space exploration and developments since the 1950s in scientific research, agricultural productivity, consumer culture, intelligence gathering, and other aspects of contemporary life. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.2F.3 ( World History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the influence of television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic communication on the creation and diffusion of cultural and political information worldwide. [Formulate historical questions]

9.3A.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the relationship between post-war Soviet espionage and the emergence of internal security and loyalty programs under Truman and Eisenhower. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.3A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate Eisenhower’s “Modern Republicanism” in relation to the economy and other domestic issues. [Formulate a position or course of action on an issue]

9.3B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Examine the role of the media in the election of 1960. [Utilize visual and quantitative data]

9.3B.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the domestic policies of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” [Hold interpretations of history as tentative]

9.3B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the legislation and programs enacted during Johnson’s presidency. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.3B.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the effectiveness of the “Great Society” programs. [Evaluate major debates among historians]

9.4A.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Explain the origins of the postwar civil rights movement and the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation. [Analyze multiple causation]

9.4A.2 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the Warren Court’s reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

9.4A.4 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the leadership and ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and evaluate their legacies. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

9.4A.5 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the role of the legislative and executive branches in advancing the civil rights movement and the effect of shifting the focus from de jure to de facto segregation. [Evaluate the implementation of a decision]

9.4A.6 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of various African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, as well as the disabled, in the quest for civil rights and equal opportunities. [Explain historical continuity and change]

9.4A.7 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Assess the reasons for and effectiveness of the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest in the civil rights movement. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.1 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Analyze the factors contributing to modern feminism and compare the ideas, agendas, and strategies of feminist and counter-feminist organizations. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances]

9.4B.3 ( U.S. History Grades 5-12 ): Evaluate the conflicting perspectives over the Equal Rights Amendment, Title VII, and Roe v. Wade. [Consider multiple perspectives]

National Standards for Civics and Government

I.C.2.5 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how constitutions can be vehicles for change and for resolving social issues, e.g., use of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; establishment of the Japanese Constitution after World War II, which provided women the right to vote

III.E.3.5.a ( Grades: 9-12 ): evaluate historical and contemporary political communication using such criteria as logical validity, factual accuracy, emotional appeal, distorted evidence, appeals to bias or prejudice, e.g., speeches such as Lincoln’s “House Divided,” Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Chief Joseph’s “I Shall Fight No More Forever,” Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”

IV.B.1.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): explain how and why the United States assumed the role of world leader after World War II and what its leadership role is in the world today

IV.B.2.4 ( Grades: 9-12 ): describe the various means used to attain the ends of United States foreign policy, such as diplomacy; economic, military and humanitarian aid; treaties; sanctions; military intervention; covert action

V.B.2.2 ( Grades: 9-12 ): identify the major documentary statements of political rights–the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the United States Constitution including the Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights, civil rights legislation, court decisions

About The Authors

Michael Hutchison

Michael Hutchison is the social studies department chair at Lincoln High School. Vincennes, Indiana. He has more than 35 years of classroom teaching experience, and has written lessons for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Empire of the Air, Horatio’s Drive, Unforgivable Blackness, The War, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is past president of the Indiana Computer Educators. In 2014, he was named winner of the Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award by the Indiana Historical Society.

Handout: The Pentagon Papers Graphic Organizer

Directions: View video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and answer the following questions.

VIDEO SEGMENT #1: The Pentagon Papers

  • Who compiled the Pentagon Papers? Why?





  • How did Neil Sheehan’s view about what the Pentagon Papers were differ from the government’s view?





  • Why did Daniel Ellsberg feel it was necessary to attempt to release the Pentagon Papers to the public?





  • Why did Sheehan feel it was important to make sure the Pentagon Papers were published?





  • On what grounds did the Justice Department obtain a temporary court order forbidding the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers? How did the Supreme Court rule in regard to the court order? Why?





  • The Pentagon Papers did not specifically criticize or mention President Nixon. However, he felt it was important to try to stop publication. Why did he feel that way?





  • Why was Nixon so fixated on prosecuting Ellsberg? In other words, what did he fear about Ellsberg?





  • Vietnam War veteran Karl Marlantes said, “That changed our whole attitude toward government. Up until then, the president wouldn’t lie. After then, they always lie.” Do you think this is a fair assessment? Why or why not?





VIDEO SEGMENT #2: Daniel Ellsberg and The Espionage Act

View the “Daniel Ellsberg and the Espionage Act” video segment from THE VIETNAM WAR and answer the following questions.

  • Who were the plumbers?





  • Why was Nixon so concerned about “raiding” the Brookings Institute? What did he want the plumbers to do?





  • Based on what you saw in the video clip, do you think Ellsberg’s actions warranted prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917? Why or why not?






  • Analyze the actions of Nixon and the plumbers. If you were a lawyer representing Nixon and or the Plumbers, how would you argue that their actions were justified?