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Whatever the specific strengths and weaknesses of the Pentagon history, its impact was clearly most damaging to Democrats, but the Nixon Administration's attempts to suppress the report made many Americans wonder about its motives. U.S. Attorney Whitney North Seymour conceded that "what the Government has done in this case is a terribly unpopular thing. We are villified on all sides." The impending prosecution of Ellsberg is certain to bring more abuse, as well as some praise, to the Administration.
The White House insisted, with much justification, that it must take action when it feels that a law has been violated. "How would you explain to people that you elected not to enforce the law?" asked one presidential aide. Yet the law in this case was not necessarily all that clear cut. Only the court action will determine whether the law has, indeed, been violated. If the newspapers are allowed to resume publication, the Administration can be faulted on two counts: its reading of the law was poor and capacity to amplify the voice of its critics was unbounded.
At least subliminally, the Ellsberg affair was bound to affect the mood of both the country and Congress, adding some velocity to the antiwar tides. The Senate showed growing impatience with the Administration's Viet Nam disengagement policies and was in a mood for strong action. By virtue of only one vote, hawks were able to gut an amendment to the draft extension bill that would have cut off all funds for U.S. military operations in Indochina within nine months. The Senate then went on to pass with ease, 57 to 42, a bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that urged the President to withdraw all troops in nine months but did not include a cutoff of funds.
Too Many Ellsbergs
The Pentagon papers controversy has severely damaged the mutual willingness of press and Government—inherently in conflict—to maintain a working relationship with each other. The fact that for the first time the difference had to be resolved by the Supreme Court indicates a breach that threatens the orderly processes of a democratic society. Regardless of the legal issues, the newspapers saw a higher morality in exposing the secret history of decisions that had led to a dangerously unpopular public policy. Appeal to a higher morality by an individual or an organization is often necessary—and always dangerous. No government of law can passively permit it—or simply repress it. Therein lies the Administration's dilemma. There may be too many Daniel Ellsbergs in the U.S. now for a President to ignore their will.
Ellsberg has helped fulfill his prophecy of mounting stress in the U.S. unless the war ends, a prophecy offered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. Said Ellsberg: "Personally, I have thought in the last couple of years of protest in this country that it was still possible to exaggerate the threat to our society that this conflict posed for us. But I am afraid that we cannot go on like this, as seems likely, unless Congress soon commits us to total withdrawal, and survive as Americans. I think that what might be at stake if this involvement goes on is a change in our society as radical and ominous as could be brought about by our occupation by a foreign power. I would hate to see that."