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        The War at Home: The Pentagon Papers - National Security versus the People’s Right to Know | ​Ken Burns & ​Lynn Novick: The Vietnam War

        In this lesson, 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. 

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, 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.

        Time Allotment

        One or two class periods with homework.

        Learning Objectives

        • 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.


        Video Segments:

        Student Handout:


        About The Author

        Michael Hutchison is social studies department chair at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Indiana. A teaching veteran with more than 38 years of classroom experience, he has written curriculum for several Ken Burns films, including The Civil War, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Tenth Inning, The War, and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. He is the winner of the 2014 Caleb Mills Indiana History Teacher of the Year Award.

        Introductory Activity

        • 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:
        • 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.
        • 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
        • 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.

        Learning Activities

        • 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.)
        • Once students have completed the graphic organizer, lead a class discussion focused on the following questions.
          • 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.
        • 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.
        • 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.

        Culminating Activity

        • 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 here
        • 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.


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