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The Fielding Break-In
Dr. Lewis Fielding’s File Cabinet (Hugh Talman/NMAH, SI)
Friday, September 3rd, 2021, marked the 50th anniversary of the “Fielding Break-In.” The Fielding Break-In was an attempt to discredit defense analyst Dr. Daniel Ellsberg by a top-level, government-sanctioned burglarizing of the Los Angeles office of Dr. Lewis Fielding. The burglary is generally regarded as a precursor to the Watergate break-ins of May and June of 1972 that ultimately led to the downfall of the Nixon presidency in August 1974.
Daniel Ellsberg at the Los Angeles courthouse, 1973; Anthony Russo and Patricia Ellsberg to his right. Credit: Associated Press
Dr. Daniel Ellsberg worked for the RAND Corporation think tank beginning in 1958 on nuclear strategies. In 1964, he was recruited by the Department of Defense to work as a military strategist under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to be one of the thirty-six analysts assigned to the Pentagon Papers study. A combination of time spent working alongside the military in Vietnam and the information the classified study revealed changed Ellsberg’s view of the war. From avid support to staunchly against the war effort, he believed “that if members of the public learned what the study revealed, they would have a similar conversion.” With the help of colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg copied the research and began sharing it with the antiwar politicians of the Senate. When official channels failed, he contacted Neil Sheehan of the New York Times and met with the reporter in March 1971. The Federal Government charged both Ellsberg and Russo with violating the Espionage Act of 1917; their trial began in Los Angeles on January 3, 1973. Federal judge William M. Byrne, Jr. dismissed the case against both men after governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering became exposed.
Publishing of the Pentagon Papers
On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began publishing “The History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam," otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers. The Times planned to release a series of excerpts beginning with the front-page headline “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” A second front page installment of the series published on June 14, 1971, titled “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says,” drew the ire of Attorney General John Mitchell. On June 15, after the third installment was published, a temporary restraining order issued by the Department of Justice prevented further publication of the classified material. Its publication, and the ensuing controversy, would affect the legacies of five presidential administrations, become the catalyst of Watergate, and distort the nation’s view of wartime politics.
What are the Pentagon Papers?
Cover page of "The History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam." Credit: The UVA Miller Center
Commissioned by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for the Johnson administration, the Pentagon Papers documented the United States involvement in Southeast Asia during the years of 1945-1967. According to the Washington Post, "McNamara has insisted that he authorized the study to preserve for scholars the government documents that chronicled the key decisions resulting in the United States' involvement in an Asian land war.” The project consisted of thirty-six analysts who used confidential archival documents from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Central Intelligence Administration (CIA) to compile information. A 7,000 page, 47-volume "Top-Secret” study was completed in 1969, five days before Richard Nixon's inauguration. The study reported that the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations had misled the public about America's involvement in Vietnam.
David Rose. “Pentagon Papers” Trial. The Bombshell Evidence – Photographs Showing that White House Operatives Had Burglarized [sic] the Office of Ellsberg’s Psychiatrist, April 27, 1973. Porous point pen, crayon, pastel, opaque white, and ink wash on illusion illustration board. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00). LC-DIG-ppmsca-51573 Estate of David Rose
Publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 called into question America’s longstanding intentions in Southeast Asia. The Supreme Court decision in favor of the New York Times, the national discord regarding the war, and the upcoming election weighed heavily on the Nixon administration. Continued publication of classified documents by the media along with new information stating that Ellsberg had access to confidential matters well beyond the study motivated the creation of the "leak project." This group of "plumbers" worked with agencies to investigate and interview for possible confidential leaks. It consisted of Egil Krogh, David Young, Howard Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy. Looking for information to discredit Ellsberg, operatives of the group broke into the Los Angeles office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, looking for his motivation, intentions, and possible co-conspirators. As the "leak project” leader, Egil Krogh, Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, authorized the break-in and later pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to violate civil rights.” Sentenced to six years, he ended up serving four and a half months in federal prison. A little over nine months later, police arrested five burglars with ties to Hunt and Liddy breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. Krogh and many others have stated that the Fielding break-in was the precursor to Watergate, which ultimately led to the end of Nixon's presidency.
For more information regarding the Pentagon Papers and the key figures involved, please visit the sites suggested below.
Additionally, using DocsTeach, the National Archives’ online tool for teaching activities through primary resources, we invite you and your students to look further into understanding the United States involvement in Vietnam through the teaching activity “The Vietnam War Timeline: Understanding the Nature of a Controversial Conflict.”
Please feel free to contact us at NixonEducation@nara.gov if you have any questions.
Stayed tuned for regular updates from the Nixon Library Education and Public Programs Team.
The Nixon Library Education and Public Programs Team