Lawyer and lobbyist Harry McPherson, 1929-2012

As Special Counsel to Lyndon B. Johnson through the turbulent years of 1965-1969, Harry McPherson was speechwriter and adviser on many major decisions, including the 1968 Tet Offensive.

As one who came to believe Vietnam was an unwinnable war McPherson, together with Clark Clifford, persuaded Johnson to reduce bombing activities.

This 1981 interview sees McPherson reflecting on his relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as some of the pivotal political decisions throughout his tenure.

40 Years Ago The New York Times Publishes The Pentagon Papers

by Lindsay Whitacre

40 Years ago today, the New York Times began to publish what became known as “The Pentagon Papers,” arguably one of the most important leaks of classified material in American history.  Today the papers will be released in their entirety, including the notorious 11 missing words from the original document.

For the ground-breaking documentary series, “Vietnam: A Television History” WGBH interviewed David Ellsberg he recalls his time as a RAND military analyst helping plan the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964 and 1965.  He then talks about his rationale for handing over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and seventeen other newspapers.  He recalls photocopying the 7,000 pages by hand and his realization that the Vietnam War was not winnable.

Further Reading:

Transcript of WGBH interview of Daniel Ellsberg:

The Official Pentagon Papers:

New York Times reporting on the release of The Pentagon Papers:

43 years ago today: Westmoreland leaves Vietnam

On this day in 1968, General William Westmoreland turned over his command of the U.S. forces in Vietnam to General Creighton Abrams. Watch a 1981 interview with Westmoreland here, part of Open Vault’s Vietnam Collection.

From the time he took command in 1964, General Westmoreland adopted a war strategy of attrition. To do so, he drastically increased troop deployment to Vietnam – ultimately requesting up to 700,000 soldiers. General Westmoreland also pushed for broadening the war to engage the enemy hiding in neighboring countries.

His strategy would later come under criticism from both the public and leaders in Washington. The January 1968 Tet Offensive prompted serious questions about both Westmoreland’s attrition strategy and America’s involvement in Vietnam. His departure was seen as a reaction to these questions.

Watch the interview to hear Westmoreland’s take on the Vietnam War.

– by Jon Rzepala

Robinson Risner, former POW

This Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifices of our service men and women. We invite you to watch or listen to our interview with James Robinson Risner, filmed for Vietnam: A Television History in 1981.

J. Robinson Risner, 1981

Risner, a celebrated fighter pilot who led missions in both the Korean and Vietnam wors, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in April of 1965.

In September of that same year, Risner was shot down flying over North Vietnam. He ejected and landed hard in a rice paddy, badly injuring his knee. He was captured and taken to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison and later to Cu Loc Prison, known as “The Zoo”. His captors revelled in the fact that they had captured the hero from the cover of Time. He was tortured for 32 days and held in solitary confinement for 3 years.

Despite these unbearable circumstances, Risner helped lead American resistance in the prison, using a tapping code to communicate, and inspiring the other POW’s with his resilience and spirituality. He later wrote:

“To make it, I prayed by the hour, I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me the strength to endure it…

Risner's release, 1973. Courtesy DOD

J. Robinson Risner was released in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming. He was awarded the Air Force Cross multiple times, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. A nine-foot bronze statue of Risner now stands on the central plaza of the Air Force Academy in Colorado, honoring the sentiment he shared that hearing fellow prisoners singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” in the Hanoi Hilton made him feel nine feet tall.

Watch the entire interview with J. Robinson Risner here on Open Vault.

Interviewing Madame Nhu, 1982

by Judith Vecchione

[Judith Vecchione was a producer for Vietnam: A Television History in 1982]

I remember the interview with Mme Nhu vividly. She lived way outside of Rome, in a huge old house, hard to find, isolated. We drove through an ornate metal gate, up a long drive, and were finally admitted — but only to the greenhouse attached to the house, not into the house itself. We were told, with no explanation, that this was where we could film. The room was dim and it was hard to get the lighting right. But the sound problem was worse: it was a cold, wet day, and the sound of rain hitting the greenhouse roof made it sound, for a while, as if we were under a waterfall.

We finally got set and she came in, dressed in her trademark ao dai tunic, cut tight and low, with a glittering cross around her neck. She was tiny, delicate, and completely in control. She wanted to lecture us, not to be interviewed. It took a lot of discussion to persuade her, but finally, just as I was starting my questions, she got up and left. Again, no one explained, so we just sat there. After a while, Mme Nhu returned, wrapped in a beautiful mink stole against the cold. And the interview began.

The Advocates tackle the Pentagon Papers, 1971

At the height of the Vietnam war, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg was accused of leaking the “Pentagon Papers” to the press. The Pentagon Papers, swiftly published by The New York Times, consisted of copies of a classified report with the official title of United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. They documented how the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations misled the American public and were not forthcoming with forecasts about the outcomes of the war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg shared the document with Times writer Neil Sheehan who began to publish excerpts in June, 1971. Nixon issued a court order demanding the Times cease publication of the documents. This was quickly followed by the Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), which resulted in victory for the Times and for the First Amendment of the Constitution. Ellsberg, however was not off the hook. He surrended to authorities who charged him with conspiracy and theft under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Open Vault’s newly released episode of The Advocates features contemporary scholars and pundits debating the validity of these continuing charges against Daniel Ellsberg. They debate the merits of government secrecy vs. transparency and whether openness in government threatens national security… check it out!

The Advocates:
“Should The Government Drop The Charges Against Daniel Ellsberg?”

Vietnam Collection Publicized on WGBH Radio, 89.7 FM

To publicize the launch of the Vietnam Collection on Open Vault, WGBH producer Elizabeth Deane (American Experience, Latin Music USA, Vietnam: A Television History) and archivist Karen Colbron selected several sound excerpts from the collection for use in 60 second radio “interstitials”

Deane then worked with WGBH Radio producer Gary Mott to edit and broadcast the clips over the course of 4 weeks in April, culminating in the following clip airing on the collection launch day, April 30th, 2010, which was also the 35th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon:

Clark Clifford, Former Secretary of Defense for President Johnson, 1981

Listen to the interstitial | View the full interview

Clark Clifford“It is my belief that our country made a mistake by going into Vietnam. I think we would have done better to stay out. We could have watched it a while and had we watched it longer, I think we would have seen it more clearly… We made an honest mistake. I feel no sense of shame about it. Nor, should our country feel any sense of shame. We felt we were doing what was necessary. We had nothing to gain by going in. We asked for no territory. We asked for no advantage. We went in because we thought we were doing it for the purposes of the nations involved and really for all humanity. It proved not to be a sound basis.”

Other clips included:

FBI Releases new Ted Kennedy files… compare with OV!

The Boston Globe today is featuring stories about the release of previously classified FBI files on the late Edward Kennedy. The files, available on the FOIA web site, outline a unique relationship between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the Kennedy clan. Boston Globe reporter Farah Stockman writes:

As Hoover’s agents tracked death threats around the world, especially after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, Hoover seemed to take the job of protecting the last brother personally.

But, at the same time, the FBI went to great lengths to keep tabs on Edward Kennedy, especially as his political star rose. The agency collected thousands of pages of personal and political information that had no apparent national security purpose.

(– Bureau’s file was personal, political, Boston Globe, June 15, 2010)

Excerpts from the files shed light on several major incidents and trends in Ted Kennedy’s career. From associating with “radicals” on a fact finding trip to South America in 1961, to his accident at Chappaquiddick Island in 1969 that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, to personal correspondence between Kennedy and Hoover regarding Hoover’s friendship with Joe Kennedy, Sr., the FBI documented Kennedy’s movements as both protection for, and surveillance of Kennedy himself.

Open Vault users may find one file on Kennedy’s civil rights involvement and his effort to bring orphaned Vietnamese children to the United States of particular interest. (See 94-HQ-55752 on the FOIA page)

Evidence of Kennedy’s anti-Vietnam sympathies can also be found on Open Vault, in an ABC News clip of his speech to the “Lawyers Against the War” group in 1971. In it he asks

“How many more American soldiers must die? How many more innocent Vietnamese civilians die?”

and argues that President Nixon is prolonging the war to benefit his upcoming election. 

View the video, check out the newly release files, and let us know what you think!

Vietnam Collection Launched!

Today, on the 35th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, WGBH Media Library and Archives launches the Open Vault Vietnam Collection, an online video library drawn exclusively from the 1983 landmark WGBH series, VIETNAM: A TELEVISION HISTORY.

The Vietnam Collection contains hours of rare archival footage and in-depth interviews with key decision makers and veterans on both sides of the conflict, as well as enhanced tools to interact the media. This two-year project is a collaboration between WGBH Media Library and Archives, the University of Massachusetts/Boston (UMB), and the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL).

To coincide with the launch of this collection, WGBH’s Digital Mural is featuring images from the collection today!

My Lai film on

At, you can watch My Lai, the new American Experience documentary on the 1968 massacre. The site also has transcripts from 2009 interviews with author Tim O’Brien and helicopter gunner Larry Colburn.

Here at Open Vault, you can watch and read a 1981 interview with another helicopter pilot, Frank “Fred” Hickey, and search records relating to Lieutenant William Calley, the the only US Army officer convicted of murder in the My Lai massacre.