Beatles’ Role in Pentagon Papers Leak: A Surprising Twist to Daniel Ellsberg’s Whistleblowing Story

How the Beatles Aided Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers Leak


The story of Daniel Ellsberg and his daring leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971 is one of the most iconic moments in American journalism. The papers, which detailed the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and revealed widespread deception by government officials, sparked a national debate and helped bring an end to the war. But what is less well-known is the role that the Beatles played in helping Ellsberg get the papers to the press.

Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg was a former military analyst and government consultant who became disillusioned with the war in Vietnam and the government’s handling of it. He had access to top-secret documents that showed the extent of U.S. involvement in the war, including the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, and the government’s knowledge that the war was unwinnable.

The Beatles and Ellsberg’s Awakening

Ellsberg’s political awakening happened, in part, thanks to a chance encounter with the Beatles. In April 1968, Ellsberg was invited to a fundraiser for anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, where the Beatles performed. Ellsberg later said that seeing the enthusiasm and energy of the young people at the event made him realize that he needed to take a stand against the war.

The Xerox Machine in the Hotel Room

After he decided to leak the documents, Ellsberg spent months secretly copying them at the RAND Corporation, where he worked as a consultant. He then packed them into suitcases and hauled them to a hotel room, where he spent weeks on end photocopying the thousands of pages.

The Fateful Meeting with Ben Bagdikian

Ellsberg knew that he needed to get the papers to a newspaper, but he was hesitant to approach the mainstream press, fearing that they would be too conservative or too cautious to publish the documents. But fate intervened when he ran into journalist Ben Bagdikian, who was visiting his daughter in San Francisco. Ellsberg and Bagdikian hit it off, and Ellsberg eventually gave Bagdikian a set of the papers.

The New York Times Publishes the Papers

Bagdikian took the documents back to Washington, D.C., and was able to get them to the New York Times. The Times began publishing excerpts from the papers in June 1971, causing an uproar in the government and the public.

The Government Reacts

The government immediately sought to shut down the publication of the papers, arguing that they posed a threat to national security. President Richard Nixon famously ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to file an injunction to block further publication, leading to a legal battle that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Landmark Ruling

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found that “any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.” The ruling allowed the New York Times to continue publishing the papers, and other newspapers soon followed suit.

The Role of the Beatles

But what about the Beatles? How did they aid Ellsberg in his efforts to get the papers to the press? The answer lies in a chance meeting between Ellsberg and the band’s press officer, Derek Taylor.

The Meeting with Derek Taylor

In the spring of 1971, Ellsberg was in Los Angeles, trying to figure out how to get the papers to the press. He met with Taylor, who was a friend of a friend, and explained his predicament. Taylor was sympathetic to Ellsberg’s cause and offered to help.

Derek Taylor Takes the Papers

Ellsberg gave Taylor a set of the papers, and Taylor flew to New York with them in hand. He then delivered them to Howard Smith, a journalist who worked for the Village Voice. Smith arranged to get the papers to the New York Times, and the rest is history.


The story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is a testament to the power of whistleblowers and the press. But it is also a reminder that social movements are often fueled by chance encounters and unexpected alliances. In this case, it was a meeting between a military analyst and a British press officer that helped change the course of history.


1. Why did Ellsberg leak the papers?
Ellsberg leaked the papers because he believed that the public had a right to know the truth about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and that the government had been lying to the American people about the war.

2. What was the impact of the leak?
The leak of the Pentagon Papers helped turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam and led to increased opposition to the government’s policies.

3. What was the role of the Supreme Court in the leak?
The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in favor of the New York Times allowed the paper to continue publishing excerpts from the papers, and paved the way for other newspapers to do the same.

4. How did the Beatles aid Ellsberg?
The Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, helped deliver a set of the papers to the Village Voice, which then arranged to get them to the New York Times.

5. Why is the Pentagon Papers leak still relevant today?
The Pentagon Papers leak is still relevant today because it illustrates the importance of transparency and whistleblowing in holding government officials accountable. It also serves as a reminder of the dangers of government secrecy and the need for a free press.