Time Is Right for New Pentagon Papers
BY Amy Goodman  /  Jun 26, 2007

Of the Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Mike Gravel is
probably the least well recognized. His dark-horse candidacy may be
the butt of jokes on the late-night comedy shows, but that doesn’t
faze former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg: “Here is a senator who
was not afraid to look foolish. That is the fear that keeps people in
line all their lives.”

The famed whistle-blower joined Gravel this past weekend on a panel
commemorating the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon
Papers by the Beacon Press, a small, nonprofit publisher affiliated
with the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was this publisher
that Gravel turned to in 1971, after dozens of others had turned him
down, to publish the 7,000 pages that Ellsberg had delivered to Gravel
to put into the public record.

The story of the leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times is
famous, but how they got published as a book, with Gravel’s face on
the jacket, reads like a John Grisham novel.

Ellsberg was a military analyst working for the RAND Corp. in the
1960s when he was asked to join an internal Pentagon group tasked with
creating a comprehensive, secret history of U.S. involvement in
Vietnam. Ellsberg photocopied thousands of documents and leaked them
to The New York Times, which published excerpts in June 1971.

President Richard Nixon immediately got a restraining order, stopping
the newspaper from printing more. It was the first time in U.S.
history that presses were stopped by federal court order. The Times
fought the injunction, and won in the Supreme Court case New York
Times Co. v. United States. Following that decision, The Washington
Post also began running excerpts. Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to
the Post on the condition that one of its editors, Ben Bagdikian,
deliver a copy to Gravel.

Gravel recalled the exchange, which he set up at midnight outside the
storied Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.: “I used to work in
intelligence; I know how to do these things.” Gravel pulled his car up
to Bagdikian’s, the two opened their trunks and Gravel heaved the
boxes personally, worried that only he could claim senatorial immunity
should they get caught with the leaked documents. His staff aides were
posted as lookouts around the block.

Thwarted in his attempt to read the Pentagon Papers into the public
record as a filibuster to block the renewal of the draft, Gravel
called a late-night meeting of the obscure Subcommittee on Buildings
and Grounds, which he chaired, and began reading the papers aloud
there. He broke down crying while reading the details of Vietnamese
civilian deaths. Because he had begun the reading, he was legally able
to enter all 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, once top-secret, into
the public record.

Though ridiculed by the press for his emotional display, Gravel was
undaunted. He wanted the Pentagon Papers published as a book so
Americans could read what had been done in their name. Only Beacon
Press accepted the challenge.

Robert West, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association
at the time, approved the publication. With that decision, he said,
“We started down a path that led through two and a half years of
government intimidation, harassment and threat of criminal
punishment.” As Beacon weathered subpoenas, FBI investigations of its
bank accounts and other chilling probes, Gravel attempted to extend
his senatorial immunity to the publisher. The bid failed in the U.S
Supreme Court (the first time that the U.S. Senate appeared before the
court), but not without a strongly worded dissent from Justice William
O. Douglas: “In light of the command of the First Amendment we have no
choice but to rule that here government, not the press, is lawless.”

Which brings us to today. Sitting next to West and Gravel, Ellsberg
repeated the plea that he is making in speeches all over the United
States: “The equivalent of the Pentagon Papers exist in safes all over
Washington, not only in the Pentagon, but in the CIA, the State
Department and elsewhere. My message is to them: Take the risk, reveal
the truth under the lies of your own bosses and your superiors, obey
your oath to the Constitution, which every one of those officials
took, not to the commander in chief, but to the Constitution of the
United States.”


{Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/
radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.}

“Democracy is always a work in progress and unlike monarchies and
dictatorships, free governments must change as public needs change.
But leaders of democracies are not immune to the temptations of
secrecy and deception of voters. If they succeed the results are
abuses, arrogance and uncorrected errors. Publication of the Pentagon
Papers, exposing White House secret cables and official lies, are a
textbook of the penalties that follow secret government. They remain a
warning that every generation must protect its own constitutional
liberties. Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers is a message for our
time”. -Ben H. Bagdikian, author of The New Media Monopoly


In 1967, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara assembled a team of
analysts to draft a “full history of U.S. decisionmaking on Vietnam
from the early 1940s through March of 1968.” Thirty-six men, many of
whom remain anonymous, worked on the Study Task Force. One known
member was Daniel Ellsberg. Disgusted by the disparity between the
internal policymaking he saw and the lies being spoon-fed to the
public, Ellsberg began smuggling the documents out of his safe at the
Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corporation in October of 1969.

Ellsberg first leaked copies of the papers to the New York Times,
which began publishing excerpts in June of 1971. During what is
popularly known as “The Day the Presses Stopped,” the Times was
enjoined to halt publication, as was The Washington Post. The two
newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. vs.
United States. They won, and established important legal precedent
against the government imposing prior restraint.

Ellsberg demanded that Post journalist Ben Bagdikian deliver a copy of
the papers to Senator Maurice “Mike” Gravel. The cloak-and-dagger
exchange took place outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C.
Gravel intended to read from the papers during a filibuster of a bill
that would extend the draft. Blocked from filibustering, Gravel
instead read from the Pentagon Papers during a late night meeting of a
subcommittee which he chaired-officially entering the papers in the
public realm. Believing that, “Immediate disclosure of the contents of
these papers will change the policy that supports the war,” Gravel
wanted to make the papers widely accessible to the public and sought a
private publisher to distribute them.

Dozens of commercial and university publishing houses rejected
Gravel’s proposal, citing near-guaranteed political persecution and a
bleak bottom line. Gravel, one of just two Unitarian Universalists in
the Senate, then tried Beacon Press, a department of the Unitarian
Universalist Association. Beacon’s antiwar list in those days included
Howard Zinn’s Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, Jean-Paul Sartre’s On
Genocide and Arlo Tatum and Joseph S. Tuchinsky’s Guide to the Draft.
Ideologically, Beacon felt compelled to publish and agreed to take on
the Pentagon Papers, despite financial and political risks.

As a result of publishing the papers, President Nixon personally
attacked Beacon Press, the director of the press was subpoenaed to
appear at Daniel Ellsberg’s trial, and J. Edgar Hoover approved an FBI
subpoena of the entire denomination’s bank records. Beacon Press and
Senator Gravel lost their Supreme Court case, leaving the press
vulnerable to prosecution. During the fallout, Beacon received an
outpouring of support from UU congregations across the country, and
from organizations ranging from the Association of American Book
Publishers to the American Library Association.

In June of 1972, the Watergate break-in drew the FBI’s attention,
effectively ending the government’s campaign of intimidation against
Beacon Press. The director of Beacon Press at the time, Gobin Stair,
called the Pentagon Papers epic, “A watershed event in the
denomination’s history and a high point in Beacon’s fulfilling its
role as a public pulpit for proclaiming Unitarian Universalist
principles.” Robert West, then-president of the UUA, said, “There is
no question in my mind that our denomination performed a truly
significant service.”

Relevance to today:

The effects of publishing the Pentagon Papers remain timely: setting
important legal precedents involving constitutionally demarcated
congressional and executive powers; holding accountable an
increasingly corporatized publishing industry that, by kowtowing to
political pressure, abdicated editorial responsibility; drawing the
president of the United States out as a power monger, willing to flout
the law to destroy his enemies; exposing U.S. policymaking, often no
more than rubber-stamped racism, which held little regard for the
welfare of the citizens of an occupied nation.

What people said about The Pentagon Papers and Beacon Press:

“When [government agents] push Ellsberg and Beacon Press and others
around, they’re simply trying to make sure that there’ll be no future
Pentagon Papers.”
-Noam Chomsky

“The story of the Pentagon Papers is a chronicle of suppression of
vital decisions to protect the reputations and political hides of men
who worked an amazingly successful scheme of deception on the American
people. They were successful not because they were astute but because
the press had become a frightened, regimented, submissive instrument,
fattening on favors from those in power and forgetting the great
tradition of reporting.”
-Justice William O. Douglas

“We believe that in publishing the full version of the Pentagon Papers
as made public by the Senator last June, we will help reduce the
likelihood of our nation becoming involved in a similar situation.”
-Robert West, former president of the UUA

“I got a phone call at home from Richard Nixon…he said, ‘Gobin, we
have been investigating you around Boston, and we know you are
apparently a pretty nice and smart guy…I hear you are going to do that
set of papers by that guy Gravel’…The result was that as the guy in
charge at Beacon, I was in real trouble. Before we had decided yes or
no, we were told not to do it.”
-Gobin Stair, former director of Beacon Press

“The effect of the harassment of Beacon is intangible…There is no
question that the publishing industry is more aware of government than
at any time since McCarthyism.”
-Robert L. Bernstein, president and CEO of Random House

“This case is a threat to the entire publishing industry because it
provides a chilling example of how the Government can make any
publisher, large or small but particularly small, hesitate to publish
controversial material.”
-Alexander C. Hoffman, vice president of Doubleday

“I can only hope for the opportunity to do something as daring and
courageous as publishing these critical documents…The story of the
Pentagon Papers is one of my very favorites about this press and what
Beacon stands for.”
-Helene Atwan, current director of Beacon Press

Beacon Press
Independent Publishing Since 1854
25 Beacon Street Boston, MA 02108 · Tel: 617.742.2110 · Fax:

Leave a Reply