Monday, October 23, 2006

The Pentagon Papers And Me

Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers a decade
before I was born, but Beacon's courage still sets an example

Beacon Press

I am 24 years old and am watching a Colbert Report interview with Daniel Ellsberg, now 75. More than a decade before I was born, Ellsberg, a Pentagon insider, photocopied and leaked thousands of pages of a Top Secret study on U.S. decision-making about the war in Vietnam. The New York Times and the Washington Post broke the story of what became popularly known as the “Pentagon Papers” in June 1971. Four months later, Beacon Press published the first full collection of the documents as The Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision making on Vietnam . For longer than I’ve been alive, Ellsberg has been agitating for government transparency; the famous whistleblower has been arrested about 70 times. This week marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Beacon edition, on October 22, 1971.

But why do I find Ellsberg’s words so relevant? I’ve never been arrested. I missed the Vietnam War by a wide margin. I may be the only person my age who owns the complete, four-volume set of Beacon’s Senator Gravel Edition, but when I take them down off my bookshelf I handle them gingerly, aware that their yellowed dust jackets tear easily and cannot be replaced. As documents, I find the Pentagon Papers dated and dense. As symbols, though, I find much in them as important as the day they were printed.

A year ago, I had only a passing familiarity with the Pentagon Papers: way back in the day, these documents had threatened the establishment, or something like that. Then, entering my second year of a Master’s program in publishing and writing at Emerson College, I read A Brief History of Beacon Press by Susan Wilson, which commemorates the publisher’s 150th anniversary. It mentioned the Pentagon Papers several times, hinting at a much deeper history.

As a student of the publishing industry, I was transfixed by a moment of professional courage; as a researcher, I needed to know more. I spent the last year learning everything I could about Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s role in publishing these important documents. My Master’s thesis, a history entitled “Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers,” is being made available on Beacon’s website.

For many people, the story of the Pentagon Papers begins with Ellsberg and ends with “The Day the Presses Stopped,” in June 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were enjoined from further publication of the papers in a case that was resolved by the Supreme Court. For me, that’s where the story begins.

When Daniel Ellsberg handed the Pentagon Papers over to the Washington Post, he did it upon the condition that journalist Ben Bagdikian would deliver another set to Senator Maurice “Mike” Gravel, Democrat from Alaska. 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 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, the press felt compelled to publish and agreed to take on the Pentagon Papers, despite great financial and political risks. As a result of publishing the papers, President Richard 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.

Like the government’s case against the Times and the Post , the case against Beacon was resolved in the Supreme Court. Unlike the newspapers, Beacon Press lost: The Court ruled that Gravel’s immunity as a senator did not extend to his publisher, leaving the press vulnerable to prosecution. While he was not in the majority, Justice William Douglas concluded:

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.

In June 1972, the Watergate break-in drew the FBI’s attention, effectively ending the government’s campaign of intimidation against Beacon Press. Then-director of Beacon Press 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.”


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