It happened this month 50 years ago, a story known mainly from those who have died today, but is of vital importance to our time and for all times. It’s a story about the Pentagon Papers, the Unitary Universalist Church, a tiny publisher, a radical historian, a breakaway Pentagon employee, a couple of suitcases full of classified documents, a meeting on Boston Common, a couple of FBI agents, and – here is the poetry and jarring of it all – a tourist walk called the Freedom Trail.
And the focus is on an enigmatic senator who died last weekend at the age of 91.
The Senator was Mike Gravel, a two-time Alaskan Democrat and two-time presidential candidate, a headstrong politician who alienated both liberals (for his support for the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline) and delighted them (for reading the Pentagon papers aloud on the Senate) and a central figure in one of the most important political, legal, and press episodes in American history.
It was Gravel who assured that the Pentagon Papers were thoroughly aired and one day in July 1971 “resolutely” arrived at the Boston offices of the Church-affiliated Beacon press of the Unitarian Universalists when a former assistant to a Beacon editor Deborah Johansen Harris (the there was). when the Senator arrived) said in a telephone conversation the other day, “to have the entire Pentagon papers published”.
And it was Gravel who met with Beacon editor-in-chief Arnold Tovell and radical historian Howard Zinn on Boston Common to plan their publishing strategy.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and 14 other newspapers had published excerpts from the newspapers, but no major publisher dared to take on the entire project. Soon after, the FBI arrived at the Beacon offices; Burnell O’Brien, secretary to press director Gobin Stair, bought his time by suggesting the G-Men walk for half an hour on the Freedom Trail, Boston’s walking tour of revolutionary landmarks.
The documents in Gravel’s suitcases were a terrible mess, “an endless pile of notes,” according to a Beacon report.
They were the raw material of the story and of a landmark lawsuit, documents like the October 14, 1966 draft memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara to President Lyndon B. Johnson, contrary to what the Johnson administration told Congress and the public – on the war in Vietnam: âThe prognosis is bad that the war can be concluded satisfactorily within the next two years. The large unit operations likely won’t; Negotiations are unlikely to do it. “
Bombs like this were in the documents that former Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg copied and peddled in Washington in the hopes that they would see the light of day so that Americans would see the futility of war. Neil Sheehan of the New York Times showed an interest in the papers – he and Ellsberg were embroiled in a dance of the documents that both found frustrating – but Ellsberg preferred to make them public outside of Capitol Hill.
“Neil didn’t want the Times to be exhausted by Congress,” Ellsberg said in an interview. âHe didn’t want Congress to share the glory. He never really understood my motivation for having Congress investigate (seated President Richard) Nixon’s policies, which, by the way, they never did. Now I realize it was because the hearings were about the Democrats: how much the Democrats, going back to (Harry) Truman, had lied, especially LBJ. It would have been a political bloodbath for the Democrats, who would have been blamed for getting us to war and then pulling the bottom of the war effort. I thought Nixon was going to blame the Democrats on Vietnam and then get out. That didn’t happen. “
The newspaper war – which was resolved by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of newspapers and a strong presumption against government “prior restraint” – has become part of the heroic American folklore brought about by the Steven Spielberg film “The Post” of 2017 was sealed. â
“I was drawn to doing a character study of the moral fiber of Katharine Graham (Post Editor) in her most difficult decision to put herself and her newspaper in danger,” Spielberg told me. âThe disclosure of the Times and then the Post papers did not deter the United States from its military objectives or put soldiers at risk. It was a flashback, and I always remember the idea that the founding fathers gave the free press the powers it needs to do its job and serve the ruled, not the governors. “
But the Beacon Press’ forgotten strength of character was never properly celebrated.
“I will work with you in your publicity efforts because there is an urgent need for Americans to understand our past mistakes so that we can use sound judgment to end the war in Indochina,” Gravel wrote to Stair, “and because we must begin with “the process of restoring people’s confidence in their leaders.”
For his part, Stair, who was summoned to Ellsberg’s trial, viewed the publication of the Pentagon Papers as “a test of our intentions.” He said he published the papers out of concern “how quickly the American press lost interest in the Pentagon study after the Supreme Court upheld the public’s right to this information.”
Journalism students aside, I heard about Gravel’s cases full of documents and his efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers a few weeks ago, and I vowed to write about them in this 50th anniversary year. But one thing led to another, and one column topic after another, and it wasn’t until last week that I was finally able to call Gravel, whose phone number I picked up in anticipation of working on this column.
Then, in truth, while I was playing around in my head about the angle I was going to take, I found out that he had died. This column is less rich because of my delay. For me in the last few years of my career and for you in the first few years of your career, there is a lesson here: Never put off using the phone.
David M. Shribman, a native of the North Shore and a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.