Mike Gravel, former presidential candidate and Democratic U.S. senator from Alaska, has died at the age of 91. We look at how, in the 1970s, Gravel was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War and the draft and played a seminal role in the release of the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000 pages of top-secret documents outlining the secret history of the U.S. War in Vietnam. While the papers were leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post, Gravel spearheaded a one-man push on June 29, 1971, to read some 4,100 pages of the document into the Congressional Record, so that it would become public record and then anyone could read it and publish it. We feature an extended speech by Gravel in 2007 describing in detail how he received the Pentagon Papers from journalist Ben Bagdikian, who in turn had gotten them from Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Gravel told the extended story during an event moderated by Amy Goodman at the 2007 Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Mike Gravel, the former presidential candidate and Democratic U.S. senator from Alaska, died this weekend at the age of 91. In the '70s, he was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War and the draft. He played a seminal role in the release of the Pentagon Papers. That's the 7,000 pages of top-secret documents outlining the secret history of the U.S. War in Vietnam. The leak would end up helping take down President Nixon, help end the Vietnam War and lead to a major victory for press freedom. While the papers were leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post by Dan Ellsberg, Gravel spearheaded a one-man push to get the pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record so that it would become public record, then anyone could read them and publish them. Beacon Press went on to do just that, publishing a seven-volume set of the Pentagon Papers. Tomorrow, June 29th, is the 50th anniversary of the day in 1971 when Gravel read the Pentagon Papers into the record. He cried within seconds and could not continue. But when he came out of the session, someone told him that since he had started reading them, he could have the rest automatically put into the record.
In 2007, I moderated a panel with Senator Mike Gravel and Dan Ellsberg and the head of the Beacon Press, Robert West, talking about how the Pentagon Papers were made public. But here, we’re going to 1971, where Mike Gravel attempted to read the documents into the record.
SEN. MIKE GRAVEL: I know of nothing in our history to equal it for extent of failure and extent of loss, in all aspects of the term. People, human beings, are being killed as I speak to you tonight, killed as a direct result of policy decisions we as a body have made. Arms — arms are being severed. Metal is crashing through human bodies because of a public policy this government … One may respond that we made such a sacrifice to preserve freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia. One may respond that we sacrifice ourselves on the continent of Asia so that we will not have to fight a similar war on the shores of America. One can make these arguments only if he has failed to read the Pentagon Papers. That is the terrible truth of it all.
AMY GOODMAN: In the midst of him speaking, he broke down crying. Yes, that’s Democratic Senator Mike Gravel attempting to read the Pentagon Papers into the record, the Congressional Record, 50 years ago. He died this weekend at the age of 91.
In 2007, in Portland, Oregon, I moderated an event at the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland, Oregon, commemorating the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Beacon Press, their publishing house. One of the main speakers was Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. Today we bring you his extended remarks as he laid out how he received the Pentagon Papers from Washington Post journalist Ben Bagdikian, who in turn had gotten them from Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg.
MIKE GRAVEL: Let me just pick up where he left off, because it really — there’s a lot of little vignettes, and I’ll talk fast, but I want to get all the details out, because I know what you want to know is the inside skinny. You can read the broad lines, but it’s what happened to both our lives at the time that —
Dan calls my office. He talks to Joe Rothstein, who was my administrative assistant. My administrative assistant — I was down in the Senate gym getting a massage. I was on the table. And, of course, you can’t have staff come into the Senate. This is hallowed ground, so — into the Senate gym. So he’s knocking at the door. He says, “I’ve got to see the senator! It’s an emergency!” And he works his way in to get into the massage stall, and the masseur pulls back a little bit, and he whispers down in my ear. He says, “Somebody wants to give you the Pentagon Papers.” I said, “Man! Where is he?” He says, “He’s going to call us back.” So, man, I get dressed up real quick. We bolt back to the office. And I’m sitting in my office waiting for this call.
Along comes this voice. He says, “Senator, would you read the Pentagon Papers as part of your filibuster?” I says, “Yes. Now please hang up.” The reason for that is I have a background in intelligence. When I was 23 years old, I was a top-secret control officer. I could classify and I could declassify, and I was 23 years old.
So, now here are the papers coming at me. I had a sense of what they were, was a history, a history, and, of course, I had read what the Times had published. And so, lo and behold, Dan and I have other conversations. To tell you the truth, our memories are a little vague. He informed me about something that I didn’t know, and occasionally I had done that with him, when he was doing his memoir, Secrets. We’d spend near a couple days: “Oh, is that what — that’s your interpretation of what you think we did?” “Yes.” “Well, no, that’s my” — “Oh, no, we did it that way.” And what happens, that’s human beings. We all have a different read on some of the details.
The long and short of it is, he called me in a few days, and he was angry. He was on the phone, and he says, “Why the hell haven’t you used the papers?” And I says, “Why the hell haven’t you got them to me? I don’t have them. I haven’t heard anything.” So he goes back to Ben Bagdikian, and Ben then contacts my office.
Well, quite candidly, I didn’t know who Ben was, but he wanted to get to meet with me. So we meet somewhat secretively on the front steps of the Capitol behind a column in broad daylight during the session. So Ben is standing there. We’re talking about how we’re going to move the papers across, and then out comes Bob Dole, who was one of my enemies, but we’re on the same committee, and he walks up, and Bagdikian is slipping behind a column so he can’t be seen. And so, I get rid of Dole fairly fast, and so we go back.
And Bagdikian had this plan. We’re going to meet someplace out in the country, you know, Rock Creek Park in a dark — I say, “Wait a second, Ben. I’ve got to tell you. I’ve got a little more experience in this than you have. What we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to transfer the papers: You’re going to come at 12:00 at night under the marquee of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. At 12:00 you park your car there. I will come up with my car. You’ll open your trunk. I’ll open my trunk. And I’ll pop the papers in, and I’ll race off. That’s the way we’ll do it, before God and country, and they won’t even know what happened.”
Well, what happens? A group of Alaskan natives walk by, “Oh, there’s our senator,” and they all want to come up and talk with me. And I’m trying to peel them away: “Well, I’ve got to run. I’ve got to run.” And so, I got in my car. We did that. We transferred the papers. I sped away, parked my car, came back in, and Ben and I had a coffee.
I took the papers home. Where are you going to put them? I brought them home. That’s the first time I told my wife at the time, Rita, I says, “I’ve got the Pentagon Papers right here.” And, of course, the whole world was looking, trying to chase him down and catch him and get the papers. She says, “What are you going to do with them?” “We’re going to put them under the bed, and we’re going to sleep on them. That’s what we’re going to do.” We did.
Next morning — I’m dyslexic, and so I couldn’t read all those papers if it took me a year. And so, what happened, I started calling staff in. And I said, “Look at, you’re going to come in. You bring a toilet kit. Don’t tell your wife what you’re doing. You’re just coming to the senator’s house.” And I met them at the door, and I said, “Look at, I’ve got the Pentagon Papers. You come in, you can’t leave until I leave. But I won’t think ill of you if you don’t come in, because there’s risks that we don’t know anything about.” And so, every one, to the person, said, “Senator, let me have it.” So about four or five people for two days were sleeping on the living room floor, and we would go through the papers.
The style that I used in going through it, I was reading my little portion of it, the first part of it, which is the most historic and the most interesting part. But the others would — I said, “Whenever you come across a name, come and show me the name.” I would then read around the context and make a judgment if this should be excised or not. And when we excised, we didn’t just take a pencil, we took scissors and cut it out, so there would be no misunderstandings.
Now, I’ve got to bring the papers from my home to the Capitol, and so I buy two flight bags, you know, those old flight bags without wheels. I buy two of those to honor the papers. And so, I spend the money, pack them up with two bags like that, and so I’m going to take them to the Capitol. But now I’m concerned, so I call the Vietnam Veterans of America, and I say, “Look at, I’ve got a problem. I need somebody to guard my office. And what I want, I want the most disabled veterans you can find.” And, lo and behold, I trudge in — and I wouldn’t let my staff touch the papers — so I trudge in with my two big bags, heavy, and, of course, staff is walking with me, and the cops, they’re looking. Why the hell is the senator carrying the bags and the staff is not carrying his bags? So we walk down to the end of the hall, and there are about six, seven soldiers in uniform, you know it, ponytails, badges all over, all in wheelchairs. And they could do wheelies. And all they could do — they didn’t know what I had. All they said: “Go get ’em, Senator! Go get ’em!” I was just about to cry, with the commitment of these human beings. And they guarded the office. No, but they would have thrown their bodies at anybody that tried to break in.
I had the papers, so I go to the floor of the Senate. Now, I had made a deal with Alan Cranston. I had to get — I wanted to read in the filibuster. Now, I had a little bit of ego trip going on here: I wanted to break Strom Thurmond’s record in filibustering. And the draft was going to expire at the end of the month, so I wanted to get two days, about close to 48 hours, break his record. Now, how are you going to do that? Most people don’t know when Huey Long and those guys used to debate, what they’d do is — they’re drinking a lot of water — they pee right on floor, right on the Senate floor. Make no mistake about it. But I’m a little more cultured than that. So what I do is I rig myself up. I go to the doctor’s office. I tell him what’s going on, tell him I’m going to filibuster. And so, he rigs me up with a colostomy bag with a little hose down to my ankle. And my administrative assistant’s job is going to bleed the colostomy bag.
Then, it gets better than that. We now go to — I’ve got to get somebody to chair, because you can’t control the floor if you don’t control the chair. So I go to Alan Cranston, my closest friend. I say, “Alan, I need help.” “Well, what do you need, Mike?” “I’ve got the Pentagon Papers.” “Oh my god, Mike! You need more than help. You’ve got problems,” so he says. I said, “Alan, you don’t have to do anything to risk. You don’t have to touch the papers. You just get in the chair by 5:00. We’ll turn around, and you just stay in that chair as long as I’m filibustering.” And that was our plan. And so, I said, “Now go down to the doctor’s office and get a colostomy bag.” He does that. And, of course, I had a rubber mat. It was very interesting to go into the dynamics of that.
So, lo and behold, I come to the floor of the Senate. I’m trudging in with these papers. I put them next to my desk. And I was a freshman, so I was way on the side. And so, Muskie had come up to me for some committee — we were on the same committee. He’s talking to me. He looks down at these two black bags, and he says, “Mike, are those the Pentagon Papers?” And I look up at him with a blank stare. It was just a joke on his part. But I’m looking at him, “My god!” So, lo and behold — here, I’m a nice guy, so what I wanted to do, I know I’m going to be talking for a couple days, so I want to tell the staff of the Senate that, “Hey, you better call your wife, because you’re not getting out here shortly.”
And so, what I do is I lay on a quorum call. Now, if you’re familiar with the procedures in the Senate, a quorum call, they have to now stop — they have to start calling the roll. And there was only one other senator in the chamber. That was Griffin. The Democrats had gone to a banquet. The Republicans had gone home. And so, there’s two senators in the chamber. So I lay on a quorum call. Griffin walks up to me, and he says, “Mike, what are you going to do?” I says, “Well, you know, I’m just continuing my filibuster on the draft.” But I had always done that because Mansfield had set up a two track. Mind you, I filibustered for five months. It could only happen because Mansfield set it up without anybody seeing his velvet hand. And so, I says, “Well, you know.” He says, “But wait, what are you doing at night?” I said, “Well, the draft is about to expire, and I just want to really make a big show.”
He goes back to his desk, and he’s thinking and he’s thinking. Then, of course, I wait 30 minutes to let the staff notify that they’re going to be there a good part of the evening. And, lo and behold, I make a unanimous consent to remove to quorum call. He objects. The minute he did that, I knew I had just been harpooned. And all I could think is, my mind: Good men don’t win. Good men don’t win. I was so angry. He came up to me, and he says, “Well, Mike, what are you doing?” And I started swearing at him, you cannot believe. Well, by that time, he knew something was really afoot. So he went to the Republican cloak room, said, “Stay away from the Senate,” telling all the Republicans. I’m sending my troops to go out there and get the Democrats to come back from the banquet. Well, that goes on for 'til about 9:30, 10:00, and we could not get a quorum. I'm stuck.
Rothstein comes up to me, and he says, “Senator, we’re stuck. There’s nothing we can do here.” So I grabbed — and he says, “But our attorneys think they’ve got a plan B.” So we grab the bags, trudge back to the office again. By this time, the Vietnam vets are out there, they know there’s something really serious afoot, because there’s a lot of media following us. And so, I go in, sit down. “What’s our plan?” “Well, Senator, it’s interesting. There’s not much hope, but we do have one precedent that we could follow.” And that’s the precedent, believe it or not, the House Un-American Activities Committee, for those of you who know what that means.
He says, “What they were doing is they would go around the country and they would immediately call a hearing so that they could grab somebody, pull him up, swear him in, and get him to talk.” He says, “With that precedent, what you could do” — and now, mind you, I’m a freshman — “you’re chairman of a committee, a subcommittee,” — and, of course, that committee was the Buildings and Grounds Committee. So, lo and behold, they say, “What you could do is you could convene a hearing of this committee, and you would be still within the umbrage of the Senate.” And so, I said, “Fine. Let’s do that.” But what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to have somebody to testify. So we type up the notice that I’m chairman, I’m calling a hearing, slip it under the doors of all these senators who are not there, that I’m notifying them of the hearing, so that that’s covered legally. And then the peace group calls up a Congressman Dow from upper New York. He doesn’t know what it’s about. All they tell him on the telephone: “Senator Gravel needs you to come and testify at a very important hearing.” He gets dressed — he was an elderly fellow — gets dressed, comes down, and we convene.
By this time, we’re upstairs in one of the Senate chambers, a committee room, and the whole phalanx of the media. And then Congressman Dow comes up, and I’m sitting there with my two black bags and my staff assistant. And the congressman — and I gavel the meeting to order. “Congressman, can I help you? Now, I understand you want to testify.” He says, “Yes. I’d like to get a federal building in my district.” And I say, “Congressman, let me interrupt you right there. I know you need a federal building in your district, and I’d love to give you a federal building in your district, but I’ve got to tell you, our government’s broke. We don’t have any money to give you a federal building. And let me tell you why we’re broke: because we’re squandering all this money in Southeast Asia. And let me tell you how we got into Southeast Asia.” And I haul out the papers, put them on the table, and I’m reading.
It gets better than that. I read for an hour. Now, here again, I’m dyslexic, but there’s no way on God’s green Earth I’m going to read — but I’m reading it. Now, keep in mind I hadn’t slept for about three or four days. And so, I’m reading, and I break out sobbing. It’s about 12:00 at night, and I am sobbing, and I can’t get control of myself. Here’s what was going through my head. A journalist on one of the networks the next morning: “Well, this was a bizarre occurrence the night before. You know, Gravel was very bizarre. He cried.” And so, what I was sobbing over — I had been to Walter Reed a month or more before to walk around, and I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take it emotionally to look at the wounded. And so, I can handle macro problems, but not micro, and so, lo and behold, I kept saying to myself, “My god! I love my country. My country is committing immoral acts. We’re killing human beings. There’s no reason for it.” And I’m sobbing, and as I’m dyslexic, I’m reading rote. You know, I couldn’t follow the words in front of me. So Rothstein comes up to me. He says — and the understatement of the year — he says, “Senator, I think you’ve lost it.”
And so — and I keep sobbing, and then he goes back, and I try to get a hold of myself, and I can’t. And so he comes back. He says, “Senator, why don’t you put it in the record.” And then I sobered up immediately and said, “Oh, yes. I got power. I’m the chairman of this committee. So I move and ask unanimous consent to put all these papers that I was going to read into the record, to put them in the record automatically.” Bang! They’re in the record. That’s how it officially got into the record of the United States of America.
And obviously, the media, by that point, they’re out there going really — so I put the papers back in. We’re trudging back to my office. The media is following us. “We want the papers! We want the papers!” So we cut a deal with them. “Look at, we’ve got a copy of the papers, because we want to hang on to a set. And as we copy them, we’ll turn them to you. You set up a pool, and then you go copy them and distribute them to the world.” That’s what happened all night long. And that’s what made the Supreme Court decision moot, which was at 11:00 or 12:00 that very day. And what they did is they said you could not put on prior restraint, but what you could do is, if you published, you’d be at risk. And that’s what happened. Those that had published took the risks, but they weren’t prepared to take the risks after that.
We scoured the country, and this is where the meeting comes in with Beacon. We scoured the country, could not find one major or minor, or anybody, that would touch the Pentagon Papers. We had some inkling that maybe MIT Press would, so with my staff, Fishman and one other attorney, we go to Boston. Whoever was handling it — and I don’t recall — at the time, he said, “Senator, I’ve got bad news for you. MIT Press won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.” And then I’m just crestfallen, like we’re going to check how to get back to Washington. He said, “But I’ve got some good news for you: Beacon Press has got the money, and they will publish it. And Gobin Stair and Bob West are downtown in Boston waiting for you, if you want to come down and make the deal with them.” And I said, “Let’s go!” And we had a press conference shortly thereafter. And that’s when we announced that we were going to do it.
I was a Unitarian even before all this happened in Alaska, but I can’t tell you what I feel for Beacon Press, for the Unitarians and for Dan Ellsberg. Dan quoted and likes to say that when I went in the service, I was going in to be a spy, but I wasn’t getting any action, so I went in to be a combat infantry platoon leader. And on the patch on my shoulder said, “Follow me.” Well, when I saw Dan do what he did, all I could think of: Here’s a guy that’s walking up the hill, taking his life in his own hands, and the least I could do is follow Dan Ellsberg.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Alaska senator and two-time presidential candidate Mike Gravel describing in 2007 how he got the thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, which allowed them to be made public. Mike Gravel died this weekend at the age of 91. To see the whole event I moderated before the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly with Senator Gravel, Dan Ellsberg and Robert West, publisher of Beacon Press, go to democracynow.org.
Coming up, legal scholar Adam Cohen on Supreme Court Justice Breyer’s “legacy-defining decision.” Stay with us.