Alaska senator recalls role in publicizes Pentagon Papers

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At the Anchorage airport, a crowd waving signs cheered for him. On the Kenai Peninsula, a man spit on him.

Thirty years ago, Mike Gravel drew such reactions after helping to publicize the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam War.

Tuesday, the 71-year-old former Alaska senator recalled his role at a symposium sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Gravel, elected in 1968 as a Democrat, visited Vietnam in his first year as a senator and said he became convinced of the war's immorality and futility. The United States went to war because its leaders failed to follow clear moral principles and misled the people about what they were doing, he said.

Gravel also on Tuesday sent letters to President Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert asking the administration and Congress to apologize for the war. The apology should go to the people of Southeast Asia, to veterans and their families, to the ''moral patriots'' who fled rather than serve and to the ''sunshine patriots'' who sought college deferments or the National Guard ''rather than 'fight an unjust war.'''

During Gravel's speech, the audience applauded after he mentioned each of those groups, although a man later objected to apologizing to people who avoided the draft.

''I understand where you're coming from,'' Gravel told him. ''I want to respectfully disagree. I think that an intellectual courage is just as important as physical courage. So you may harbor some anger, but don't take it out on the innocent.''

The guilty, in Gravel's view, were leaders who failed to follow a basic moral principle articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the 1941 Atlantic Charter. They agreed to ''respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.'' The principle was later incorporated into the United Nations charter, Gravel noted.

But in Vietnam the United States and European powers blocked peaceful means toward that end, including elections, because it was apparent that Vietnam would elect Ho Chi Minh, a communist, Gravel said.

From where he sat, it appeared the Senate was paralyzed by a club atmosphere.

''In the Senate, if you didn't have that club, if you didn't have that congeniality, it would be a mess,'' he said. ''But what's the flip side of that? The flip side is that you stifle creativity, you stifle integrity, you stifle whatever it takes to step out and do what's right, and I don't have the answer to that.''

In mid-1971 Gravel stepped out. He started a filibuster to stop the drafting of young men into military service. He believed the draft provided a supply of men that allowed the administration to wage war without going to Congress for a declaration.

In the midst of that filibuster, on June 13, 1971, he read The New York Times' first report on the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine working on the study, and Tony Russo, a RAND Corp. political scientist, had leaked the papers to reporters.

A few days later, Gravel said, he received an anonymous call. ''Would you read the Pentagon Papers on the Senate floor as part of your filibuster?'' the caller asked. ''Yes,'' Gravel said and hung up.

The papers were delivered on June 24 by Ben Bagdikian, a Washington Post reporter and editor who later became dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley. The Post and Times were fighting in court against the government's attempt to stop publication of the papers.

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the VVA, said in his introduction Tuesday that Gravel ''closeted four of his aides for four days in his home in order to read all the papers and excise whatever they needed to, if there was any doubt about protecting national security.'' Later, one aide was subpoenaed, but Gravel fought the order, arguing that compelling the aide to testify would violate the free speech clause of the Constitution. Gravel eventually won before the Supreme Court.

The week after obtaining the papers, Gravel took them to his office in the Dirksen Building, planning to incorporate them in his filibuster. Worried about what the Nixon administration might try, Gravel called the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to help him guard his office. A half-dozen men in wheelchairs showed up.

When Gravel tried to read the abridged Vietnam War history on the Senate floor, he said, other senators shut him down. So, as chairman of a minor subcommittee overseeing the Capitol buildings and grounds, he held a hearing and read portions of the papers.

The rest -- all 7,000 pages in 47 volumes -- he had published in the Congressional Record, making it available to the public.

On June 29, Ellsberg and Russo were indicted for leaking the classified papers, but the case was eventually dropped because the White House under President Nixon had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg and broken into his psychiatrist's office.

And the following day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and Post had a constitutional right to publish the documents.

Gravel, who lives in Washington, now leads ''Philadelphia II: Direct Democracy.'' The group seeks a constitutional amendment that would allow national ballot initiatives to create laws.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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