A special kind of courage: publishing the Pentagon Papers



Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change. – Robert Kennedy

Forty-five years ago today, the New York Times published an excerpt of a classified Pentagon history of the Viet Nam war that became known as the Pentagon Papers, The report revealed that five administrations lied to Congress and the public about the extent and futility of U.S. involvement. Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, a contractor employee, and a friend, Anthony Russo, had secretly photocopied the report and passed it to multiple newspapers.

Citing national security concerns, the Nixon administration obtained a court order prohibiting the Times, and later the Washington Post, from publishing more excerpts from the report; but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that the restraint on publication violated the First Amendment. In his opinion for the court, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

[pullquote]“The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.” — Justice Hugo Black[/pullquote]

Hear/read the oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read the decision of the Court in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)

Meanwhile, Ellsberg had arranged for Senator Mike Gravel to receive a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Gravel read aloud from the document in the Senate for preservation in the Congressional Record. He then sought to have the full text printed for distribution to libraries and scholars. Fearing government retaliation, dozens of publishing companies refused the job before Beacon Press, owned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, agreed to print the papers.

Beacon Press recounts:

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.org)

In 2007, Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now!, interviewed Robert West, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who described how he became involved.

My first involvement with the Pentagon Papers was on ae midsummer day in 1971, when the director of Beacon Press, Gobin Stair, came into my office. He told me about the 35 publishers who hr ad refused to publish them, and he requested my approval for Beacon Press to do it. I gave my approval that day, and we started down a path that led through two-and-a-half years of government intimidation, harassment and threat of criminal punishment.

Beacon published the Pentagon Papers that October, after having publicly announced its intention in August. In September, Gobin was visited by two intelligence agents from the Defense Department who, in a meeting Gobin described to me as intimidating, tried to dissuade him from publishing the papers. He also received a phone call from President Nixon, who, after saying what a decent fellow Gobin was, pointedly suggested that he was sure Gobin would not want to get into trouble by proceeding to publish them.

One morning in early November, a vice president of our bank called our UUA treasurer to advise us that FBI agents had secretly been working at the bank for the last seven days. They were there with a subpoena from the federal grand jury that called for copies of all UUA financial records, which meant every check written and every check deposited into UUA accounts over a period of four-and-a-half months, amounting to thousands of checks, including those of all individuals who contributed to our denomination.

Senator Gravel immediately brought contempt proceedings against the government and succeeded in halting the FBI investigation and examination of our bank records for two months.

UU clergyman Darcy Laine describes the perils Beacon faced.

On January 7 of 1972, the federal court of Appeals in Boston ruled that Gravel’s immunity would not protect Beacon press. UUA attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, and asked for an injunction based on a violation of religious liberty. The FBI withdrew it’s subpoena, but Beacon learned that the government planned to file criminal charges for (1) “receiving concealing, retaining and conveying stolen government property (2) receiving, retaining, communication and failure to deliver documents relating to the national defense and (3) interstate transport of stolen property of a value in excess of $5,000.” [p.32]
Said Edwin Lane (chair of the Beacon Board of directors at the time, who later found that his office phone had been tapped) “My greatest concern has always been that we could be completely exonerated by the courts and still be bankrupted if the Government chose to pit it’s fast financial resources against our small denominational publishing house… We could win every court battle and still be destroyed in the process.” [35]

Robert West continues:

But agents were authorized to resume their scrutiny on January 10. The next day, the UUA filed suit against the FBI, the Justice Department and the grand jury, seeking to stop the investigation. We emphasized the grounds of religious freedom and freedom of association, as well as freedom of the press. And we succeeded in halting it on a temporary basis.

In late 1971, the federal government filed criminal charges against Ellsberg and Russo. The administration’s failed attempt to steal Ellsberg’s medical file from the office of his psychiatrist led Judge Byrne to dismiss charges against the two men. No decision would be reached on the merits of their legal defenses as public interest whistleblowers.

“But before all the events had run their course in 1974, we were in federal courts on numerous occasions including the Supreme Court,” West told Amy Goodman.

FBI agents served grand jury subpoenas on Gobin Stair and our UUA treasurer, and then withdrew them. The U.S. attorney in Boston filed a memorandum in court that indicated the strong likelihood that Beacon Press officials would be prosecuted for criminal activity. And Gobin Stair was subpoenaed to appear at the Ellsberg trial in California, with me next in line.

Ultimately, the mistrial that was declared in the Ellsberg case meant we did not have to appear at the federal trial in California. The federal court in Boston never allowed the FBI investigation of our bank records to continue, and no one associated with Beacon Press or the UUA was prosecuted for criminal activity.

What the government did to us as a continental religious denomination was unprecedented in the history of our nation. The Justice Department investigated our entire denomination’s financial affairs and threatened our association’s staff members because one of our departments, Beacon Press, published one book that was controversial, a text that was already in the public domain. — Robert West, Democracy Now!


Read the full, searchable text of the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers case tested the courage and resolve of whistleblowers, newspapers, Congress and religious leaders to stand firm against government efforts hide abuses by nullifying First Amendment protections.

See also:  The Pentagon Papers in the Federal Courts by Jake Kobrick

“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


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