With the release of The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the story of the Pentagon Papers has rekindled public conversation about the importance of a free press. The papers divulged the history and facts of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, which were kept a secret from the nation until Daniel Ellsberg leaked copies of the papers to the New York Times to publish as excerpts in June of 1971. The Washington Post began printing excerpts as well. The film’s release couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. Its historical dramatization of how an administration tried to stop the paper from printing parts of the reports speaks to what we see happening now: a president openly attacking news outlets and making accusations of “fake news.” It also highlights how necessary publishers are in “protecting an open, democratic society that is now under increasing threat,” as associate publisher Tom Hallock wrote in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration.
While the film focuses on the Washington Post’s involvement in exposing the Pentagon Papers, the story doesn’t end there. In October 1971, Beacon Press released the Senator Mike Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam as a four-volume set after other publishers opted not to take on the task. “I can only hope for the opportunity to do something as daring and courageous as publishing these critical documents,” said current director, Helene Atwan. “The story of the Pentagon Papers is one of my very favorites about this press and what Beacon stands for.”
Indeed, it’s a story that attests to the civic courage Beacon has consistently shown—the kind of civic courage that Ellsberg said “we must have for our country to survive as a democracy.”
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, 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, Beacon felt compelled to publish and agreed to take on the Pentagon Papers, despite financial and political risks.
The following selection from Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers, a chapbook history issued by Beacon originally on the thirtieth anniversary of the publication, explains how Beacon became the publisher of the papers. (For the entire chapbook, see here; for a video of a panel discussion with Daniel Ellsberg, Robert West, Mike Gravel, moderated by Amy Goodman, click here.)
Beacon was brought to Gravel’s attention by his aide, Leonard Rodberg, a vocal antiwar activist “who reminded the Senator of his denominational press in Boston.” The Unitarian Universalist connection is important in that the senator and the press shared certain principles that were clearly outlined in a 1971 Unitarian Universalist World article:
Why should the UU press take the risks and become involved in the most vicious battle for the free press since the Zenger trial? For the simple reason that freedom from bureaucratic censorship is one of the objectives of this denomination and of the press which represents it.
With Gravel’s approval, Rodberg called Beacon’s editor in chief, Arnold Tovell. Tovell, in turn, discussed the proposal with Beacon’s director, Gobin Stair. The two men agreed to look at the papers. When Tovell phoned Rodberg to express interest in reading the papers, the senator’s aide invited a Beacon staff member to travel down to Washington. Tovell demurred and told Rodberg that “he had to bring [the papers] to Beacon’s offices, which was important to me, to be [there] both emotionally and physically.” Rodberg complied.
While other houses measured Gravel’s proposal with profit and loss statements, Beacon took a different approach. Presenting the senator’s project in-house, Stair framed the debate in terms of a moral obligation to publish:
Our previous order was to publish those good books which are important books which the commercial presses won’t publish . . . and we were evading it in every way we could! . . . I had to tell my trustees that this was a principle . . . . I thought we should do it. But they had to know that it would cost ’em. I stood up at that damned meeting and said it just as simply as that.
Beacon decided the senator’s proposal was a good fit. In an early letter to Gravel, Stair called catalog titles like Howard Zinn’s Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal to the senator’s attention, before concluding, “We feel that the combination of a United States senator and a nonprofit publishing house, well established, with a long history of controversial publications of a high standard is a good one.” In the same letter, Stair acknowledged that Beacon understood other publishers were still considering Gravel’s proposal, but noted, “Our basic attitude is that the materials should be published and only you can make the decision as to how they should be published.”
On August 17, 1971, Beacon publicly announced that it would publish The Pentagon Papers. Nobody on staff was naive about what such a commitment entailed: “A Beacon spokesman said yesterday the Gravel book is the biggest venture in the history of the small publishing firm.” The papers represented the “biggest venture” in Beacon’s long history on many levels. For starters, the papers in their submitted form—a “great container full of stuff”—presented an editorial nightmare. The manuscript that Rodberg brought in was composed of more than 7,000 pages of “original transcripts.” Staring at the disorganized piles of xeroxes, Gobin Stair was pessimistic about the editing process:
The pile of stuff that was the Pentagon Papers was so confused and so mixed up that everybody who got near it knew this wasn’t going to be a possible book, or series of books. It needed to stay in that manuscript form locked in some closet somewhere. Because it was an endless pile of notes. Nobody had shaped it.
Edited, collated, and bound, the publication of the papers would spark an even larger problem: political persecution. This was a seasoned publishing team signing on for guaranteed headaches and possible criminal charges. Why, then, did Beacon accept Gravel’s incendiary proposal?
In an article dated September 15, 1971, exactly three months to the day the presses stopped, Gobin Stair explained Beacon’s rationale: “Senator Gravel has performed a unique public service in making [the Pentagon Papers] available. The public, we feel is entitled to reasonable public disclosure of the material rather than sketchy journalistic synopses.” Stair also expressed his disdain for the producers of those “sketchy synopses”: “We are undertaking this vital project because we are concerned at how rapidly the American press lost interest in the Pentagon study once the Supreme Court confirmed the public’s right to this information.” Like Gravel, Beacon placed a premium on keeping the papers accessible in the fullest form possible.
The road leading up to and following publication was rocky. The cost of producing the books combined with the associated legal fees was a huge financial burden for the press. Loans from the UUA and a significant donation from the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, combined with smaller donations from supporters and from other publishing houses (led by a $2,500 donation from Random House), helped allay the enormous expense. But the reasons for publishing the papers were never financial. In 2002, during an interview with Susan Wilson in preparation for Beacon’s 150th anniversary, Stair referred to The Pentagon Papers as “a test of our purpose,” before concluding, “We were publishing what needed to be published.”
In addition to the financial burden of producing the four-volume set, Beacon faced daunting political pressure and FBI investigations. As a result of publishing the papers, President Nixon personally attacked the press, Stair was subpoenaed to appear at Daniel Ellsberg’s trial, and J. Edgar Hoover approved an FBI subpoena of the entire UUA’s bank records. Beacon Press and Senator Gravel lost their Supreme Court case, leaving the press vulnerable to prosecution. During the fallout, Beacon received an outpouring of support from UU congregations across the country, and from organizations ranging from the Association of American Book Publishers to the American Library Association.
In June of 1972, the Watergate break-in drew the FBI’s attention, effectively ending the government’s campaign of intimidation against Beacon Press. Stair called the Pentagon Papers epic, “[a] watershed event in the UUA’s history and a high point in Beacon’s fulfilling its role as a public pulpit for proclaiming Unitarian Universalist principles.” Robert West, then-president of the UUA, said, “There is no question in my mind that our denomination performed a truly significant service.”
Days before Beacon made the official announcement of publishing the Papers, Senator Gravel sent a letter to Stair about the proposal. In it, he wrote why it was important for the public to have access to the Papers: “I will cooperate with you in your efforts to publish because there is an urgent need for Americans to understand our past errors so that we may exercise informed judgment to end the war in Indochina and because we must begin the process of restoring the peoples’ faith in their leaders.” This statement is all the more poignant for us today, as we find it more difficult to have faith in the leaders of our current administration. He emphasized his point further in the introduction he wrote in the first volume of the Papers: “There is a yearning for a more free and open society, and the emerging recognition of repression of people’s lives, of their right to know, and of their right to determine their nation’s future. And there is a yearning for the kind of mutual trust between those who govern and those who are governed that has been so lacking in the past.” Publishing the Papers became an act of civic duty to hold our leaders accountable and uphold the democracy our country depends on.
“Democracy is always a work in progress,” Ben Bagdikian wrote in The New Media Monopoly, “and unlike monarchies and dictatorships, free governments must change as public needs change. But leaders of democracies are not immune to the temptations of secrecy and deception of voters. If they succeed the results are abuses, arrogance and uncorrected errors. Publication of the Pentagon Papers, exposing White House secret cables and official lies, are a textbook of the penalties that follow secret government. They remain a warning that every generation must protect its own constitutional liberties.” In a time where we see our civil and constitutional liberties threatened by the current administration, we should heed Bagdikian’s words and never forget the power of civil courage. It may be a solitary road to walk, as Beacon saw when the other publishers declined Senator Gravel’s proposal to publish the Papers. It may be a dangerous road, too, with looming threats from the powers that be. But it’s a road we must tread time and again to fight for the truth the public deserves.
The Post comes out in theaters in select cities on December 22 and everywhere else on January 12, 2018.