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The Pentagon Papers, 40 Years Later

“It seems to me that what the Pentagon Papers really demonstrated 40 years ago was the price of that practice,” he said. “Which is that letting a small group of men in secret in the executive branch make these decisions — initiate them secretly, carry them out secretly and manipulate Congress, and lie to Congress and the public as to why they’re doing it and what they’re doing — is a recipe for, a guarantee of Vietnams and Iraqs and Libyas, and in general foolish, reckless, dangerous policies.” -- Daniel Ellsberg in the New York Times, June 8, 2011

Tovell_gravelRev. Robert N. West, UUA President, and Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) hold a press conference on Nov. 5, 1971 concerning Beacon Press' publication of "The Pentagon Papers" and ongoing harassment of the UUA by the FBI. Photo courtesy Robert N. West.

Forty years ago this month, the New York Times began publishing excerpts from what has been popularly referred to as "The Pentagon Papers," and officially known as "the Report of the O.S.D. Vietnam Task Force." The papers, which were smuggled out of the RAND corporation by Daniel Ellsberg, were published a few months later by Beacon Press as the Senator Gravel Edition of The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam. The story of their publication is a gripping tale, one that involved heroic stands by Ellsberg, Senator Mike Gravel, Beacon Press director Gobin Stair, and UUA President Robert West against immense pressure from the Nixon administration.

It has taken four decades for the government to officially release the papers. We aren't worried here about the new, "official" publication affecting sales: the five volumes-- a whopping 7,000 pages-- have long been out of print, and were never a commercial "success." In fact the cost of producing the books combined with the associated legal fees was a huge financial burden for the press. Loans from the Unitarian Universalist Association 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."

We aren't sure why it took forty years for the government to declassify these papers, but we look back at that moment in the history of Beacon Press with great pride. Subpoenas, FBI investigations, and even calls from President Nixon himself deterred neither Beacon Press nor the Unitarian Universalist Association from doing what was right, and it is our goal today to function by the same principles that guided those brave decisions.

Related reading, listening, and viewing:

Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers 

National Archives and Presidential Libraries Release Pentagon Papers

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" documentary on PBS