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How Daniel Ellsberg’s Courage Led to Beacon Publishing the First Five-Volume Edition of the Pentagon Papers



Beacon Press joins others across America and the world in commemorating the life of the patriotic whistleblower and decades-long anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg (1931–2023).

As is widely known, Ellsberg was a defense analyst at the RAND corporation in the late sixties when he was part of a top-secret study of classified documents on the conduct of the Vietnam War. The study was commissioned by then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.

After becoming increasingly disillusioned about the war and inspired by the young men he saw going to prison for nonviolent protests against the draft, Ellsberg leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The 7,000-page history revealed decision-making about the conflict, as well as the lies that were told by four U.S. presidents to cultivate public support for the war. After publishing a series of installments from the papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post were enjoined to halt publication until they eventually won their appeal to the Supreme Court, which established an important legal precedent against the government imposing prior restraint.

Just before that legal victory, Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska read from the Pentagon Papers in a late-night meeting of a subcommittee that he chaired, officially entering the papers into the public record. Gravel aimed to make the papers widely accessible to the public and sought a private publisher to distribute them.

After dozens of trade and university publishing houses had rejected Gravel's proposal, and despite political and financial risk, Beacon Press, then helmed by director Gobin Stair, agreed to take on the publication of the papers. As a result, President Nixon personally attacked Beacon, Stair was subpoenaed to appear at Daniel Ellsberg's trial, and J. Edgar Hoover approved an FBI subpoena of the press and its financial records.

None of this deterred Beacon or the Unitarian Universalist Association (under which auspices Beacon publishes) from doing what was right. Reflecting on Ellsberg’s courage and Beacon’s connection to that moment in history, current director Gayatri Patnaik commented, “Daniel Ellsberg’s incredible fortitude stands as an example for all who believe in fighting for democracy and government accountability and who oppose war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are incredibly proud to have taken the stand we did in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Today, over 50 years later, we are still guided by the principles that led to that brave decision.”

The 5-volume set that makes up the Pentagon Papers has long been out of print and was 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 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.

The reasons for publishing the papers, though, were never financial. In 2002, during an interview with Susan Wilson in preparation for Beacon’s 150th anniversary, Gobin Stair referred to the Pentagon Papers as “a test of our purpose,” before concluding, “We were publishing what needed to be published." 

What people said about The Pentagon Papers and Beacon Press

"When [government agents] push Ellsberg and Beacon Press and others around, they're simply trying to make sure that there'll be no future Pentagon Papers."—Noam Chomsky

"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

"We believe that in publishing the full version of the Pentagon Papers as made public by the Senator last June, we will help reduce the likelihood of our nation becoming involved in a similar situation."—Robert West, former president of the UUA

"I got a phone call at home from Richard Nixon…he said, 'Gobin, we have been investigating you around Boston, and we know you are apparently a pretty nice and smart guy…I hear you are going to do that set of papers by that guy Gravel'…The result was that as the guy in charge at Beacon, I was in real trouble. Before we had decided yes or no, we were told not to do it."—Gobin Stair, former director of Beacon Press

"The effect of the harassment of Beacon is intangible…There is no question that the publishing industry is more aware of government than at any time since McCarthyism."—Robert L. Bernstein, president and CEO of Random House

"This case is a threat to the entire publishing industry because it provides a chilling example of how the Government can make any publisher, large or small but particularly small, hesitate to publish controversial material."—Alexander C. Hoffman, vice president of Doubleday

"I can only hope for the opportunity to do something as daring and courageous as publishing these critical documents…The story of the Pentagon Papers is one of my very favorites about this press and what Beacon stands for."—Helene Atwan, former director of Beacon Press (1996 – 2022)