Beacon Press: Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers
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General Assembly 2007 Panel

Beacon Press & the Pentagon Papers

On October 22, 2006 Beacon Press commemorated the 35th anniversary of publication of The Senator Gravel Edition of The Pentagon Papers—the first full edition of the top secret Defense Department studies that exposed decades of U.S. decisionmaking in Vietnam.

The Pentagon Papers & UUs | Beacon Press & The Pentagon Papers | History | Relevance to Today | What people said about The Pentagon Papers and Beacon Press | Videos, Audio Files, Documents, & Photos
"There's nothing comparable to The Pentagon Papers today…that would blow the whistle on what are the secret things that are being said and done by the government in the so-called war on terrorism…It would be very nice if somebody did for what is happening now, what Ellsberg and Russo did, and what Beacon Press did, at the time of the Vietnam War." —Howard Zinn

coverThe Pentagon Papers & UUs

The Pentagon Papers Then and Now: Unitarian Universalists Confronting Government Secrecy: Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman moderated a panel at General Assembly with Dan Ellsberg, Senator Mike Gravel and Former UUA President Bob West on the role of Beacon Press in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Beacon Press & the Pentagon Papers:

"Democracy is always a work in progress 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. Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers is a message for our time". —Ben H. Bagdikian, author of The New Media Monopoly

Read Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers, a Master's Project submitted to Emerson College, by Allison Trzop, in May of 2006. (pdf)



In 1967, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara assembled a team of analysts to draft a "full history of U.S. decisionmaking on Vietnam from the early 1940s through March of 1968." Thirty-six men, many of whom remain anonymous, worked on the Study Task Force. One known member was Daniel Ellsberg. Disgusted by the disparity between the internal policymaking he saw and the lies being spoon-fed to the public, Ellsberg began smuggling the documents out of his safe at the Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corporation in October of 1969.

Ellsberg first leaked copies of the papers to the New York Times, which began publishing excerpts in June of 1971. During what is popularly known as "The Day the Presses Stopped," the Times was enjoined to halt publication, as was The Washington Post. The two newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. vs. United States. They won, and established important legal precedent against the government imposing prior restraint.

Ellsberg demanded that Post journalist Ben Bagdikian deliver a copy of the papers to Senator Maurice "Mike" Gravel. The cloak-and-dagger exchange took place outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. Gravel intended to read from the papers during a filibuster of a bill that would extend the draft. Blocked from filibustering, Gravel instead read from the Pentagon Papers during a late night meeting of a subcommittee which he chaired—officially entering the papers in the public realm. Believing that, "Immediate disclosure of the contents of these papers will change the policy that supports the war," Gravel wanted to make the papers widely accessible to the public and sought a private publisher to distribute them.

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 Press, 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.

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 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. The director of Beacon Press at the time, Gobin Stair, called the Pentagon Papers epic, "A watershed event in the denomination'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."


Relevance to today:

The effects of publishing the Pentagon Papers remain timely: setting important legal precedents involving constitutionally demarcated congressional and executive powers; holding accountable an increasingly corporatized publishing industry that, by kowtowing to political pressure, abdicated editorial responsibility; drawing the president of the United States out as a power monger, willing to flout the law to destroy his enemies; exposing U.S. policymaking, often no more than rubber-stamped racism, which held little regard for the welfare of the citizens of an occupied nation.


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, current director of Beacon Press

"Beacon Press has consistently shown the kind of civic courage that we must have for our country to survive as a democracy." —Daniel Ellsberg


Videos, audio files, documents, and photos:

  1. General Assembly 2007 Panel: The Pentagon Papers Then and Now: Unitarian Universalists Confronting Government Secrecy
  2. Interview with Former UUA President Bob West on the Pentagon Papers, November 21, 2002 (Requires Real Player, sound starts about 15 seconds into file)
  3. Interview with Howard Zinn on the Pentagon Papers, November 21, 2002 (Requires Real Player, sound starts about 15 seconds into file)
  4. Letter from Senator Mike Gravel to former Beacon Press director Gobin Stair (August 4, 1971)
  5. Letter from J. Edgar Hoover to Senator James. L. Buckley on the FBI's investigation of the UUA and Beacon Press (January 31, 1972)
  6. Letter to the President Nixon in support of the UUA (October 22, 1972)
  7. Letters of support of the UUA and Beacon Press
  8. Howard Zinn and Arnold Tovell on Boston Common during an anti-war protest
  9. Rev. 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.
  10. Interview with Arnold Tovell, former Beacon Press editor-in-chief, April 18, 2002