If the Democratic presidential primary were held today in your state, whom would you support? Cast your vote in the Nation Poll.
“The abrogation of the people’s right to know–one of the system’s most important checks and balances–caused this nation to make this colossal mistake of waging a war that has nothing to do with our security, individually or as a nation.”
Mike Gravel wrote those words not about Iraq now but about Vietnam in 1972. Back then, he was one of the most passionate, eloquent and daring opponents of the war and of the executive secrecy and Congressional complicity that allowed the war to continue long after public support for it had collapsed. Today, even as the nation experiences an eerie déjà vu, it seems to have forgotten the most crucial lessons of Vietnam. Mike Gravel has not. He is every bit as resolute in his resistance to war now as he was then, and of all the presidential candidates he is the most steadfast critic of the principle of American imperialism, which spawned both catastrophes.
Gravel’s courage was on magnificent display in the summer of 1971 when, as a 41-year-old first-term senator from Alaska, he conducted a one-man, five-month filibuster against renewal of the draft–much to the consternation of the Democratic leadership, many of whom opposed the war in theory but were too timid to end the President’s ability to wage it. His defiance caught the eye of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Having published an excerpt, the Times was under a court injunction (pursued by Nixon) to prevent further publication of the Papers. Ellsberg figured that if a senator read the Papers during a meeting of Congress, they would become a matter of public record, and the senator would be immune from prosecution under the “speech or debate” clause (nobody was sure then about this last part). Ellsberg approached antiwar Senators McGovern, Fulbright and Nelson, but after he was rebuffed or stonewalled by all, he turned to Gravel, who on June 29 began reading the Papers in a special session of the buildings and grounds subcommittee (the only body he could convene). Exhausted from his filibuster, hampered by dyslexia, voice cracking and tears streaming, Gravel was forced to stop at 1:12 am, but not before he had placed 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record.
Over the next few days, newspapers reported “dismay, shock and chagrin” at the “impetuous Senator” and warned of possible punishment, including expulsion from the Senate. Though Gravel was never prosecuted, Ellsberg was indicted for theft and espionage. An aide to Gravel and Beacon Press–which published the Pentagon Papers as the Senator Mike Gravel Edition (edited by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn)–were investigated by the Justice Department, which Gravel fought all the way to the Supreme Court. The draft was eventually ended in 1973, and America’s military involvement in Vietnam came to a close in 1975. Credit for this historic reversal belongs largely to the clamorous antiwar movement, but that uprising found a true and brave friend in national office in Mike Gravel.