Mike Gravel was a two-term United States senator from Alaska who refused to play by the rules of the club, a two-time presidential contender who refused to accept the narrow limits of his Democratic Party’s debate, and a champion of the public’s right to know who refused to be intimidated by lawless commanders in chief.
That is not usually a recipe for success in American politics, and Gravel certainly experienced his ups and downs. So it was that obituaries for Gravel, who died Saturday at age 91, identified the former senator as a “gadfly” with a “flair for the theatrical.” He was, to be sure, a frequently controversial figure, who stirred up more than his share of outrage. But his flair for the theatrical served Gravel well, especially when he was striking blows against empire and executive impunity.
That is what Gravel did in the summer of 1971 when he became one of the most significant participants in the Pentagon Papers saga.
Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst turned whistleblower, provoked a national uproar when he provided The New York Times with classified documents that detailed how deliberate manipulations of intelligence and outright lies by successive US administrations had created the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, and all hell broke loose in the corridors of power.
President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department moved to block further publication of the Pentagon Papers. In this moment of uncertainty about what would be revealed, Ellsberg contacted Gravel’s Senate office.
Gravel, a 41-year-old war critic who had joined the Senate two years earlier, had been filibustering against extension of the military draft, and Ellsberg told one of the senator’s staffers, “I’ve got some material that could keep him reading until the end of the year.” Gravel came to share Ellsberg’s view that the Speech or Debate Clause of the US Constitution gave members of Congress immunity from prosecution for revealing the details of classified documents during official proceedings. After obtaining a portion of the Pentagon Papers from Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian, Gravel planned to read the document into the Congressional Record on the evening of June 29, 1971.
“But he was thwarted when, between 6 P.M. and 9 P.M., a quorum of 51 Senators could not be mustered, and the Senate was forced to adjourn,” reported the Times. “Senator Gravel then went across the street to the New Senate Office Building, to the hearing room of the Buildings and Grounds subcommittee of the Public Works Committee. There he convened a session of the subcommittee—of which he is chairman—and began the reading.”
Gravel was joined by two other anti-war senators, Democrats Harold Hughes of Iowa and Alan Cranston of California, as well as one of the House’s most militant war critics, Representative John Dow (D–N.Y.). Members of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War were present, along with reporters who had been alerted that something big was about to go down on Capitol Hill.
“I did not seek these papers,” announced Gravel. “When they were offered, I accepted them. I have reviewed the papers in my possession and read much of the material. It is a remarkable work.”
“In no way am I impairing the security of the United States,” declared Gravel, who had spent days reviewing the documents with aides. “It is my constitutional obligation to protect the security of the people by fostering the free flow of information absolutely essential to their democratic decision-making.”
The senator proceeded to read from the documents until around 1 am. At that point, a physically exhausted Gravel said he could go on no more. But before he finished, Gravel read from an address he had hoped to deliver on the Senate floor that night.
“People, human beings, are being killed as I speak to you tonight. Killed as a direct result of policy decisions that we as a body have made,” Gravel said, as he wept and wiped away tears. “Arms are being severed, metal is crashing through human bodies because of a public policy this government—” He broke off, overcome with emotion. “One may respond that we made such a sacrifice to preserve freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia. One may respond that we sacrifice ourselves on the continent of Asia so that we will not have to fight a similar war on the shores of America. One can make these arguments only if he has failed to read the Pentagon Papers. That is the terrible truth of it all. The papers do not support our public statements. The papers do not support our best intentions.”
Gravel moved to insert more than 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the official record of his subcommittee hearing—establishing what Ellsberg referred to Sunday, in a tribute to Gravel, as a “precedent that no one else has taken advantage of in 50 years.”
Hours after Gravel’s dramatic actions on the night of June 29-30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Times and the newspaper resumed publication of excerpts from the documents.
The senator was not done with the fight just yet, however. Gravel arranged to publish the papers in book form, as The Senator Gravel Edition (Beacon Press), with annotations from academics Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, two of the most prominent anti-war figures of the era. When the Justice Department went after the senator and his publisher, Gravel fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While lower courts expressed sympathy for Gravel’s stance, the high court’s 1972 ruling in the case of Gravel v. United States was a mixed bag. The court majority accepted that the Constitution granted immunity to Gravel for his reading of the papers into the Congressional Record. But it rejected the notion that he had immunity to publish the documents in book form.
By the time the court ruled, Gravel was a national figure who appeared frequently at anti-war rallies and bid briefly for the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nomination. Threats to censure and possibly expel him from the Senate were withdrawn.
Gravel continued to make the case that the people had a right to know what was being done in their name but without their informed consent—in the Senate until his defeat in 1980, and eventually as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination who made opposition to war and militarism central tenets of his 2008 and 2020 bids.
Gravel never apologized for speaking truth to power. If anything, he became more ardent in his critique of official secrecy.
In the introduction he wrote 50 years ago this summer to the edition of the Pentagon Papers that was published in his name, Gravel summed up his democratic faith, declaring:
The people do not want, nor should they any longer be subjected to, the paternalistic protection of an Executive which believes that it alone has the right answers. For too long both the people and Congress have been denied access to the needed data with which they can judge national policy. For too long they have been spoon-fed information designed to sustain predetermined decisions and denied information which questioned those decisions. For too long they have been forced to subsist on a diet of half-truths or deliberate deceit, by executives who consider the people and the Congress as adversaries.
But now there is a great awakening in our land. There is a yearning for peace, and a realization that we need never have gone to war. 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.