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The Key Roles of a Unitarian Universalist Senator, Journalist, President, Publishing House and Congregation in One of the Most Important Civil Liberties Case in American History.
The December of 2017 release of the blockbuster Stephen Spielberg movie “The Post” has everyone taking about the Washington Post’s brave defiance of the Nixon administration with its decision to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page compilation of secret government documents pertaining to the war. Daniel Ellsberg, who eventually leaked the papers, characterized the contents of the documents as “evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder.” In the movie The Post, Meryl Streep plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to Tom Hank’s editor Ben Bradlee as they make the heroic decision to publish. The movie has earned both good reviews as well as responses (both light hearted and cranky) from the New York Times, which, as the movie acknowledges, was the first to the presses with their own excerpts of the leaked material.
But how many people know of the tremendous bravery demonstrated and risk assumed by the Unitarian Universalist Association, whose Beacon Press was the only publisher to print the complete Pentagon Papers? The decision itself and the subsequent harassment of the denomination by Nixon and his administration came very close to the closing down the Unitarian Universalist Association for good.
The New York Times began printing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers on June 13 of 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg, whose job as a defense contractor had given him access to the top-secret documents, passed them on to the Times. The Washington Post followed suit closely thereafter, going to press even after the Times was hit with an injunction; Post journalist Ben Bagdikian (himself a Unitarian Universalist) had deduced that Ellsberg would have access and independently procured a copy. Predictably, the Post was immediately hit with its own injunctions. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ruled that the freedom of the press protected all the newspapers that had published the documents, and that the obligation of the press was to protect the governed, not the governors. This is where the movie The Post ends.
But the drama continued. Even after the publication of excerpts, Ellsberg remained committed to getting a complete version of The Pentagon Papers before the public. He returned what was his original idea: having a member of Congress, with related immunity, to read the documents into the public record. Only one was interested: Alaska Senator and Unitarian Universalist Mike Gravel. Gravel, blocked from reading the papers from the floor of the senate, convened a session of the relatively obscure Buildings and Grounds subcommittee and read the papers into the record there. But who would publish the transcript?
After being turned down by thirty-five publishers, Gravel turned to Beacon Press, owned and operated by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Beacon published the Senator Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers in multiple volumes starting in October of 1971. Gravel later told the UU World magazine: “Nobody would touch it,” he says, “nobody but the Unitarians. So that really locked me in: I’m Unitarian, and I’m damn proud of it. They’ve got courage. I’m very loyal to the Unitarian Church for what they did.”
The decision to publish was a great risk. First there was the question of finances, and then the government harassment.
Unitarian Universalist Association President Bob West described the cost of publishing as “a huge expense given our financial condition at that time.” That was if anything, an understatement. West had spent his first year in office (1969) convincing the bank not to foreclose on $450,000 of debt left by his predecessor Dana Greely, even while trying to manage an operating budget of $2.6 million based on an income of only $1.6 million. Not only was the UUA close to bankruptcy, its member congregations were deeply divided by the Vietnam War and by what became to be known as the “black empowerment controversy” (a misnomer, given that the issue at hand was the white response to black empowerment). The Veatch Program at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock was approached for financial assistance: The $100,000 granted by the congregation allowed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers and kept the UUA financially afloat.
The government’s harassment of the UUA was immediate. Bob West describes in his memoir what happened next: “two agents from the Defense Department visited (Beacon Press Director) Gobin Stair at his office, an experience Gobin described as ominous and intimidating; and Gobin reported that President Nixon telephone him, and after noting what a nice person Gobin was, said he was sure Gobin did not want to get into any trouble by publishing the Pentagon Papers.” West and Gobin nonetheless pressed ahead, noting later that Nixon’s attempts to thwart them helped convince them how necessary the act was to preserve the freedoms of both the press and of religion.
Before long West learned that the FBI, acting on a grand jury indictment, was at the bank used by the UUA, copying all the financial records of the association, including personal checks written by individual Unitarian Universalists. Senator Gravel tried to intervene against the harassment of the UUA by the Justice Department, appealing to congressional immunity, but the courts ruled that any legal protection enjoyed by Gavel could not be extended to Beacon Press. The UUA responded with a suit in federal court arguing that “such broad access and investigation…subject our denomination to governmental intimidation and harassment, repress legitimate dissent, and fringe upon the religious freedom and the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Bob West described the intent and effect of the harassment: “As I traveled and spoke, many people asked me, ‘If I buy a copy of The Pentagon Papers am I subject to investigation? Will a file be opened on me?’ Congregations and the UUA were subjected to inclusion in the dossiers and files of the Justice Department and the FBI, which is a way of striking at the UUA for its present and future…the Federal Judge in Boston said, ‘You do not need to convict in order to embarrass and harass a person.’ I can draw no other conclusion than that the overall intent of the investigation was to create fear, have a chilling effect on our denomination, other religious organizations, and people who might be inclined to engage in dissent from stated policy.”
The issue was moot by 1972, when the public revelation of the Watergate scandal marked the beginning of the end of the Nixon administration. But the actions of the UUA and Beacon Press serve as a still much needed beacon for the value of the free press, which is needed today more than ever.
Read more about it:
Read Bob West’s biography on Harvard Square Library here. Bob West died in 2017.
Read Ben Bagdikian’ s biography as well as pieces authored by him on Harvard Square Library by here. Ben Badikian died in 2016.
Beacon Press has assembled an impressive, multimedia collection of materials related to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, accessible here.
Follow up: Senator Mike Gavel went on to make an unsuccessful run for the office of the President of the United States in 2008; he currently works as an executive for a legal marijuana company.