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A courageous press confronts a deceptive government

Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers.
By Warren R. Ross
September/October 2001 9.1.01

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From the September/October 2001 issue of UU World.

The Unitarian Universalist Association and Beacon Press drew the wrath of President Richard Nixon and the scrutiny of the FBI 30 years ago when the UUA's Beacon Press published the complete text of the Pentagon Papers in October 1971. For the Rev. Robert West, president of the UUA from 1969 to 1977, the decision to publish the classified Pentagon review of the U.S. government's involvement in Vietnam took more than a little courage.

The UUA was dangerously low on funds and morale in the early '70s. West pulled the UUA back from the brink of bankruptcy in his first year in office, halving the number of UUA staff and convincing a bank not to foreclose on $450,000 of debt. The Association was also reeling from the controversy over its involvement with the black empowerment movement—and deeply divided by the Vietnam War.

But West and Gobin Stair, then director of the UUA-owned trade book publisher Beacon Press, saw publishing the Pentagon Papers as integral to the Unitarian Universalist commitment to a free and democratic society. UUs agreed. President Nixon did not.

The U.S. Justice Department had forced the New York Times and Washington Post to stop publishing leaked Pentagon Papers excerpts in June 1971. The Supreme Court quickly upheld the freedom of the press from prior restraint, but Daniel Ellsberg, the researcher who leaked the 7,000-page report, was still looking for a safe way to make the full report public.

Ellsberg turned to Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, hoping that Gravel's congressional immunity would provide some cover for the report. Gravel agreed to enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record as part of his filibuster of Nixon's legislation renewing the draft.

"The papers were turned over to me by Ben Bagdikian of the Washington Post," Gravel said later. "I met him at midnight under the marquee of the Mayflower Hotel in the heart of Washington. His car was parked and I pulled up abreast of it. He opened the trunk, tossed the papers in my trunk, and I sped away. He had suggested we do it in the dark in some suburb, but I had once been a counterintelligence officer, and I said the hell with that—that's just inviting someone to frag you."

Gravel, then one of two UUs in the Senate, contacted Gobin Stair at Beacon Press after three dozen publishers refused to touch the report. "Other publishers had turned down the manuscript both for commercial reasons and out of fear, and as a free press we felt we had a responsibility to publish needed information when others would not," Stair recalled.

Days after Beacon Press published The Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, FBI agents showed up at the UUA's bank asking for the UUA's financial records. The UUA and Senator Gravel sued the government to suspend its search in a case that made its way to the Supreme Court, which decided in June 1972 that the senator's immunity did not protect Beacon Press.

Further investigation of the UUA and Beacon Press stalled, however, as the discovery of the Watergate break-ins, also in June 1972, came to occupy Nixon's attention.

"There is no question in my mind that our denomination performed a truly significant service," West says. In spite of government intimidation and mounting legal expenses, UUs supported Beacon Press and President West. Stair considers the publication "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."

Adapted from The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, by Warren R. Ross, published by Skinner House Books, 2001.

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