Profiles in Courage

Auto Date Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

In June, I attended the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland, OR. I try to go to these as often as I can because I always come away personally inspired by the people I meet and the stories they tell.

As always, there were many good stories. This year, in a joint appearance, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Mike Gravel and the Rev. Robert West told a great one. Ellsberg, of course, was the man who, in 1971, copied and released thousands of pages of classified information describing the activities of the United States in Vietnam before and during the Vietnam war. These became known as the Pentagon Papers. Mike Gravel was a U.S. Senator from Alaska who agreed to read the papers into the Congressional Record as part of a filibuster. Robert West was the president of Beacon Press which is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association and which was the only publisher willing to agree to publish the papers. The three of them told of their roles in the release and publication of the papers. The stories were personal, sometimes very funny and, even after all this time, suspenseful.

Ellsberg was an analyst with the Rand Corp. who became a part of the group which wrote the Pentagon Papers. He was one of the very few people authorized to read the entire study. He believed that the lying and fatal decision making described in these papers would not change, but that informing the public and the congress of this history of government deception might work to end the war. He also believed that if he released the classified papers he would likely go to prison for the rest of his life.

In 1968 he had met Janaki Tschannerl, a professor and peace activist who encouraged him to learn more about non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. He spent a year reading the works of Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King and then sought to meet non-violent activists face to face. In 1969 he met two draft resisters, Bob Eaton and Randy Kehler, who had decided to go to prison rather than support an immoral war. Their words and especially their actions led Ellsberg to feel that he too should be willing to risk prison in order to do what was right. He began the 22 month process of photocopying the 7000 page study. He would need to draw on his courage regularly from then on because it became very difficult to find courageous partners who would help him get the papers in front of the congress and the public.

He gave the documents to Senator William Fulbright and offered them to a number of other Senators so that they could put them into the Congressional Record, but none of them would out of fear of reprisal from the Nixon Whitehouse or fear of looking foolish. Only Senator Mike Gravel, who as Ellsberg said, was “not afraid of looking foolish” would agree to put them into the record and did so. Gravel’s account of that process was both moving and amusing.

Ellsberg gave the papers to the New York Times, but they never told him whether they would publish them or not. He approached a number of publishers, none of whom would accept responsibility for publishing until Beacon Press agreed to. That decision led to two and a half years of government harassment and legal suits of both Beacon Press and the UUA as a whole. Robert West described the details of that ordeal.

Eventually of course, Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy and espionage. However, because of serious government misconduct (the White House broke into his psychiatrist’s office) all charges were dropped.

Ellsberg finished by making the same plea he’s been making while speaking around the country. “I rue every day that I kept silent from 1964 to 1969. There are a hundred people who could have done what I did not do in 1963 or 1964.” He continued “Sen. Wayne Morse once told me that if I had released the papers then, and not in 1971, there would have been no Gulf of Tonkin resolution and thus no Vietnam War. We need people to go public now. Here’s what I would say to them. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the war has started, until the engine of war is unstoppable. Take the risk BEFORE the action starts. Obey your oath to the Constitution, which every one of you took, not to your superiors, or the Commander-in-Chief, but to the Constitution’!”

But how many of us are willing to risk years in prison for what we believe?

Useful Links

You can read more about this event and watch the presentations on streaming video at these links. Both Democracy Now and the UUA offer DVDs of the event as well.

Comments are closed.