Above photo: U.S. soldiers torching grass huts in My Tho, Vietnam, April 5, 1968. Army Specialist Fourth Class Dennis Kurpius/Wikimedia Commons.
In part three of this eight-part series, Sen. Mike Gravel reads the Pentagon Papers during a Senate subcommittee hearing and the truth of what the U.S. was doing hit him hard.
This is Part 3 of Consortium News’ multi-part series on the 50th Anniversary of Sen. Mike Gravel obtaining the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg and the consequences Gravel faced for revealing the top secret documents in Congress, just hours before the Supreme Court decided the case on June 30, 1971.
The excerpts published here are from the book A Political Odyssey by Sen. Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria (Seven Stories Press). It is Gravel’s story told to and written by Lauria.
Now I found myself reading those Papers, the glare of television cameras in my eyes, with midnight approaching and my emotions and exhaustion welling. I read from Chapter One:
“Ambivalence characterized U.S. policy during World War II, and was the root of much subsequent misunderstanding. On the one hand, the U.S. repeatedly reassured the French that its colonial possessions would be returned to it after the war. On the other hand, the U.S. broadly committed itself in the Atlantic Charter to support national self-determination, and President Roosevelt personally and vehemently advocated independence for Indochina.
FDR regarded Indochina as a flagrant example of onerous colonialism, which should be turned over to a trusteeship rather than returned to France. The President discussed this proposal with the Allies at the Cairo, Teheran, and Yalta Conferences and received the endorsement of Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin; Prime Minister Churchill demurred.”
Some scholars believed that, had FDR lived, there may have been no Vietnam War for either French or American troops. But the Pentagon Papers revealed, through access to State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department classified material, that though Roosevelt “vehemently advocated” a trusteeship and ultimate post-war independence for Vietnam, Britain, which occupied Indochina after the war, would not allow it.
“Ultimately, U.S. policy was governed neither by the principles of the Atlantic Charter, nor by the President’s anti-colonialism but by the dictates of military strategy and by British intransigence on the colonial issue,” I read.
I went on with the Truman years, reading how Harry had rebuffed Ho in a disastrously stupid foreign policy decision. Ho Chi Minh wrote six letters to Truman asking for U.S. support for Vietnamese independence. All of them were ignored. Ho had quoted the U.S. Declaration of Independence from colonial Britain in his 1945 declaration of independence from colonial France.
The Papers revealed the government had lied about the reasons for getting into the war, the reasons for expanding it, and the reasons for covering up what was already well known in government circles: that the Vietnam War was a stalemate the U.S. could not win. Despite this, the war dragged on with young Americans’ flesh being ripped apart in jungles and waves of innocent Vietnamese civilians perishing in American bombing raids.
I continued reading until visions of skin melting from Vietnamese children, of whole villages being mowed down as their pitiful grass huts were set ablaze with Zippo lighters, and of GIs bleeding through gauze while being hustled on stretchers into waiting helicopters, caused me to lose it. The tears came slowly at first. But they came. Dripping from my infused eyes, dotting the paper. I couldn’t wipe them off fast enough with a crumbled handkerchief. And I could not keep my composure. I put my face in my hands, sobbing. I could not believe what my America had become.
I put the Papers down after 1 a.m., and picked up the speech I had prepared to give on the Senate floor:
“We have spent lives and wealth without limit in pursuit of an unworthy goal, preserving our own power and prestige while laying waste the unfortunate lands of Southeast Asia. The greatest representative democracy the world has ever seen, the nation of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, has had its nose rubbed in the swamp by petty warlords, jealous generals, black marketeers, and grand-scale scale dope pushers.
And the war goes on. People are dying, arms and legs are severed and metal crashes through human bodies because of policy decisions conceived in secret and kept from the American people. Free and informed public debate is the source of our strength. Remove it and our democratic institutions become a sham … The American people … should not be expected to offer their support merely on the word of a President and his close advisors. Adopting that position, as many do today, demonstrates basic mistrust in collective wisdom.”
This was a theme that I was increasingly recognizing as a solution: letting average people directly decide on the policies that impact their lives-letting the collective wisdom rule:
“Our nation was founded at the town meeting, where all citizens had a voice in the decisions of government…. But, with the passage of time, the center of decision-making has escaped the people, and has even moved beyond their representatives in Congress. With its array of specialists, its technology, and its ability to define state secrets, the executive has assumed unprecedented power…. The widespread and uncontrolled abuse of secrecy has fostered distrust and division between the government and its people.
Separated from the public by a wall of secrecy and their desire for power, leaders have failed to heed the people, who instinctively saw that America’s vital interests were not involved in Southeast Asia. Nor could they recognize the insight of large numbers of private citizens who foresaw the eventual failure of their plans. They even ignored the frequently accurate forecasts of their own intelligence analysts.
The barriers of secrecy have allowed the national security apparatus to … exclude those who question dogma. The result has been a failure to … give serious attention to alternatives, natives, which might avoid the kinds of disastrous choices made in the past decade.”
Unable to go on any further, I entered the remaining thousands of pages unread into the record of the subcommittee, adjourned the meeting, and walked off the podium. It was 2 a.m. when I left the scene.
Behind me were an odd mix of strung-out newsmen, agitated veterans, and stunned clerks. I trudged back to my office in the same building. When I got there, my staff was still furiously photocopying more than 300 pages to dish out to a crowd of rabid reporters. I walked in unnoticed. Amid the commotion I walked inside where I promptly collapsed onto my desk chair. I sat there, staring straight ahead. I lit a cigar, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling.
People were starting to go home. It was close to 3 a.m. I looked around the thinning room and noticed a strange, slight man sitting alone silently at my conference table, reading photocopied sheets.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to my one of my staffers.
“That’s Dr. Rodberg,” he said.
“Who the hell is Dr. Rodberg?” I said.
I was so exhausted I had forgotten that I’d hired Rodberg the day before to help me organize the Papers and to chronicle the event. I hadn’t met him yet. Rodberg was a fellow at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, which had obtained parts of the Papers months before from Ellsberg. They had been pressuring Ellsberg to give them the rest. Rodberg would eventually become embroiled in the executive branch’s retaliation against me.
Somehow I drove myself home to Maryland at around 4 a.m., not really believing what I had just done and petrified at the potential consequences. I slept until around midday, when the phone rang. It was J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wanted to know how I had gotten the Papers.
I’d sworn secrecy to Bagdikian and I still didn’t know about Ellsberg’s role so there wasn’t much I could tell him. I tried falling back to sleep when the phone went off again. It was Muskie. He called to tell me what courage he thought I had displayed. The newspapers killed me. “Action by Gravel Vexes Senators” was the New York Times‘ headline. “He read from the study for three and one-half hours, with his voice sometimes breaking into sobs, and tears occasionally rolling down his face,” the Times‘ reporter, John W. Finney, wrote. “His action incurred the displeasure of many of his colleagues, who felt that it reflected on the dignity and composure of the Senate.”
I was a pariah. The day before I read the Papers, Nixon tried to satiate Congress by making a single copy available to each House. They were locked up in two rooms in the Capitol, with guards posted outside. Members could go in and read but take no notes. Can you imagine how my colleagues viewed me when, with the press muzzled and the only available copies behind guarded doors, I made the entire study public?
Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who lost to Johnson in the 1964 election, called for my security clearance to be removed. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, the ranking Republican senator on my subcommittee, committee, with whom I otherwise had good relations, called my subcommittee meeting “illegal.”
He said slipping notices under committee members’ doors wasn’t good enough. But Weicker offered to cough up half the money when Jennings Randolph, Democrat of West Virginia, insisted I pay out of my own pocket for the subcommittee costs that night, including overtime for the stenographer. I paid after getting many donations.
Senator Hugh Scott, the Republican leader, said the Democrats should find out whether I had violated Senate Rule 36, requiring senators to keep secret all confidential information from the executive. Then Scott, Griffin, Gerald Ford, the House minority leader, and two or three other Republican senators, possibly Dole and Ted Stevens, my counterpart from Alaska, went to see Mike Mansfield, the Senate Democratic majority leader, in a private meeting. They wanted me disciplined.
But Mike said no way. “Gravel feels this matter deeply and personally and that explains his motives,” Mansfield said. He later told me he wished he’d had the courage to do the same. The Democrats did move to prevent me from carrying on with the reading the next day.
Senator Bobby Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic whip, saw to that. He fixed up a completely full schedule and put a three-minute time limit on speeches not related to pending legislation. That surprised me because I was the one who nominated Byrd for whip in the Democratic caucus against Ted Kennedy. Some Democrats said they’d move the Senate into closed session if I started up again.
‘Let the Senators Weep’
They didn’t know I was home, consumed with exhaustion and didn’t make it back to the floor anyway. My staff still gave out another 550 pages to the press that day. The Times also ran a profile, titled “Impetuous Senator.” A photo of me appeared reading the Papers, with the caption, “A bundle of contradictions.”
The story, by Warren Weaver Jr., began: “The latest indoor sport on Capitol Hill is to try to guess what impelled Maurice Robert Gravel, a forty-one-year old Alaskan real estate developer, to attempt to read a part of the Pentagon papers into the public record, and ultimately to burst into uncontrollable tears.”
The venerable New York Times then went on to speculate that because I was born on May 13, 1930, under Taurus, the sign of the bull, that I was “inclined to extremes and to impulsive actions.” I was contradictory, the Times said, because I voted “with the liberals but against their leadership candidates and against their efforts to curb the filibuster. He loves the Senate but offends its elders. He is highly image-conscious but behaves in ways that mar his own reputation.”
What really got my colleagues in the Senate, according to the Times, was that I cried. It meant I wasn’t a man. But one woman had a very different take. Mildred L. Parke of Scarsdale, NY, was ahead of the Times. She indeed later wrote a letter to the newspaper.
“To the Editor:
Despite the view of some observers that Senator Gravel behaved in an unorthodox and emotional way when he tried to read a part of the `Pentagon Papers’ into the public record, I must observe that if more men wept over our past and present involvement in Indochina, perhaps this war would be ended-now.
Women have wept, orphans have wept, children have wept, widows have wept. Now let the Senators weep — at long last.”
I was still trying to sleep when Joe Rothstein called at 2:30 p.m. He told me to switch on the radio–the Supreme Court had reached its decision in New York Times Co. v. the United States. I turned up the volume.