The pop song goes:
“I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass.
…I've never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has.
Which makes me wonder if I could.”
Today I want to tell you a story about our Unitarian Universalist Publishing house Beacon Press, about a time they were tested, a story which challenges us all to wonder if we could be brave enough to pass such a test.
Our Beacon Press was born as an in-house publisher for The American Unitarian Association, and in 1900 took it’s name from Beacon Hill on which the offices of the AUA were situated, and where the UUA offices are still located today. The name had metaphoric significance as well; you see on that hill, during the formative years of our nation, a tar bucket was hung on a pole at the peak. If enemies were approaching, the tar was lit, and the bucket would be hoisted to the top of the pole. This Unitarian publisher was to be a press empowered to shine a light on truth in troubled times. Their motto “In luce veritatis or ‘ In the light of truth’” would guide their work.
Said Walter Kring in the Christian Register (Which was the equivalent of today’s UU World) “The Beacon Press has always felt that what is printed is of far more important than whether the balance sheet is in the red or the black. Today the Beacon Press is known by many as one of the most courageous presses in America.” Beacon published such important and challenging works as the Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi (1957) and Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1962).
Gobin Stair, who became the third director of Beacon press in 1962, oversaw the publishing of several volumes that questioned the war in Vietnam: Howard Zinn’s “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” and Tatum and Tuchinsky’s “Guide to the Draft” (1969) which helped young men avoid being drafted. So when Beacon was approached with a request to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the moral imperative was clear. Allison Trzop, a grad student at Emerson College, found the story compelling enough to wrote a history of the episode as her Master’s thesis in 2006. It is her scholarship that brought this story to a new generation of UUs, and her work that I share with you today. Let’s start from the beginning.
In 1967 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wanted to put together “a full history of U.S. decision making on Vietnam back as far as the 1940s.” He put together a team of 36 people and gave them access to all kinds of Defense department files, along with outside sources- newspapers and books. The task force director, Leslie Gelb, descried it as “a history based solely on documents – checked and rechecked with ant-like diligence.” The final version was 7000 pages long and was meant for internal use only. Most of the people who worked on the project only saw small sections in their area of specialization, but Daniel Ellsberg, a former marine who had worked at both the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation think tank, had access to the whole document. He wrote in his memoirs “It occurred to me that what I had in my safe at Rand was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder. I decided I would stop concealing that myself. I would get it out somehow.”
Ellison, working with a former Rand associate Anthony Russo, photocopied all 7000 pages after-hours at a friend’s Los Angeles office. He leaked the first papers to the New York Times in March of 1971, but the Times sat on them for several months; it wasn’t until June 12 that the first of the papers were printed, and after only 3 days the New York Times was enjoined from publishing any more of the secret papers. It was the first time a U.S. Court had ever silenced a newspaper on grounds of “national Security.” Ellison then gave 2 sets of the documents to the Washington Post. The Post began publishing excerpts right after the Times injunction, but was similarly enjoined. On June 30 in “New York Times Co. v. United States” the Supreme Court heard an appeal, and both injunctions were lifted. The Times took up publishing the excerpts again the next day.
But remember 2 sets of papers were delivered to the Post, to editor Ben Bagdikian. Ellsberg had asked that the second set be given to a member of congress. Ellsberg approached several senators who declined, before Maurice Gravel, the Democratic senator from Alaska agreed to accept the documents. The heavy box of papers was exchanged in the Parking Lot of the Mayflower hotel in Washington DC. Gavel planned to read the papers into the record of the U.S. Senate during a filibuster of a bill that would extend the draft, but the filibuster was blocked because there wasn’t a quorum. Eager to enter the papers into the public record, on June 29 Gravel held an executive session of the Senate Sub-Committee on Buildings and Grounds which he chaired. He read from the papers for three hours and made an impassioned plea for a full disclosure to the public. Then, “with tears streaming down his face”, entered the documents into the public record. [p. 13] This meant that technically the papers were now in the public domain, but Sen. Randolph of West Virginia refused to authorize payment of a stenographer for a public record, blocking publication by the Government Printing office.
The New York times continued to print excerpts of these papers as “The Vietnam Archive” but Senator Gavel wanted to see publication of the full history. He approached publisher after publisher until thirty-some had turned him down. He approached first the larger publishers like Houghton Mifflin and Simon and Schuster, then he approached University and scholarly presses such as Harvard and MIT. Gavel was one of 2 Unitarian Universalists in the Senate at that time, but it was one of his aids who reminded him that his own denomination had a publishing house.
Beacon’s Editor in Chief, Arnold Tovell, and the director, Govin Stair agreed to look at the papers. Stair said in an interview “Our previous order was to publish those good books which are important books which the commercial presses won’t publish…and we were evading it in every way we could! … I had to tell my trustees that this was a principle, and that it was a silly thing to do, but I thought we should do it. But they had to know that it would cost ‘em. I stood up at that damned meeting and said it just as simply as that.”
And so on August 17, Beacon announced that it would print the Pentagon Papers, knowing it was the “biggest venture in the history of the small publishing firm.” Imagine, what they had been presented with was 7000 pages of “photocopied transcripts” with no particular organization. Said Gobin Stair, “It was an endless pile of notes. Nobody had shaped it.”
In addition to the huge editing task, there was the political stress as well. Stair recalls a phone call from Richard Nixon. “’Gobin’, said Nixon, ‘we have been investigating you around Boston, and we know you are apparently a pretty nice and smart guy…I hear you are going to do that set of papers by that guy Gravel’… The result was that as the guy in charge at Beacon,” Stair Recalled “I was in real trouble. Before we had decided yes or no, we were told not to do it. We were publishing books we like and that we think we can sell, and to be told by Nixon… not to do it, convinced me before I had [completely] decided, that it was a book to do.” But stair admitted feeling anxiety as well saying “I very much wish somebody else were publishing this.”
On September 17 two men from the defense Department walked in to Beacon Press and asked to see Gobin Stair. They demanded that the Pentagon Papers be returned. Before leaving they ran paper through all of Beacon Press’s photocopiers to see if the photocopies had been made on Beacon’s machines. Stair remembered the event as “Ominous and intimidating.”
The sense of fear spread. Beacon asked typesetters to give bids without knowing the exact nature of the project. When the project was revealed, the lowest bidder dropped out saying he was afraid of losing government contracts if he typeset the Pentagon Papers. The next lowest bid was $10,000 higher. They were off to a rough start.
Then, just 12 days before the Beacon press version arrived in bookstores, the Government Printing Office released its own set of the Pentagon Papers. (Remember, they had previously refused to do so). Now the government version did not even have page numbers, and was heavily censored. Said Gavel “You’ve got to appreciate that the decision to publish the papers by the Defense Department had to be a Whitehouse decision. It had to be a spiteful decision to punish… [Beacon] personally.”
On October 22 Beacon released a four volume set in cloth and paper. The New York Times Book reviewer proclaimed the Gravel edition “the best version.” At the release party Senator Gravel said in his speech “I was prepared to give up my Senate seat so that the American people could have these papers. Nothing but my family is dearer to me than my Senate seat – I’ve wanted to be a Senator since I was 12 years old. This” he said, holding up a copy of the book, “is my only pay-off…If there’s any question that I’d do it again, I would. I’d do it again and again and again and again.”
A week later, FBI agents walked into the New England Merchants National Bank of Boston, and asked to look at all UUA records for the past 6 months. The Bank refused, asking to see a subpoena. Two days later they FBI came back with a Subpoena for documents from all 12 of the UUA accounts. The president of the UUA, Dr. Robert West issued a statement that “Serious questions of church-state separation and freedom of the press are raised, in addition to the general issues of government intimidation and repression of dissent.” [p. 30] Senator Gavel and the UUA legal council requested an injunction based on Senator Gavel’s senatorial immunity, and the US court of appeals stopped the investigation while awaiting the ruling about Gravel’s immunity.
The respite was not long lived. On January 7 of 1972, the federal court of Appeals in Boston ruled that Gravel’s immunity would not protect Beacon press. UUA attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, and asked for an injunction based on a violation of religious liberty. The FBI withdrew it’s subpoena, but Beacon learned that the government planned to file criminal charges for (1) “receiving concealing, retaining and conveying stolen government property (2) receiving, retaining, communication and failure to deliver documents relating to the national defense and (3) interstate transport of stolen property of a value in excess of $5,000.” [p.32]
Said Edwin Lane (chair of the Beacon Board of directors at the time, who later found that his office phone had been tapped) “My greatest concern has always been that we could be completely exonerated by the courts and still be bankrupted if the Government chose to pit it’s fast financial resources against our small denominational publishing house… We could win every court battle and still be destroyed in the process.”  They were right to worry about the fiscal impact of the fight- Gravel’s attorney fees were more than $75,000 and the senate declined any funds towards his defense. The UUA paid more than $60,000 for Beacon Press legal fees.
Then on January 11, a subpoena was issued for Stair. UUA president Dr. Robert West sent a letter to religious leaders across the country warning that the FBI had compelled the disclosure of the names of their members and contributors. In that letter he argued that “An individual citizen’s decision to join and support a religious organization should not be subject to government investigation.” West’s ongoing outreach lead to the support by many faith groups, including the US Catholic Conference who offered legal assistance, and the Conference of American Rabbis which issued a statement against the government’s unconstitutional search saying “the end of religious freedom as we have know it could be near at hand.” [p. 37]
Letters of support came in from UUs around the country, some with donations from individuals or offerings taken up by congregations. I was touched to note that Dan Lion, founding minister of the congregation I served in Palo Alto sent a letter reading “I gave a 5 minute pulpit editorial on the UUA and the Pentagon Papers. Result: a request that a second offering be taken up. Hence the enclosed check.” West toured the country keeping the story in the public eye, and sought the support of news media and book publishers. The ALA issued a resolution of support for Beacon Press. Said West “The librarians were the most intensely concerned people I encountered in this who weren’t Unitarian Universalists”
But at the same time the UUA received hate mail from Unitarian Universalists condemning their actions- they felt being in possession of stolen goods was not solid moral ground to stand on. Members were concerned that the UUA stood on shaky financial ground as well. The initial investment in the publishing was $200,000, and by June of 1972 less than 1/3 had been recouped. Fortunately the Veach program made a loan of $100,000 to cover the costs, and later another loan for $300,000 for operating capitol. The press continued to flounder financially, cutting staff, new editions and publicity.
Then in June the Supreme court turned down the final UUA appeal- they would not be covered under Gravel’s immunity. The Association of American Publishers called an emergency meeting, and called for a $100,000 Beacon press legal defense fund. But in that very month the attention of the justice department turned to focus on the break in at DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.
As the Watergate investigation dominated the press, Ellsberg and Beacon Press waited to exhale. Finally by 1973 it seemed the Pentagon Papers were old news. Charges against Ellsberg and Russo were dismissed in Los Angeles. All hoped the case would not be pursued back east. The battle everyone had been bracing for never materialized. Said Stair in an interview later that year “If the Pentagon Papers came to us now, I’m not sure we could publish them.” [p. 46] But reflecting back in 2001 he called it “a high point in Beacon’s fulfilling its role as a public pulpit for proclaiming Unitarian Universalist Principles.”
What is the moral of this story? Beacon Press needn’t have gotten involved; 30some other publishers had turned down the opportunity for this small but noble role in the story of the Vietnam war. But Beacon’s sense of mission and principle was clear- if ever there was a time when this country needed the light of truth it was surely needed to guide their way out of the quagmire of war. But more importantly, Senators, publishers, typesetters, universities, were all afraid of retribution if they participated in the publishing of these documents. Says Edwin Lane, whose office phone was tapped while he was Chair of the Beacon Board of Directors “It’s tragic when a nation, dedicated and committed to the principle of freedom, reaches such a point that the greatest fear we have is from the government itself.” Sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies.
In the midst of conflict and drama, when tensions are high and things are happening fast, our body is hard wired not to act on principle, but to act for our own survival. Our sense of clarity of purpose must be so clear, so sure, that even with our heart racing we ground our actions and choices in our principles. Now that 38 years have passed, it’s easy to be proud of Beacon Press for making the “right choice.” But what must it have felt like to serve on that Board of Trustees, watching the Press your were charged with teeter on the edge of financial ruin, facing off with the Department of Defense. Would any of us have the courage of our convictions to make that kind of choice, for ourselves, for our congregation?
I think that song by the Mighty Might Bosstones hits the nail right on the head:
I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass…
I've never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has.
Which makes me wonder if I could.
makes me wonder if I could.
May this story work in our hearts and give us courage whenever we are tested to stand up on behalf of truth.