Former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel may be a silly old man who throws rocks into water and raps to John Lennon, but the reason for the Alaskan’s angry sadness still resonates in today’s America, the innocent amnesiac America that forgets its own history.
Sen. Gravel was a senator during the Vietnam War and in the age of Nixon played a key role in ending the draft and revealing the origins for the war in Indochina. I think the most interesting part of this is his role in going public with the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
Daniel Ellsberg is known as the “Forrest Gump” of the Vietnam War for conveniently being present at all the major events in Washington and Vietnam (Gulf of Tonkin Bay incident, Defense Secretary McNamara privately admitting the war was lost and then announcing to the media that there was progress, etc.) In 1967, the Pentagon instituted a review of all the key decisionmaking documents that led to the Vietnam War; those documents and the commentary on those documents were 7,000 pages long and were titled “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy” aka the Pentagon Papers.
This top secret review of the true reasons for why the United States went to war to Vietnam was leaked to the media by Daniel Ellsberg .
The Washington Post and the New York Times started running excerpts of them. Richard Nixon sued the New York Times and got a judge to issue a restraining order, forbidding publication of the Papers. It was a classic “national security” versus the First Amendment argument.
In one of the quickest Supreme Court rulings ever, the New York Times v. the United States was ruled 6-3 in favor of the New York Times saying that even though it was a top secret document, it would be better to be published than not, and the First Amendment and the public’s right to know trumped executive secrecy.
During the lawsuits though when it was uncertain whether the Pentagon Papers would ever make it public, Mike Gravel (a very junior senator) was given the documents as well and decided to read the documents into the public record as Senate speeches/testimony so that the public would get the Papers regardless of what happened to the New York Times. Introducing the Pentagon Papers, Gravel said,
We now find policies on the most fundamental of issues, war and peace, adopted without the support or understanding of the people affected by them….
For it is the leaders who have been found lacking, not the people. It is the leaders who have systematically misled, misunderstood, and, most of all, ignored the people in pursuit of a reckless foreign policy which the people never sanctioned. Separated from the public by a wall of secrecy and by their own desires for power, they failed to heed the voice of the people, who saw instinctively that America’s vital interests were not involved in Southeast Asia. Nor could they bring themselves to recognize the knowledge and insight of that large number of private citizens who foresaw the eventual failure of their plans. As we now know, they were able even to ignore the frequently accurate forecasts of the government’s own intelligence analysts….
We were told that we had to make sacrifices to preserve freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia. We were told that South Vietnam was the victim of aggression, and it was our duty to punish aggression at its source. We were told that we had to fight on the continent of Asia so that we would not have to battle on the shores of America. One can accept these arguments only if he has failed to read the Pentagon Papers.
He read 4,100 pages into the microphone, and at times weeping at the horrors he was reading.
And now, over thirty years later, we doing the same damn thing and making the same damn mistakes and telling ourselves the same damn lies. Fighting them there so we don’t fight them here? Fighting for freedom and liberty? Presidential secrecy to protect the public security?
Wouldn’t you too say that Americans are getting “fatter and dumber“? Sometimes the inconvenient and impolitic truth pops its head up in form of disgruntled Alaskan senators.