Why Beacon Press Took the Risk to Publish “The Pentagon Papers”

Published on: March 25, 2017

Filed Under: Featured

Views: 589

This article originally appeared at BeaconBroadside.com.

By Allison Trzop.

It was announced this month that Steven Spielberg will direct The Post, a drama centered on the Washington Post’s role in exposing The Pentagon Papers. Declassified and publicly released in June 2011, the papers give the history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Tom Hanks will be playing Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, and Meryl Streep Post publisher Kay Graham. The Post, though, wasn’t the only player in the history of the papers.

Back in 1971, Beacon Press edited and bound all the documents that became The Pentagon Papers after three dozen publishers declined Senator Mike Gravel’s proposal to publish them. Though it was no easy task, Beacon’s then director Gobin Stair saw a moral obligation to make them available to the public—which wasn’t without risk. As you’ll read below, Beacon came under investigation. President Nixon called Stair to voice his disapproval and, literally, stop the presses. Members of the Defense Department soon showed up at the office. In our humble opinion, this would also make for an exciting movie drama. 

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On August 17, 1971, Beacon publicly announced that it would publish The Pentagon Papers. Nobody on staff was naive about what such a commitment entailed: “A Beacon spokesman said yesterday the Gravel book is the biggest venture in the history of the small publishing firm.” The papers represented the “biggest venture” in Beacon’s long history on many levels. For starters, the papers in their submitted form—a “great container full of stuff”—presented an editorial nightmare. The manuscript that antiwar activist Leonard Rodberg brought in was composed of more than 7,000 pages of “original transcripts.” Staring at the disorganized piles of xeroxes, Gobin Stair was pessimistic about the editing process:

The pile of stuff that was the Pentagon Papers was so confused and so mixed up that everybody who got near it knew this wasn’t going to be a possible book, or series of books. It needed to stay in that manuscript form locked in some closet somewhere. Because it was an endless pile of notes. Nobody had shaped it.

Edited, collated, and bound, the publication of the papers would spark an even larger problem: political persecution. This was a seasoned publishing team signing on for guaranteed headaches and possible criminal charges. Why, then, did Beacon accept Senator Mike Gravel’s incendiary proposal?

In an article dated September 15, 1971, exactly three months to the day the presses stopped, Gobin Stair explained Beacon’s rationale: “Senator Gravel has performed a unique public service in making [the Pentagon Papers] available. The public, we feel is entitled to reasonable public disclosure of the material rather than sketchy journalistic synopses.” Stair also expressed his disdain for the producers of those “sketchy synopses”: “We are undertaking this vital project because we are concerned at how rapidly the American press lost interest in the Pentagon study once the Supreme Court confirmed the public’s right to this information.” Like Gravel, Beacon placed a premium on keeping the papers accessible in the fullest form possible.

Never one to mince words, Stair selected some choice ones for other book publishers, calling to account the industry trend of waning editorial independence and waxing corporate control: “In a time when most houses are selling out to larger industrial conglomerates, the corporation and not the publisher is controlling the book trade. We may consider ourselves very fortunate that our press takes a different attitude.” Thirty years after making the decision to publish the papers, Stair’s sense of the project’s scope remained vibrant: “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.” In terms of professional ethics, Beacon adhered to an unrivaled standard.

Beacon didn’t stake its decision to bring out The Pentagon Papers solely on principle; President Nixon’s opinion was also taken into consideration. As Stair remembers:

I got a phone call at home from Richard Nixon . . . he said, “Gobin, 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, 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.

Although he took a certain puckish delight in Nixon’s disapproval, Stair confessed to feeling a similar anxiety to Arnold Tovell, admitting, “I very much wish somebody else were publishing this.”

Nixon wasn’t the only one contacting Beacon. On September 17, two men from the Defense Department outfitted with “hats and coats and cigarettes” arrived at press headquarters, asking to see Gobin Stair. Secretary Burnell O’Brien was shaking when she walked into the director’s office and announced, “The FBI are here.” Stair replied, “Tell them to come back in a half an hour.” To buy time for Stair to rally Beacon’s lawyers and staff, and to call the newspapers, O’Brien sent the FBI agents on a tour of Old North Church. When the agents returned, they demanded that the Pentagon Papers be returned. Beacon did not accommodate them. In addition to making demands, the agents also ran paper “through all of Beacon’s photocopiers” to see if they could determine whether Ellsberg had used those machines to copy the Pentagon studies. The men departed after making an appointment for Pentagon officials to meet with Beacon staff one week later. Stair called the whole ordeal “ominous and intimidating.”

J. Fred Buzhardt, general counsel of the Defense Department, later canceled the meeting set up by the FBI agents. Buzhardt’s actions seemed odd, given that Beacon and Senator Gravel were open to discussing the contents of the forthcoming volumes; as Gravel put it, “If they see something that is sensitive to national defense that we haven’t, we are amenable to discussion.” By way of explanation, Buzhardt cited the recent court ruling in favor of the New York Times: “The Supreme Court has ruled no prior restraint on these documents. I can’t try to do indirectly what the court has said can’t be done directly.” Behind Buzhardt’s withdrawal was a veiled threat—if the Times hadn’t broken ground on prior restraint, one of the most important trials for a free press could have been Beacon Press v. United States.

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