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Gobin Stair and Rev. Robert West Recount UUA/Beacon Press Publication of The Pentagon Papers

In chilling detail, former Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Robert West and former Beacon Press Director Gobin Stair, now ninety years old, spoke at the Arlington Street Church on October 17, 2002, detailing the systematic harassment and intimidation tactics brought by the government on the UUA and Beacon Press in an attempt to stop publication of the controversial Pentagon Papers. After they spoke, they were joined by Daniel Ellsberg, the government analyst who delivered the seven thousand pages of material to then-Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, a Unitarian Universalist.

Gobin Stair's Recollection of the Acquisition of The Pentagon Papers and the Role of Beacon Press

Stair recounted, "We found out that over at Houghton Mifflin [book publishers] they were having a lot of trouble with a book called Pentagon Papers…even from a distance we knew it was a great big book, and that big books were too expensive for our small company. However, Houghton Mifflin turned it down, and then my smart editor showed up one morning with this pile of stuff and put it on my desk. And he said, 'Here is a best seller. No one wants it, but it's important.' That's a good definition of a best seller. I had our editor read it, we had other people read it, I looked at it and tried to read it, and it was a boring book. It went on and on and on with these details…that kind of recommendation was a very poor one for a book.

"However, Beacon Press was getting very important over the years, and every now and then, word would get through to people about things we were thinking of doing. One day at home, I got a phone call at home from Richard Nixon. I recognized his voice, and he said, 'Gobin, we have been investigating you around Boston, and we know you are apparently a pretty nice and smart guy…' and he said, 'I hear you are going to do that set of papers by that guy Gravel, the guy who collected the Pentagon Papers.'

"And it was obvious he was going to ask me not to publish it. And I didn't want to give him an idea whether we would or wouldn't. But it was obvious that he was putting pressure on me to turn it down. He knew it and I knew it. The result was that as the guy in charge at Beacon, I was in real trouble. Before we 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.

"That search for books is the backbone of what Beacon Press has been doing, is trying to do, will do. It's why Beacon Press is what it is, and why we are talking about questions like this - about civil liberties, what's available to us, what isn't. We had this big stack of papers, and it was obvious that it would be a very expensive job - to set the type, print the pages, bind the book, was a big job, and too expensive for us. On the other hand, Beacon Press is always looking for that book that is important, and will have some contribution to our culture, our people…not only entertainment, but advice.

"Here was a book about something that we knew about…how politicians relate to each other…This was a book that talked about that kind of difficulty. The Pentagon Papers were collected and prepared for us by a responsible guy from Alaska who was well known, who was a member of our government (ed. note: Stair is referring to then-Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska.) Gravel's approach was to include everything. Well, not everyone will be interested, and they come up with half answers instead of full answers. So we shouldn't publish it if we were smart… but when Nixon called me and told me I had been investigated around Boston, when you are faced with that kind of question, you have to go and talk to the boss."

Former UUA President Robert N. West Continues the Story, Recalling Harassment of the UUA and Beacon Press by the FBI

"The first instance of my involvement with The Pentagon Papers was when Gobin came into my office in the summer of 1971, and asked for my approval for Beacon Press to publish this book. Because the central focus of this evening is civil liberties, I want to name [for this audience] the major issues and principles that drove those actions as they occurred: 

  • religious freedom
  • freedom of association 
  • government harassment
  • misuse of the power of the FBI and Justice department 
  • misuse of grand jury
  • invasion of privacy
  • misuse of secrecy by the government.

"When Gobin came to me that summer day, he told me of the 35 other publishers that declined to publish The Pentagon Papers. And that the cost would be $50,000 which, given the condition of our denomination, was enormous. Beacon Press published this book on October 22. But back in August, Gobin publicly announced that Beacon would publish it…

"One morning in early November, the UUA treasurer, Arthur Root, said that the Vice President of the New England Merchants Bank (the UUA's bank) had called to say that FBI agents had been working secretly at the bank for the last seven days, reviewing all the UUA's transactions, including every check written and deposited in the UUA's accounts over the last four months, reviewing the names of all individuals who contributed to our denomination.

"I remember being in Gobin's office with him and Sen. Gravel, when Gravel announced he was bringing contempt proceedings against the government…he succeeded in stopping this action for two months, but it resumed on January 10. The next day, the UUA filed suit in Federal Court against the US government…alleging infraction of freedom of the press.

"I held a press conference to announce our court action, and the FBI served subpoenas on Gobin ordering him to appear in front of a grand jury with the Pentagon Papers. And the same scenario was occurring at the UUA, with agents delivering subpoenas to Arthur Root, but then retrieving them and retreating by the back stairway. In response to our action, the court issued a temporary stay against this action, but the US attorney filed an action with the strong likelihood that Beacon Press officials would be prosecuted for illegal activity."

"I knew there was far too little awareness in the media about what was going on with Beacon Press. I embarked on a speaking engagement…the strongest weapon we had was public opinion and public awareness. I visited major cities and congregations, giving interviews to radio stations. [Chicago journalist and radio host] Studs Terkel devoted an entire interview to our situation; two newspapers in Chicago published articles…I spoke to college students. Gobin went to the American Association of Book Publishers…I got on a plane and went down there and was able to address the annual meeting, which resulted in a lot of publicity and support. The same was true with the American Library Association. Gobin was working behind the scenes to get as many influential organizations as possible, aware and involved. We were very gratified by the support from the National Council of Churches, several Jewish organizations, the National Catholic Conference, newspapers, and a multitude of UU congregations and clergy. We distributed, to all UU congregations, an info pack and audio cassette with a statement by Gobin, information from our attorneys, and information on how our members could help.

"Our legal b ills were approaching $50,000, so we established a legal fund for religious freedom. The next thing was that Gobin, you were subpoenaed to appear at Daniel Ellsberg's trial in California. Bill Duffy, our special council, was expecting a similar subpoena, and said that his job was to keep Gobin and me out of jail, and I spent an afternoon with him preparing for the trail. However, as you know, a mistrial was declared because Federal Agents burglarized the office of his psychoanalyst.

"But the Federal Court dismissed the UUA's complaint against the government without prejudice, which meant that the complaint would be taken up against if the FBI resumed its case against the UUA.

West Reflects on Harassment of the UUA and its Place in the History of Civil Liberties Cases

"I would like to comment briefly on our Pentagon Papers experience. What the government did to [the UUA] as a continental religious organization was unprecedented in the history of our nation. The justice department investigated our financial affairs, because one of our departments, Beacon Press, published one book that was controversial - a book that was already in the public domain. The result was disclosure of all our donors, in any amount; government examination of day to day use of financial resources; review of all the records of our Association, every check we wrote - an unwarranted intrusion into the affairs of a religious denomination by the government.

"As I traveled and spoke, many people asked me, 'If I buy a copy of The Pentagon Papers am I subject to investigation? Will a file be opened on me?' Congregations and the UUA were subjected to inclusion in the dossiers and files of the Justice Department and the FBI, which is a way of striking at the UUA for its present and future…the Federal Judge in Boston said, 'You do not need to convict in order to embarrass and harass a person.' I can draw no other conclusion than that the overall intent of the investigation was to create fear, have a chilling effect on our denomination, other religious organizations, and people who might be inclined to engage in dissent from stated policy. That was being done to Gobin in those phone calls and visits."

Stair Sums it Up

Stair said, "This is why I liked to work at Beacon. That book is still important…it got published, and I have those books, and they are in my local library. It cost money, it didn't make money, but all these years later, we talk about this as an achievement. Senator Gravel knew that had the true facts been known by the people, the war would have ended, and the needless deaths of the Vietnamese people would have been averted. This is the real lesson of 'The Pentagon Papers'…Jefferson was right: eternal vigilance is a necessity."

Edited by Deborah Weiner.

Civil Rights and Religious Liberty

For more information contact beacon@uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

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Rev. Robert N. West, UUA President, and Sentator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) held a press conference on November 5, 1971, concerning Beacon Press' publication of The Pentagon Papers and ongoing harassment of the UUA by the FBI. 


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Gobin Stair and Rev. Robert N. West at the Arlington Street Church, October 17, 2002

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