Former Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK) died yesterday at 91. He was a major hero of the antiwar movement several times over.
Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times; they began publishing them on June 13, 1971 The U.S. Justice Department immediately tried to halt publication, on the grounds that the information revealed within the papers harmed the national interest. Within the next two weeks, a federal court injunction halted publication in The Times; The Washington Post and several other newspapers began publishing parts of the documents, with some of them also being halted by injunctions; and the whole matter went to the US Supreme Court for arguments. Ellsberg then went to Senator Gravel to release them in the Senate. Gravel had recently led Senate filibusters against renewal of the military draft. Gravel was able to read them into the Congressional Record, putting them into the public domain under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution which gives congressional members immunity from prosecution. (see Wikipedia). Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not restrict publication.
In July 1971, at age 17, I attended the founding convention of the People’s Party, a coalition of antiwar minor political parties preparing to challenge the pro-war Democratic Party in the 1972 election. I was a national organizer for the party, having spent several months traveling around the country recruiting organizations to join the coalition. Senator Gravel accepted an invitation to attend the convention and give the keynote speech. I was assigned to be aide-de-camp for him during his visit. I picked him up at the Dallas airport and spent two days with him at the convention.
Gravel was a charming man and very excited to speak to this new coalition. He treated me as an equal, despite my young age. He was clearly enjoying his newfound national spotlight as a national leader of the movement to end the horrific war against Vietnam. I was also enjoying the ride and the company of such an important figure. At the convention, he was welcomed with calls for him to accept the People’s Party nomination for President. Flattered, he repeatedly declined.
In the end, the party nominated famous author and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. When George McGovern surprisingly won the Democratic nomination over Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, most antiwar forces rushed to embrace him and the People’s Party campaign collapsed. Spock received a tiny fraction of the national vote.
Over the years Gravel continued to fight against US wars.
In 2007, the former senator ran for President for the first time. In his first debate of Democratic hopefuls, the issue of the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Iran came up, and Gravel confronted then-Sen. Obama. “Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” Gravel said. Obama replied: “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike.” Gravel briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. He again criticized American wars and vowed to slash military spending. During and after his time as a US Senator, he was an outspoken opponent of US war policies.
Gravel was a larger-than-life figure who never gave up the fight for what he believed in. We will miss him.
Eric Garris is the co-founder and director of Antiwar.com.