Mike Gravel, a maverick two-term U.S. senator from Alaska (1969-81) and two- time presidential candidate who daringly released Daniel Ellsberg’s copy of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in Congress — thus securing the legal precedent for elected officials to inform the electorate on matters that are hidden under the guise of state secrets — has died in Seaside, California at the age of 91.
Gravel was known in recent decades for his advocacy of Direct Democracy in his campaigns and books Citizen Power, The Failure of Representative Government and The Solution: A Legislature of the People (2021), A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It and The King Makers. Other projects covering his work include the award-winning documentary American Gadfly, Academy Award nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America, and the Gravel Institute.
Mike Gravel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts to French-Canadian immigrants. Following his service in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Europe, Gravel earned a degree in economics from Columbia University while driving a taxi in New York City. After evaluating where a young man with no money might fulfill a dream of becoming a U.S. Senator, he set out for Alaska in 1956 — before Alaska became a state in 1959. In Alaska he built a real estate business, married and had two children, and served two terms in the Alaska House of Representatives, including two years as Speaker of the House.
Gravel was instrumental in lifting Alaska from one of the poorest and most unequal states in the U.S. in the 1970 Census to one of the richest and most equal by the 2000 Census. The state’s Native population moved from poverty to the middle class and from a subsistence economy to a mixed subsistence/cash economy with educated young Native leaders managing multi-billion dollar corporations in one generation. He was a leading proponent and one of the key congressional players in settling the indigenous land claims of Alaskan Natives. The settlement created 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and over 200 village corporations that have helped transform Alaska’s economy.
Gravel was the Senate’s leader on confronting the environmental consequences of existing nuclear policy. He organized worldwide opposition to the Pentagon’s nuclear tests under the seabed of Alaska’s Amchitka Island, halting them after the second test and thereby limiting the threat which encapsulated nuclear wastes pose to the marine environment of the North Pacific. Gravel argued that the test could do irreparable harm to the surrounding Alaska fishing industry and be a long-term radiation health risk to Alaskans. The legal case went to the Supreme Court, which decided 4-3 on the day of the scheduled second test, to allow it to continue. But the drama of the Supreme Court action and the negative
public attention leading up to it was so intense the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission decided not to conduct further testing in Alaska. Amchitka Island continues to be monitored for radiation leakage.
He similarly pressed the case nationally against the supposedly clean alternative of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity. He was the first member of Congress to oppose a policy that was widely hailed as the “peaceful use of the atom.” By publicly calling attention to the absence of sufficient safeguards against accidents at nuclear power plants, the problems of long-term disposal of nuclear wastes, and the dangers of transporting those wastes, he helped give life to a citizen movement that opposed expansion of nuclear power plants, rendering them increasingly uneconomical. The wisdom of moving away from this once- popular alternative was, in the Senator’s view, confirmed by the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Mike Gravel extended his critique to nuclear weapons policy. In his book on direct democracy cited above, he decried the fact that the public has become complacent about the threat of nuclear war. He wrote that “it’s downright frightening to hear statements by past and present-day political and military leaders casually discussing the first-strike use of nuclear bombs to address international conflicts. Nuclear weapons, upon which we spend trillions of dollars, are not usable unless our leaders choose to commit suicide for all of us on the planet.”
Senator Gravel was undoubtedly best known for his opposition to continuation of the Vietnam war and the military Draft. During Gravel’s efforts to filibuster the renewal of the Draft, he was contacted by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg about using the Pentagon Papers, a secret internal study of the Vietnam war, as part of his filibuster. Ellsberg had reached out to several high-profile Senators and Congressmen; however, only freshman Senator Gravel would take the risk of imprisonment or the ending of his political career. Senator Gravel read and submitted the Papers into the hearing record of his congressional subcommittee after being thwarted by GOP opposition in the Senate chamber, thus providing a vital backstop for the maintenance of freedom of the press. The following day the Supreme Court announced its 6-3 decision to allow publication to continue with The Washington Post, The New York Times and other newspapers. Each of the nine justices wrote his own opinion, making it clear how close the court came to deciding against the newspapers.
Even though the Supreme Court lifted the specter of prior restraint from publication of the Pentagon Papers, the press never published more than a limited sampling of the entire Pentagon study outlining the history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. Gravel was determined that the public should know the full story. When the congressional committee controlling the hearing record rebuffed his plea to print the full documents to make them public, he sought to publish them privately. Beacon Press, a branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association, agreed to do so after numerous other publishers had declined. As a result, Beacon was subjected by the Nixon Administration to years of government harassment and litigation. In litigation connected to the publication, Senator Gravel ultimately won a Supreme Court decision (Gravel v. United States) that confirmed the rights of members of Congress and their staff members not to be prosecuted for their official acts under the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution. The Court also affirmed that Gravel’s act of placing the Papers in the subcommittee record was specifically protected.
Though the Pentagon Papers episode is the best known instance of Mike Gravel’s bold actions to check U.S. imperial tendencies, this approach was characteristic of his years in the Senate. He was one of the earliest members of Congress to recommend normalization of relations with China, at the time widely referred to as “Red China.” His proposal was viewed as outlandish by most of his Senate colleagues. But it was prompted by his view of a cooperative, Pacific Ocean- centered world, which was natural and appropriate for an Alaskan. And just six months after his “outlandish” proposal, the Nixon Administration made its first overtures to normalize relations with China.
During the Carter Administration’s negotiation of a new Panama Canal treaty, Gravel worked to correct America’s colonial legacy and repair relations with the Panamanians. He won approval of a modification of the treaty that required a joint U.S. – Panamanian study of canal modernization alternatives. The study was undertaken after Gravel left office, and an expanded Panama Canal opened in 2016.
For Alaska and the nation, Gravel led congressional authorization of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, a massive project that at its highpoint delivered a significant share of America’s energy. At the time of oil embargos and destabilization of the U.S. economy, this was a pivotal victory. Gravel became an ardent voice for wind and solar energy. He believed a wind power project in the Aleutian Islands could be the next example of Alaska moving the nation forward. In Gravel’s 2008 campaign, Carbon Tax was a pilar of the platform.
Throughout Senator Gravel’s career, he sought to change the relationship of the individual both to the state and the capitalistic free enterprise system. He believed all people should have greater opportunity to participate in broadscale ownership of equity. In 1978, Congress enacted Senator Gravel’s amendment to the Internal Revenue Code allowing any of the 50 states to create General Stock Ownership Corporations (GSOCs). A GSOC would use the credit worthiness of the state to create significant new economic activity. Then, employing tax treatment similar to an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), ownership of the corporation would be extended to every state resident. His efforts to have Alaska be the first to have a GSOC, though supported by the then-governor, were dashed by electoral politics.
Gravel’s early work in Alaska included securing infrastructure for satellite communications, the ferry system and rural education.
Gravel is survived by his wife Whitney Stewart Gravel of Seaside, California; his son Martin Gravel and his wife Michele of Parker, Colorado; his daughter Lynne Mosier of Austin, Texas; granddaughter Nina Todd and her husband Josiah of Castle Rock, Colorado; grandson Alex Gravel and his wife Kailee Rhoades and great grandson Axel Gravel of Castle Rock, Colorado; granddaughters Madison Mosier of Austin, Texas and Mackenzie Mosier of Santa Clara, California; sisters Marie Lombardi and her husband Thomas of Southport, North Carolina, and Sister Marguerite Gravel csc of Manchester, New Hampshire; and former wife Rita White of Parker, Colorado. He was predeceased by his brothers Lionel and Bernard Gravel.
Details of a celebration of life have not yet been announced.