Colrain’s Kehler played role in release of Pentagon Papers

  • KEHLER

Recorder Staff
Published: 1/19/2018 10:13:45 PM

COLRAIN — Steven Spielberg’s lens may have been focused on The Washington Post in his latest movie, now playing at Garden Cinemas, but it was The New York Times that first began publishing the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, after former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the secret Vietnam war record to reporter Neil Sheehan — after hearing Randy Kehler, now of Colrain, speak about the strength of his convictions against the Vietnam War.

By the time the Post — the focus of the Spielberg film of the same name — began publishing the Pentagon Papers five days later, after the Nixon administration had halted their publication in the Times, Kehler had been reading the New York newspaper’s accounts in his federal prison cell outside El Paso, Texas, thanks to a gift subscription from Ellsberg himself.

There, Kehler was serving 22 months of the 24-month sentence for resisting the military service, and he read each day’s front-page stories based on the top-secret Defense Department study that had been leaked by the man he’d first met at the August 1969 War Resisters International conference he was speaking at before heading to prison.

Ellsberg, Kehler recalls, “was there sitting there in the back, still trying to figure out where he was with the war, given that he was convinced that it was wrong, horribly brutal and taking so many lives. What could he do about it?”

Kehler, now 73, was a keynote speaker at the conference, at which Ellsberg introduced himself.

“He was shy and kind of reluctant,” at the conference, recalls Kehler, who at the time was 25 and worked for the War Resisters League in San Francisco and had recently been indicted for refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service System. In his speech, Kehler spoke of who was already either in prison for opposing the war or — like himself — about to go.

“He knew he would be a fish out of water. He was on the fence about what he could do, but was not so much on the fence about the war being absolutely wrong and that it needed to stop. That much is clear,” said Kehler, who recalls how different Ellsberg was from everyone else at the conference, whose other participants included German pastor Martin “First they came for the Jews…” Niemöller.

Kehler “opened my eyes to the possibilities of resisting the war,” Ellsberg would write later. And even during the Haverford conference, the former Pentagon and Rand Corporation analyst participated in a vigil outside the Philadelphia courthouse where Bob Easton, another Quaker war resister was on trial, “hoping that nobody would notice or recognize him there. He was so out of his element, and he hadn’t decided what to do.”

Ellsberg, who in addition to the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers, had also copied a collection of highly classified government documents pertaining to the nation’s nuclear arsenal — revealing information that’s at the heart of his new book, “The Doomsday Machine,” told Kehler his plans when he met with him not long after the Haverford speech, at what Kehler calls a “powwow” in a San Francisco restaurant.

“He told me what he was thinking of doing,” says Kehler, who Ellsberg says was the only person he confided in at the time other than his wife.

“The irony,” recalls Kehler, was that Ellsberg told him at the time that he had two sets of documents — the massive report on Vietnam as well as papers pertaining to the nuclear arsenal. “I don’t think I can release both at the same time,” he told Kehler, because it would undercut his credibility.

Which did Kehler suggest releasing first?

“Without too much hesitation, I told him, ‘Oh, you should release the nuclear papers,” since he’d described the Pentagon Papers as thousands of pages, in dozens of volumes,” Kehler recalls. “‘I don’t think the American people are going to read it; it’s too much, too detailed.’ He didn’t take my advice. For the sake of ending the Vietnam War, it’s a good thing he didn’t.”

Ultimately, the Pentagon Papers, which ran not only in the Times and the Post, but also in more than a dozen other newspapers — may not have been read in their entirety by all that many people, said Kehler. But it helped bring an end to the war because of the response by Nixon to stop their publication and going after Ellsberg.

“The newspapers really did a great job,” he said. “The New York Times had their people read the whole thing, and every day there would be a new across-the-front-page headline about something else revealed in the papers. And the Post did the same. That had an impact, and people could see without reading the papers themselves,” that for years presidents and the Pentagon had been lying about the war, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 60,000 U.S. troops and millions of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths, as well as others around the region by the time the war ended in 1975.

Years later, Ellsberg said that after a tearful Kehler told the Haverford gathering that going to prison for what he believed would be the right thing to do, “I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that. … Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war. If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy (the Pentagon Papers.) “His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.”

Kehler, whose refusal to pay taxes for the U.S. military resulted in the 1989 federal seizure of his Colrain home and who headed a national campaign to freeze nuclear weapons, said of the Pentagon Papers, “To me, it underlies the whole question of government secrecy, which seems much worse now than it was then. It totally undermines democracy. People can’t make informed decisions when they don’t know what the hell’s going on. They’re being told lies.”

When Ellsberg worked in the Defense Department, he later told Kehler and still later revealed in his 2003 American Book Award winner, “Secrets,” “Lying was routine, not only to the public and to the press, but even to Congress. The role of the public was so minimized.”


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