Mike Gravel’s Legislative Accomplishments

CaptureIn 1973, following years of study and judicial delay, Senator Gravel introduced an amendment to empower the Congress to make the policy decision about the construction of the Alaska Oil Pipeline. Initially, the amendment was opposed in all quarters, by state and federal officials, the labor movement, and the oil industry. Alone at the beginning, Mike Gravel built support and gained allies who, in the end, helped secure the amendment’s passage in the Senate by a single vote. This accomplishment placed Alaska on a new economic footing. The pipeline has been responsible for 20% of the U.S. oil supply, has contributed substantially to the nation’s balance of payments, and has yielded economic benefits that dramatically improved the quality of life across Alaskan society. A recent retrospective analysis has revealed that, absent Senator Gravel’s amendment, the pipeline would probably not have been built, relegating the nation to greater foreign dependency and environmental pollution.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Pentagon was performing five calibration tests for a nuclear missile warhead that, upon investigation, was revealed to be obsolete. Yet the tests, involving the detonation of nuclear warheads under the seabed of the North Pacific at Amchitka Island, Alaska (an earthquake prone area) were scheduled to continue. These tests created large caverns under the seabed, encapsulating nuclear wastes with life-threatening properties that would last more than a thousand years. These caverns could rupture during an earthquake, spewing contaminated wastes into the food chain of the North Pacific, thereby compromising one of the planet’s major sources of food. Mike Gravel fought the tests in Congress, but he also went beyond his role as a Senator to organize worldwide environmental opposition to the Pentagon’s plans. He succeeded in halting the program after the second test, limiting the expansion of this threat to the marine environment of the North Pacific.

In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear fission was considered an environmentally clean alternative for the generation of commercial electricity and was part of a popular national policy for the peaceful use of atomic energy. Mike Gravel was the first in Congress to publicly oppose this national nuclear policy in 1970, and he used his office to organize citizen opposition, successfully persuading Ralph Nader’s organization to join the fight. Senator Gravel’s initial efforts, and later those of the environmental movement that had coalesced in opposition, contributed to making the production of commercial electricity through nuclear fission uneconomical. The wisdom of this change in policy, was confirmed by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. Mike Gravel had applied the brakes to a headlong policy that was threatening the global environment by producing nuclear wastes and proliferating bomb-grade nuclear materials.

In May 1971, Senator Gravel began a one-man filibuster that continued into September, forcing a deal to let the military draft expire. The drafting of the nation’s youth had been defense policy since 1947. In order to save face and break the Senator’s filibuster, the Nixon administration agreed to let the draft expire in 1973 if given a two-year extension in 1971.

Capture2Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon analyst who helped write the secret Pentagon Papers, attempted to secure the Papers’ release through a member of Congress in order to provide legal protection for the release of this highly classified historical study that detailed how the United States had ensnared itself in the Vietnam War. After congressional leaders Ellsberg initially approached failed to act, he turned to the New York Times and Washington Post, which then published excerpts of the study in June 1971. The Nixon Justice Department sought an injunction against the newspapers, and a Supreme Court decision that was due at the end of June put the publishers at risk. The day before the Supreme Court decision, in an effort to moot any action that might intimidate the newspapers, Mike Gravel officially released the Pentagon Papers in his capacity as a Senator communicating with his constituency. As it happened, the Supreme Court did not rule against the Fourth Estate, but Senator Gravel continued to press for release of the full text of the Pentagon Papers by publishing the papers in book form. He was turned down by every major (and not-so-major) publishing house in the nation, save one. Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, faced down the Nixon Administration by publishingThe Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers.