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Senator Mike Gravel

Mike Gravel represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from1969 - 1981. He served on the Finance, Interior, and Environment and Public Works committees, chairing the Energy, Water Resources, and Environmental Pollution subcommittees. Some of Senator Gravel's legislative activities are outlined below:

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Pentagon was in the process of performing five calibration tests for a nuclear missile warhead that, upon investigation, was revealed to be obsolete. Yet the tests, the detonation of nuclear bombs 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, which is a major source of food for the planet. Mike Gravel opposed the tests in Congress and went beyond his role as a Senator to organize worldwide environmental opposition to the Pentagon's tests. The program was halted after the second test, limiting the expansion of this unusual threat to the marine environment of the North Pacific.

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 in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Mike Gravel was the first in Congress to publicly oppose this national nuclear policy in 1970 and used his office to organize citizen opposition to this policy, successfully persuading Ralph Nader's organization to join the opposition. 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 importance of this change in policy, confirmed by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, was to limit the uncontrolled threat to our planetary environment by the continued production of nuclear wastes and the proliferation of bomb-grade nuclear materials.

In May 1971, Senator Gravel began a one-man filibuster that continued into September, forcing a deal to let the 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 an extension in 1971.

Daniel Ellsberg attempted to secure the release of the Pentagon Papers through a member of Congress in order to provide legal protection for his actions in releasing this top secret historical study that detailed how the US had ensnared itself in the Vietnam War. Since other Congressional leaders Ellsberg approached had failed to act, he turned to the New York Times and Washington Post, which published excerpts of the study in June, 1971. A Justice Department injunction and a Supreme Court decision at the end of June put the publishers at risk. The day before the Supreme Court decision, in an effort to moot their action, Mike Gravel officially released the Pentagon Papers in his capacity as a Senator communicating with his constituency. Since the Supreme Court had successfully intimidated the Fourth Estate, Senator Gravel sought to publish the papers in book form, but 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 publishing The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers.

The Justice Department brought legal action against Beacon Press and against the Senator's editor, Dr. David Rotberg. Mike Gravel intervened in the case, using his Senate office as a shield for Beacon Press and Rotberg. Decisions at the Federal Court and the Court of Appeals protected the Senator from prosecution but left Beacon Press and Rotberg at risk, so, against the advice of his attorneys, Gravel took the matter to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rendered a landmark constitutional decision in the spring of 1972 narrowly defining the prerogatives of an elected representative with respect to the speech and debate clause of the Constitution. Senator Gravel's defeat before the Supreme Court placed him at risk of prosecution, along with Beacon Press and Rotberg. With Watergate afoot, the Nixon Justice Department lost interest in the prosecution of Ellsberg, Gravel and Rotberg. However, the Court's decision did set the stage for its later decision on the Nixon Tapes forcing Nixon's resignation from the Presidency.


In the 1970's, Elias Demetracopoulos, an exiled Greek journalist living in Washington D.C., recruited Mike Gravel to use his position in the U.S. Senate to speak out against the Nixon Administration's support of the Colonels in Athens. Both the Greek Junta and the Nixon Administration were trying to silence Mr. Demetracopoulos' effective leadership in building American opposition to the military dictatorship in Greece. Senator Gravel was an outspoken ally in this effort and gave Demetracopoulos personal succor. The Senator also counseled with Merlena Mercouri and her husband, Jules Dassin, in their mutual opposition to the Junta, and used his influence, publicly and privately, to side with the Greek national position on the Cypress Question.

The decade of the 1970's saw the awakening by federal and state legislatures to the need to control environmental pollution. His service on the Environment and Public Works Committee throughout his Senate career placed Mike Gravel in a leadership and co-sponsoring role in every piece of meaningful environmental legislation dealing with air, water, waste, and energy that emerged from the U.S. Congress during this period.

In the mid-1970's, the United Nations was moving toward the codification of a legal regime for the oceans that covered two-thirds of the earth's surface. Senator Gravel worked with UN leaders and committees, the Secretary of State, our UN ambassador and other agencies of government to secure the UN's enactment of the Law of the Sea - despite the opposition of the Alaskan fishing industry. The momentum behind the UN effort was undermined by legislation introduced by the powerful Senator Magnuson and his Alaskan colleague, Senator Stevens - legislation that permitted the U.S. to unilaterally take control of the 200-mile waters bordering its land mass. Senator Gravel successfully delayed this legislation for two years in the hope that the UN would act first, but his opposition ultimately failed to stop its passage. Efforts at the UN lost momentum, and agreement was not reached until 1983. Shamefully, the U.S. is the only nation in the world refusing to participate in the Law of the Sea Convention.

Six months before Henry Kissinger's secret mission to the People's Republic of China (PRC), Senator Gravel introduced unpopular legislation to recognize and normalize relations with the PRC, in the hope of bringing about a re-examination of our bankrupt policy towards the Chinese people.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was the first major political settlement of aboriginal claims, who were customarily dealt with through a much less generous judicial process. Senator Gravel co-authored the legislation and provided outspoken leadership for some of its important, but less popular, land-use features. He was responsible for removing the federal government's paternalistic role in the management of native economic affairs after the settlement had been approved by Congress.

In 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 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 which, 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 Alaska society. A recent retrospective analysis has revealed that, absent Senator Gravel's amendment, the pipeline would probably not have been built, condemning the nation to greater foreign dependency and environmental pollution.

In the early 1970's, Senator Gravel pioneered satellite communications through a demonstration project that established links between Alaskan villages and the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, for medical diagnostic communications. He then developed a proposal for the Alaska Legislature for a satellite communications and video transmission system, which has since been implemented, making Alaska's system the most advanced in the U.S.

In an effort to broaden the ownership of capital in our society, Senator Gravel authored and secured the passage into law of the General Stock Ownership Corporation (GSOC), Subchapter U of the Tax Code. With the hope of first using this law in Alaska, he brought about an initiative decision in the state's general election of 1980 on the creation of an Alaska General Stock Ownership Corporation (AGSOG). As part of this effort, he negotiated a tentative agreement with the British Petroleum Company to sell their interest in the Alaska Pipeline to the AGSOC. The electorate failed to approve the AGSOC initiative. BP now considers its pipeline interest to be one of the most profitable of its Alaska holdings. Had the AGSOC been approved and the purchase consummated, it would be paying out dividends of several hundred dollars annually to every citizen/shareholder in Alaska.

The Innuit peoples populate the Arctic regions of the globe. At Senator Gravel's instigation, and with a private grant he secured, the North Slope native leadership organized a circumpolar conference attended by Innuit representatives from Canada, Greenland, and Norway. Their periodic convocations on culture, environment, and other regional concerns now include representation from Russia.

Mike Gravel served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1963-66, and as Speaker from 1965-66, where he:

  • Authored legislation that established the structure and budget for a regional high school system for rural Alaska, permitting native students to receive their education near their homes rather than travel to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' schools outside Alaska; and
  • Effected legislative reforms, securing budgets to provide staffs for members and to expand research and support facilities, initiated electronic voting, and developed an intra-session hearing process throughout the state that fostered citizen participation
He authored Jobs and More Jobs and Citizen Power, and used his position as a senator to officially release the Pentagon Papers and facilitated their publication as The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers; Beacon Press.

Senator Gravel enlisted in the U.S. Army (1951-54) and served as an adjutant in the Communications Intelligence Services and as a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps. He received a B.S. in Economics at Columbia University, New York, and holds four honorary degrees in law and public affairs.

Mike Gravel's business activities have encompassed real estate, finance and energy. He is Chairman of The Democracy Foundation, nonprofit corporations dedicated to the promotion of democracy in the United States and globally. Senator Gravel lectures and writes about governance, capitalism, energy, environmental issues, and democracy. He is married to Whitney Stewart Gravel and has two grown children and three grand children.

© The Democracy Foundation. 2002. All Rights Reserved.