Mr. Gravel drew much more national notice on June 29, 1971. The New York Times and other newspapers were under court injunctions to stop publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret, detailed government study of the war in Vietnam.
He read aloud from the papers to a subcommittee hearing that he had quickly called after Republicans thwarted his effort to read them to the entire Senate. He read for about three hours, finally breaking down in tears and saying, “Arms are being severed, metal is crashing through human bodies — because of a public policy this government and all of its branches continue to support.” (In a major ruling on press freedom, the injunction against The Times was overturned by the Supreme Court the next day.)
Mr. Gravel acknowledged many years later that his political ambition had led him to express support for the Vietnam War at the start of his political career, although he said he had personally opposed it.
In his 1968 Democratic primary challenge to Senator Ernest Gruening, one of two senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to use conventional military force in Southeast Asia, Mr. Gravel said the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and not the United States was the aggressor. In 2007, while running for president, he told an NPR interviewer, “I said what I said back in 1968 because it was to advance my career.”
He told Salon magazine the same year that Alaskans did not share Mr. Gruening’s opposition to the war at the time, and that “when I ran, being a realistic politician, all I had to do was stand up and not deal with the subject, and people would assume that I was to the right of Ernest Gruening, when in point of fact I was to the left of him.”
Mr. Gravel won that primary, stressing his youth (he was 38 to Mr. Gruening’s 81) and campaigning in the smallest of villages, where he showed a half-hour movie about his campaign. He went on to defeat his Republican rival, Elmer E. Rasmuson, a banker and former mayor of Anchorage, in the general election.