by Ken Hughes
Historians trying to explain the Watergate break-in usually point to an earlier break-in at the Beverly Hills office of a psychiatrist who had treated Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave the New York Times the Top Secret Defense Department history of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers. Both break-ins had the same “masterminds,” former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. Both break-in crews included CIA assets recruited from Florida’s Cuban-American community. Both were carried out on Richard Nixon’s behalf, but it remains uncertain whether the President knew of plans for either crime before it was committed. The break-in at the psychiatrist’s helps explain Watergate, but what explains the break-in at the psychiatrist’s? Below is an attempt to explain the conspiracy theories that Richard Nixon formed—and acted on—in the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers’ publication.
Taking Perjurers at Their Word
In tracing the origins of Watergate, most historians rely heavily on two members of Nixon’s Inner Circle who ultimately went to prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury—that is, for crimes they committed while trying to prevent the truth about Watergate from coming to light. H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, and John D. Ehrlichman, the President’s chief domestic policy adviser, both blamed the only member of the Inner Circle who was never charged or convicted, Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser. “The Pentagon Papers affair so often regarded by the press as a classic example of Nixon’s paranoia,” Haldeman wrote in his 1978 memoir, The Ends of Power, “was really Kissinger’s premier performance.” The Pentagon Papers was a classified 7,000-page study, and the Times started a multi-part series of articles on June 13, 1971. Haldeman describes Nixon’s initial reaction to this largest leak in U.S. history as “muted.” Kissinger, however, made “angry speeches” to the President, one of which Haldeman witnessed: “As I remember, it ended with charges against Ellsberg by Kissinger that in my opinion go beyond belief. Ellsberg, according to Henry, had weird sexual habits, used drugs, and enjoyed helicopter flights in which he would take potshots at the Vietnamese below.” Haldeman places the responsibility for Nixon’s subsequent actions on Kissinger. “By the end of this meeting Nixon was as angry as his foreign affairs chief,” Haldeman wrote. “Unfortunately for Henry, it was recorded, and may some day be played to standing room audiences.” (The Presidential Recordings Program has transcribed Kissinger’s anti-Ellsberg rant for the first time and posted it here. In The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, David Rudenstine notes that the “charges were obviously hyperbolic and in some cases false. Ellsberg, for example, had been Kissinger’s colleague, not his student, at Harvard. Nor is there any evidence that Ellsberg ever shot at peasants.”)1 Ehrlichman, in his 1982 memoir, Witness to Power, also blames Kissinger’s passionate denunciations. “. . . Kissinger fanned Richard Nixon’s flame white-hot,” Ehrlichman wrote. “Without Henry’s stimulus during the June 13-to-July 6 period, the President and the rest of us might have concluded that the Papers were Lyndon Johnson’s problem, not ours. After all, there was not a word about Richard Nixon in any of the forty-three volumes.”2 He’s got a point. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, had initiated the historical study, and it climaxes in the spring of 1968, when Johnson announced in the wake of the Tet Offensive that he would not seek reelection.
Haldeman speculated about Kissinger’s motives: “Henry had a problem because Ellsberg had been one of his ‘boys.’ ” (He had lectured at Kissinger’s Defense Policy Seminars at Harvard in the 1960s.) Ehrlichman mentions that Ellsberg “had been one of Henry Kissinger’s collaborators during the transition [period after Nixon won the 1968 presidential election] and earliest White House days.” Kissinger had given Ellsberg two major assignments: to conduct an independent study by the Rand Corporation, the national security think tank where he was employed, of the new President’s Vietnam options; and to draft probing questions about Vietnam for the new national security adviser to address to the bureaucracy for the first National Security Study Memorandum, NSSM-1. Haldeman and Ehrlichman tell a compelling story complete with a dramatic reversal, vivid dialogue, and an irony-laden subtext. Small wonder historians have found it irresistible to retell. It is, unfortunately, wrong. The matchless record of the Nixon administration, complete with the largest and most comprehensive set of White House tapes, shows that the President set his course toward self-destruction before Kissinger ranted. Historians with no biases in favor of Haldeman or Ehrlichman have nonetheless been their unwitting accomplices in blame placing.
A notable exception to this trend in historiography was Stanley I. Kutler, who wrote in 1990 that “certainly, the President needed little guidance from Henry Kissinger.”3 Kutler played a vital role in making it possible to set the record straight. In 1992, he sued the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to release the Nixon tapes. Nixon contested the lawsuit, and when he died in 1994, his estate continued the fight for two more years before agreeing to settle.4 Nixon was the sixth and last president to secretly record White House conversations, but his tapes outnumber all of the others’ combined, for the very simple reason that they used on/off switches, while his system was voice-activated. Whenever anyone made a sound in Nixon’s presence in the Oval Office from February 16, 1971, to July 13, 1973, the tapes started rolling, immortalizing more than 3,000 hours of conversations. This makes the Nixon tapes an unrivaled historical resource.
With the lawsuit’s settlement, the way was clear to making them public, but a congressional mandate required that before any complete conversations were released, NARA had to find, excerpt and make public all the Watergate first. So in 1996 NARA released 201 hours of conversation segments detailing Nixon’s abuses of presidential power. These formed the basis for Kutler’s next Watergate book, 1997’s Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, which remains to this day the most extensive collection of Nixon tape transcripts published. Kutler’s transcripts book begins, logically, with the first excerpt following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a June 17, 1971, conversation in which Nixon orders a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. This wasn’t the President’s first Pentagon Papers discussion, just the first one in which he ordered a crime committed. The Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers four days earlier, and Nixon had discussed it every day since. The conversations he had in the Oval Office, the Executive Office of the President (EOP) in the building next to the White House, and on phones in these two offices and in the Lincoln Sitting Room were captured by Nixon’s taping system. But since he didn’t order crimes committed in all of them, they didn’t become public until NARA started releasing the tapes in chronological order in 1998. Most of them have never been transcribed.5 The Abuse of Power tapes may tell us what crimes Nixon committed, but the chronological tapes are essential to understanding his reasons, which were both more rational and more irrational than we knew. Since then, NARA has released generally another 1,800 hours of Nixon tapes, in chronological order starting from the day Nixon began taping. Historiography has not kept up with the expanding record.
In their first conversation after the Pentagon Papers story broke on June 13, 1971, the national security adviser reacted more calmly than the President. Both joined in their habitual denunciation of the New York Times for publishing classified information, but Kissinger saw political benefits as well. “It just shows massive mismanagement of how we got there,” Kissinger said. “And it pins it all on Kennedy and Johnson.”
Nixon laughed and said, “Yeah!”
“So from that point of view it helps us,” Kissinger said. “From the point of view of the relations with Hanoi, it hurts a little, because it just shows a further weakening of resolve.”
Nixon was worried about something else. The Pentagon Papers study had revealed, indirectly, that the procedures Nixon and Kissinger had set up to protect their own secrets might not be enough. The authors of the Pentagon Papers had relied mainly on documents in the State and Defense Departments, without access to Johnson White House or National Security Council files, yet the portrait they painted of presidential decision-making was devastating. Nixon and Kissinger had shut the State and Defense Departments out of the most important foreign policy decisions, but Nixon had to at least inform the departments of some of his decisions. They had reduced their paper trail outside the White House, but not eliminated it. “Look, our file as far as the White House is concerned, we’re pretty damn secure. On the other hand, of course, naturally whenever I’ve had to call [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers and [Defense Secretary] Mel [Laird] in on some of these, on Laos and Cambodia, you can be sure all that’s in some file.”6
Laos and Cambodia, the two nations on South Vietnam’s western border, unwillingly provided the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” that Hanoi used to infiltrate soldiers and supplies into the South. Shortly after Nixon took office, he ordered the Air Force to start bombing the Trail through Cambodia. Nixon kept the bombing of Cambodia secret from the American people. A “dual bookkeeping” system hid the B-52 missions to Cambodia by falsely indicating that they targeted Communists in South Vietnam.7
In his memoirs, Nixon tries to explain why he kept the bombing secret from the American people, when it was certainly no secret to the Cambodians or the North Vietnamese. By not acknowledging that he was bombing Cambodia at the time, Nixon wrote, he gave its leader, Prince Sihanouk, a way to maintain his official neutrality on the war, and he made it harder for the North Vietnamese to lodge a protest.8 (It’s not clear how North Vietnam could lodge a protest, since it would have to acknowledge that it had troops in Cambodia, something it officially denied.)
By the day the Pentagon Papers story broke, Nixon’s foreign policy rationales for secrecy no longer applied. Cambodia was no longer neutral; a coup had replaced Prince Sihanouk with an openly pro-American government. Besides, Nixon had stopped the B-52 missions in Cambodia in May 1970.9 The only reason left to keep the bombing secret was political. Nixon knew that revealing it would cause a public outcry.
From the first day of the Pentagon Papers series, Nixon was worried about what their publication meant regarding his own secrets. Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander M. Haig, couldn’t have realized it, but his speculation about the source of the leak to the Times was bound to make Nixon fear the exposure of another, more damaging, foreign policy secret, one dating back to his 1968 presidential campaign. “Well, I’m sure it came from Defense, and I’m sure it was stolen at the time of the turnover of the administration,” Haig said.
“Who in the Pentagon?” Nixon asked. “I will fire the SOB’s.” “They are all gone now,” Haig replied. “Clifford, Halperin, Gelb.”10 Leslie H. Gelb had run the Defense Department study that became the Pentagon Papers, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Morton H. Halperin was Gelb’s boss, and former Secretary of Defense Clark M. Clifford had presided over the completion of the study, which began under his predecessor, McNamara. Haig was wrong. Clifford, Halperin and Gelb did not take part in the Pentagon Papers leak.
The three names—Clifford, Halperin and Gelb—had special meaning for Nixon. They had appeared together in print once before, however, in a two-part New York Times series on how President Lyndon B. Johnson switched his Vietnam strategy in 1968 from escalation to negotiation. Clifford, along with “a nest of ‘hidden doves’ at the Pentagon” that included Halperin and Gelb, got much of the credit in the articles for the strategy change, which culminated, just days before the presidential election, in a development that nearly derailed Nixon’s candidacy. 11 In a televised address to the nation on October 31, 1968, Johnson announced that the North Vietnamese had backed down from their refusal to engage in peace talks with the South, and he had stopped bombing the North. Nixon had begun the final month of the campaign with a landslide-like lead over his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, who as Johnson’s Vice President had suffered in the polls by association with the Vietnam War. As Johnson’s negotiating strategy began to bear fruit, Nixon watched his lead shrink from 15 points in early October to 8 points in late October and finally, on the weekend before the election, to just 2 points. 12 In the end, he won, but by less than 1 percent.
To the Republican presidential candidate and his partisans, the timing of the Bombing Halt — less than a week before Election Day — could not have been more suspicious. The Republican candidate felt certain the negotiation was a political move by Johnson to elect the Democrat, Vice President Humphrey. But Johnson didn’t abandon his conditions (diplomatically phrased as “understandings” so the North Vietnamese could say the Bombing Halt was unconditional) in the days prior to the election. The President had insisted that in addition to sitting down to talk with the South Vietnamese, Hanoi had to stop crossing the Demilitarized Zone and stop shelling South Vietnamese cities. As Election Day grew closer, however, the Soviet Union urged the North to accept them. (The Soviets were worried by Nixon’s reputation as a hard-liner; four years later, however, the Republican would be their preferred presidential candidate.) Johnson didn’t back off from his demands; the North finally accepted them.
Breaking Into Brookings
So why is it that the only break-in that you can hear President Nixon order on tape is an attempt to seize Johnson administration Bombing Halt files from a Washington think tank? During Watergate, Nixon expected people to believe he was too smart to try to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. It was too big a risk to take for too small a potential payoff in information. So how could he fail to be smart enough to realize that a break-in at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to steal his predecessor’s files was an even bigger risk with an even smaller potential payoff?
“What good will it do you, the Bombing Halt file?” Kissinger asked on June 17, 1971, after Nixon ordered the break-in.
“To blackmail [Johnson],” Nixon said. “Because he used the Bombing Halt for political purposes.”
“Remember, I used to give you information about it at the time,” said Kissinger, who had been in a position to know about the negotiations. Before Nixon became President, Johnson had employed Kissinger, then a prominent foreign policy intellectual and Harvard professor, in an earlier, failed Vietnam peace initiative. The contacts Kissinger made within the Democratic administration enabled him to act as an informer to the Republican presidential candidate during the 1968 campaign. He won the Republicans’ trust by abusing the Democrats’. “To the best of my knowledge,” Kissinger reminded Nixon, “there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October. I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [former head of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, Ambassador-at-Large W. Averell] Harriman.” 13
Nixon repeated the order to break into Brookings in the following days. Why? He had no reason, other than his own suspicions, to believe that the Bombing Halt files would prove Johnson timed the negotiating breakthrough for political reasons. But even if they had, what good would that do Nixon now? The 1968 election was long over, and Johnson would never run for President again. Why commit a criminal—impeachable—offense just to get dirt on a retired politician?14 There was something Nixon couldn’t tell his Inner Circle. The Johnson administration’s Bombing Halt files contained dirt on Nixon’s presidential campaign.
State Secrets and the Other Kind
Three days before the 1968 election, Johnson had phoned the highest ranking Republican in the federal government at that moment, Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, and delivered an ultimatum. The President brandished FBI intelligence regarding attempts by a Nixon campaign official to thwart Johnson’s peace conference. If the attempts didn’t cease, Johnson said, he would go public. “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important,” Johnson said. The President didn’t go into too much detail. The National Security Agency had intercepted some damning communications between the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington and its home government in Saigon. “On October 23 and October 27,” 1968, according to the State Department’s official history of the Bombing Halt period, South Vietnamese Ambassador “Bui Diem reported to Saigon the advice of the Nixon campaign to abort the understanding reached in Paris by refusing to attend the expanded peace talks.” 15 South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu announced his refusal to take part in the peace negotiations on the same day that Johnson delivered his ultimatum to Dirksen.
Thieu’s refusal stopped Nixon’s freefall in the polls. Johnson, however, had ordered an FBI wiretap and surveillance on the South Vietnamese embassy, and he had a name: Anna C. Chennault, widow of General Claire Chennault, the World War II commander of the Flying Tigers, a Republican fundraiser and a pillar of the “China Lobby,” which had blamed Democrats for the rise of Communist Mao Tse-tung. Johnson told Dirksen that Thieu had agreed earlier to take part in the peace conference, but “then we got some of our friends involved, some of it your old China crowd, and here’s the latest information we got. The [FBI] agent says that she’s—they’ve just talked to the ‘boss’ in New Mexico, and he says that ‘you must hold out, just hold on until after the election.’” Johnson wanted the political interference with his negotiations to end. “If they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it,” he said. “They ought to stop this business about trying to keep the conference from taking place.” 16
Johnson never did go public with the information he had. He couldn’t, not unless he was willing to disclose intelligence methods, such as the National Security Agency’s monitoring of communications between Saigon and its embassy. And if Johnson couldn’t reveal that, he’d have a hard time explaining what led him to order an FBI tap on the phone of the chairwoman of the National Republican Women’s Finance Committee (one of Chennault’s several campaign roles). The tap was justified on national security grounds, since Chennault was interfering with the President’s constitutional authority to negotiate an end to a war, but Johnson couldn’t explain how he reached that conclusion without publicly confirming that the NSA eavesdropped on an ally.
Besides, proof of Chennault’s involvement was not proof of Nixon’s. Only in 1980, years after Johnson’s death and Nixon’s resignation, did Chennault reveal that during the 1968 campaign, the Republican candidate had held a meeting in New York with her, Bui Diem, and John N. Mitchell, who was then Nixon’s campaign chairman and later his Attorney General. Chennault quoted the candidate as saying, “Anna is my good friend. . . . I know you also consider her a friend, so please rely on her from now on as the only contact between myself and your government. If you have any message for me, please give it to Anna and she will relay it to me and I will do the same in the future.”17 In other words, when the South Vietnamese heard from Chennault during the campaign, they knew the message came from Nixon himself. Johnson suspected Nixon’s role, but he couldn’t prove it. He had the goods on Chennault, but not on the Republican candidate, which may be another reason why he didn’t carry out his threat to go public.
After the election, Director J. Edgar Hoover told Nixon that Johnson had ordered the FBI not only to wiretap Chennault, but also to bug the Republican candidate’s plane. 18 Hoover was, as his deputy, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, later wrote, “embellishing.”19 The FBI never did bug Nixon’s plane. But Nixon didn’t know that. He did know that the government’s Bombing Halt files contained intelligence regarding Chennault’s efforts on his behalf to block Johnson’s peace conference, and Hoover had led him to believe that the (nonexistent) bug on his campaign plane had captured his own private, candid words on this and other campaign matters. Understandably, Nixon became obsessed with getting his hands on these files. In his first month in office, he ordered his chief of staff to make a complete report on the Bombing Halt with all the government documents.20
Tom Charles Huston
Tom Charles Huston, who later became notorious for the “Huston Plan” to use wiretaps and illegal break-ins for domestic intelligence, got assigned to write the Bombing Halt report. It was Huston who claimed (in a heretofore unpublished memo) that Gelb and Brookings had vital documents. “After six months of screwing around with the NSC [National Security Council] staff, I have done a little digging on my own and have found that there exists within DOD [Department of Defense] a report which was prepared on the instructions of [former Assistant Defense Secretary] Paul Warnke by the ISA [International Security Affairs] staff on all events leading up to the bombing halt,” Huston wrote Haldeman on March 13, 1970.21 “I have also learned that Clark Clifford, Paul Warnke and the Brookings Institution have copies of this report. . . . A fellow by the name of Les Gelb who was a top aide to Warnke is now at Brookings and apparently is the one responsible for securing these documents.” It’s worth noting that no evidence has emerged that this report even exists.
“Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings,” Haldeman reminded Nixon on June 17, 1971.
“Bob, now you remember Huston’s plan?” Nixon said. “Implement it. . . . I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”22
This is a crazy thing to do just for files that could damage Lyndon Johnson politically, but not as crazy a thing to do for files that could damage Richard Nixon politically.
Haig’s List II: Morton H. Halperin
As closely as Leslie Gelb was associated with the Bombing Halt in the Nixon White House, the second name on Haig’s list, Morton H. Halperin, was even more closely associated with the secret bombing of Cambodia. Kissinger had hired the former Johnson administration official onto the NSC staff and had informed him of the secret bombing. When the New York Times ran a story in May 1969 on the initial Cambodian bombing runs, Nixon had the FBI tap Halperin’s home phone. Nixon kept the wiretap going for 21 months—even after Halperin resigned from the NSC in September of 1969, even after he ended his consultancy with the NSC in April 1970, and even after he became a foreign policy adviser to a Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Edmund S. Muskie, D-Maine, also in April 1970. The wiretap lasted until February 1971 and never turned up any evidence that Halperin had ever leaked anything.23 Halperin sued over the wiretap shortly after it was disclosed in 1973 pursued for nearly 20 years until Kissinger gave him a formal apology.24
Haig’s List III: Clark M. Clifford
As for the third name on Haig’s list, former Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford was not only a reminder of Nixon’s near-political-death experience with the 1968 Bombing Halt, but more recently of his biggest foreign policy secret, his “decent interval” exit strategy from Vietnam. Nixon’s announced strategy was “Vietnamization and negotiation,” his slogan for training the South Vietnamese military to defend its government itself and for securing the Communists’ agreement to abide by the results of elections in the South. The goal was a self-defending, self-governing South Vietnam, and Nixon stood firmly behind those goals in public, even as he abandoned them in private. By the time of the Pentagon Papers leak, he had settled on a “decent interval” strategy. Since Vietnamization was not going to achieve the goal of self-defense, Nixon secretly decided not to bring the troops home until shortly before or after the 1972 presidential election. And since he couldn’t force Hanoi to abandon military conquest of the South, he was trying to negotiate a “decent interval,” a period of a year or two between his final, election-timed troop withdrawal and Hanoi’s final military victory. This way he could arrange the appearance that his “Vietnamization and negotiation” strategy had succeeded, even though he expected it to fail. Publicly, he claimed great political courage for prolonging an unpopular war, but really it was political calculation. If he admitted that he added several years and several thousand casualties to the war and still lost it, he would go down in the 1972 election and in history as a President who lost a war. He was determined to avoid that, even if it cost American lives.
So the President spent the years leading up to his reelection battling attempts by congressional Democrats to force him to bring the troops earlier than politically convenient. Clifford touched a nerve the week before the publication of the Pentagon Papers when he made a speech in Washington saying that the United States could reach agreement with Hanoi to end American involvement in the war by the end of 1971 and get American prisoners of war released in 30 days.25 This wasn’t that far from Nixon’s private view.
“Henry, I’ve never been much for negotiation, but I think when we finally get down to the nut-cutting, it’s very much to their advantage to have a negotiation to get us the hell out and give us those prisoners,” Nixon told Kissinger on March 19, 1971, when they were alone in the Oval Office. “If they’ll make that kind of a deal, we’ll make that any time they’re ready.”
“Well, we’ve got to get enough time to get out,” Kissinger said. “We have to make sure that they don’t knock the whole place over. . . . We can’t have it knocked over brutally, to put it brutally, before the election.”
“That’s right,” Nixon said.26
“That’s the Democratic National Committee!”
By the morning of June 14, 1971, the second day of the Times’ Pentagon Papers series, Nixon was ready to lash out. He told his chief of staff to someone in Congress or in the press to accuse Gelb and the Brookings Institution. “Charge Gelb. Use his name. Had the information. He leaked it,” Nixon said. “And charge Brookings. Let’s get Brookings involved in this.” Halperin, like Gelb, was a senior fellow at Brookings. “How much does Halperin know?” Nixon asked. “For example, does he know about the Menu series?” “Menu” was the codename for the secret bombing of Cambodia.
“I’m not sure,” Haldeman said.
“Henry talks an awful lot,” Nixon said. “Chrissakes, he went over and talked to Brookings people himself. I warned him about it. I said, ‘Henry, don’t go over there.’ You know, I said, ‘Those people—that’s—that’s the Democratic National Committee!’”27
Haldeman reminded the President that Huston had suggested dispatching officials to Brookings for a routine security check and have them confiscate classified documents. This approach, unlike break-in, would at least arguably be legal.
The Right Man
By lunchtime that day, Nixon had the name of the man who actually did give a copy of the Pentagon Papers to the Times—Daniel Ellsberg. It came from none other than Johnson’s former national security adviser, Walt W. Rostow.28 Haig had checked his suspicions with Rostow. “He said he doesn’t think it’s Gelb,” Haig told Nixon. “It may be, he says he doesn’t think so. And he doesn’t think it’s Halperin.” Nixon was unconvinced. “Gelb was in on it, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he in charge?”
Gelb ran the Pentagon Papers study and was strongly against the war, Haig said, but Rostow had “said whoever did this could not be a good Democrat. He said he would have to be a radicalized individual.”29 Only someone who was willing to lose his security clearance forever, to never work in government on foreign policy again, would engineer the largest leak in U.S. history. Halperin and Gelb were both advising Democratic presidential candidates, would both serve in future Democratic administrations.
Ellsberg was a former Marine. He’d gone to Vietnam himself, looking for ways to win the war. He didn’t find them. When he came back, he worked on the Pentagon Papers study, trying to figure out how things had gone wrong. He got permission from Halperin and Gelb to read the entire study and became convinced that getting it out to the public was essential. There’s no evidence he informed either man about his plans to leak the study, and it would have been stupid for him to tell them, since they’d have a strong incentive to turn him in just to protect themselves.
Rostow had told Nixon all he needed to know. If Nixon had listened, he might have saved his presidency. But this President was a conspiracy theorist.
Among the many people in public life to comment on the Pentagon Papers was Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden. “He said that this proves that it was a war prepared by deceit,” Kissinger informed the President on June 15, 1971, the third day of the series, “that the American government has undermined democracy, and it must withdraw unconditionally from Vietnam.” Kissinger suggested recalling the American ambassador.
“Also,” Nixon said, “it shows that that’s part of the conspiracy, in my opinion.”
“Oh, yeah,” Kissinger agreed.
“He wouldn’t otherwise pay any attention to it,” Nixon said. “Somebody got to him.” The President didn’t explain why anybody would want to get to the prime minister of Sweden. “Henry, there is a conspiracy. You understand?”
“I believe it now. I didn’t believe it formerly, but I believe it now,” Kissinger said. “Well, the whole syndrome—Clifford, the New York Times, the veterans—they don’t all happen at once by accident.” 30
A Bad Wicket
Nixon didn’t confide all his fears to Kissinger. On June 17, 1971, after the news media had started zeroing in on Ellsberg as the source of the leak, Nixon said, “Incidentally, I hope to God he’s—he’s not Jewish, is he?” The only Jewish member of Nixon’s Inner Circle, Kissinger, a refugee from the Nazis who returned to Germany during World War II as a soldier in the American army, was not in the room. Present were Chief of Staff Haldeman, political operative Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, and White House Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler—none of them Jews.
“I’m sure he is,” Haldeman said, chuckling. “All the spies up to now have been Jewish. Why the hell wouldn’t he be?”
“Oh, I know, I know, I know, I know,” Nixon said. “But it’s a bad wicket for us.” The President recalled his youthful days on the House Un-American Activities Committee, when he had played a leading role in the Alger Hiss investigation. The later antics of Joe McCarthy would make the words “Communist spy” sound slightly ridiculous, but Hiss was a genuine Communist spy, a member of a real spy ring that had given classified documents to the Soviet Union. “We had the goods on all these people, but who the hell, Nathan Silvermine. John Abt. Also, Victor Perlo. They were all of them Jews. It was a whole Jewish ring,” Nixon said. “The only two non-Jews were [spy-turned-informant Whitaker] Chambers and Hiss. Many thought that Hiss was. He could’ve been a half, but back a ways, but he was not by religion. The only two non-Jews. Every other one was a Jew. And it raised hell with us. But in this case, I hope to God he’s not a Jew.”
“Well,” Haldeman said, “I suspect he is.” (Ellsberg had Jewish ancestors, but he was raised as a Christian Scientist—the same religion as Haldeman.)
“I know,” Nixon said, chuckling to himself now, “except you can’t tell by the name.”
“Halperin is, yeah,” Nixon said.
“Is Gelb a Jew?” Nixon asked. “Hell, well, then, by golly, we’ve got to—what is [Defense Secretary] Laird doing and what is [Secretary of State] Rogers doing about cleaning up their own security situations?”
“Well, what are we doing about cleaning up our own here?” Haldeman asked.
“Well, that’s what I mean,” Nixon said. “I mean Henry’s shop.” The National Security Council staff. “Just don’t know when one of ’em’s gonna run out and take a lot of papers.”
“We are in no position to criticize State or Defense on security leaks or on disloyal personnel,” Haldeman said. “I thought we’d cleared ’em all out,” Nixon said.31
Memoirs vs. Tapes
As we’ve just seen, Haldeman had no business blaming Kissinger for inflaming the President’s paranoia. The chief of staff himself encouraged Nixon’s paranoia about Jews, and did so before Kissinger delivered his anti-Ellsberg tirade. The memoirs of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon himself are predictably silent on the role that anti-Semitism played in their collective downfall.
To compare the Pentagon Papers passages of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon with the White House tapes is to witness the collapse of an elaborate plea bargain with history.32 The memoirist repeatedly cops to lesser charges to evade more serious ones, especially when it comes to explaining the beginning of his presidency’s end. The literary challenge he faced was indeed most daunting: how to come up with a plausible explanation for his self-destructive behavior without mentioning either his rational fears (of the potential disclosure of his politically damaging secrets regarding the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, the sabotage of the 1968 Bombing Halt negotiations might leak, or contingency plans to bomb and mine North Vietnam) or his irrational fears (of Jews and others). He knew that one day his tapes would become public—over his dead body, if he had any say in the matter, which he did—and that his memoirs provided his best chance to defuse the bombshells he knew were lurking in the archives.
Plea Bargains With History
Nixon cops to having had a conspiracy theory about the Pentagon Papers, but doesn’t really explain what it was. To understand him and his theory, we must turn to Richard Hofstadter, the great 20th century historian who wrote the classic essay on conspiracy theorists, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”33 Hofstadter wrote before Nixon’s presidency and died during it, before Watergate, so it’s remarkable how well Nixon fits his taxonomy. When Hofstadter mentions “secret organizations set up combat secret organizations,” he could not know that within a few years a president, convinced that there was a conspiracy poised to leak his politically damaging foreign policy secrets, would try to combat it by setting up a secret police organization in violation of the Constitution.34
Hofstadter coined a witty phrase for this kind of behavior: “Imitation of the Enemy.” This is the key to understanding Nixon. Before Nixon victimized others, he convinced himself that they were victimizing him. By telling himself that he was acting in self-defense, Nixon could go from condemning the idea that the end justifies the means to embracing it in a matter of moments: “We’re up against an enemy. A conspiracy. They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute [sic] raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.” 35
Jews, Intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers
Conspiracy theories, as Hofstadter noted, can target any demographic group. Nixon’s, as I’ve written elsewhere, targeted three—Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers. 36 Nixon privately called all three groups “arrogant” and said they placed themselves “above the law.” By telling himself that Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers were immoral, even criminal, Nixon gave himself permission to do immoral, even criminal, things to any Jew, intellectual or Ivy Leaguer whom he feared could cause him political harm.
Of course, he didn’t say this in his memoirs. “From the first,” he wrote, “there had been rumors and reports of conspiracy.”37 Rumors and reports aren’t much to base life-changing decisions on, but at least they sound better than prejudice and irrational hatred. “We learned that an aide to Elliot Richardson at the State Department had given Ellsberg access to the current Vietnam documents in 1970. Even after the information in them was leaked, presumably by Ellsberg, Richardson had refused to remove the aide.” This leak was much smaller than Nixon makes it sound. The unnamed aide was Charles M. Cooke (not the famous admiral in charge of U.S. naval planning during World War II, but his son). Cooke freely acknowledged at the time that he had showed Ellsberg his file on South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s decision to jail a political rival, Tran Ngoc Chau, a member of the National Assembly. Cooke said he brought Ellsberg in as a consultant to help prepare a memo on the Chau case. Cooke showed Ellsberg his Chau file. Most people would not refer to a single file as “the current Vietnam documents in 1970,” but Nixon did. It is true that cables from the file that Cooke showed Ellsberg eventually appeared in the Washington Star.
“Cooke volunteered the fact that he had shown the papers to Ellsberg,” Haldeman reported to Nixon, “and that in his opinion Ellsberg could very well have been the leak on it.” Ellsberg had a security clearance at the time Cooke showed him the cables, so, as Haldeman put it, “There was no security violation in any way, shape or form.” 38
Harvard Class of Never
The President, however, suspected the worst. “He’s one of these Harvards, isn’t he?” Nixon asked. “I checked his record. He’s a Harvard, class of ’63.” 39 Actually, Cooke is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.40 An imaginary Ivy League background was enough for Nixon. “The guys from the best family are most likely to develop that arrogance that puts them above the law,” Nixon said. “They all are that way. All these Harvard people.” Later, he added, “Remember that any intellectual is tempted to put himself above the law. That’s the rule that I’ve known all my life. Any intellectual, particularly—watch what schools they’re from. If they’re from any Eastern schools or Berkeley, those are particularly the potential bad ones.”41 Ellsberg, Halperin and Gelb were all think tank intellectuals with Ivy League degrees, and Nixon privately referred to them as “the three Jews. . . . Basically, who the hell are these people that stole the papers? It’s too bad. I’m sorry. I was hoping one of them would be a gentile.”42
Nixon inflated the “rumors and reports of conspiracy” in his memoirs, the alternative being to admit that he judged people based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds and where they went to school. “The earliest report, later discounted, centered on a friend of Ellsberg, a former Defense Department employee who was then a Fellow at the Brookings Institution.” Actually, Nixon decided to have a senator, representative or newspaper columnist accuse Gelb of involvement in the Pentagon Papers leak on the basis of no report at all, merely Haig’s speculation. “I was told that a copy of the bombing halt material and other secret documents had been taken from the Pentagon to Brookings by the same man.” Nixon doesn’t mention that the source of this (bad) information was Huston.43 Elsewhere in his memoirs, Nixon had defended the Huston Plan as a necessary tool for fighting domestic terrorism. He did not admit that he wanted to use it to break into a think tank to steal politically explosive files from a former official of a Democratic administration. “When I was told that [the Bombing Halt file] was still at Brookings, I was furious and frustrated.”44 Nixon didn’t receive any independent confirmation or new report that the file was at Brookings. Haldeman just reminded him of what Huston had said over a year earlier.
“In early July,” Nixon writes, “John Mitchell reported that the Justice Department had continuing indications that Ellsberg had acted as part of a conspiracy.”45 Translation: Justice found out that various peace activists had helped Ellsberg distribute the Pentagon Papers to the newspapers. Nixon had earlier dismissed such reports as politically unhelpful. “We’ve got a real break in this regard, I think, Mr. President,” Colson said on June 23, 1971. “The revelation that an organized peace group has been distributing these documents to the newspapers.” Colson suggested the peace group would make a “perfect enemy.”
“A peace group is not good,” Nixon said. “If you can hang it on anti-American peace group or some damn thing . . . Communist peace group.”46
The memoirist continues, writing that “we received a report that the Soviet Embassy in Washington had received a set of the Pentagon Papers before they had been published in the New York Times.”47 There was an FBI report, never confirmed, that the Soviet Embassy had received a copy of the Pentagon Papers on June 17, 1971--four days after, not before, the Times started publishing. The White House got the report on June 25 but didn’t request further FBI investigation.48
Once he’s through enumerating his “rumors and reports of a conspiracy,” Nixon still has to explain why he didn’t just hand them over to the federal agency with the authority to investigate criminal conspiracies. Why set up an illegal secret police agency like the SIU when you already have a legal police agency like the FBI?
The memoirist claims Director Hoover was “dragging his feet.”49 The tapes, however, reveal that Hoover was willing to take the investigation farther than Nixon was willing to go. “Well, I’d like to check some of the other people around him,” Nixon told Hoover during a July 1, 1971, telephone call. “I think there’s a conspiracy involved here.”
“Exactly,” Hoover replied. “Of course, this fellow [Neil] Sheehan of the New York Times is involved.”50 Sheehan was the reporter who got the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg.
Nixon wouldn’t touch that hot potato. “Of course, he’s guilty as hell,” he told his aides the next day, “but you prosecute a newspaper man, you’re in a difficult proposition. But, good God, if you go after an Ellsberg or that fellow Cooke that’s working for this Richardson . . .”51
In his memoirs, Nixon implied that the FBI director feared a media backlash: “He evidently felt that the media would automatically make Ellsberg look like a martyr, and the FBI like the ‘heavy,’ if it pursued the case vigorously.”52 On the tape, Hoover does indeed fret about Ellsberg’s potential media martyrdom—but only in advising Nixon to be careful about the public statements he makes on the case. It was Hoover, not Nixon, who was willing to prosecute one of the proverbial men who buy ink by the barrel.
Nixon lists other reasons for doubting Hoover, who died in 1972 and could no longer defend himself. But the memoirs leave out the real reason why Nixon knew the FBI would not do what he felt had to be done. The President wanted to leak the information the FBI collected to the news media. “Try [Ellsberg] in the press,” Nixon told the Attorney General. “Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out. Leak it out. I want to destroy him in the press”53 This is a crime, obstruction of justice.
Mitchell agreed that it had to be done, but not that he was the one to do it, saying, “I don’t want to go to jail.”54
The SIU is best known by its nickname, “The Plumbers,” but it’s a misleading one. Plumbers fix leaks; one of Nixon’s motives for creating the SIU was to engineer leaks. Nixon needed it not for law enforcement, but for law breaking. “I don’t give a shit about the law,” he said. “Forget the law.”55 His imaginary conspiracy couldn’t top this for arrogance or putting oneself above the law. His imitation of the enemy was complete.
Economic Conspiracy Theory
Nixon didn’t limit his conspiracy theorizing to the politics of foreign policy. Domestically, rising unemployment and inflation dogged the economy and threatened him politically. No wonder his imaginary conspiracy of Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers soon encompassed the federal agency that calculates the unemployment and inflation rates (the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and the one official other than himself who wielded the greatest influence on the economy (the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board).
The President had expected favorable press coverage on July 2, 1971, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a big drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2 to 5.6 percent. When Nixon learned that the front page of Washington’s Evening Star said, “The Labor Department warned that the dip might have been caused by a statistical quirk,” he ordered an investigation to find out who was responsible.56 “He’s got to be fired,” Nixon said. 57
A statistical quirk did cause the drop, and Nixon knew it. (CAUTION: The following contains math.) It was the result of the standard seasonal adjustment BLS makes to the unemployment rate. Summer vacation for students changes the employment picture dramatically. There’s a big influx of students into the job market in June and a big exodus in September. It has nothing to do with the health of the economy, what economists call the “underlying” job market. It’s just students starting and ending their summer jobs. Here’s the tricky part: BLS conducted its unemployment survey during “the regular survey week, defined to be the week including the 12th day of each month.” In other words, officials look at the calendar, see which week contains the 12th, and do the survey from Sunday to Saturday of that week. In June 1971, the 12th fell on a Saturday, so the survey came early in the month, June 6–12, before many students had started vacation. Since there were fewer students looking for jobs at the time, the unemployment rate was lower. If the 12th had fallen on a Sunday, then the survey week would have been June 12 to June 18, there would have been more students out of school looking for jobs, and the “seasonal adjustment” would not have made it look like there was a big drop in unemployment.58 In fact, when Office of Management and Budget Director George P. Shultz informed the President of the drop in unemployment two days earlier, he’d described it, in these exact words, as “a statistical quirk.”59
“I understand statistical aberrations,” Nixon told Colson the day after the announcement. “Why didn’t they say there were statistical aberrations when it went up?” Well, they did. The same kind of statistical quirk arose the previous September, when the students were leaving their summer jobs to head back to school. (Once again, the 12th had fallen on a Saturday, so the survey week was September 6–12.) In September 1970, there had been big jump in unemployment, from 5.1 to 5.5 percent, its highest point in six years. “But officials of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, traditionally insulated from the political arena, were quick to explain,” the Washington Post reported on its front page on October 3, 1970, “that the big increase could be attributed in large part to a quirk in timing.” 60 BLS had treated the big rise in unemployment the same way it treated the big drop. Newspapers had used the same word for both—“quirk.” This made no difference to Nixon, who focused his wrath on the assistant commissioner of labor statistics, Harold Goldstein. Nixon had been wanting to get rid of Goldstein for months.61 When unemployment fell two-tenths of a percent in January 1971, Goldstein said the drop was “marginally significant” during the regular news briefing on the unemployment rate. 62 The next month, Goldstein described another two-tenths drop as “sort of mixed,” and the administration canceled the regular news briefings altogether.63 (Again, it didn’t matter that Goldstein had also made little of small rises in unemployment, like a two-tenths rise in July 1969.)64
“I think the one thing, Mr. President, that you should insist upon,” Colson said, “is that they reorganize that Bureau. Now, in the process of reorganizing it, I think we’ll get this guy’s resignation. And we’ll put in a politician. That’s what we ought to have in there.”
Reorganization Is a Nice Word
Nixon agreed and summoned Shultz and Labor Secretary James D. Hodgson into the Oval Office. “I want them to do it even-handed. And they’re not doing it that way,” Nixon said. “Every [press] release has been loaded against us. And deliberately.” The President asked for a plan.
“Well,” Shultz said, “I think the only kind of organization that would be sensible under these circumstances is a reorganization that separates Goldstein from the employment, uh, unemployment figures and gets him into something else entirely.” One of Shultz’s aides already thought BLS needed reorganizing.
“I don’t think the President would ever have any confidence,” Colson said, “in any other arrangement.”65
Later, after Shultz and Hodgson had left, Nixon said, “Well listen, are they all Jews over there?”
“Every one of them,” Colson said. “Well, a couple of exceptions.”
“See my point?”
“You know goddamn well they’re out to kill us.”66
“You Can’t Trust the Bastards”
Before lunch, Nixon gave his chief of staff an order. “Now, point: [White House Personnel Director Frederic V.] Malek is not Jewish.”
“No,” Haldeman said.
“All right, I want a look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We’ve got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish . . . do you understand?”
“I sure do.”
“The government is full of Jews,” Nixon said. “Second, most Jews are disloyal. You know what I mean? You have a [White House Consultant Leonard] Garment and a Kissinger and, frankly, a [White House Speechwriter William L.] Safire, and, by God, they’re exceptions. But, Bob, generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”67 It would have been more accurate to say that Jews couldn’t trust Nixon, that he turned on them.
On July 23, 1971, the Times ran a front-page story revealing the administration’s bargaining position in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. Nixon was livid enough to make a private comment revealing that he understood full well that the Pentagon Papers leak had caused America no harm: “This [SALT leak] does affect the national security. This particular one. This isn’t like the Pentagon Papers. This one involves a current negotiation.”68
Leaks and Leaks and Lies
On July 24, Haldeman and Ehrlichman gave the President an update on the conspiracy investigation. By then, the SIU was in place, along with the machinery for trying Ellsberg—along with his imaginary co-conspirators—in the press. Ehrlichman reported that Deputy Attorney General Robert C. “Mardian was giving me raw data” from the Pentagon Papers investigation on Gelb.
“That’s great,” Nixon said. He instructed Ehrlichman to leak it to the press. “I am not interested in the legal things,” the President said. “Does Mardian understand?”
“I haven’t let Mardian get into that at all,” Ehrlichman said. “We’re going to put that out here through Colson and Hunt.”
Burns: El Diablo Con Dinero
Nixon then expanded his conspiracy theory. Colson had told him that 16 people on the Bureau of Labor Statistics staff were registered Democrats, only one a registered Republican. “The point that he did not get into that I want to know, Bob, how many were Jews?” Nixon asked. “There’s a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like [Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F.] Burns and the rest. And they all only talk to Jews.”69
Political paranoids can’t get enough of the Fed, but Nixon is probably the only one ever to form a conspiracy theory about a Fed chairman he had personally appointed. 70 Burns was a Nixon man, the chief conservative economist on the White House staff before Nixon nominated him to the Fed in 1969. Congress set up the Fed to be independent of politics, but that didn’t stop Burns from secretly assuring Nixon that he would use its power over the economy to reduce unemployment for his reelection year.71 The only official Burns was conspiring with was Richard Nixon.
But the Fed chairman had incurred his patron’s displeasure. Nixon had wanted a conservative economist at the Fed but grew angry when he got one. As unemployment rose to politically harmful levels, Nixon wanted the Fed to follow an “easy money” policy that would reduce interest rates, making it easier for businesses to borrow money, expand operations and hire more employees. Burns, however, warned that this would fuel inflation. On the morning of Nixon’s “Jewish cabal” comment, the Times ran this front-page headline: “Burns Says Inflation Curb Is Making Scant Progress.”72
Typically, if Nixon said you were conspiring against him, he was about to conspire against you. “Now, what do you want to do with Arthur Burns?” Nixon asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman that afternoon. “Raise his salary?” The President asked for a press leak suggesting that the President’s advisers had recommended increasing the membership of the Federal Reserve Board.73
On July 28, the United Press International newswire ran an exclusive story: “President Nixon is considering a proposal to double the size of the Federal Reserve Board, it was learned today. The suggestion, if put before Congress, could touch off a controversy rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court.
“Administration officials also disclosed that Nixon rejected a request from Arthur F. Burns—Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board—for a 20,000 a year pay raise. Burns currently makes 42,500.
“Burns, however, denied he had ‘lobbied for an increase in salary.’” 74
Counting Jews at BLS
Meanwhile, Haldeman tried to find out how many BLS employees were Jews. “What’s the status of your analysis of the BLS,” he wrote to Personnel Chief Malek on July 26, “specifically of the 21 key people. What is their demographic breakdown?” 75
Malek replied the next day. “We were able to obtain political affiliation checks on 35 of the 50 names listed on their organization chart.” There were 25 Democrats, 5 unregistered, 4 independents, and 1 Republican. “In addition, 13 out of the 35 fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed.” There was a handwritten note: “Most of these are at the top.”76
Later that day, the President asked, “Did you ever get the number of Jews that were in BLS?”
“I got their biographies yesterday. I’m having them analyzed,” Ehrlichman said. “Oh, the radio and the wires are full this morning that Arthur Burns wanted a salary increase.”
“I wonder where that came from,” Nixon said. “I’ll never forget Arthur sitting in here telling us a year ago there shouldn’t be a salary increase and that the Cabinet officers should give it back.”77
Purging Jews at BLS
Burns got smeared; Goldstein got forced out. “Harold Goldstein will be moved to a routine, non-sensitive post in another part of BLS,” Malek reported to Haldeman on September 8, 1971. “He has been told of this and will move quietly when the reorganization is announced.
“A sensitive and loyal Republican is also being recruited for the employment analysis function being vacated by Goldstein.
“Peter Henle, Associate Commissioner for Economic and Social Research, and Leon Greenberg, Associate Commissioner for Statistical Standards and Operations”—two other Jews—“will be transferred when the reorganization is announced.” 78
Beverly Hills Break-In
Goldstein, Greenberg, and Henle weren’t the only victims of Nixon’s conspiracy theory in September 1971. On September 3, the SIU broke into the office of Lewis J. Fielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. After SIU codirector Egil “Bud” Krogh pled guilty to violating Fielding’s civil rights, he made a statement explaining the burglary’s aims. 79 At the top was “to ascertain if Dr. Ellsberg acted alone or with collaborators.”80 Following the break-in, Liddy showed Krogh the Browning knife he had drawn outside the psychiatrist’s office, ready to kill, “if there were no other recourse.”81 Luckily, the police didn’t arrive in time to stop this crime.82
The break-in produced nothing, of course, on the conspiracy theory, and according to members of the SIU, they didn’t even find Ellsberg’s file. One week later, Ehrlichman urged Nixon to abandon plans for a congressional investigation of the conspiracy theory. “Henry is tied in so close,” he said, “to Gelb, Halperin and even Ellsberg, that I don’t know where it’ll end.”
“I’ve had a feeling all along that that deep down was the problem,” Nixon said, “and that Henry is desperately concerned about that.” 83
Guilt by association is a poor political weapon if leads back to one’s own associates. But Kissinger’s associations weren’t news. They were an excuse to give up, not a reason. Even after putting themselves above the law in pursuit of an imaginary conspiracy, the President and his men had come up empty. Naturally, they blamed their failure on the Inner Circle’s sole Jew, intellectual, and Ivy League professor.