Rehnquist was nominated by President Richard Nixon∇ in late 1971 and sworn in January 7, 1972. The 47-year-old had a reputation for being an outspoken conservative, a reputation he lived up to while on the court. He rose to Chief Justice in 1986, nominated by President Reagan∇. Rehnquist had served in the Nixon administration as Assistant Attorney General from 1969 to 1971.
On November 6, 1971, the United States conducted a controversial high-yield nuclear weapons test beneath Amchitka Island, Alaska. Earlier that day the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 4–3 vote, had declined to issue an injunction to halt the test. In White House conversations later that month, President Richard Nixon∇ claimed that he had been prepared to defy the Court and order the test to proceed if the injunction had been granted.
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.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara found himself struggling with a mounting sense of frustration over the Vietnam War. McNamara concluded in early 1967 that a comprehensive analysis of the history of U.S. involvement in post-1945 Vietnam was needed, partly out of a need to answer his own questions about how things had gone wrong. McNamara ordered his Second Military Assistant, Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Gard, to initiate a study into the history of America’s role in Vietnam, with an emphasis on the internal policy-planning and decision-making within the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, on June 17, 1967, the Vietnam Study Task Force was officially created under the direction of Leslie H. Gelb∇, the director of Policy Planning and Arms Control for International Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.
It wasn’t the crime, but it wasn’t the cover-up, either. Something more basic took down a president 33 years ago. Long before prosecutors identified him as an unindicted coconspirator, Richard Nixon∇ was a conspiracy theorist. In the last 10 years, the government has systematically declassified hundreds of hours of White House tapes recorded on a voice-activated system that President Nixon had the Secret Service install in the oval office. They reveal a textbook example of what historian Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”