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The Freedom Forum

With reported leaks of ‘back channels’ and secret negotiations with Russia in the news recently (as well as the ongoing furor over the firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey), I thumbed through Richard Reeves’ excellent bio, President Nixon: Alone in the White House to bring myself up to speed on the master secret negotiator and power broker himself.

After World War II, the transition from war and conflict to peace and stability was the main problem in which most U.S. presidents grappled. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and also U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1963-1964 during the Kennedy Administration, which viewed South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem as an ineffective leader, tacitly supported the coup d’etat that overthrew his presidency. In reviewing the conditions that led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Lodge said in an interview in 1979:

Well, there was a big to do in the Eisenhower administration. Vice President Nixon took part and Admiral Radford took part, about uh sending US forces into…into Vietnam. And Eisenhower let them all talk and the upshot was he was against it and we didn’t do it. It was just as simple as that.

The interviewer pressed:

Interviewer: Do you think perhaps the attack on the pagodas was calculated to impress you as you were on your way out to Saigon? In other words, do you think the attack was staged to coincide with your appointment and your imminent arrival in Saigon?

Lodge: That might have been. I’ve often thought of that but you can’t tell. You don’t know.

Interviewer: Now, just the day, about the day after your arrival, two South Vietnamese generals, Le Van Kim and Tran Van Don, made contact with two CIA representatives in Saigon, Rufus Phillips and Lucien Conein and the generals wanted to know whether the United States would support the army in a coup against Diem.

Lodge: I [had] discussed it with uh, um, with Tran Van Don.

Recognizing that this was not going to be a relaxing, nostalgic interview about the good ‘ol Kennedy years, Lodge quickly lost interest in answering any further questions. As Ken Burns and Lynn Novick revisit the Vietnam War this summer with their new PBS documentary, I recommend also the seminal Vietnam: A Television History as well.

I have something of a soft spot in my heart for Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., after all, he was truly a man for his time. Privileged and educated with limitless opportunity to succeed in life – he laid it all on the line to serve his country in combat during World War II. He resigned as the Senator from Massachusetts and went back to France to serve his country with distinction, among other heroics, winning the French Legion of Honor as well as taking out a four-man German patrol all by himself. When he returned to the United States after the war, his experiences shaped his life and the collective life of our country developing at such a frenetic pace around him. He also died in the same year, and is buried in the same cemetery, as my grandmother or ‘Gram’ as I lovingly called her.

While serving in the war, Lodge made an association and lifelong friendship with French-born Lucien Conein, who became a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and Lodge’s liaison or ‘back channel’ to coup plotters and the ultimate assassins of the President of South Vietnam. Lodge was then working for President Kennedy, and agreeing with administration policy in trying to ‘shake things up’ in Vietnam because the US needed a bulwark against a surging Communist China (as we now know from the release of the Pentagon Papers and after Nixon admitted as much). This tragic decision led to a failed policy of mass bombings, torture and threats to go nuclear. Literally.

Lodge was Nixon’s running mate in 1960 and Nixon calculated that John F. Kennedy’s arch-rival, the Boston Brahmin dynasty’s heir-apparent, would help divert Kennedy’s attention closer to home and away from the swing states. That analysis was proven incorrect and Nixon/Lodge lost to Kennedy/Johnson in one of the closest presidential elections in American history – yet unlike Trump – Kennedy still won both the electoral and popular vote.

John and Bobby Kennedy had a hand in the assassination of Diem and Richard Nixon was outraged that they got away with it unscathed. It was no secret that he hated Robert Kennedy, saying that Kennedy got Hoover to ‘bug’ everybody in Washington and wondered if he was also ‘bugged’ by Kennedy as well. As he perceived it, Nixon was blamed and hampered for the billowing fiasco of the Vietnam War with the (illegal) release of a yellowing, Rand Corp. study written by eggheads that he had nothing to do with.

He never read the report and knew nothing of its existence. The Pentagon Papers were compiled by low-level ‘think tankers,’ like “James Jesus Angleton’s weirdos at the CIA,” as Nixon called the agents, and ‘know-it-all’ Harvard assholes such as Daniel Ellsberg that were associated with Robert McNamara in the military-industrial corner of the shop with their charts and graphs. When the Tet Offensive tipped the balance of the Vietnam War, too much blood had been shed, and regardless of the cries of ‘you started it!’ Democrats and Republicans were locked in an internecine battle to the death. This was the background to Watergate.

The U.S. was embroiled in an unwinnable war and public opinion turned decidedly sour. Nixon needed to change the news cycle fast and began to secretly negotiate a peace deal with North Vietnam while continuing to leverage against China, now further West, in Pakistan and (the future) Bangladesh. These policies were set forth in secret negotiations (and illegal military support) for the Pakistan government in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, as it became known. As the war progressed, it became clear that India was going to invade Pakistan in matter of weeks, so Nixon spoke with USSR Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev on a hotline on December 10, 1971, where Nixon urged to Brezhnev to restrain India “in the strongest possible terms, which you [Brezhnev] have great influence and for whose actions you must share responsibility.”

This period of time shaped Nixon in ways that no one could have imagined. If there was a ‘turning point’ of Nixon’s support within the goverment, regardless of his popular support, this was surely the moment. The military was probably trying to figure out why the hell the U.S. would support a war against a democratic India. The Joint Chiefs decided to do something about it by leaking the developments to the press:

At 6:09 on the evening of December 21, 1971, President Richard Nixon convened a tense and confidential meeting in the Oval Office with his three closest advisers—John N. Mitchell, his Attorney General; H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff; and John D. Ehrlichman, his top domestic-policy aide. Notably absent was Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national-security adviser. The men had come together to discuss a crisis unique in American presidential history—”a federal offense of the highest order,” as Nixon would put it in the meeting.

The Moorer-Radford Affair was a seismic shift in Nixon’s White House. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, through Admiral Moorer and Lt. Colonel Alexander Haig at the N.S.A., tasked a lowly yeoman stenographer (Radford) to spy on Kissinger and Nixon for over a year. By the time Nixon secretly ordered the moving a carrier group out of the Mekong Delta and into the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan, the military chiefs were fed up and columnist Jack Anderson took it from there. From Fox News:

Nixon’s team of in-house investigators — informally known as ‘The Plumbers,’ since their primary mission was to stop leaks of classified materials to the news media — discovered Radford’s covert activity in December 1971, during their probe into a sensational series of stories published by the syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. A thorn in Nixon’s side since the 1950s, Anderson had obtained highly classified minutes of NSC meetings about the India-Pakistan War then roiling South Asia, and published excerpts from the documents just days after they were typed up. In addition to disclosing sensitive information about the movement of a carrier task force in the Bay of Bengal, the series showed that the Nixon administration had deceived the public about its true aim of supporting Pakistan in the conflict, and later won Anderson the Pulitzer Prize.

A joint Plumbers-Defense Department investigation quickly zeroed in on Radford, who was known to have had contacts with Anderson, a fellow Mormon, and to have enjoyed access to virtually all of the documents the columnist had published. Under intensive polygraph testing in late 1971, Radford denied having leaked the India-Pakistan documents to the columnist. Anderson died in 2005 without ever disclosing who had been his source, but he told author Len Colodny in November 1986: “You don’t get those kind of secrets from enlisted men. You only get them from generals and admirals.”

When highly-classified COINTELPRO documents were stolen by a leftist activist group from an F.B.I. office in Pennsylvania on March 8, 1971, and leaked to the press, it had to be clear to Nixon by then that both law enforcement and the military were positioning their agencies against him. Watergate was just another job for the Plumbers, yet perhaps Mark Felt, Deputy Director of the F.B.I. and the future ‘deep throat’ of Woodward and Bernstein fame – may have been waiting for them all along.

Alan J. Pakula’s film All The President’s Men (1976), based on the Woodward and Bernstein book, vividly dramatizes the night on June 17, 1972, when security guard Frank Wills (playing himself in the film) found tape on a door in the Watergate complex and called the police. A four-man, undercover (plainclothes) detail just happened to be working a drug bust in the neighborhood. They responded to this ‘third-rate burglary’ call without the use of a squad car. This unlucky, unexpected arrival at the Watergate complex went unnoticed by E. Howard Hunt – encamped across the street in the Watergate Hotel – monitoring the job for the Plumbers team now inside the Democratic National Headquarters. Watching the professional, intense actor F. Murray Abraham surprising and arresting the petty thieves, one wonders – Hoover’s F.B.I. certainly had the assets to make such a thing happen.

Conspiracy theories aside, after the break-in, Nixon said the reaction is going to be primarily in Washington and not the country:

I think the country doesn’t give much of a shit about it other than the ones we’ve already bugged… Everybody around here is all mortified by it. It’s a horrible thing to rebut… However, most people around the country think that this is routine, that everybody’s trying to bug everybody else, it’s politics.

Richard Reeves writes in Alone in the White House that gave Nixon an idea. Nixon said whenever there was a leak about Republican plans, the campaign should say that McGovern was bugging them – and maybe they should plant a bug on themselves and say McGovern did it. Creative! The next day, presidential advisor Charles Colson said, “I think we could develop a theory as to the CIA if we wanted to, we know that Hunt has all these ties with these people.” They talked for more than an hour about how to subvert American democracy, then the president finally said, encouragingly, “Don’t let the bastards get you down, Chuck… I don’t think they’re going to see a great uproar in the country about the Republican committee trying to bug the Democratic headquarters.”

Impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon began on February 6, 1974, and on August 9, Tricky Dick was waving goodbye to the nation after resigning, boarding Marine One and escaping clear across state lines. The obvious affinity of Donald J. Trump for Richard M. Nixon missed me at first. In previous posts, I’ve compared him to Herbert Hoover and Benito Mussolini (little bit). I did think his connections to Roy Cohn were creepy, but I just didn’t put 2 and 2 together to come up with 4. While perusing the Wikipedia page on the Committee to Re-Elect the President or CREEP as it was derisively known, the last name on the committee caught my eye. Trump’s creep frenemy, Roger Stone. Now how the fuck did I miss that?

Roger Stone was then a boy at the knees of cold war men such as Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Haldeman and all the 50-100 president’s men who betrayed him and let him down. Of course they only did this because they knew that’s exactly what he would’ve wanted. Nixon was a maladapted, paranoid, alcoholic loner with an unhealthy death drive. He was democracy’s version of Adolf Hitler to totalitarian dictatorships. He got away with about as much wrongdoing as you can get away with it in a western democracy, pushing the limits decency and morality far beyond what John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson ever dreamed of.

Before the Supreme Court rules on the latest smackdown from the federal courts on Trump’s idiotic executive order on immigration, they may perhaps take up a case, soon to come, about executive privilege. As Nixon believed in his famous interview with David Frost when he said, ‘Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,’ he found out the hard way that the political requirements of the presidency demand that he or she may be removed from office for simply being an obnoxious asshole, forget about what the definition of ‘is’ is. He looked at his interview with David Frost as a chance for redemption, as in his famous Checkers Speech where he used television in a way no politician had before to change public opinion. 

At the height of the Watergate investigation, Nixon was recorded in a conversation with Kissinger saying, “Maybe will even consider the possibility of, frankly, just throwing myself on the sword… and letting Agnew take it. What the hell.”

“No!” Says Kissinger:

That is out of the question, with all due respect, Mr. President, that cannot be considered. The personality, what it would do to the presidency, and the historical injustice of it. Why should you do it, and what good would it do? Would it help? It wouldn’t help the country.

Kissinger continued, “You saved this country, Mr. President. The history books will show that, when no one will know what Watergate means.” Nixon replied, “Yup. Well, it’ll be a great day on the other side for all of our enemies, won’t it? The Times, the Post, the rest – shit.” As we know now, the Times and the Post prevailed while David Young, Jr., Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Liddy, Hunt, McCloy and dozens of other co-conspirators assured that Nixon’s memory would never escape the taint of scandal and crime.

Will Donald Trump’s legacy be similarly defined by Steve Bannon, Kushner, Flynn, Manafort, McGhan and others? What Bannon’s done has changed the optics of the impeachment debate (that he knew was coming) to position Trump to the left of Nixon, literally sitting with the 94 year-old Kissinger the day after firing the director of the FBI. This was political theater at its most subversive – Henry Kissinger, beside Pat Buchanan, is one of few to the escape the void of darkness that was the Nixon Administration. He represents a faint image of Watergate, yes, but more of the Nixon of the Paris Peace Accords, détente with China and other secret wars and treaties. Say what you will about Henry Kissinger, he is a uniquely American celebrity and will be remembered as a legend in politics for his cultural identity, nerdy Republican style and international influence.

On June 23, 1972, just 6 days after the break-in, Nixon said that the administration should go to the Deputy Director of the FBI and ask them to request the Acting Director to halt the Bureau’s investigation on the grounds that it was of national security interest. This information was recorded on audio tapes that Nixon himself had ordered, and as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in United States v. Nixon, issued July 24, 1974, it limited the power of any president to claim executive privilege in criminal proceedings argued in U.S. courts.

As much as Donald Trump wants to make the Russia story a debate about executive privilege, he has again miscalculated. The vast majority of American citizens are simple, honest, hard-working people, who are at times living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ as Henry David Thoreau lamented. We yearn for change, yet are also creatures of habit. Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in his great study of Nixon that, “Nixon wanted to be judged by what he accomplished. What he will be remembered for is the nightmare he put the country through.”

John Underhill

May 29, 2017

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