Last week we featured some strange conspiracy theories… but people seemed to like them a lot. This week we have some even stranger conspiracies to drop on your doorstep. Yes. These are the conspiracy theories of Richard M. Nixon… Was he a crazy nut? A paranoid delinquent… or were people truly against him? The truth is that he both kept secrets, and expected others to keep secrets. His secrets were kept for a reason—and he knew why others were keeping secrets about him. Let’s take a look at the list.
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.
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. The only reason left to keep the bombing secret was political. Nixon knew that revealing it would cause a public outcry
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 Statistic, and the one official other than himself who wielded the greatest influence on the economy. Who could that be? Why the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, of course!
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.” 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.
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. 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. In the end, he won, but by less than 1 percent.
And if you want to see an action packed version of conspiracy theories, check out my three-book series – The Chronicles of Jermey Nash.