Was President Richard M. Nixon Overthrown Partially By A Military Plot---And Did He Attempt To Stage A Countercoup?
In the spring of 1974—at the height of the Watergate crisis in Washington, DC---Joseph Laitin, a public affairs spokesman of the Office of management and Budget whose workplace was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), next door to the White House---was on his way over to the West Wing of the Mansion to see the Secretary of the Treasury, George Schultz.
“I’d reached the basement, near the Situation Room,” he later recalled in an interview, “and just as I was about to ascend the stairway, a guy came running down the stairs two steps at a time. He had a frantic look on his face, wild eyed, like a madman. And he bowled me over, so I kind of lost my balance, and before I could pick myself up, six athletic looking young men leapt over me, pursuing him. I suddenly realized that they were secret Service agents, that I’d been knocked over by the President of the United States.”
This account appeared in the book by British investigative author The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. Returning to his office and canceling his meeting with Sec. Schultz, Laitin recalled, “I sat there stunned, and I thought, you know, ‘That madman I have just seen has his finger on the red button.’ I had a number for Defense Secretary James) Schlesinger, a phone that only he could answer. I called him, and I asked if the President could order the use of atomic weapons without going through the Secretary of Defense.
“I said, ‘If I were in your position, I would want to know who the nearest combat ready troops were who would respond to the President’s wishes to surround the White House. I would want to know what the next nearest combat ready division was, which could not only be able to overcome them, but also respond only to the chain of command. That’s what I have to say.’
“Then there was just a click at the other end, as the Secretary of Defense hung up.”
For his part, the secretary recalled what the then Chief of Naval Operations---Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt---had told him of what Nixon had asked of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the previous Christmas, to determine if, in a crunch,’ “There was (military) support to keep in power,” presumably even after an impeachment by the House of Representatives, and a later trial by the United States Senate to convict him of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In July 1974, the Secretary asked for a meeting with the then current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, US Air Force Gen. George Brown. “I told him,” Schlesinger said to Summers, “that every order that would come from the White House had to come to me directly, immediately upon receipt…The message had to be gotten through that there were not to be any extraordinary measures taken. The message did get through.”
Gen. Brown later confirmed this as well: “Could the President get an order down to the end of the military establishment without our knowing it? The normal process would prevent any such happening because troop orders must go to a high Pentagon command center. I would have it in two minutes, and I’d be in the Secretary’s office in 30 seconds,” he recalled.
In addition, Navy Adm. James Halloway---who
D just succeeded Adm. Zumwalt—also remembered the scene thus: “Brown’s hands were shaking. He told us, ‘I’ve just come from the office of the Secretary of Defense. I made some notes. I want to read them to you.’ What the Secretary wanted was an agreement from the Joint Chiefs, all of them, that nobody would take any action or execute any orders, without all of them agreeing to it.
“Gen. Brown said they were afraid of some sort of coup involving the military…We almost fell off our chairs. If anyone was thinking of a coup, it was not anyone in uniform. None of us wanted to conjecture on ‘What if we get a screwy order from the President?’ We knew it would take care of itself. We had in the JCS five people with an average of 40 years’ experience, and they are picked for their good judgment…They would have found a way to make sure the right thing happened.”
The right thing---under the National Security Act---was that all military orders go from the President through the Secretary of Defense to the JCS, and then on down the military chain of command. Noted Sec. Schlesinger, “I did assure myself that there would be no question about the proper Constitutional and legislative chain of command---and there never was any question”---or at least so he told Summers.
Nevertheless, the Secretary had two concerns: the Air Force and the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Cushman. The Air Force in particular admired the President for the way he’d gotten the downed pilot prisoners-of-war extricated from the Vietnam War peace agreement in March 173.
As for Gen. Cushman, he’d served as a brigadier general as Vice President Nixon’s National Security Advisor in the Eisenhower Administration, and later as Deputy CIA Director in the Nixon Presidency, and in the latter role had been involved in providing Agency facilities to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt.
Now, in the tension filled summer of 1974 in the nation’s capital, he had received the political appointment from the President himself as Commandant of the Marine Corps, and was thus a JCS member.
Recalled Sec. Schlesinger, “Gen. Cushman was a pleasant, but a weak, man. He might’ve acquiesced to a request from the White House for action. The last thing I wanted was to have the Marines ordered to the White House, and then have to bring in the army to confront the Marines. It would have been a bloody mess.”
To answer Laitin’s posed questions, the Secretary reflected that the nearest available troops were both Marine units: at a barracks at 8th and I Streets SE (in Washington), and at a facility at Quantico, VA, an actual Marine base, both under the Commandant’s direct command.
Then there was the Army’s own crack 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC, which had been secretly brought to Washington early in the first Nixon Administration to protect the buildings from mobs of antiwar demonstrators. To his dismay, the Secretary
now learned that a string force from the 82nd could be brought to Washington within five hours if necessary…
As Schlesinger told Summers, “(White House Chief of Staff Gen. Alexander M.) Haig was in touch with me every day…On Friday, Aug. 2nd, he told me Nixon was digging in his heels; it might be necessary to put the 82nd Airborne Division around the White House to protect the President. This I said was nonsense; a Presidency could not be conducted from a White House ringed by bayonets…” apparently forgetting the American Civil War example pf Abraham Lincoln during 1861-65, with which history buff RN was himself most familiar.)
Haig said that he agreed completely…he simply wanted me to have a feel for the kind of ideas being canvassed.”
Or was Gen. Haig in reality acting as a lightning rod for the President himself, seeing whether or not his own appointed Secretary of Defense would concur in such an unusual usage of American military power? This basic question remains more than three decades after the events being discussed here.
In 2000, the former Secretary would tell Summers, “The end of the Nixon Presidency was an extraordinary episode in American history. I am proud of my role in protecting the integrity of the chain of command. You could say it was synonymous with protecting the Constitution.” Gen. Brown agreed with his former boss: “The Secretary had a responsibility to raise these sort of matters.”
Summer’s own conclusion on this strange affair was a simple sentence: “mercifully, nothing untoward happened.” Is that actually true?
Let us now examine the Watergate crisis from another perspective: that of the known military aspects preceding it and the possible affects as it unfolded from both the Pentagon and the White House.
In 1991, there appeared an excellent revisionist history of the entire Watergate affair entitled Silent Coup: The Removal of a President by writers Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin. Their basic premise was this: in actuality, the President himself had neither ordered nor initiated the cover-up of the affair. Both roles had been masterminded instead, they asserted in chapter after detailed chapter, by the President’s White House Counsel, John Wesley Dean III, who wanted to expand his role in the Administration by becoming head of all its covert operations.
The break in of Democratic National Headquarters itself at the Watergate had nothing to do with the files of hits chief, Kennedy Administration official Lawrence F. O’Brien, but was an attempt instead to recover the names of a prostitution ring that was run from there in secret and that involved both high ranking and well known Democratic and Republican Party figures whose names Dean wanted to keep secret.
He initiated the cover-up, they asserted, not to protect the President, but himself. When he could not do both, he turned state’s witness for the Federal prosecution team named by Congress to investigate the affair.
In March 1973, when the President accepted the resignation of his longtime White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Bob Haldeman, he appointed in his place the deputy of his former National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Aaron Kissinger, US Army Gen. Alexander Haig, Jr.
According to the authors, Gen. Haig---all of whose four stars had been garnered politically under the Nixon Administration, not in active field commands---came into office with his own, private agenda in mind. In the far future, he harbored Presidential ambitions for himself, and after he left the Ford White House post-Nixon, Haig was installed as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Western Europe.
This was the very same prestigious post previously held by a former general-cum-President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. On Jan. 20, 181, Gen. Haig became the first US Secretary of State to have previously worn a uniform since Gen. George C. Marshall in the Truman Administration, under Ronald Reagan.
The authors further asserted that it was Gen. Haig who was, in fact, the legendary “Deep Throat” contact who passed information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, co-author later of the books All the President’s Men and The Final Days with his reportorial teammate Carl Bernstein, but this was later disproved by Woodward himself, who revealed the source’s true identity.
As the Nixon regime’s Watergate disaster unfolded, they believed that the general did ingratiate himself with Woodward, a former US naval officer who had briefed him in the first year of the Administration in the White House itself. Thus, there WAS a connection between the two men, the authors asserted, and that they did, in fact, know each other from their earlier military contacts.
Thus, the stage was set, and all the characters assembled on it, for the following scene, as described in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon: “There was a knock on the door, and Haig came in. Almost hesitantly, he said, ‘This is something that will have to be done, Mr. President, and I thought that you would rather do it now.’ He took a sheet of paper and put it on my desk. I read the single sentence, and signed it: ‘I hereby resign the Office of the President of the United States.’ It would be delivered in a few hours, at 11:35 AM on the 2,027th day of my Presidency.”
The date was Aug. 9, 1974, but still the story of the military aspects of the fall of Richard M. Nixon was not finished, and, indeed, would not be almost fully revealed in Silent Coup: the fact that the United States Navy in the person of its Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Thomas Moorer, had commissioned a spy ring run out of the EOB by a Navy admiral and yeoman, and reporting on the decisions of the President and Dr. Kissinger back to the Pentagon.
This occurred during the first two years of the first Nixon Administration, the authors alleged, during 1969-71. This team reported everything that they saw and heard---the yeoman made copies of all documents he got his hands on---and sent them on to Adm. Moorer.
What was their motive for this, one might well ask? According to Collodny and Gettlin, “The fall of 1970…was a pivotal time for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From their point of view, the President of the United States was out of control. On Jan. 20, 1969, Richard M. Nixon had become the 37th President of the United States.
“Earlier, as a private citizen, Nixon had contemplated several historical foreign policy shifts, including new relationships with the United States’ Cold War adversaries, China and the Soviet Union, an end to the war in Vietnam, and an attempt to stop bloodshed in the Middle East. Though long regarded by the liberal left as a conservative anti-Communist, Nixon actually had a world view that favored diplomacy and arms control over confrontation and a continued arms race.
He cultivated an image of anti-Communism because he found it useful, but privately was more flexible in his thinking.”
A hundred years from now, historians may well call the two Nixon Administrations the “Diplomatic Revolutions” of the 20th Century, as we now look on the year 1762 when Imperial Russia shifted her support from the Austria of Queen Maria Theresa to the Prussia of Frederick the Great.
In another example, who today remembers that---before 1914---Great Britain and Germany had never been at war before, and that it was Marshal Prince Gebhardt von Blucher’s Prussians who saved Wellington’s forces at Waterloo against Napoleon?
Unlike the politician that Nixon was always pictured as being, in reality he was much more than that, a statesman with a world view that grasped the overall, big picture of how history was actually made. Not for nothing was his own favorite book the 1967 biography of the British Jewish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
During 1969-74, however, the American military was opposed to almost all of the foreign policy initiatives begun and carried through by President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger. Only one failed, and the continuing war in the Mideast remain with us still. I predict that Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba—and possibly China---will one day all overthrow Communism from within, or may be toppled from without, by us.
Did the American military play an active role in the political demise of Mr. Nixon in the end? The question remains unanswered, but I believe that it will be in the further fullness of time. As for the Sixties, they ended not with Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, but with President Nixon’s resignation from office on Aug. 9, 1974.
And as for the late former President himself he died in 1994), I believe of him what a political science professor told me in class at then Towson State College in my freshman year: “A statesman is a politician who is deceased.”
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