Podcast: Secret Service Agent on Witnessing President Nixon’s Phone Call to the Moon
President Nixon made the longest long distance phone call in history, 240,000 miles to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon. (Nixon Presidential Library)
David Noznesky was a secret service agent assigned to President Nixon.
On July 20 of this year the Nixon Foundation commemorated the 50th anniversary of America’s moon shot with AT&T at the Nixon Presidential Library with events all day on campus.
The keynote was a discussion between three White House aides who witnessed President Nixon’s historic call from the Oval Office to the moon.
On this edition of the Nixon Now podcast, we talk to a secret service agent detailed to President Nixon, who also witnessed the phone call.
His name is David Noznesky. He was a career agent, with over 25 years of service to the country.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to “The Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. On July 20th of this year, the Nixon Foundation commemorated the 50th anniversary of America’s moon shot with AT&T at the Nixon Presidential Library with events all day on campus. The keynote was a discussion between three White House aides who witnessed President Nixon’s historic phone call from the Oval Office to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the lunar surface. Also, in the Oval Office that day, was our next guest, a secret service agent, detailed to the President. His name is David Noznesky. He was a career agent and served 26 years in government service. David, welcome.
David Noznesky: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: David, can you start off by telling us your path to the White House Oval Office on July 20th, 1969?
David Noznesky: Certainly. I started with the U.S. Secret Service as a special agent. My original duties were more Criminal Investigative and assigned to the Washington field division. And then a few years later, was transferred to the White House and performed duties that related to security of the president, then the White House and so on.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the mood of America, at that time, in the late 1960s, particularly, the mood in the White House administration?
David Noznesky: Well, I can’t really talk to what the mood was like in the administration. But I can tell you that it was a very difficult time, from my recollection, especially, having lived in Washington, with the riots and so on, that occurred during that period, and certainly, very profoundly for the U.S. Secret Service. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the Secret Service, by presidential order, was assigned to protect major presidential candidates. So, during the election period and, of course, in the late ’60s, was a very busy time, really, a crazy time, and in some ways, very sad time, during the late ’60s, from my recollection.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was your first day of detail in the Nixon White House?
David Noznesky: Well, when I was assigned to the White House, I was involved with the more technical issues. The U.S. Secret Service has a technical Security Division and that was the division I was assigned to. So, my normal duties might be to travel on a foreign or domestic visit outside the White House along with the presidential protective division, other, obviously, Secret Service agents. And I worked a number of functions in that capacity, whether they be speeches that were given by the President in the Oval Office, events, presidential events in the East Room, and so on. My duties were primarily in Washington, although, I did travel some.
Jonathan Movroydis: What were some of the, you know, significant trips or events at the White House that you’ve witnessed?
David Noznesky: Oh, well, that’s difficult to summarize that. It was a very busy period. I mean, I made a number of presidential trips. I did go on the trip to Russia, Iran, and so on, Poland, and certainly, a number of visits around the United States that the president made.
Jonathan Movroydis: It’s July 20th, 1969, could you describe sort of the activity that day around the moon landing, specifically, you know, the White House staff and the president himself?
David Noznesky: Well, it was obviously a very busy day. Certainly, everyone knew that, you know, we were about to witness, hopefully, the landing on the moon. And, you know, certainly that was paramount. The White House was buzzing, from my perspective. I was focused because I wasn’t there toward the afternoon. My recollection is that I didn’t actually get to work until late in the afternoon on the 20th. And my responsibility that day was, like, any time there would be activity in the Oval Office. I was assigned to provide an effective, safe, and secure environment for the president in the Oval Office during that evening. The reason specifically because technicians, communications people, large equipment cameras, which at that time cameras were huge, not small like they are today. So I was there to be involved with that desk work and to make sure that we could maintain a secure environment. And I was there that evening, until after the call, in fact, I recall, at least an hour after the call, which I think was beyond midnight.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you describe what goes in to the whole setup of the Oval Office and, specifically, your role and creating a secure environment where that telephone call would take place? I mean, what particular threats could there be, during an event like this?
David Noznesky: Well, it’s hard to say what specific threats there might have been. But wherever the president goes, the Secret Service maintains a secure environment, and what goes in, what comes out, and especially, when people from the outside and normally when visitors are in there, it’s a different situation. But when technical equipment, cameras, wires are being set up and whatnot, then it becomes particularly important for the Secret Service to surveil the activity desk or the activity to make sure the people that are in there are authorized and to make sure what they’re doing is authorized. That was a very busy night because, you really had, from two different responsibilities, you had the media folks that were and their technicians, setting up the cameras and so on, to film it all. But you also had the White House Communications Agency officer, we call them WHCA, White House Communications Agency officer, to set up the actual telephone that was going to be used, the communication device that was going to be used by the president to make this call. So, it was very busy. There were a number of people in there. It was a lot of activity. Occasionally, staff members would pop in to see what was going on and leave, and so on.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any security involving the phone itself, that President Nixon would use to make the call?
David Noznesky: Well, I can only say that, I recall, during the early evening, the president stopped in to see how it was going to be set up and so on. My recollection is that there was some discussion about using the president’s phone, which was the typical large multi-button phone you would expect to see on a chief executive’s desk, wanting to have a smaller normal phone that would be used. And in fact, the White House Communications Agency officer that was responsible for the call, brought in a telephone and wiring, and so on. And so, I think it was just a normal phone being brought in and then wired it up. And I recall, specifically, that this was not a telephone call in the traditional sense, in that you would pick up the phone and make the call. This was being done by satellite crews then. So the technology was different. The phone was used, and I remember that the… And this is not my lane. But I remember that the impedance or something in the mouthpiece was not going to be appropriate and that was removed, and another one was put in that was more technologically conducive to the type of call. And then, of course, we all know about the telephone call.
And the security of the phone afterward is an interesting discussion because when it was…the phone call was over, the president left the office. Of course, the media was in there, the traveling press pool, and the photographers, they all left. Now the technicians were just disassembling everything. And I remember the phone being disassembled, the wiring being pulled and being put in a box. I recalled, at the time, “Where’s the phone going?” You know, I mean, certainly, it was obvious to me that the phone had incredible historical importance. And the White House communications officer said that, “Well, it’ll go back to M Street.”
Well, M Street, at that time, was the repository for all the technical equipment for the Communications Agency and their command structure was located over there. And I said, “On the shelf?” And he looked at me and, “Well, it’s going back to M Street.” So, realizing the importance, I remembered because of my experience as a criminal investigator in chain of custody, and really, it amazes me today that I even thought about it at the time. But I thought, “Well, some years ahead, how will we know that that was the phone?” And I recall getting a paperclip and scratching my initials on the phone. And then it went in the box and back to the Communications Agency, and that’s the last I saw of it. As for security, I’m not sure when or how it was handled after that, until it was ultimately turned over to the Nixon Library, I believe, and the National Archives through the Nixon family.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you describe how President Nixon entered the Oval Office that day? In particular, what was his mood and could you just describe the overall atmosphere of how he came to the Oval Office desk to make that phone call?
David Noznesky: Well, everyone was very focused on their responsibilities and I think it was so important that, clearly, regardless of the event, everyone wanted to make sure that this went absolutely perfectly. I recall the president coming in that evening, having been around him some, certainly, not nearly as much as some agents that traveled with him all the time, he was very, very animated, from my perspective. He clearly understood the history of the moment. And as president, he seemed, to me, to be very excited. He was very vocal. I do remember that, when they were about to plant the flag, I recall him saying, “Plant the flag. Plant the flag.” He was very animated at that time.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did he say anything? You’d mentioned he said, “Plant the flag,” but did he say anything, in particular, before the call started?
David Noznesky: Well, I’m sure he did. I’m not sure that I recall exactly what he said. You know, there was certainly some interaction between he and some of the media in the room, and some informal chatter with the staff. But no, I really couldn’t say exactly what was said. I do know there was some informal chatter and so on, you know, before the call was actually made.
Jonathan Movroydis: The call ends, what happens afterward? You know, where does everybody go?
David Noznesky: Well, again, slowly but surely, everyone left the office, I remember. And again, you know, I didn’t look back to see exactly what the times were. But if I think back, it was somewhere around 8:00 in the evening, when they actually landed on the moon, set foot on the moon. And then, of course, when they actually made the steps on the moon and planted the flag, and then the president’s phone call was much later. And I think it was just before midnight if I recall. But I remember being in there until well after midnight, because after the call was made, the president left, staff left, the reporters left and, you know, anything left in there was the equipment, the technicians, myself, and a couple of others from the White House Communications Agency.
And then it was a very quiet place. Reflecting back on the moment, after midnight, I did think to myself, “My goodness, I just observed the president of United States make a telephone call to the moon.” So, you know, I wasn’t lost myself on the incredible historical significance of the evening, but I must say, every event that I worked with the president is an incredibly important moment, regardless of what it is. And so, I was working and focused on that. But like I said, it was afterward, when I reflected back on the evening, yeah, I wasn’t lost on the fact that this was an incredible moment in history.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is David Noznesky, a career Secret Service agent, who witnessed President Nixon’s historic phone call to the moon from the Oval Office. David, thank you so much for joining us.
David Noznesky: Jonathan, thank you so much for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.