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“Let’s look at the record”

The old saying, “An error gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on,” is especially relevant in the age of the internet and social media.

Richard Nixon is often the subject of such errors – some deliberate, some inadvertent, but all in need of correction to advance historical accuracy and understanding.

When confronted with such errors himself, Mr. Nixon himself would often begin his reply by saying, “Let’s look at the record,” and that’s what this page is all about.

When we find any RN-related errors that appear in print, over the air, or in cyberspace, we will “look at the record” and set the record straight.

We invite you, if you find something that needs correcting, to let us know so we can include it on this page.


June 21, 2017

In an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer-winning biographer Kai Bird uncritically accepts John A. Farrell’s interpretation of handwritten notes by H. R. Haldeman of a conversation with presidential candidate Richard Nixon on the night of October 22nd 1968.

Mr. Bird writes:

Democrats in particular have painful memories of the 1968 “October surprise,” in which Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon passed messages to the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, telling him to stall on the peace talks. Nixon always denied the allegation. But we now know from the private diary of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, recently discovered by the presidential historian John Farrell, that Nixon was lying.

Mr. Farrell, strictly speaking, is not a presidential historian; he is a former journalist whose books before Richard Nixon: The Life were a biography of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and of attorney Clarence Darrow. The Haldeman notes were not from a private diary (he did, in fact, keep a private diary) but typical of the notes Mr. Haldeman made on yellow pads of meetings he had with Nixon — both as candidate and as president.

In his op-ed, Mr. Bird provides a link to a New York Times article by Peter Baker about Mr. Farrell’s interpretation of the Haldeman notes. In that article Mr. Baker made the point that some historians agree with Mr. Farrell’s interpretation, but others don’t. He wrote:

Still, as tantalizing as they are, the notes do not reveal what, if anything, Mr. Haldeman actually did with the instruction, and it is unclear that the South Vietnamese needed to be told to resist joining peace talks that they considered disadvantageous already.

Moreover, it cannot be said definitively whether a peace deal could have been reached without Nixon’s intervention or that it would have helped Mr. Humphrey. William P. Bundy, a foreign affairs adviser to Johnson and John F. Kennedy who was highly critical of Nixon, nonetheless concluded that prospects for the peace deal were slim anyway, so “probably no great chance was lost.”

Luke A. Nichter, a scholar at Texas A&M University and one of the foremost students of the Nixon White House secret tape recordings, said he liked more of Mr. Farrell’s book than not, but disagreed with the conclusions about Mr. Haldeman’s notes. In his view, they do not prove anything new and are too thin to draw larger conclusions.

The Nixon Foundation has posted a different interpretation of the Haldeman notes that takes into account their textual context and the specific circumstances in which the phone call took place. The Foundation’s post is here: “Misunderstanding a Monkey Wrench.”

Of course, Mr. Bird, like Mr. Farrell, is entitled to his interpretation of the Haldeman notes. But it is disappointing that a writer and biographer of Mr. Bird’s rigor and stature did not inform his readers that there is disagreement among historians about the significance of Mr. Farrell’s discovery, and what it actually means; and that there is an at least equally plausible interpretation.


 

“We were furious about the past presidential election of a man [Nixon] whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment for obstruction of justice…”

Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College Commencement, May, 26, 2017


THE RECORD:

President Nixon was not impeached. Only two Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998.


 

“More young men were killed in Vietnam post-Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969 than had died in the war prior to 1969. It’s very troubling.”

Mike Barnicle, Morning Joe, MSNBC, March 28, 2017


THE RECORD:

American lives lost during the Vietnam War are as follows:

1956 to 1968:   36,956

1969 to 1973:   21,195

In fact, more Americans died in Vietnam during just the last two years of the Johnson administration than during the entire 5 ½ years of the Nixon administration.

[SOURCE: National Archives and Records Administration https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html]  


March 23, 2016

The comments being attributed to John Ehrlichman in recent news coverage about the Nixon administration’s efforts to combat the drug crisis of the 1960’s and 70’s reflect neither our memory of John nor the administration’s approach to that problem. We are not aware of any statements or writings by John, other than those being attributed to him now more than two decades after they were allegedly made (and seventeen years following his passing), that suggest he believed there were ulterior motives for the administration’s efforts to deal with the heroin epidemic. He was, however, known for using biting sarcasm to dismiss those with whom he disagreed, and it is possible the reporter misread his tone. Some of us worked with John and knew him well. John never uttered a word or sentiment that suggested he or the President were “anti-black.”

Most importantly, the statements do not reflect the facts and history of President Nixon’s approach to the drug problems. As reflected in the narratives written by several reputable historians, President Nixon initiated a very comprehensive approach. Immediately after Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act reducing the severity of penalties for cannabis and reorganizing the agencies responsible for enforcing drug laws, John Ehrlichman gave White House staffer Jeff Donfeld a mandate to design programs that would coordinate and centralize non-law enforcement federal programs in the fields of drug abuse education and treatment, including the creation of multi-modality treatment programs that offered therapeutic communities and methadone maintenance for heroin addicts, and programs that would divert addicts out of the criminal justice system into treatment programs.

The result was President Nixon’s creation in June 1971 of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention to coordinate a major effort to increase the availability of treatment and Federal investment in treatment, prevention, and research. The 1971 to 1974 Federal budgets for these efforts were two-to three-fold higher than the budgets for all of Federal law enforcement.

Treatment in communities throughout the country (including methadone maintenance treatment which has been adopted by more than 35 countries throughout the world); treatment in virtually every Veterans Administration Hospital; a well funded National Institute on Drug Abuse; and programs that attempt to divert arrestees into treatment are among the direct results of the efforts of the Nixon administration. These are the achievements that are more properly seen as its legacy.

Jeffrey Donfeld, White House Domestic Council Staff Assistant to the President 1969-1971; Assistant Director, White House Special Action Office for Drug abuse Prevention, 1971-1973

Jerome H. Jaffe, M.D., Director, White House Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention and Special Consultant to the President for Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, 1971-1973

Robert DuPont, M.D, Administrator, District of Columbia Narcotics Treatment Administration, 1970-1973; Director of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention 1973 to 1975 and First Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1973 to 1978.


October 22, 2015

Bob Woodward’s charge in his new book The Last of the President’s Men that President Nixon knew that the bombing of Laos and North Vietnam in the early 1970s “was not working” and “defended and intensified it in order to advance his re-election prospects” is based purely on conjecture, and is contradicted by the results of the administration’s military campaigns in Southeast Asia.

Woodward’s research is sourced from files illegally seized from the White House by then aide Alexander Butterfield, who oversaw scheduling and the taping system for the president.

Woodward cites a top secret January 1972 memo from then National Security advisor Henry Kissinger to Nixon, describing artillery attacks against the Long Tieng military base in Laos, and the limited ability of U.S. pilots to inflict damage on Communist forces.

Nixon’s hand written notes are scribbled across the page: “K. [Kissinger] We had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V. Nam. The result = Zilch,” wrote Nixon. “There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force. I want a ‘bark-off’ study – no snow job – on my desk in 2 weeks as to what the reason or failure is.”

On the previous day, in an hour-long White House special with CBS correspondent Dan Rather, Nixon called the results of the bombing, “very, very effective.”
In fact, they were.

A 1971 memo from the National Security Council described the operation in Laos as creating significant problems for Hanoi:

It disrupted the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex, physically blocking various branches of the trail. South Vietnamese forces found or destroyed, or called in U.S. air power to destroy, some 4900 weapons, 1900 crew served weapons and thousands of tons of ammunition and other supplies. This was in addition to the vast quantity of supplies, ammunition and equipment which was consumed by the North Vietnamese in Laos instead of continuing down the trail to be used in South Vietnam or Cambodia. Moreover, when the North Vietnamese were obliged to engage AVRN forces in a fixed battle position, their units massed and became targets for concentrated Vietnamese firepower and U.S. air power which destroyed over 100 tanks and many artillery pieces. Some 300 enemy trucks were destroyed directly in the operation and 4300 more were destroyed by air interdiction while the operations were in progress. Finally, because North Vietnamese logistics units were engaged in the fighting and were badly damaged, their resiliency in restoring the flow of supplies southward has been degraded. An estimated 3500 enemy rear service personnel vital to the operation of the trail logistics system were killed.

Nixon’s concern was that U.S. forces were constrained by the rules of engagement against Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile sites (SAMs). American pilots could target missile sites only when their aircraft came under fire.

In a February 2, 1972 meeting with Kissinger and Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker recorded on the White House taping system, Nixon told Bunker that he’d like to “expand the definition of protective reaction to mean preventative reaction” on SAM sites, and advocated doubling the deployment of B-52s, each of which can carry over one hundred bombs.

“Get them the hell over there, right now,” President Nixon said. “Let’s have an awesome show of strength.”

Two days later, the White House directed the Secretary of Defense to add an additional aircraft carriers to the three available for military operations in South East Asia, deploy additional B-52s and fighter squadrons, and remove all restrictions for B-52 and tactical air missions “as soon as the enemy offensive commences.”
The offensive came on March 30, when North Vietnamese forces crossed the DMZ and pushed an estimated 120,000 troops deep into South Vietnamese territory.
Nixon would also often express his frustration over what he felt was the Pentagon’s lack of urgency. He believed they could do better.

In an April 3 meeting with Kissinger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Thomas Moorer, Nixon complained that “Defense, in its usual way is temporizing a situation which is serious (Nixon expressed similar frustration a year later when the Pentagon delayed arms shipments to Israel in the October 1973 War).”
“It’s got to be an effective job,” Nixon told Moorer. “If they can’t do an adequate job there’s no reason to go over Vietnam.”

Ultimately on May 8, Nixon announced he would authorize the bombing of high value targets in Hanoi, and mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Not only did this move risk public opinion, just as the decision to bomb Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos earlier in his administration, it also jeopardized recently forged relations with China and the upcoming summit with the Soviet Union on the reduction of nuclear arms.

“In effect we have crossed the Rubicon and now we must win,” Nixon wrote to Kissinger still very unsatisfied with Pentagon thinking on air strategy, “…. not just a temporary respite from this battle, but if possible, tip the balance in favor of the South Vietnamese for battles to come when we no longer will be able to help them with major air strikes.”

Sen. Ted Kennedy said the mining was a “futile military gesture taken in desperation.” Neither was the news media supportive of the effort. The St. Louis Dispatch went as far to editorialize that the nation would not support the president because “in this case, the cause of war isn’t one of honor but of dishonor.”
In short, Nixon, acting against the tide of public pressures, was in it to win.

In a memo from Kissinger to Nixon, the National Security advisor appraised the measures, writing that they had “produced positive results in North Vietnam, South East Asia, and in other parts of the world:”

Since our new actions have no doubt convinced Hanoi that we are unpredictable and capable of anything, it probably does not rule out some kind of limited invasion of North Vietnam itself. This could tie down enemy forces that might be otherwise committed to battle. For example, so far, we have detected only one regiment of the 325th Division in northern MR-1 and two (rather battered) regiments of the 312th Division have pulled back to North Vietnam from northern Laos; moreover additional scarce manpower and resources have to be devoted to strengthening local defense and militia units. Were there no air threat to North Vietnam, more anti-aircraft assets could be deployed to South Vietnam. Just prior to Vietnam, these were to protect LOC’s in this area and might later have been used in direct support of ground troops in MR-1 had we not resumed large-scale operations over the North. Most of these assets have now been pulled back to the North.

By August 1972, after a three year stalemate, the North Vietnamese was finally ready to discuss a settlement. After the election and a period of continued bombing in December, an agreement was reached in January 1973 in Paris, establishing a cease-fire and guaranteeing the return of American Prisoners of War.

Contrary to Woodward’s assertions, it was the subsequent lack of American air power – restricted by the U.S. Congress – that guaranteed the demise of the South Vietnamese, and victory for Communist forces backed by their patrons in Moscow.