Nixon's 'Secret Plan' That Never Was

As more and more of the Nixon tapes are brought to light - underscoring what a suspicious, vengeful, plotting turn of mind the man possessed - I'm reminded of presidential candidate Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to get the United States out of the Vietnam War if elected in 1968.

It was at a private session with a half-dozen surprised and skeptical editors in the spring of his campaign that Nixon unveiled his get-out-of-the-war plan. Among these Midwest editors were those who had watched Mr. Nixon closely during the cold-war years. They viewed him as a basically hard-line communist-hater who, as president, could be counted on to take a "you can't trust the communists" line.

Two-part strategy

They could hardly believe their ears, therefore, when Nixon said that, upon becoming president, he would (1) arrange a summit meeting with the Soviet leaders to gain their help in ending the Vietnam War, and (2) seek to "de-Americanize" the Vietnam conflict. About the latter, an editor told me that Nixon clearly was indicating he had a plan to phase out US troop involvement in the war.

We know now, of course, that there never was a summit with the Soviets. Nor was any plan to "de-Americanize" the war a visible part of Nixon's approach to that conflict after he became president.

Indeed, in speeches and statements, Nixon continued to give the "hawks" in this country reason to believe he would carry on the war - perhaps even, as they hoped, stepping up our involvement. Not surprisingly, they fully backed him.

And yet here was Nixon, appearing to share with these Midwest editors a plan to get out of the war. I later heard that he continued to talk along this same line in "background" sessions with other liberal-minded editors during the months before the election. Behind the scenes, he was reaching out to the "doves."

My memory of this was jogged recently at a Monitor lunch, where Nixon's defense adviser in the '68 campaign, Melvin Laird, said flatly of a Nixon pre-election intention to gradually pull US troops out of the war: "He had no such plan."

Mr. Laird, who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee back then and later was Nixon's secretary of defense, told us that the only Vietnam phase-down plan he knew about was one that was "being developed in the Pentagon." He said Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey heard about it and rejected the idea. "I think that Humphrey would have won if he had accepted and run with that plan," Laird said.

Seeking the 'dove' votes

So what was Nixon up to with these "private" end-the-war disclosures? I think he was merely seeking to mute or tone down criticism of his candidacy among dovish-minded editors. And it was from these "off the record" briefings that a story began to circulate among those who wanted the US out of the war: that Nixon had a "secret plan" to bring the boys home. He doubtless was able to win some dove votes from those who felt Humphrey had been too closely tied to President Johnson's acceleration of the war.

The "secret plan" story got around and was a factor in the election. But it simply wasn't true. Nixon had been "playing a little politics." It was a good example of the devious, crafty Nixon at his best - or, more aptly, at his worst.

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