W. Joseph Campbell

The campaign pledge Nixon never made

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on July 10, 2016 at 9:31 am

When it comes to cynical campaign pledges, few top Richard Nixon’s assertion that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, a plan he wouldn’t reveal while running for president in 1968.

Nixon 1968

What ‘secret plan’?

It’s a great story, quintessentially Nixon in its deceit and duplicity.

But it’s a claim Nixon never made.

Like many other media-driven myths, it’s a tale almost too good, and too delicious, to resist. (William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, periodically called attention to the “secret plan” myth, once observing: “Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the [Nixon] non-quotation never seems to go away ….”)

Most recently, the bogus anecdote found its way into a USA Today article about campaign promises presidential candidates failed to keep.

The article, which was re-posted yesterday at the Web site of a New Orleans television station, declared, flatly:

“Richard Nixon, campaigning in 1968, claimed he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War.”

No source or citation was offered.

Nixon never touted a “secret plan” to end the war. In fact, he pointedly and publicly disavowed such a notion. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not make such a claim a feature of his campaign that year. That much is clear in reviewing the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

If Nixon had claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers surely would have publicized it.

It is clear that Nixon’s  foes tried to foist the “secret plan” calumny on him. For example, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey took out a display advertisement in the New York Times on October 23, 1968; the ad included this statement: “Last March he said he had a secret plan to end the war.”

The ad included no reference to exactly when or where Nixon had made such a statement. And it carried the headline, “Trust Humphrey.”

The derivation of the “secret plan” anecdote can be traced to March 5, 1968, and a speech in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which Nixon declared that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting on Nixon’s remarks, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch also said “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.” Eisenhower was elected president that year.

The New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted him as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. Nixon also said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief, follow-on report published in the Times that day quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in ending the war.

But Nixon wasn’t inclined to say much specifically about Vietnam. Michael A. Cohen writes in American Maelstrom, a recently published book about political upheaval in America in 1968:

“Nixon knew he had little to gain by talking about Vietnam. Doing so would give his opponents the ammunition with which to attack him; not doing so allowed potential supporters to believe whatever they wanted about his intentions. And if elected president he would enter office with no embarrassing campaign pronouncements to explain away.”


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