With Telefrog’s post, I realized I’d not updated this thread. Sheesh. We’re at the anniversary of the end of Phase 2 of this thing…
Lemme finish with the Pentagon Papers realquick.
The Sunday Papers
June 13, 1971 should’ve been a pretty good day for Richard Nixon. His daughter Tricia was married in a lavish White House wedding the day before, and it got fawning coverage across all major media. And so the president woke up that morning and turned pretty quickly to the New York Times over breakfast. On one half of the front page was coverage of the wedding.
On the other half was the first installment the Times would publish of the Pentagon Papers – the RAND analysis of Vietnam that Ellsberg had been shopping around to find someone to publicize for him.
If you’re thinking Nixon went into a rage upon reading the Pentagon Papers excerpt, you’d be wrong. Nixon had been given that report when he’d assumed office, and had staffers read the multi-volume report from end to end. The name “Richard Nixon” doesn’t appear even once in the papers. In fact, much of the RAND analysis was given over to brutal critiques of how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – with the help of a sympathetic Democratic majority in both the House and Senate – had led America into this foreign policy disaster and the multiple lies that were told to the American voters to keep the war effort subsidized.
So yeah, Nixon was actually sort of bemused by the Papers. And later that morning in talking to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, both advisors noted that this sure seemed like a mess for someone…but not them. “Let this one go by,” Ehrlichman told Nixon. And Nixon was inclined to do just that, even though the idea of a leak like this chafed at him.
But then came a call from Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was apoplectic. He screamed and yelled on the phone about the betrayal of this leak, and how damaging it was for the US. In an executive office meeting that early afternoon, Kissinger went into another rage, pounding on a desk so hard that it nearly bounced someone’s coffee cup off.
Kissinger’s outrage was probably extremely performative. He knew something about the Pentagon Papers that perhaps no one else did at the time: he knew exactly who had leaked them. He had heard that Daniel Ellsberg had been trying to find someone within the government to whistleblow using the papers with. But moreover, he knew Ellsberg personally – the RAND analyst had been something of a protege of Kissinger’s in the mid-1960s. He was one of “Henry’s Boys”.
And for Kissinger, it cannot be stated strongly enough that this was bad. As a German-Jewish immigrant seeking the approval of an anti-semite boss in the White House, Kissinger constantly fretted over losing access and losing his position. Kissinger knew that once Ellsberg was found out (which was inevitable), someone would make the connection to his work under Kissinger and unless ol’ Heinz got out in front of that and fully disowned Ellsberg before the fact, Nixon was likely to wonder about the loyalty of his National Security Advisor. (Nixon was an absolute piece of shit antisemitic asshole, it should be noted. He was constantly questioning the loyalty of anyone in government service of Jewish heritage. In fact, when he learned the leaker of the Pentagon Papers was a guy named “Daniel Ellsberg”, he flew into a raging, bigoted rant about Jews in government…despite the fact that Ellsberg had been raised in the Christian Science faith.)
At any rate, Kissinger knew which buttons to push on Nixon, and it didn’t take long for Nixon to join Kissinger in a foaming rage. By the time the meeting ended, everyone had their marching orders – stop the Times from continuing to publish the Papers. Get the leaker and arrest him and throw him in jail immediately. And most importantly crack down HARD on any future ideas other leakers might have.
That Sunday marked a turning point in the Nixon presidency. It’s possible that they could’ve played off the Pentagon Papers and leveraged it against Democrats running for re-election to the Senate and House in 1972.
But in choosing to go after the Times (and forcing a decision that went against the White House in the Supreme Court), the story went from a possible terrible one for Democrats, to a terrible one for the Nixon White House. And Nixon blamed that outcome on the leaker as well.
Which led to the formation of the secret task force in the White House known as The Plumbers. Initial job: seek out leakers and stop them cold. But when G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt joined the group, things changed.