Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI: The Assault on Freedom of Expression

J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924-1972

Former President Richard Nixon

Listening in on a Nixon/Hoover Telephone Call

I have written a number of articles here about the issue of the freedom of expression in America, including pieces about Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950’s, The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial (1969-70), and The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This article is a continuation of my postings on the issue of freedom of expression. It begins with an audio clip and transcript of a seven-minute telephone conversation between Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The conversation was posted to the Web last week by the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. According to the program’s Ken Hughes, the National Archives originally made this conversation available to the public in October 1999, but Hughes believes this is the first time the sound-clip and its transcript have been published together.

The sound-clip/transcript of this conversation is followed, then, by a look at the context in which this conversation occurred, namely Nixon’s fury about the publication of what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that had been prepared in the Pentagon. It is within this context that the sound-clip can be seen as part of a wider assault upon the freedom of expression in American by Nixon and Hoover’s FBI.

Readers can listen to the Nixon/Hoover telephone conversation here.

The Pentagon Papers

It was June 13, 1971, when The New York Times began publishing long articles on, and excerpts from, what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers: a secret history of the Vietnam War, prepared in the Pentagon. The Pentagon Papers is the popular term for a 7,000-page top-secret United States government report on the internal planning and policy decisions within the U.S. government regarding the Vietnam War. The documents gained fame when they were leaked and published in The New York Times in early 1971 by former State Department official Daniel Ellsberg. President Nixon picked up his Sunday, June 13th copy of The New York Times and saw the wedding picture of his daughter Tricia and himself in the Rose Garden, leading the left-hand side of the front page. Next to that picture, on the right, was the headline over Neil Sheehan’s first story on the Pentagon Papers, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” The uproar occasioned by the publication is dim and distant now. Even among those who remember it, many probably think the whole episode did not matter much in the end. But it mattered a lot.

The Papers revealed that the United States government deliberately expanded its role in the war with air strikes against Laos, raids off the coast of North Vietnam, and U.S. Marine Corps attacks before the American public was told of them, while at the same time President Lyndon B. Johnson was promising not to expand the war. The publication of this previously secret document widened the credibility gap between the U.S. government and the American people, hurting the Nixon administration’s war effort.

One of the “credibility gaps” that The New York Times wrote about was that a consensus to bomb North Vietnam had developed in the Johnson administration on September 7, 1964, before the U.S. presidential elections. However, according to the “Pentagon Papers,” none of the actions recommended by the consensus on September 7 involved bombing North Vietnam. On June 14, 1971 the Times declared that the Johnson administration had in fact begun the last rounds of planning for a bombing campaign in November.

Another controversial issue was the implication by the Times that Johnson had made up his mind to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam by July 17, 1965 and this became the basis for an allegation that he only pretended to consult his advisors from July 21–27. This was due to the presence of a cable which stated that “[Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus] Vance informs McNamara that President has approved 34 Battalion Plan and will try to push through reserve call-up.” When the cable was declassified in 1988, it was revealed that it read “there was a continuing uncertainty as to [Johnson’s] final decision, which would have to await Secretary McNamara’s recommendation and the views of Congressional leaders, particularly the views of Senator [Richard] Russell.”

Presidential power was one thing affected by the publication and the controversy that followed. President Nixon saw what the The New York Times and then other newspapers did as a challenge to his authority. In an affidavit in 1975 he said that the “Pentagon Papers” were “no skin off my back,”because they stopped their history in 1968, before he took office. But, he said, “the way I saw it was that far more important than who the Pentagon Papers reflected on, as to how we got into Vietnam, was the office of the Presidency of the United States….

Therefore, Nixon ordered his lawyers to go to court to stop the Times from continuing to publish its Pentagon Papers series. On Monday evening, June 14, Attorney General John Mitchell warned the Times via phone and telegram against further publication. On Tuesday June 15, the government sought and won an restraining order against the Times, an injunction that was subsequently extended to the Washington Post when that paper picked up the cause. The epic legal battle that followed culminated on June 30, 1971 in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to lift the prior restraints, arguably the most important Supreme Court case ever on freedom of the press.

Then, angry because J. Edgar Hoover seemed less than enthusiastic about acting against possible sources of the leaked documents, especially Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon created the White House unit known as “The Plumbers.” They arranged for a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to get his records. They also discussed, but did not carry out, the idea of fire-bombing the Brookings Institution in Washington and sending in agents dressed as firemen to look for connections to the leak. The lawlessness of “The Plumbers,” and the presidential state of mind that their actions reflected, led to Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in 1974. One lesson of those years was seen to be that presidents are not above the law.

Public disclosure of “The Pentagon Papers” challenged the core of a president’s power: his role in foreign and national security affairs. Throughout the cold war, and well into the Vietnam era, virtually all of the public had been content to let the presidents of both parties make that policy on their own. However, as the Vietnam War ground on, cruelly and fruitlessly, dissent became significant. “The Pentagon Papers” showed Americans that all along there had been dissent within the government itself. Publication of “The Pentagon Papers” broke a kind of spell in this country, the idea that the people and the government had to always be in consensus on all the major foreign policy issues.

Placing “The Pentagon Papers” into the Public Record

When the Justice Department had initially succeeded in obtaining injunctions halting further publication of these stories, there was doubt as to whether the newspapers would be allowed to continue publication of their stories. On the evening of June 29, 1971, in the face of this doubt, United States Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska attempted to read the collection of “The Pentagon Papers,” which he had furtively been able to obtain, on the floor of the Senate. However, his efforts were frustrated by a parliamentary maneuver which prevented him from gaining access to the Senate floor.

In response, Gravel created his own maneuver to make the papers public. As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Senator Gravel immediately convened a hearing, allegedly to receive testimony from Congressman John Dow of New York on the war-related lack of funds to meet our nation’s needs for public buildings. As his opening remarks to the hearing, and during the course of the evening, Senator Gravel read part of the Pentagon Papers into the record. The remaining portions of the Papers were incorporated into the record of the subcommittee and then were released to the press.

The government managed to prevent most publishing houses from printing the Papers. MIT press backed away, as did Houghton-Mifflin. Systematic harassment and intimidation tactics were brought by the government upon the Universalist Unitarian Association and its Beacon Press in an attempt to stop publication of the controversial “Pentagon Papers.” Nevertheless, Beacon Press went ahead with publication of the Papers

Publication of “The Pentagon Papers” by Beacon Press

Mike Gravel: Placing “The Pentagon Papers” in the Public Record

Today, however, we are again confronted by similar issues with regard to the war in Iraq. One high-ranking military official has referred to the actions of the Bush administration and The Department of Defense as The New Pentagon Papers.

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