Nixon’s mythical pledge was invoked the other day by John Cullerton, president of the Illinois senate, who taunted the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bruce Rauner, for not directly addressing how his administration would cover the state’s multibillion budget deficit.
“It’s like,” Cullerton said, “Richard Nixon: ‘I have a secret plan to get out of Vietnam, just after the election.'” His comment was aired in a report on WUIS radio in Springfield, Illinois.
Media Myth Alert is only faintly interested in the intricacies of Illinois state politics. But it does find Cullerton’s snarky quip intriguing, as it suggests a casual, almost-reflexive embrace of a claim that rather sounds Nixonian but really wasn’t.
The “secret plan” chestnut, which circulates periodically as purported evidence of Nixon’s venality and sneaky ways, dates to the presidential election campaign in 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged 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 Nixon’s speech, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch further noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”
Nixon may have been vague in his remarks about Vietnam, but he made no claim to possess a “secret plan” to end the war. He did not run for the presidency by proclaiming one. That much is quite clear in searching a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period of January 1967 to January 1969 in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)
Surely, had Nixon been touting a “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers would have reported it.
According to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon addressed that notion, stating that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.
He also said on that occasion:
“If I had any way to end the war, 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 campaign for the presidency that year saying he did.
In the end, the “secret plan” anecdote is a dubious bit of popular history that can be too tempting to resist. It is, as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, once wrote, a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”
Had Cullerton been inclined to research the anecdote before so blithely invoking it, he might have turned to the back issues of the largest newspaper in his district, the Chicago Tribune. In September 1972, in the midst of Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Tribune observed in an editorial that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern “has repeatedly attacked President Nixon for saying in 1968 that he had ‘a secret plan to end the war.’ … Such quotes from the past would make wonderful political weapons if they were true.
“The trouble is they are not. Mr. Nixon never uttered the phrase.”
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