W. Joseph Campbell

Trump, Nixon, and the ‘secret plan’ media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2016 at 7:47 pm

The hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam has surfaced with some frequency in recent days as commentators across the political spectrum stretch for parallels between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the campaign Nixon ran in 1968.

These commentators — writing for such diverse sources as the New York Post, the National Interest, the Daily Beast, History News Network, among others — have referred to Nixon’s “secret plan” as if such a pledge figured in his run for the White House 48 years ago.

What 'secret plan'?

What ‘secret plan’?

It didn’t.

Nixon never said he had a secret plan.

This is a media myth that won’t die, partly because “secret plan” seems so Nixonian in duplicity and deceit. It is, like many media myths, almost too good to be false.

So of late, we’ve had the New York Post declaring flatly that Nixon in 1968 “ran against the Vietnam War by claiming he had a ‘secret plan’ to end it.” We’ve had the National Interest — in a commentary headlined, “Can Trump Follow Nixon to Victory?” — asserting that “Nixon said he had a ‘secret plan’ to end” the war.

We’ve had a political columnist writing in the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts that Nixon “said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam — a war that was tearing the country apart.”

And we’ve had the History News Network, which seeks to place “current events into historical perspective,” stating that “Richard Nixon won the presidency, mainly based on his ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War and his tough stance on law and order.”

What has encouraged those and other outsize references to Nixon’s “secret plan” has been Trump’s repeated if vague promise to wipe out ISIS, the radical Islamic terror organization that has seized portions of Syria and Iraq and has taken responsibility for murderous attacks in Europe and the United States. Trump, for example, declared in an interview that aired Sunday on 60 Minutes, “We’re going to declare war against ISIS. We have to wipe out ISIS.”
Trump offered few details on occasions he has spoken about ISIS — a vagueness that seemed redolent of candidate Nixon’s saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam.
But Nixon pointedly and publicly dismissed such a notion: In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

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

Now Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim wasn’t a feature of his campaign. That becomes quite 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.)

As I’ve noted several times at Media Myth Alert, if Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers certainly would have reported it.

The “secret plan” anecdote is likely derived from a speech Nixon made on March 5, 1968, in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which he declared that “new leadership” in Washington 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 account also 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.” Eisenhower was elected president that year.

A New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted the candidate 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 seeking to end the war.

A fine recent book about the tumultuous 1968 presidential election briefly takes up, and promptly dismisses, the “secret plan” claim.

The book, written by Michael A. Cohen and titled American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, says:

“Though it is often claimed that Nixon spoke of a ‘secret plan’ to end the war, he never uttered those words. Even suggesting that he had a plan would have been too much for Nixon.”

WJC

 

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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.”

WJC

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It would be mired in myth: Spielberg considering a ‘Cronkite Moment’ movie?

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on June 15, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Walter Cronkite was months behind media rivals in characterizing the war in Vietnam as a military “stalemate.” He shifted his views about the conflict well after public opinion had begun to turn against the war. And Cronkite’s reporting for CBS News at supposedly a crucial moment in 1968 was tepid and far less adamant than that of some competing news media.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Whether movie director Steven Spielberg is aware of those aspects of the back story to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 is not known.

But it may matter, given a report from Hollywood that Spielberg is contemplating a movie that effectively would embrace the myths that have grown up around the presumed effects of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.

Deadline Hollywood said yesterday at its online site that the Cronkite-movie project, while tentative, would “focus on Cronkite’s relationship with the Vietnam War and the role that America’s most trusted newsman played in turning public opinion against the increasingly un-winnable conflict. So influential was the CBS Evening News anchor that then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is believed to have remarked, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

If that’s even a rough outline of the prospective Spielberg project, the resulting movie would be steeped in media myth. Indeed, Deadline Hollywood’s descriptive paragraph quoted above incorporated no fewer than three myths, specifically about:

  • “Most trusted”: It was not until 1972 when Cronkite began to be called the “most trusted” newsman; even then, the characterization was the inspiration of the CBS advertising department and based on research that can only be described as flimsy.
  • Public opinion: Evidence is scant at best that Cronkite’s pronouncement about Vietnam in February 1968 had any effect in turning American public opinion against the war. Indeed, Cronkite was more follower than leader in the public’s shifting views about Vietnam.
  • The president’s reaction: There is no evidence that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or anything to that effect.

It is known that Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president then was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally who turned 51 that day.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was jesting about Connally’s age; he wasn’t lamenting the loss of an anchorman’s support. “Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson in the days and weeks following the Cronkite report was adamantly and publicly hawkish about the war, asserting in a speech in mid-March 1968, for example:

“Make no mistake about it. … We are going to win.”

What’s more, Cronkite said nothing in his report about the war that hadn’t been said previously by leading journalists. By early 1968, “stalemate” was an exceedingly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 2.41.21 PM

Months before the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In August 1967, for example, the New York Times published a lengthy analysis that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis also said:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here [in Saigon, capital of what was South Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

The Times, moreover, seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement by asserting in an editorial published February 8, 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s program:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

In his report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. “The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

Not stalemated. Lost.

And four days before Cronkite’s report, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Interestingly, Cronkite for years dismissed the notion his “mired in stalemate” commentary was of great consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying in 1999 on a CNN program:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Not until late in his life did Cronkite embrace the supposed impact of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun slipping months before the Cronkite report. The shift in opinions had become apparent by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

Slightly more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day that Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening of support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that summer and fall that year had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

WJC

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