In reaching for historical context to assess President Barack Obama’s war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, a columnist for the Washington Examiner summoned a hoary media myth — that of Richard Nixon’s putative “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.
“Obama wasn’t the first president to promise peace and deliver war,” Timothy P. Carney wrote in his column posted today. “Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on keeping America out of the Great War. Nixon promised a secret plan to exit Vietnam quickly.”
Missing from Carney’s discussion were details about when Nixon made such a promise, and what the “secret plan” entailed.
Those elements are missing because Nixon never promised a “secret plan” on Vietnam.
Even so, the chestnut still circulates as purported evidence of Nixon’s guile, shiftiness, and venality. It dates to the presidential primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon vowed that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.
In reporting on the speech, the wire service United Press International pointed out that Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch also noted that “Nixon’s promise evoked 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 those remarks about Vietnam but he made no claim to possess a “secret plan” to end the war. Nor did he campaign for the presidency saying he had one.
That he did not is clear in a search of 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 from January 1967 to January 1969 that Nixon quoted as touting or promising a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)
Surely, had Nixon run for president saying he had “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers in 1968 would have noted it.
Nixon was asked about having a secret plan, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times. He replied 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 if so, he did not discuss it openly. And he certainly did not make it a campaign promise.
Like many other media myths, the “secret plan” anecdote is a dubious bit of popular history that can be too delicious 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.”
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