The mythical tale that Richard M. Nixon ran for president in 1968 touting a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War is a dubious bit of political lore that has proven quite resistant to debunking. William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once called the “secret plan” chestnut a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”
What intrigued Media Myth Alert was this passage:
“Candidate Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam but never said what it was.”
It’s a claim that Nixon never made — a claim he even tried to knock down.
But it lives on, irresistibly, as presumptive evidence of Nixon’s fecklessness and his scheming ways.
The tale’s derivation can be traced to March 5, 1968 and a speech in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which Nixon said that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, that is — would “end the war” in Vietnam.
The wire service United Press International noted in reporting Nixon’s remarks 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 the candidate as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. He said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief, follow-on report that day in the Times quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in ending the war.
Nixon may have been vague in describing his ideas about Vietnam.
But clearly he was not touting a “secret plan.”
That he wasn’t is underscored by 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 all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)
Surely, had Nixon promised or campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, the country’s leading newspapers would have picked up on it.
Moreover, an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times reported that Nixon addressed the notion, saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.
Nixon further stated:
“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 make such a claim a feature of his campaign that year.
Nixon’s political foes, however, tried to pin the “secret plan” calumny on him. For example, supporters of Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey took out a large 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 about exactly when or where Nixon had made such a statement. And it carried the headline, “Trust Humphrey.”
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