Richard Nixon’s political career seemed to be dead after he lost two big elections, but he discovered a way to resurrect it: a harsh attack on LBJ’s war policy.
In the early 1960s, after serving as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years, Richard Nixon saw his political fortunes tumble. He lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for governor of California. The next year Nixon moved to New York to practice law, his dreams of the presidency apparently dashed forever. “The Republican establishment had never taken to him,” says Patrick Buchanan, a close Nixon aide, in his book The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority. After Nixon moved to New York in 1963, he entered what he called his “wilderness years.” Buchanan, who joined Nixon’s campaign staff as a political aide in December 1965, says: “My first impression was that Nixon was bored to death with corporate law. ‘If I had to practice law the rest of my life,’ he told me, ‘I would be mentally dead in two years and physically dead in four.’”
Buchanan worked with Nixon in the fall of 1966 during the midterm congressional elections to assist him in framing the issues and writing about them. Nixon knew that his campaign appearances on behalf of Republican candidates were unlikely to be a decisive factor in their races, but he could do three things for them that would benefit himself later: Bring out a crowd, raise money and attract press.
In this excerpt from The Greatest Comeback, Buchanan describes how that strategy paid off for Nixon in early November when Nixon took a swing at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy in Vietnam—four days before the election.
In the comeback of Richard Nixon, the critical year was 1966, the crucial day Friday, November 4. That morning a Nixon statement critical of Johnson’s recently announced criteria for troop withdrawal appeared in The New York Times. Johnson saw it and in a press conference that morning launched into a tirade unprecedented in presidential lore. “It was,” wrote journalist Jules Witco “the most brutal verbal bludgeoning ever administered from the White House by Johnson, or any other president for that matter, to a leader of the opposition party.”
The roots of Nixon’s strike on Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, and LBJ’s enraged response, went back weeks. In September the White House had announced that Johnson would meet in late October with President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam in Manila, Philippines. Noting the proximity of the meeting to the midterm elections, Nixon asked whether this was a “quest for peace or a quest for votes,” and stayed on the offensive: “There have been many firsts in the Johnson Administration, but this is the first time a president may have figured the best way to help his party is to leave the country.”
In mid-October in Wilmington, Delaware, Johnson blundered. A Republican victory this fall, said the president, “could cause the nation to falter and fall back and fail in Vietnam.” As Republicans were providing the president with more unified support on Vietnam than his own party, this was unjust. Nixon issued a statement the next morning calling Johnson’s remarks “a vicious, unwarranted and partisan assault upon a Republican Party that has given President Johnson the support for the war that his own party has denied him. With his insensitive attack, President Johnson has gravely jeopardized the bipartisan backing he should have when he goes to Manila.” Nixon demanded the president “apologize to the Republican Party for the irresponsible charge.”
Nixon was clearly benefiting from these exchanges. As the leading Republican campaigning nationally, he was able both to engage Johnson on his home turf, foreign policy, and to convert the ’66 campaign into a Nixon-Johnson race. By urging Johnson not to weaken, Nixon was also rallying conservatives and hawks to his side. And by pointing out that on his foreign trips he had defended U.S. policy in Vietnam, Nixon showed himself as more statesmanlike than members of the president’s party who were walking away from him and the war.
On October 24 and 25, Johnson met in Manila with presidents and prime ministers of the Philippines, South Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. On the 25th all signed a “Declaration of Goals and Freedom,” and Johnson flew on to Seoul and to Saigon, where he told the troops at Cam Ranh Bay to “bring back that coonskin on the wall.”
Nixon was in Portland, Oregon, at the Benson Hotel. Late that afternoon, an excited Pat Hillings, a Nixon aide, came to tell me that word was out that Johnson press secretary Bill Moyers in Manila had informed the press corps that, after his Asia tour, Johnson would return to barnstorm the nation, campaigning across a dozen states for Democratic candidates. I rushed to Nixon’s suite and told him, as he was about to leave for a rally with our Oregon candidates, including Tom McCall, who was running for governor, and Gov. Mark Hatfield, who was running for the Senate.
When Nixon returned from his Portland event he was agitated and depressed. If Johnson campaigns all out in the last week of the election, he told me, it will cost us. Our gains could be cut, perhaps as far back as 12 seats. We would win nothing like the 40 Nixon had been predicting.
Around midnight he called me back to his room. He had a solution. He would take the president on directly—on Vietnam. He began rapidly dictating ideas for a major policy address on the war. I scribbled a dozen pages and went on to Boise, Idaho, to write a speech.
By the time Nixon arrived in Boise, I had a completed draft. For a week we worked that speech until we had turned it into a statement, then into what I called “The Manila Questions.”
In the Manila communiqué Johnson had declared that all U.S. and allied forces “shall be withdrawn…as the other side withdraws its forces to the North, ceases its infiltration, and the level of violence thus subsides. Those forces will be withdrawn as soon as possible and not later than six months after the above conditions have been fulfilled.”
Johnson was signaling Hanoi that if it pulled its troops back and the Viet Cong temporarily stood down, we would pull all U.S. forces out of Vietnam in “not later than six months.” This told the enemy how to bring about the removal of all U.S. forces and gain a free hand in going after Saigon. It was a formula for defeat and the loss of South Vietnam. In his presidential The Vantage Point, Johnson concedes that he included the timeline to be “specific” on what we required before getting out. The request that he be more specific had come from Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister. On October 10 at the White House, Gromyko had complained that previous U.S. statements on what it would take to get us out of Vietnam had been “very general.” LBJ had corrected that in Manila.
And I had caught this astonishing concession. In “Appraisal of Manila” Nixon said Johnson “states clearly that if North Vietnam withdraws its forces back across its border and the violence thus subsides we shall withdraw all American forces out of Vietnam, most of them 10,000 miles back to the United States. The effect of this mutual withdrawal would be to leave the fate of South Vietnam to the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese Army….[It] simply turns back the clock two years and says, ‘Let the South Vietnamese fight it out with the Vietcong.’ The South Vietnamese Army could not prevail for any length of time over the Communist guerrillas without American advisers, air support and logistical backing. Communist victory would most certainly be the result of ‘mutual withdrawal’ if the North Vietnamese continued their own logistical support of the Communist guerrillas.”
Tying allied military action to the scope of enemy action, Nixon’s statement went on, “implies that a diminishing of the Communist military effort will bring a corresponding reduction in the allied effort. If this implication is accurate, then we have offered to surrender a decisive military advantage at the Manila Conference. We have offered to leave it to Communist generals to determine the timing and intensity of the war….I know of no successful military effort that ever keyed its own intensity simply to match that of the aggressor—thus deliberately surrendering to the aggressors the initiative for major offensives.”
After that passage, we quoted Ike. Then Nixon rammed the sword home: “Communist victory would most certainly be the result of ‘mutual withdrawal’ if the North Vietnamese continued their own logistical support of the Communist guerrillas.”
I converted the points we sought to make into a series of direct questions that carried the clear implication that Johnson’s war policy, outlined in his Manila communiqué, should the terms be accepted by Hanoi and the Viet Cong, pointed to an early abandonment and almost certain loss of South Vietnam to communism, a strategic disaster for the United States.
The Times ran the text in full, accompanied by a front-page story. It went right down the smokestack.
On the Friday morning that “Appraisal of Manila” appeared in the New Hampshire. Taping an interview at New York’s Times, we were headed for Maine and LaGuardia Airport with CBS News reporter Mike Wallace, Nixon asked me to monitor the president’s press conference. The White House press office had announced Thursday that, as Johnson was to have minor surgery, he would be returning to his ranch in Texas for several days of rest and there would be no barnstorming for the party. In the press conference, a reporter asked Johnson, “Does the cancellation of your big campaign trip mean that you do not intend to do anything to help Democratic candidates for election, such as one little speech in Texas or maybe a TV pep talk before election?”
The question set Johnson off. “First, we don’t have any plans, so you don’t cancel plans,” he shot back, stunning reporters who had been given the details as to where Johnson would be going. Johnson then went on a two-minute rant against the press for fabricating the notion that he had ever planned to campaign. Yet LBJ had himself come up with the idea for a trip around the country signing Great Society bills, according to Joe Califano, a domestic policy aide. Califano wrote, “The trip was set to begin on Friday, November 4, two days after he returned to the White House. Candidates across the country adjusted schedules for the president’s anticipated arrival.”
Johnson’s mood having darkened, he got the question he had been waiting for. Chalmers Roberts of The Washington Post asked him about the Nixon charge that in the Manila communiqué, “it had appeared that you have proposed, or the seven powers had proposed, getting out in a way that would leave South Vietnam to the mercy of the Viet Cong.”
“Sarcasm dripping from every phrase,” wrote Witcover, Johnson “unloaded on Nixon,” saying: “I do not want to get into a debate on a foreign policy meeting in Manila with a chronic campaigner like Mr. Nixon. It is his problem to find fault with his country and with his government during a period of October every two years. If you will look back over his record you will find that to be true. He never did really recognize and realize what was going on when he had an official position in the government. You remember what President Eisenhower said, that if you would give him a week or so he would figure out what he was doing.
“Since then he has made a temporary stand in California, and you saw what action the people took out there. Then he crossed the country to New York. Then he went back to San Francisco hoping he would be in the wings and available if Barry Goldwater stumbled. But Goldwater didn’t stumble. Now he is out talking about a conference that obviously he is not well prepared on or informed about.”
Johnson defended himself and the Manila communiqué against Nixon’s charge that he had pledged to begin pulling all U.S. forces out if the violence in Vietnam began to subside: “Why would we want to stay there if there was no aggression, if there was no infiltration, and the violence ceased….We wouldn’t want to keep 400,000 men there just to march up and down the runway at Cam Ranh Bay….Every participant in that conference, acting on good faith, with the best of motives, wanted to say to North Vietnam and every other nation in the world that we intend to stay there only so long as our presence is necessary to protect the territorial integrity of South Vietnam….
“They know that and we ought not to confuse it here and we ought not try to get mixed up in a political campaign here. Attempts to do that will cause people to lose votes instead of gaining them. We ought not have men killed because we try to fuzz up something.…Mr. Nixon doesn’t serve his country well by trying to leave that kind of impression in the hope that he can pick up a precinct or two, or a ward or two.”
I sat stunned. Not only had Nixon drawn blood, the president had lost it, confirmed by his defensiveness and unbuttoned anger. So incendiary had Johnson’s remarks been that Lady Bird could not conceal her shock. Washington Star reporter Jack Horner described her reaction: “Mrs. Johnson could not hide her astonishment when she heard her husband say that the Republican ‘chronic campaigner’ never had realized what was going on even when he was vice president.
“Her legs crossed, Mrs. Johnson had been sitting on the President’s right, listening calmly and intently to his answers to reporters’ questions. Suddenly, both her feet hit the floor…. she appeared to be about to rise out of her chair.”
Nixon knew he’d been handed his greatest opening in a decade to return to center stage. This was a confrontation with a president of the United States that he could win if he handled it right.
Wallace learned about Johnson’s attack after Nixon had taken off. The CBS newsman rented a jet and flew to Waterville, Maine, to catch Nixon. When Wallace asked for a response, Nixon invited the nation to understand the pressure Johnson was under. While he was “surprised” by the personal character and severity of the attack, Nixon said, he would “continue to speak out.”
Then Nixon drove the political point home: “Let the record show that all over the world I have defended the administration’s goal of no surrender to aggression. I have defended it in the capitals of the world and here at home against members of the president’s own party.”
After his remarks, he turned to me: “Was I too hard on him?”
“Not since the Checkers speech had Nixon more effectively seized the moment,” wrote Tom Wicker in The New York Times.
When we got to Manchester, New Hampshire, I had a statement written. Nixon said he would issue a more formal reply to the president on ABC’s Issues and Answers Sunday, and on an NBC show where Republican National Committee Chairman Ray Bliss had designated Nixon as the party’s national voice on the election.
Our Manchester statement anticipated in tone and substance how Nixon would react all weekend. Declaring himself “shocked that President Johnson saw fit to respond to the serious questions which I raised about American policy in Asia with a personal attack against me,” Nixon declined to respond in kind. He then repeated the “serious questions” he had raised in his Manila appraisal:
- With regard to the intensity of the war, do we simply react to Communist aggression and resign ourselves to a five-year war which the administration’s current policy will produce—or should we follow the policy urged by General Eisenhower and increase our military pressure to a level necessary to achieve victory over aggression?
- Are we going to continue the president’s policy of escalating the number of troops to achieve our goals in Vietnam or shall we adopt the recommendations of the Republican Coordinating Committee to increase the use of American air and sea power to bring the Communists to the conference table?
- Are we going to pay for the war by raising taxes as is widely reported to be the administration’s plan—or shall we take the Republican way of cutting nonessential spending?
Nixon had emerged from the encounter the clear victor. The New York Times conceded, “Mr. Nixon had asked some pertinent and critical questions—which he had every right to do.”
On Sunday, when Nixon appeared on Issues and Answers, he asked anew the questions in his “Appraisal of Manila” and charged Johnson with “cheap political demagoguery.” On the NBC show, Nixon “closed with a beauty,” wrote historian Stephen Ambrose. Speaking directly to President Johnson, Nixon said:
“I think I can understand how a man can be very very tired and how his temper can then be short. And if a vice president or a former vice president can be weary and tired, how much more tired would a president be after a journey like yours?”
“It had been a wonderful year for Nixon,” Ambrose wrote. Nixon “had just brought himself back from the humiliation of the 1962 California governor’s race. Through hard work, effrontery, loyalty to the GOP, hard work, brains, brazenness, luck, hard work, and more luck, all capped by the Manila communiqué extravaganza, he had made himself the leader of the loyal opposition and had helped set in motion political forces that could soon make the GOP into the ruling party, with Nixon as President.”
During his Issues and Answers appearance, Nixon made a stunning announcement: “After this election I am going to take a holiday from politics for at least six months.”
I asked him, “Is it really wise to cede the field to [George] Romney and lock ourselves into a six-month moratorium?”
“Let ’em chew on him for a little while,” Nixon replied.
There was another reason Nixon decided to step back. He knew the impression he was leaving in 1966, with his fighting campaign and triumphant confrontation with Johnson, would sit well with the public and even better with his party. But if he started out on a presidential campaign in 1967, even as an unannounced candidate, the press and public would tire of him and begin looking about for the “fresh face.” He would not appear center stage as a candidate until more than a year later, on the last filing date for the New Hampshire primary.
Election night 1966 we were nervous. But as the returns began to come in, candidate after candidate for whom we had campaigned seemed to be romping home to victory. Soon, it seemed as though Nixon’s extravagant predictions of GOP gains might be not only realized but exceeded.
Until the morning hours of Wednesday, when the California returns were all in, we worked those phones, confident no other potential candidate of 1968 was doing the same. Friendships formed in six weeks of campaign stops were solidified during that long triumphal night. As Nixon had gone in for those folks in ’66, many would be there for him in ’68.
Not since Nixon was elected to Congress in 1946 had Republicans picked up so many seats. Forty-seven House seats! And Nixon had contributed more to the national victory than any other Republican. He had been the only prominent Republican on the road since mid-September, traveling to 35 states and into nearly 80 congressional districts. The long string of personal and party defeats—1958, 1960, 1962, 1964—was now dramatically snapped.
The greatest comeback had taken its greatest leap forward.
Patrick J. Buchanan was a senior adviser to three presidents and a three-time presidential candidate. He is a syndicated columnist, a political analyst for MSNBC and an editor of The American Conservative
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.