Myths die hard, especially when you have the media as a handmaiden to nurture and perpetuate them. The passing of the late Secretary of Defense (and head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the first Secretary of Energy) James R. Schlesinger, brought obituary notices largely rooted in the headlines of his career and his own memoir. Special notice went to the notion that on the eve of President Richard Nixon's unprecedented resignation in August 1974, Schlesinger thwarted possible presidential orders to use military troops or nuclear weapons to preserve his presidency. It simply is not true.
In 1974, as Nixon prepared to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal, Schlesinger ostensibly worried about Nixon's stability. He instructed the military, we are told, not to react to White House orders, particularly on nuclear matters. He supposedly prepared plans to deploy troops in Washington if there were anything but a peaceful succession.
The problem here is that as far as can be determined, such information emanated from Schlesinger himself. There are no corroborating documents, and there are no public officials who have supported this version of events; in fact, documents and other officials are diametrically at odds with this story. Nevertheless, it sadly persists.
In the president's waiting hours, imagined rumors perhaps occasionally surfaced that the White House might use military force to maintain power. Such rumors went unsubstantiated, and hardly noticed; either something got into the Kool-Aid or people had been watching too many reruns of Seven Days in May.
According to that ever-elusive unnamed "senior Pentagon official," Schlesinger had requested that General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's, monitor all orders from any source to military units. Schlesinger was supposedly concerned that Nixon or his aides might reach military units outside Pentagon channels and order action that would block the constitutional process. The supposition included a stray rumor that the Air Force might assist the President because of his efforts in securing the return of Vietnam POWs; some speculated that combat units of the storied 82nd Airborne or Marines would stage a coup. Such feverish, obscure rumors hardly made a ripple in the true or imagined events taking place at the time.
On a more practical level, Schlesinger supposedly feared that a hostile, foreign power might attempt to take advantage of the domestic crisis. His suspicions of the Soviets, particularly as his views differed greatly from Nixon's or Kissinger's, were a matter of public record. Imagine: the Soviets would intervene militarily and/or diplomatically to maintain Nixon in office?
General Brown sent a message on August 8, the day before Nixon's resignation, to various American military commanders in the U.S. and abroad, advising increased vigilance, yet he urged them not to be overly ambitious in implementing the order -- whatever that meant. The next day, two other messages went to the same commanders over Schlesinger's name. The first conveyed the remarks of the new president, Gerald R Ford: "I know that I can count on the unswerving loyalty and dedication to duty that have always characterized the men and women of the Department of. The country joins me an appreciation for your steadfast service."
The other communiqué signed by Schlesinger stated: "Mr. Ford will have, consistent with our best traditions, the full support, dedication, and loyalty of all members of the three Department of Defense."
Both memoranda are boilerplate. There is nothing in them that hinted or said they were designed to thwart any possible coup. When interviewed more than a decade later, military figures reacted sharply. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Thomas Moorer thought that Schlesinger's communiqué was "ridiculous," for no military officer could take action outside "the form of command." An adjutant at the Readiness Command in Florida thought that Ford's message was "redundant" and "stated the obvious." Schlesinger's message, he believed "was of little interest," since it stated "what the military do without prodding throughout their careers."
General Bruce Palmer, formerly second in command in Vietnam, and then head of the Readiness Command was outraged. He was "irritated" and "resented" the message. Palmer thought it "not only unnecessary, but insulting to our uniformed men and women," and he blamed it on the overactive imagination of Pentagon staff assistants -- carefully avoiding Schlesinger's name. "Civilian supremacy was bred into me," Palmer told me. At the time, 1987, Palmer ruefully worried about "a bloated civilian establishment" and a breed of younger officers with little knowledge and understanding of the American Constitution. It was the moment of Iran-contra, and Palmer's remarks clearly pointed at the then-celebrity Colonel Oliver North and his cohorts, Admiral John Poindexter and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.
Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff, whose self-serving postures eclipsed Schlesinger's, later pointed with pride to the orderly transition of power, strongly implying that he had a role in ensuring that process. "There were no tanks," he later told senators. "No troops were drawn up. There were not any sandbags outside the White House. There may have [been fears] inside [the Capitol], but there were not outside...The lights were on. It was beautiful...And that was the transfer of power in our system, because I think, at least in part, of this shared responsibility that we have."
But typically, Haig could say precisely the opposite. In 1979 remarks, largely designed to preserve an air of mystery about events, an air that he alone understood, he referred to Watergate as one of the "most dangerous periods in American history, [one in which] change occurred within the provisions of our Constitution and established rule of law. This was not a foregone conclusion..." Was Haig referring to his role in securing Nixon's resignation -- or something else? "I'll stick to what I told you," he cryptically remarked. Haig's religious and military training gave him a special blend of the mysterious and the mundane, qualities he exploited and parlayed throughout his career.
Without conceding that Haig might have issued orders to military commanders, General Brown's legal aide did not believe commanders would have responded to extraordinary orders from Haig, considering their personal contempt and animosity toward him.
Aside from Schlesinger's remarks, no evidence has emerged to indicate that Nixon or his staff prepared or considered any military resistance that would have saved his presidency. By the first week in August, Nixon had succumbed, accepting the inevitability of his resignation. He was a momentarily a broken, defeated man, hardly one who could lend himself to such deviant action.. At that late hour, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger was alone with his imaginings of such capability or desire by the President.
Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate, and other writings.