Nixon and National Security Affairs Assistant Henry Kissinger (left) pressed military leaders to be more aggressive in Vietnam. At right is Major General Alexander Haig, a National Security Affairs advisor. photo: NARA

The taped phone calls from Nixon's White House the night of May 8, 1972 also reveal the president's public relations team in full swing. After the speech, Republican operatives across the country swarmed Western Union outposts to send Nixon pre-planned telegrams of approval, which Nixon would then take to the press to show he had the American public's support. Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman placed a call to Nixon's special counsel, Charles Colson, to learn the nation's reaction. When Colson told Haldeman that some Western Union offices were closed, or overwhelmed by customers, the two agreed on how to strong-arm the company's president into delivering better service.

Charles Colson: The guy just called me from Vermont and he said Jesus Christ, they can't get into the Western Union office.

Bob Haldeman: Well, now is the time to start hitting Western Union. Let's get the president up out of bed and tell him that we are getting calls from all over the country that those goddamned offices won't take the telegrams and that we are going to make a national scandal out of it. And that they pulled this before. You know, just scare the shit out of him.

CC: It is a shame--

BH: Tell him they're probably going to have to lose their franchise and we'll have to find a new method of communication.

CC: We are rapidly getting a new method. It's a damn shame, Bob, because a lot of that--

BH: It's the same old story. Now is the time to start busting them on that.

CC: And we will.

BH: And get that story out. Tell the people, any people that call and complain that they can't send telegrams, tell them to call their local paper and TV station and say that they can't get through to Western Union.

CC: As a matter of fact I can get that story played out very strongly.

BH: Good. That's the one to start moving on. And we oughta now get the head of Western Union. We waited long enough now--

CC: I'll call.

Read the full transcript

The next morning President Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell discussed post-speech reaction, including problems with Western Union. Nixon reiterates his resolve to punish North Vietnam.

John Mitchell: Mr. President?

President Nixon: Well as an old navy man I hope you think we finally did something.

JM: Well you did it just right and I thought your presentation last night was just terrific. I think it was probably the best of all of them.

RN: Well I had to do it under a pressure cooker, you know. I wrote the damn thing over the weekend and didn't get the final draft finished until 5:30 and then had to go beat these goddamn senators and then just walk out there almost panting.

JM: Well I tell you, your presentation was the best and I thought the context and content was just absolutely right. You put it right where it should be.

RN: I just talked to Rebozo. He called me. He said he's had the goddamndest reaction in Florida. Of course I suppose he would down there. But he said democrats, republicans-everybody--is saying, "Go to it and by God we finally did something." I don't know what you heard.

JM: Yes that's what we are getting.

RN: And of course the Democrats and politicians are doing just what we expected. They are lying in the bushes instead of supporting the president. But by God they oughta be hit for that.

JM: They will be. As you know we've got this apparatus going over here, but the only problem is that the telegram offices are so jammed up that the people can't get through, and the telephones were so jammed up last night that you just couldn't get the volume through.

RN: What was the reaction you've found last night just talking to folks?

JM: Oh great. Nobody is opposed to it that I have talked to or found. I think everybody has a little concern about the ongoing problems with the summit and so forth.

RN: Yeah, well the summit may be cancelled. We're just going to say, "Well, we expected that and we'll have it at a later time." But we're not going to have an American president go to the summit when Russian tanks are rolling through the streets of Hue.

JM: Well I think you put the ball in their court just right last night. And I think the American public will accept that without any problems what so ever. So I think it's just great all the way around. I have a deep, gut reaction that this is going to have some large psychological effects on the government and the troops.

RN: That's the main effect you know. As you know this kind of operation, it's not technically a blockade but that's what it is. It only has an effect over a period of time. But I can tell you that if it doesn't work psychologically, I will keep the goddamn thing on and lose the election if necessary. But right after the election, we will just level Hanoi. I mean level it.

JM: I don't believe that's going to be necessary.

Read the full transcript

A week after Nixon's counter-offensive began, the president was still probing for ways to defeat North Vietnam and wondering, in particular, what the CIA - headed by Richard Helms - might have to offer. He talked about it with his national security affairs advisor, Alexander Haig.

President Nixon: The one part, Al, that I'm going to write a little memorandum on - but I wish you'd follow up - I want to make sure we're doing the maximum with propaganda - [sending North Vietnam messages] like "more B52s are coming," and "come on over - you're losing." I mean it was commonplace in World War II and I don't know - is Helms' outfit coming up with anything?

Alexander Haig: Well it's not all Helms; this is this interdepartmental group -with State.

RMN: For Christ-sake, State doesn't know anything about that sort of thing.

AH: Well the guys who are actually doing this are from SINPAC and MACV - and they've had millions of leaflets dropped in the South and the North.

RMN: But are they playing, I mean frankly, playing the dirty tricks game? That's what you have to do, Al, as you know. You've got to mislead them. You don't tell them the truth. You tell them what's not true and scare the hell out of them.

AH: Right, CIA has got that - with the Black Broadcast - which is threatening invasion and misleading them.

RMN: I think one point that should be made is that to-- now to make a major effort to get prisoners to come over. Just say, "Look it's all over, your homeland is finished," and that "you'll be treated well."

Read the full transcript

Days later, Richard Nixon was on his way to meet the Soviet General Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, in Moscow. Nixon's gamble had paid off. He had a successful summit with the Soviets beginning on May 22, and by August, Hanoi was ready to drop one of its key conditions for a peace agreement. On August 23, 1972, the last American ground troops in Vietnam headed home. Soon after, a breakthrough occurred in the cease-fire negotiations. However, the peace process began to falter in October when South Vietnam rejected the terms the United States was negotiating on its behalf. This went unknown to the American public and Nixon won re-election in 1972 by a landslide. When the negotiations totally fell apart in December, President Nixon decided to "bomb the North Vietnamese back to the peace table," as Historian Mel Small says, dropping more bombs on North Vietnam in 12 days than he had in three years. The North Vietnamese endured the pounding, while managing to shoot down more than 15 American B-52s. Talks resumed in early January, and the two sides finally signed a peace agreement that went into effect on January 27, 1973.

Next: Back to Nixon

©2018 American Public Media