Nixon’s First Reaction to the Pentagon Papers: ‘Whatever Dept. It Came out of, Fire the Top Guy’

President Richard M. Nixon’s first reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers was mild for him. “Whatever department it came out of, I’d fire the top guy,” he said the day the New York Times started publishing a Top Secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War.

Nixon was always talking about firing people. Sometimes he actually did it.

But General Alexander Haig, Nixon’s deputy national security adviser, suspected that the leak was the work of people who had left the Pentagon years earlier, during the transition from the Johnson to the Nixon administration.

“They’re all gone now,” Haig said. “Clifford, Halperin, Gelb.”

Haig was just giving Nixon his hunch. He had no evidence. As hunches go, Haig’s was not so good.

The first name on his list, Clark Clifford, was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s last secretary of defense. People that high up in the government don’t have to leak historical documents. They can just ask the government to declassify them, as Don Rumsfeld when he wanted to quote some in his book. Besides, there was no bigger Democrat than Clark Clifford, an adviser to presidents since Harry S Truman, and the Pentagon Papers made two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Johnson, look pretty bad.

The other two names Haig mentioned weren’t as well known, but they were already on the first draft of Nixon’s enemies list. Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb had both been advisers to Clifford in the Pentagon. (Halperin had been deputy assistant secretary of defense for the International Security Affairs office, Gelb had been ISA’s director of policy planning and arms control.) Gelb had supervised the historical study that became known as the Pentagon Papers, and Halperin had overseen the project. They had also been critics of Nixon’s Vietnam policies.

But that’s not why they were on Nixon’s list. The President feared that Halperin and Gelb knew classified information about him. That’s why he reacted so violently–and illegally, unconstitutionally, and impeach-ably–to the Pentagon Papers. He thought (mistakenly) that the leak was the result of a conspiracy, a conspiracy that, he feared, would later leak his secrets.

(I should mention now that Halperin and Gelb did *not* participate in the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Conspiracy theorists are an excitable lot, and I don’t want to encourage them.)

Nixon’s secret White House taping system captured his first discussion of the Pentagon Papers leak 40 years ago today. Listen to it here The federal government is finally declassifying the Pentagon Papers today at noon Eastern time.


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