New Documentary Captures RN at the Game of the Century

    RN at the Big Shootout

    Photo Courtesy of

    By Chris Barber

    In honor of the “The Game of the Century,” the famed 1969 Texas-Arkansas battle for College football’s number 1, filmmaker Mike Looney and writer George Francisco recently produced a documentary entitled The Big Shootout: The Life and Times of 1969.

    The film’s coverage of President Nixon’s attendance at this gridiron matchup, viewed by more than 50 million football fans across the country and around the world, is just but one of the many enticing themes shared. For any football fan, the film reminds us that life is like football–it ought to be played with all the strength, passion and imagination that could be mustered by one who wants to win.

    Watch the preview below:

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    The Big Shootout

    On December 6th, 1969, in the wintry landscape of Fayetteville, Arkansas, The Texas Longhorns and Arkansas Razorbacks met in what was heralded then and in the decades since as the game of the century. The game coined “The Big Shootout”, by Texas coach Darrell Royal, was the brainstorm of television, foreshadowing televised sports’ heavy hand in major sporting events in years to come.

    On December 6th, 1969, in the wintry landscape of Fayetteville, Arkansas, The Texas Longhorns and Arkansas Razorbacks met in what was heralded then and in the decades since as the game of the century. The game coined “The Big Shootout”, by Texas coach Darrell Royal, was the brainstorm of television, foreshadowing televised sports’ heavy hand in major sporting events in years to come.

    Click here to purchase the DVD.

    For President Nixon, football meant more than entertainment–he credits his time playing high school and college football as a time that instilled in him a “competitive spirit and determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose.” His coach in college at Whittier, Wallace Newman, particularly made a strong impression on the future President. More than anything the “Chief,”–as players referred to him–a proud American Indian, taught RN that character above all else is what truly matters. Football shaped RN’s character, especially his resiliency in the political arena.

    1969 represented the 100th anniversary of college football. To celebrate the centennial of the sport that launched the popularity of American football, President Nixon accepted an invitation to attend the Texas-Arkansas football game. He boarded Air Force One on December 6 of that year, and set off for Fort Smith, Arkansas where, upon disembarking, he told Governor Winthrop Rockefeller excitedly that all he knew “was that we are going to see today, on this 100th anniversary of college football, one of the great football games of all time, and both of them I wish could be Number 1.”

    He, along with all football fans across the country would not be disappointed.

    The first “national championship” game made by television, it was nothing short of spectacular from prelude to conclusion. So iconic was it that three future, past, and current presidents attended the game.

    “This was a huge political event, while it was a great sporting event…Big,” said President Nixon’s chief advanceman, Ron Walker, about the game attended by the current President, Congressman George H.W. Bush, and former President Lyndon Johnson.

    POTUS Tex-Ark football game

    RN at “The Big Shootout” game between Texas and Arkansas, flanked by Arkansas Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Arkansas Senators J. William Fullbright and John Little McClellen, and Texas Congressman George H.W. Bush.

    The game itself was one worthy of college football lore. The Razorbacks took a 14-0 lead into the start of the 4th quarter and appeared well in control of the game. However, the cruel mistress known as momentum turned its back on the Razorbacks when Longhorns quarterback James Street scrambled in for a touchdown on the first play of the 4th quarter.

    After forcing the Razorbacks’ first turnover of the game with an interception in the endzone with a little less than half the time remaining in the final quarter, the Longhorns took the lead on the ensuing drive. The defense sustained the lead, and the Texas Longhorns beat the number 2 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks 15-14.

    After the game, President Nixon visited the Longhorn’s locker room to congratulate the victorious team and presented them with a Presidential Plaque.

    RN presenting plaque to Longhorns coach

    RN presenting the Presidential Plaque to Longhorn’s coach Darrel Royal post-game.

    Presidential Plaque #1 team longhorns

    Close-up of the Presidential Plaque.

    Watch President Nixon presenting the Presidential Plaque to the victorious Texas Longhorns coach Darrel Royal:

    In an act of sportsmanship, President Nixon then visited the losing Razorback’s locker room. He conveyed to Arkansas’ players a sense of gratitude for performing the way they did, that they shouldn’t feel all had been lost. Drawing from his own experiences, he told the players this:

    I would like to say something to the team, because I know how you feel.

    In my field of politics, I have lost some close ones and I have won some close ones. But I want you to know that in the 100th year of football, in the game to prove which was to be Number 1, we couldn’t have had a greater game. Arkansas was magnificent throughout the game, and Texas, in order to win, had to beat a great team.

    On any Saturday, if we were to make a bet, I would say we wouldn’t know which team to choose, whether it would be Arkansas or Texas.

    I also want you to know this: I think you can be awfully proud of the way your fans are with you. I have never seen stands so full of life. The whole State was behind you. There was a spirit there about it, Coach, and that means that your team has done something that is really great for this State.

    With the influence of “Chief” in his mind, President Nixon recognized the strong character displayed by both teams, and as a result, made a very strong impression on all sports fans watching that day.

      Love of the Game: RN and Baseball

        Phillies Staff RN1

        Richard Nixon meeting with the 1989 Phillies Coaching Staff at Veteran’s Stadium.

        Brian Robertson

        In a 1990 interview on the Today Show, Bryant Gumbel asked President Nixon, “If you hadn’t have gone into politics what would you have done?” President Nixon responded, with a smile:

        “Oh, I would have gone into your business. You have the best job of all when I think of the opportunity you had to cover the Olympics. You know I am sort of a sports buff. The opportunity to cover sports, generally. To be a commentator like this… particularly in the sports field… that’s really great. Of course, politics is simply an extension of sports. So, you’re covering the greatest sports of the world.”

        When it came to baseball and politics, there is little doubt that President Richard Nixon held and continues to hold the title of number one fan-in-chief. Hall of Fame sports writer Dick Young acknowledged, “This isn’t a guy that shows up at season openers to take bows and get his picture in the paper and has to have his Secretary of State tell him where first base is. This man knows baseball.”

        With the opening of the new Presidents and Baseball special exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, visitors can experience the Presidents’ love of the game for themselves.

        While arbitrating the 1985 Umpire labor dispute, President Nixon recorded his thoughts on the first major league game he attended. On a hot July fourth in 1936, the young Duke law student travelled to Washington D.C. and caught a Senators-Yankees doubleheader at Griffiths stadium. Not only did he get his first taste of the big leagues but he watched rookie Joe Dimaggio homer and legend Lou Gerhig double home a run.

        RN  First baseball game

        I saw my first Major League Baseball game about 50 years ago when I sat in the sundrenched bleachers at Griffith Stadium on July 4, 1936 and saw the New York Yankees clobber the Washington Senators in a doubleheader. Since then I have seen scores of games at the ballpark and on television. Sometimes I have agreed with the umpires and other times I have disagreed with them. But I have never questioned their integrity. As former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler observed in a recent letter to me, in the proud 115 year history of baseball_________.

        His love of the game continued unabated during his Vice Presidential Years.

        As an advocate for civil rights in the 1950s, Vice President Nixon became one of Jackie Robinson’s most venerable admirers. During the 1960 campaign, Robinson supported and campaigned for the Nixon-Lodge ticket on grounds that Vice President Nixon had a stronger record on civil rights than Senator John F. Kennedy.

        Before the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Robinson reaffirmed his support for the Vice President, writing, “I say this because of my sincere belief that you would have lived up to all things I believed about you, and I am firmly convinced that the best thing that can happen to us as American negroes is a big negro vote for you in California and for Governor Rockefeller in New York.” The letter is on display as part of the Presidents’ and Baseball exhibit at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:

        Jackie Robinson

        After his narrow defeat in the 1960 Presidential election, the former Vice President carried his love of baseball with him into the 1960s. In an interview with Jonathan Aitken, gubernatorial campaign manager and future Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman recalled, “Nixon has a conceptual memory rather than a photographic memory. On the other hand, his grasp of baseball statistics is amazing. At Candle Stick Park in 1962, there was a major game and Nixon went down into the players’ room. He knew all the players, their batting records, their averages. It was amazing.”

        Nixon mays

        Vice President Nixon with Willie Mays at the San Francisco Giants home opener in 1960.

        In 1965, while the former Vice President worked as an attorney, Major League Baseball sent prominent players such as Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Bob Friend, and Rocky Colavito to convince Nixon to become the next commissioner. After Nixon turned down the offer, owners sent John Fetzer and John Galbreath to his law office to persuade him to reconsider. Nixon refused, stating he had “other things on his mind.”

        After assuming office in 1969, the President attended eleven games and became the first President to throw out an opening pitch on the West coast at a California Angels game. During baseball’s centennial in 1969, National league President Warren Giles awarded the President a lifetime pass to games and Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn honored the President with a trophy reading “World’s Greatest Fan.” He frequently met with the game’s best players, including longtime friend Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Bob Feller. In fact, after Yastrzemski was named Most Valuable Player in the 1970 All-Star game, he presented the award to President Nixon.

        At a June 22, 1972 press conference, reporter Cliff Evans asked the President, “”Mr. President, as the nation’s number-one baseball fan, would you be willing to name your all-time baseball team?” The President responded with a resounding yes and dutifully put together his team at Camp David. Instead of compiling a list of American League and National League greats, he created NL and AL rosters for the prewar and postwar period.

        President Nixon’s explanation of his all-time baseball list is captured on the White House tapes:

        During his post-Presidential years, President Nixon customarily attended California Angels, New York Mets, and New York Yankee games. In June of 1978, Nixon helped call an Angels game on the radio:

        Famously, he attended the Angels 1979 division clinching victory over the Royals and joined the Angels’ clubhouse celebration. A photographer captured Angel second baseman Bobby Grich drenching the former President with beer.

        Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, President Nixon could often be found at Yankee stadium watching games from George Steinbrenner’s box. On July 4, 1983 the President watched Yankee southpaw Dave Righetti toss a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. The next morning, he wrote an enthusiastic letter congratulating the victorious left hander:
        RN Righetti no hitter

        In 1981—at the behest of Seattle Mariners owner and former Ambassador George Argyros, the President visited Seattle to catch a Mariners’ game at the Kingdome. After the game, he visited with and coached several of the players including Dave Henderson, Dan Meyer, Dan Paciorek, and Richie Zisk. To Zisk, he praised Seattle as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and commented on the Emerald City’s weather, saying the “rain makes the flowers grow.”

        On hitting at Yankee stadium, the President advised Paciorek, a right hander, to take the ball to the opposite field and aim for the short porch in right field. Left field is “death valley,” he declared.

        The President frequented Mets’ games at Shea Stadium as well. While Mets’ slugger Darryl Stawberry struggled through a slump, President Nixon wrote him an encouraging letter:

        80 RN Strawberry

        Strawberry appreciated the gesture, telling a reporter, “I think it is neat he would take the time to do this:”

        Strawberry on Nixon

        After a New York Mets game in 1987, the former President appeared on the post-game show:

        Off the field, President Nixon arbitrated the Major League Umpire Association’s labor dispute with Major League Baseball and earned a 40 percent pay increase for umpire’s working the American and National League Championship Series. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler welcomed the President’s appointment, writing “This is a great honor which has been bestowed upon you, and a tribute to your integrity.”

        The November 4, 1985 edition of People Magazine covered the negotiations and reported, “According to eyewitnesses at the arbitration, Nixon presided over the meeting between the umpire’s lawyers and representatives from both leagues in his Manhattan office with aplomb and dignity, sipping soda from a glass with the presidential seal and listening to the arguments pro and con. At the end of the three hour session, he said he’d render a decision later.”

        Below are President Nixon’s handwritten notes on the arbitration dispute, complete with coffee stain:
        RN ump arb notes MLB 1
        RN ump arb notes MLB 2

        President Nixon’s memorandum to the American League, the National League, and the Major League Umpire Association:

        The Los Angeles’ Times coverage of the arbitration:
        LA Times RN Umpires

        The artifacts documenting Richard Nixon’s love of the game and other baseball treasures will be on display at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum through October 5, 2014.

        Brian Robertson holds a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History and specializes in the Nixon Presidency.

          Land to the Tiller: President Nixon and Land Reform in Vietnam

            Land to the tiller

            Under the Nixon administration, the Republic of Vietnam returned 2.5 million acres of land to the former tenants who cultivated the crops. Republic of Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu hands out land titles to the new landowners in August of 1970. Photograph VA003128, August 1970, Douglas Pike Photograph Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University

            By Brian Robertson

            The history of land reform in Vietnam is complicated.

            Long before President Harry S. Truman entered the U.S. Military Assistant Advisory Group (M.A.A.G.) into the First Indochina War, Vietnam held a long tradition of authoritarian social control of land use.

            As early as the Hong Bang Dynasty, the Hung Vuongs implemented a feudal-vassal socioeconomic system to cultivate crops (primarily rice) and maintain the dykes.

            By 111 AD, the Han Dynasty occupied and conquered much of the Northern parts of today’s Vietnam and transformed the country into a Chinese vassal.

            After centuries of conflict with China and after Ngo Quyen established independence, the government expanded private ownership and introduced a land-tax system. Once the French subjugated Vietnam, they instituted an exploitive taxation and land management system which created a large landless population.

            To try and tie up centuries of history, World War II and the First Indo-China War devastated the economy and resulted in Ho Chi Minh as the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam above the 17th parallel and Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of the Republic of Vietnam.

            In the North, Ho instituted China’s communist land reform polices by confiscating villages, executing at least 50,000 innocent civilians (the exact number, probably higher, is still debated) and attempting to redistribute the land and wealth.

            In the South, Diem established an authoritarian government which remained under constant threat from the Binh Xuyen, French intrigue, and the North Vietnamese insurgents. Although not a western democracy by any stretch of the imagination, comparatively—as some historians argue—the Republic of Vietnam allowed a greater degree of freedom and civil liberties than the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

            As for land reform, Diem attempted to dismantle the French landlord-tenant system and relocated villagers near the DMZ. With U.S. assistance, Diem implemented the strategic hamlet program which created secure hamlets intended to protect the inhabitants and weed out the Viet Cong. Depending on which historian you ask, the strategic hamlet program was either a successful example of land reform and pacification or an unmitigated disaster which helped turn the populous against Diem.

            What is known is that after the assassination of Diem in 1963, the Republic of Vietnam descended into political and economic chaos and compelled President Lyndon Johnson to introduce American ground troops into Vietnam. The search-and-destroy tactics employed served to alienate villagers and as historian Mark Moyar noted in a panel presentation, “Villager Attitudes During the Final Decade of the Vietnam War:”

            The introduction of American troops led to the most obvious and significant change in village life, a much higher level of violence than before, though this violence decreased after 1968. Many villagers watched Allied forces try to annihilate communist forces in their hamlets with machine guns, rockets, napalm, and other heavy weapons.

            Inheriting the war in 1969, President Nixon sought to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam while strengthening the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to carry on with U.S. economic assistance and airpower. Often lost in the historical debates surrounding “Vietnamization” is the successful Land to the Tiller reform program introduced by the Nixon administration.

            In a country which had been dominated by feudalism and colonialism, there was little tradition of land ownership. Thus, to help improve political and economic development, the Land to the Tiller program granted land to the villagers who cultivated the crops. Beginning in the spring of 1970, the Republic of Vietnam began transferring 2.5 million acres of land to eliminate farm tenancy.

            A glimpse of President Nixon’s commitment to pacification and the land reform program is demonstrated in the following memcon covering his meeting with Republic of Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu. In addition to discussing negotiating strategy, President Thieu reported:

            As the situation now stands, we have offered to enter into reasonable and serious talks with the communists. The question is whether they are willing to talk reasonably or will choose to continue the war. If they choose the latter, the war may take on a different character. The enemy may choose to carry on at a slower tempo, eventually even to fade away; thus it might go on this way for four or five years. We have to be prepared for the fact that it might take this course. We, therefore, have to move ahead on various fronts:
            a) to strengthen our military forces;
            b) to expand pacification; to extend security through land reform and other measures to bring; the people along with us;
            c) to consolidate the people with the government;
            d) to secure the collaboration of political parties in support; of the government;
            e) to work toward collaboration of the Assembly and the Executive and
            f) to fashion a broader based Cabinet.

            South Viet-Nam must become stronger politically, militarily, and economically.

            After further discussing aid for economic development, President Nixon turned to the progress of the Land to the Tiller program and President Thieu responded, “The draft law had been submitted to the Assembly, which was now in recess. The Assembly would, however, meet in mid-August and he hoped that it might enact the law by the end of August.”

            By October of 1969, President Nixon remained impressed with the Republic of Vietnam’s political and economic progress. In a meeting with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Sir Robert Thompson, and John Holdridge he “gave his evaluation of the Thieu government, mentioning that it was difficult even for objective observers to form judgments of new governments, but that it was remarkable what the Thieu government had accomplished despite its newness and the wartime pressures. Admittedly it needed to carry out political and administrative reforms, to let political prisoners out of jail, and to implement a land reform program. However, it had made great progress.”

            In the following document, the Vietnam Council on Foreign Relations examined the challenges and possibilities of the Land to the Tiller program:

            It is to the credit of South Vietnamese leaders that the Land to the Tiller program not only seeks greater popular adhesion to the political cause they represent but also a greater degree of social justice in a country where peasants have always done more than their shares and received less than their due.

            When the new Land Reform program is to be completed, an additional 800,000 farmers now living in a state of tenancy will own some 1.3 million hectares of rice land. Vietnam will then
            become a nation of land owners. Also, by giving them this land free of charge, the President has chosen to force other segments of the South Vietnamese population to shoulder the cost of the
            50 billion program.

            Indeed, if one knows that during the past 20 years some 30 percent of the nation’s population have been taking about 70 percent of the country’s gross national product, one must agree to the truly revolutionary measure President Thieu took last March 26 when he promulgated into law the Land to the Tiller bill in Can Tho. The time, indeed, has come for city-dwellers to give a hand to their brothers in the countryside.

            The following document is a copy of the Land to the Tiller reform law passed in March of 1970 by the Republic of Vietnam National Assembly:

            In U.S. General Creighton Abrams’ classified tapes, transcribed by Dr. Lewis Sorley and available in the Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, a 1971 briefing cited captured enemy documents revealing the North Vietnamese’s assessment of the program:

            COSVN released two training studies in 1971 to implement portions of the directive. One concerns the VC counterpacification program and observes that “The GVN has succeeded in relocating people to GVN-controlled areas, expanded its territorial security forces, and gained the support of segments of the rural population through the Land to the Tiller Program.”

            As part of the program, the Republic of Vietnam and the United States donated tractors to the new farm owners. The Vietnam News Bulletin captured pictures:

            By 1973, the Land to the Tiller program transferred land to thousands of former farm tenants and is widely recognized as one of the forgotten successes of Vietnamization. Even after the intense struggle of signing the Paris Peace Accords under congressional duress, Republic of Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu reported progress on the Land to the Tiller program to President Nixon:

            Dear Mr. President:

            March 26th, 1973 marks the third anniversary of the signing of the “Land to the Tiller” law in the Republic of Vietnam. On this memorable occasion, I take pleasure in communicating to you the highlights of our land reform, one of the top priority programs for the welfare of the rural people. This also constitutes, in my view, an important aspect of the social and economic revolution, in the present ideological contest in Vietnam.

            Upon the promulgation of the “Land to the Tiller” law in 1970, I pledged to distribute free of charge 1,000,000 hectares (approximately 2.5 million acres) of land in three years to 800,000 tenant farmers who actually tilled the land. To date, 1,003,353 hectares of land have been distributed to 858,821 former tenant farmers. Our planned goal has been achieved and surpassed.

            The “Land to the Tiller” program has reduced farm tenancy from around 60 percent three years ago to almost the vanishing point. It has thus undercut the main theme of communist propaganda vis-a-vis the rural population.

            Our farmers have not been merely passive recipients of government largesse but have enthusiastically participated in the program to improve their lives. They are using the additional income from the sale of crops formerly paid in rent to develop the rural economy, thus contributing to the growth of the nation. Our farmers have now a new sense of personal worth and dignity and have become masters of their destiny, free men with reasons to preserve their freedom.

            These accomplishments are attributable, in no small measure, to the dedicated support and cooperation of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and the American AID Mission staff in Vietnam and to the financial assistance of the American people through your government.

            For this, I would like to convey, on behalf of the Vietnamese people, our deep gratitude to you, and through you to the people of the United States of America.

            I wish also to express the hope that the Government of the Republic of Vietnam will continue to have help and support from your government and people to not only complete the land reform program but to help carry forward vigorously the implementation of the five-year rural economic development plan, which will solidify and build on the tremendous benefits of land distribution, and of our postwar reconstruction plan which is to heal the wounds of war and to promote development and growth in an era of peace.

            Sincerely yours,

            NGUYEN VAN THIEU

            President Nixon responded:

            Dear Mr. President:

            I very much appreciate your warm message of March 20 which described the achievements of the “Land to the Tiller” program and expressed the gratitude of the Vietnamese people for our assistance in this great work of social reform and economic development.

            With deep interest and satisfaction, I learned from your letter that on March 26 your country will celebrate the fulfillment of its three-year goal of redistributing titles for one million hectares of land to tenant farmers under the “Land to the Tiller” program. This program, I know, is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching land distribution programs undertaken by any country in recent times. It will ultimately benefit over one million rural families in South Vietnam and should virtually eliminate farm tenancy. The fact that this program has been completed under the difficult wartime conditions of the past three years makes the accomplishment that much more admirable. This program also represents tangible evidence of concern for and responsiveness to the needs of the people and encourages us to look with confidence to the future of your country as it pursues its goals of a lasting and fruitful peace.

            On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the government and the people of the Republic of Vietnam on the success of this land reform endeavor. Americans are pleased to have cooperated with Vietnamese in this historic undertaking.

            In the postwar period, we look forward with equal interest to joining your government and people in the important task of reconstruction and long-term economic development.


            RICHARD NIXON

            In the end, the Land to the Tiller program suffered from the United States’ discontinuation of economic aid and inability to enforce the Paris Peace Accords. After the North Vietnamese Army’s final offensive in 1975, the program ceased to exist.

            The North confiscated the land, plowed over the South’s ancestral burial grounds, forced the populace into communist “re-education” camps, and transformed the economy into one of the poorest in the world. It would not be until the Soviet Union disbanded Comecon that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam abandoned the economic system of its founders. In 1986, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam instituted the Doi Moi reforms and moved toward a socialist based market economy.

            Brian Robertson holds a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History with a subfield in Modern Vietnam and specializes in the Nixon Presidency.

              The Herter Committee: Forging RN’s Foreign Policy

                RN Herter Committee Northern Italy Fields

                RN and members of the Herter Committee stand in front of rice fields in northern Italy.

                By Chris Barber

                On Monday, July 30, 1947, then Congressman Richard Nixon was chosen, to his pleased astonishment, by Speaker Joe Martin to be one of nineteen members representing a committee headed by Congressman Christian Herter to go to Europe and prepare a report based on the feasibility and efficacy of Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall’s proposed post-war foreign aid plan.

                Though an unexpected honor, it was one that a younger Nixon would nonetheless take full advantage of– a thrust for his young career, and especially to his foreign policy resume. Furthermore, it was a journey that would impact, to a large extent, the development of his presidential geopolitical strategy and his position in regards to Soviet Russia and Communism, over two decades later.

                Prior to his departure to post-war Europe, constituents in Nixon’s congressional district generally resented the idea of committing the United States to what they suggested would be an inflationary foreign policy. Nixon heeded their concerns of a Truman foreign policy pledging military and economic aid to countries threatened by Soviet expansion, yet he maintained an unbiased level-headedness when he stepped foot on European soil.

                The committee arrived at a Continent “tottering on the brink of starvation and chaos.” Post-war Europe, afflicted from the ravages of war and suffering from its worst drought in 100 years, was in dire need of assistance. Likewise, the threatening Communist sphere, externally and more so internally, endangered the democratic backbone of Western Europe.

                RN Queen Mary 1947RN on the Queen Mary en route to Europe.

                In his typed report on the condition of the various European countries the Committee observed, RN identified a prevailing theme throughout–that democratic leadership was close to non-existent and Communist leadership at the forefront of political shaping.

                RN found Italy, the country he was assigned, particularly on the brink of an undesirable social alteration:

                Italy was a battleground particularly in the industrial north, the physical destruction heavy. But the great difficulty in Italy at the present time is not so much the physical destruction of the war, but the fact that the Communists have chosen this country as the scene of one of their most clever and well-financed operations against the forces of democracy.

                After speaking to Communist leaders in Italy, most notably Giuseppe Di Vittoria of the Italian Labor Federation, RN learned that the phraseology used by them were identical to those used by Communists in England and France. In other words, as Nixon intimated in his notes, “this indicates definitely then the Communists throughout the world owe their loyalty not to the countries in which they live but to Russia.” RN provides more evidence of Soviet supported Communist tactics in Trieste, a free city-state situated in the northeast portion of Italy on the western coast of the Adriatic Sea. Attention should be given to his account of an American Lt. Oaks, who, with his 12 men, stood firm against a Yugoslavian Communist force of 2,000 attempting to force the people of Trieste into submission. Lt. Oaks’ conduct made a lasting impression on RN:

                Lt. Oaks TriesteA portion of RN’s typed report, compiled at the conclusion of the Herter Committee trip, recounting Lt. Oak’s bravery in the face of Communist aggression.

                Below is the rest of RN’s final report on the contentious occurrences at Trieste during the Herter Committee’s visit:

                Reflecting in his memoirs 40 years later on his involvement with the Herter Committee, RN recalled learning four things that contributed to what so far appeared to be the resounding success of the Communist Party. He concluded that Communist leaders were strong and vigorous, and worked incredibly hard with that spirit. He observed that these leaders understood and took advantage of the power of Nationalistic fervor, and that they furthermore had the fortune of access to Soviet money. Finally, RN identified the leading cause of Communist success–the leadership classes’ capitulation to Communism.

                Through these conclusions, RN developed the basis of how U.S. leaders ought to approach Communist leaders, which would be particularly helpful in his future dealings with Soviet, Chinese, Romanian, and other states helpful to his grand strategy.

                From just the brief exposure, I could see that the only thing the Communists would respect–and deal with seriously–was power at least equal to theirs and backed up by willingness to use it. I made a penciled note in Trieste that is as true today as it was thirty years ago: “One basic rule with Russians–never bluff unless you are prepared to carry through, because they will test you every time.’’ RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

                  Truth Will Prevail: President Richard Nixon and Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton

                    Denton E0430 12 March 73Then-Captain Jeremiah Denton meets with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on March 12, 1973. 

                    By Brian Robertson

                    Last week, the United States witnessed the passing of an American hero, Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton. Shot down over North Vietnam and brutally tortured for nearly eight years as a POW during the Vietnam War, obituaries rightly acknowledge his courageous act of blinking “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code to expose the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s public lie that U.S. POWs were treated humanely.

                    Overlooked, however, is Admiral Denton’s and other POWs’ steadfast belief that the Vietnam War was a noble cause. Also missing in the public narrative is their support for President Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnam policies. In When Hell was in Session, he wrote, “I’m confident that the Vietnam myths can be dispelled by the evidence presented in this book. I am also confident that my efforts and yours will succeed in our nation’s shaking of this cultural and national security decline. Truth will prevail.”

                    Like President Nixon, Admiral Denton criticized Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s gradual approach to the Vietnam War for prolonging the conflict and depleting the nation’s will to seek an honorable peace. As President Nixon observed in No More Vietnams, “our gradual escalation gave North Vietnam time to adapt to the additional pressure by dispersing its people, military supplies, and industry.”

                    Admiral Denton also regarded the Republic of Vietnam as a legitimate state, writing “The South had infinitely more freedom than North Vietnam, even under Diem, in spite of considerable corruption and some repression in South Vietnam.” President Nixon agreed, comparing post-independence Ho Chi Minh City with Saigon:

                    South Vietnam’s people were worse off by every measure after Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Antiwar critics charged that under (Republic of Vietnam President Nguyen Van) Thieu South Vietnam was governed by a hopelessly corrupt regime. It is true that there was some corruption—but there was also substantial freedom. Under Thieu, elections were held with international observers, and opposition Buddhists almost won control of the National Assembly. There was freedom of religion for all faiths. There were economic freedoms. South Vietnam became a prosperous small developing country. There was some freedom of the press. South Vietnam had three televisions stations, twenty radio stations, and twenty-seven daily newspapers, all of which were free to express dissenting views within certain bounds.

                    Now there are no political, religious, economic, or press freedoms. There are no free elections. There is ruthless repression of religion. More Buddhist monks have committed suicide through self-immolation under the Communists than under Diem and his successors combined. Southern Vietnam has become an economic disaster. Vietnam now has one television station, two radio stations, and two dailies—all of which pump out government propaganda.

                    There are those who held that there was no difference between authoritarian and totalitarian governments. But in the case of Vietnam it was not a question of distinguishing among shades of gray—rather of seeing a difference between night and day.

                    During the gruesome days of his captivity, Admiral Denton reflected, “My principal battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength. Another source was my country; no sacrifice was too great on her behalf. The nation is only as strong as the collective strength of its individuals. National interests, objectives, policies, and commitments depend on adherence to the nation’s principles.”

                    As his North Vietnamese captors continued to impress communist propaganda upon him, he defiantly replied, “What I can’t understand is the Communist suppression of political, religious, and press freedoms,” and “went on with my lecture about how Communism may bring short-term material gains, but in the long run people would not be allowed to share in the fruits of their own production because they would be funneled to Russia.”

                    Perhaps the most trying aspect of his captivity was his perception that the activities of the United States antiwar movement emboldened his captors. For instance, after several beatings from his guards, Admiral Denton was forced to “copy excerpts from an antiwar book written by Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby-care specialist.” The statements and recordings of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were distributed and played throughout the prison. Infamously, antiwar activist and actress Jane Fonda visited prisoners at Hoa Lo prison—popularly known as the Hanoi Hilton—and recorded radio propaganda for U.S. soldiers and U.S. POWs.

                    “The torture was programmed; there was a purpose in each move, and one method followed another to a single end,” Admiral Denton wrote. “They would first attempt to impose on the prisoner a feeling of guilt. Punishment would follow. Then we were to apologize for our sins against them. Then we would atone by performing a service for them. A written biography, a taped confession, anything they could use for propaganda.”

                    Even to this day, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam uses public history as a propaganda tool by whitewashing history at the Hoa Lo museum. At least when I was there in 2006, the museum taught visitors that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam treated U.S. POWs humanely during the war.

                    Hao Lo Denton

                    Picture of display at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, 2006. Author’s collection.

                    From the POWs perspective, the confidence of their captors evaporated after President Nixon launched Operation Linebacker II in December of 1972. According to Admiral Denton:

                    The critical and decisive change beginning 18 December 1972 from a U.S. strategy involving ineffective and too gradually escalating attacks with overly limiting rules of engagement to a strategy of applying massive destructive power in large scale attacks essentially devastating the enemy’s capacity to wage further war and eliminating their will to do so. The effect on the enemy capabilities and will was never revealed to the American public. The enemy’s infrastructure of logistics, air defense, electric power, communications, and transportation were rendered incapable of any kind of effective military operations.

                    The role of Operation Linebacker II in convincing Hanoi to sign the Paris Peace Accords is supported by recent scholarship. In Hanoi’s War, Dr. Lien-Hang Nguyen– the first and only scholar to obtain access to the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs records– cited Ilya Gaiduk’s use of Soviet archives denoting that Democratic Republic of Vietnam Foreign Minister Hoang Van Tien “asked Moscow to persuade the United States to stop the bombing.”

                    Operation Linebacker II also shook Admiral Denton’s captors as they became, in his words, “jelly.” No longer did they engage in torture but “they started acceding to our demands. They started catering to our good will.” Admiral Denton continued, “I began to suspect that the North Vietnamese believed that President Nixon still intended to conclude the war successfully, and naturally, they were worried about being tried for war crimes. They wanted us to arrive home in good condition! From that point on, I knew of no one who was tortured. I threatened a hunger strike if we weren’t provided information about other POWs, including Jim Stockdale. “

                    Another captor timidly told him, “We afraid when you get home and make speech, Mr. Nixon will not give us aid he promised. Public would not allow.” The “mister” title struck Admiral Denton and served as further evidence that the bombing forced them into submission.

                    Admiral Denton later related, “It was President Nixon in December 1972 under whose leadership the corrective strategy was finally applied. We POWs feel a great debt to him. It was basically the same kind of strategy used in Desert Storm and planned for Iraq. I believe that that strategy had it been applied at the outset could have decided the Vietnam War in a couple weeks as it did in Desert Storm.”

                    After receiving a hero’s welcome upon his return to the United States, President Richard Nixon privately met with then-Captain Denton in the Oval Office and the two discussed the war, Captain Denton’s captivity, and prepared for the POW celebration to be held in giant tents on the White House’s south lawn.

                    Captured on the White House tapes, Nixon also suggested Captain Denton sit-in on a national security briefing and perhaps the most compelling part of the conversation is Captain Denton’s joyful laugh as the President describes the upcoming dinner.

                    In 1981, with the support of President Nixon, Admiral Denton would be elected as the first Republican since reconstruction to a United States Senate seat in Alabama. His relationship with President Nixon continued as he became one of the most ardent advocates of a strong U.S. national security policy. In the epilogue to When Hell was in Session, Admiral Denton hoped his experiences and conclusions from Vietnam would be a part of his legacy for the country, writing:

                    The truth about Vietnam is that in pursuit of a just cause, the U.S. used tragically flawed tactics and strategy under the Johnson-McNamara leadership. Finally, under President Nixon, correct strategy for Vietnam evolved, and our ground forces, along with the critically important Linebacker II operations and the effective blockade of NVN ports in 1972, were a knockout blow, finally achieving a total military victory for the United States.

                    I can swear, with the use of truth serum, how the North Vietnamese leadership just prior to my release acknowledged to me, explicitly enough to convince anyone, that they had no will for further fighting, and were satisfied to settle on terms of settlement before the outrageous cave-in by Congress in 1972, when it cut off funds to the South Vietnamese. In February of 1973, all our captors were concerned about was being tried for war crimes for illegally mistreating us.

                    Brian Robertson holds a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History with a subfield in Modern Vietnam and specializes in the Nixon Presidency.


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