[Kathy Olmsted is back, this time with an excerpt from her forthcoming book on conspiracy theories. As always, thanks to Kathy for doing this.]

On this day in 1971, the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers. President Richard Nixon responded to this liberal “conspiracy” with conspiracies of his own, and started down the path that would lead to his resignation and disgrace.

Throughout his career, Nixon always worried that un-American forces were conspiring to subvert the Republic. As the tapes of his Oval Office conversations reveal, he viewed himself as a soldier in the battle against “the liberal media,” disloyal Democrats, the “intellectuals,” and Jews. Then, in June 1971, all of these groups seemed to unite in one terrifying plot. “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” he told two of his top aides, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”

The conspiracy in question was the leak of a top-secret study of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers disclosed the U.S. government’s lies about the war and its cynical disregard for American soldiers’ lives. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon and State Department analyst, secretly copied the papers and gave them to the Times.

Angered and disillusioned by the lies about the war, Ellsberg had decided to “expose and subvert the very process of presidential lying about war policy.” In certain contexts, he had come to believe, “leaking could be a patriotic and constructive act.” Before he went to the Times, he copied the papers and tried to give them to antiwar senators to release. The senators, however, did not want to risk damaging their careers by exposing top-secret documents that did not even discuss current U.S. policy. Senator William Fulbright doubted whether the papers were really that significant. “Isn’t it after all only history?” he asked Ellsberg.

But Nixon understood that history could have explosive consequences for the present. Although the Pentagon Papers covered only the Kennedy and Johnson years, Nixon and his aides still thought that Ellsberg had undermined the president’s war powers. One of Nixon’s advisers, former Congressman Donald Rumsfeld, believed that the documents represented a potentially catastrophic assault on the inherent authority of the presidency. “Rumsfeld was making this point this morning,” Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, told the president in an Oval Office conversation. He summarized Rumsfeld’s argument:

[T]o the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the — the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the
president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.

Nixon did not want the American people to think that the president could be wrong. Nor did he want current government employees to think that they could get away with another leak. The president had many of his own secrets to protect, like the bombing of Cambodia. He was also certain that Ellsberg was part of a wider conspiracy to stop the war and destroy his presidency.

The Pentagon Papers case tapped a deep pool of resentment and hostility in the president. In private conversations with his aides, he repeatedly compared Ellsberg to Alger Hiss. In both cases, the men were part of a conspiracy of intellectuals, “left-wingers,” and the “bastards” in the press to destroy the nation, the presidency, and Nixon personally.(1)

To combat this conspiracy, Nixon commanded his aides to begin a conspiracy of their own. They were to ruin Ellsberg in any way that they could: his advisers suggested prosecution for espionage, but the president preferred to dig up some dirt on Ellsberg and then “convict the son of a bitch in the press.” Responding to the president’s repeated and emphatic orders, his aides set up a special unit within the White House to spy on and punish his enemies. They started with Ellsberg but soon moved on to other targets. Because they looked for leaks, they called themselves the plumbers.

But these would be very bad plumbers, workers who planned to spring more leaks than they plugged. One of the “plumbers,” E. Howard Hunt, searched through classified historical documents to find – and then leak — embarrassing secrets from past Democratic presidential administrations. When he failed to find the evidence he sought, he fabricated it. As he worked to discredit Nixon’s opponents from the past, he also helped to oversee a massive program of surveillance and harassment of the president’s current enemies. The president’s men did not want to indict Ellsberg alone; they wanted to convict all of the president’s enemies, including every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt, in the court of public opinion.

In the Nixon administration, paranoia, conspiracy, and conspiracy theory became fundamental operating principles of the executive branch. Nixon’s men believed in conspiracies, engaged in real conspiracies, and cynically promoted some conspiracy theories as a means to deflect attention from their crimes.

The disclosure of the “White House horrors,” as Attorney General John Mitchell called the various abuses of the Nixon administration, prompted a wave of inquiries. Public officials, stunned by citizens’ vocal distrust of government, scrambled to restore national morale by launching investigations of past administrations. The full extent of the government’s paranoia about its citizens was revealed for all to see.

(1) See transcript of conversation between Nixon and Haldeman on June 14, 1971, available here.