Feb 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

First look: Pentagon restrained Nixon, new book says

Garrett Graff book

Cover: Avid Reader Press

In the final hours before President Nixon resigned, his Defense secretary moved to restrict the commander-in-chief's access to nuclear assets, Garrett Graff writes in "Watergate: A New History," out today.

Why it matters: With the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in coming in June, Graff told me his 216,000-word, 793-page book is the first "start-to-finish narrative history of Watergate written since the 1990s — and the story as we understand it has changed significantly."

Garrett tells me it's been rumored "for 50 years that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger issued an order in the final days/hours of the Nixon presidency ... that ... took away Nixon's nuclear launch powers."

  • "Schlesinger claimed as such in the 1970s, but no one ever found proof," Graff continued.
  • "Until now. I located a front-line soldier in a nuclear-armed unit in that August of 1974 who remembers the order ... It's an unprecedented extra-legal order ... since the president has unchecked nuclear launch authority."

"Schlesinger did fear that a berserk president ... might order Armageddon," Graff writes:

The truth was that ... no formal systems were in place to prevent the president from unilaterally taking action and launching nuclear weapons. Moreover, Schlesinger and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. George Brown, ... worried about a genuine emergency arising, as well as the possibility that the military might be used as cover or a distraction from Nixon’s political troubles.
Quietly, the Pentagon chief implemented his own, sending word to the nation’s military leaders: If the president gives any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing.

"The message was blunt," the front-line officer told Graff, requesting anonymity to speak about classified orders even a half-century later.

  • He paraphrased the order he saw that night in Bavaria: "No troops shall be deployed unless co-signed by Dr. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State. Please inform Command. Sent: James R Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense."
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