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New Nixon documents detail talks of Vietnam, other issues

Rehnquist, Perot among other topics discussed

From Robert Yoon and David de Sola

Nixon in a 1973 photograph.


Richard Nixon
Ross Perot
William H. Rehnquist
Jimmy Hoffa

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- About 50,000 newly released pages of documents from the Nixon administration primarily address the war in Vietnam but also deal with topics including the Supreme Court nomination of William Rehnquist, the pardon of union leader Jimmy Hoffa and efforts by Ross Perot to help prisoners in Vietnam.

The National Archives released the documents on Wednesday.

The bulk of the documents, about 41,000 pages, were newly declassified reports, cables and memos from the National Security Council on the Vietnam War, including detailed, day-by-day assessments of the war effort and U.S. military actions in Laos and Cambodia. The files also addressed the war's domestic political ramifications.

A Sept. 16, 1969, memo to then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger described an effort by two Republican members of Congress to terminate the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that helped escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"They are contacting other Republicans for support and hope to get the whole project off the ground in about three weeks," said NSC staff member John Holdridge in the memo. "Obviously, the scheme can only hurt the President's policy on Vietnam. We have prepared a memorandum to (White House congressional liaison) Bryce Harlow urging him to do what he can to see that the plan is squashed."

The documents also showed that the Nixon White House kept close tabs on Ross Perot, then president of a Texas-based computer firm, and his efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to win the release of American prisoners of war being held in North Vietnam.

Perot communicated with various White House officials throughout 1969 and 1970 to discuss the POW issue, and he actually met with Nixon himself in February 1970. He won praise from the White House for some of his efforts -- but consternation for others.

In a personal letter dated April 4, 1970, then-NSC staff member Alexander Haig praised Perot for embarrassing the North Vietnamese government by attempting to deliver Christmas mail to the American POWs.

Haig told Perot that "the Christmas effort to send mail to U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam caught Hanoi off balance, and its handling of the matter caused it to lose face in the eyes of diplomats and other foreign officials in North Vietnam." Haig concluded his letter by calling Perot's trip "a tremendous success."

But later that month, an NSC memo criticized a separate Perot initiative that involved asking the South Vietnamese to release hundreds of sick and wounded North Vietnamese prisoners into his custody, at which point Perot would transport the prisoners in a private chartered ship to the North's Haiphong harbor. The ship would also deliver packages and medical supplies for American prisoners.

Holdridge, the NSC aide, dismissed the idea in an April 18, 1970, memo to Kissinger, saying that "this one simply won't wash."

"How Perot could get into this process without violating the Geneva Convention and offending the GVN (the South Vietnamese government), not to mention Hanoi, is hard to see," he said.

A 'hopping mad' Ross Perot

Others in the White House were suspicious of Perot as well. A Jan. 17, 1970, memo from White House aide Alexander Butterfield said, "As (White House aide) Chuck Colson has said several times, 'The man bears watching.'"

The outspoken Perot, who ran unsuccessfully for president as an independent in both 1992 and 1996, was equally suspicious of the White House, according to the documents.

In a memo dated Nov. 24, 1970, Butterfield describes a hostile conversation he had with the Texas billionaire, saying, "Ross Perot called late yesterday afternoon to let me know of his disappointment (and disgust) with our procedures for handling those who wish to see the President."

Butterfield said Perot was "hopping mad" and that "his ire was intensified" by a failed attempt earlier that week to free American POWs at a North Vietnamese prison. U.S. troops reached the prison only to find that all the prisoners had been relocated months earlier.

Perot then told Butterfield, "If I had been in charge of this operation you can bet your bottom dollar that the President, at this very moment, would be shaking hands with freed prisoners. We wouldn't have hit just one camp, we would have hit several."

One box of files contained dozens of documents with information on the infamous My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers, led by Army Lt. William Calley, killed and wounded hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians.

Documents show that aides kept Nixon, Kissinger and other top administration officials informed of the ongoing prosecution of Calley and others involved in the incident. In one memo to Nixon, Kissinger floated the possibility of appointing a presidential commission to look into allegations of war crimes in Vietnam in the aftermath of My Lai, if more allegations surfaced.

The Rehnquist nomination

In addition to Vietnam, the Nixon White House was engaged in a domestic battle over the Supreme Court. Nixon and his aides discussed the high court nominations of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell in a series of memos from December 1971.

The White House expected the Powell nomination to sail through the Senate but feared a possible Democratic filibuster against Rehnquist.

A memo to Nixon from William Timmons, a White House aide on legislative affairs, said that "our vote count is 70 for, 23 against, 5 undeclared and 2 absent. My guess is that we'll lose all five questionables and could suffer some additional defections in our 70 if anti-Rehnquist publicity continues to build. This appears to be (Democratic Sen. Birch) Bayh's strategy in filibustering the nomination."

Bayh is the father of current Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana.

Rehnquist was not filibustered and won confirmation 68-26. Fifteen years later, he was promoted to chief justice, a position he held for 19 years before his death in September. Powell, as expected, was confirmed easily by a vote of 89-1.

Jimmy Hoffa's pardon

Also among the records was the official pardon that Nixon granted to former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa on Dec. 23, 1971. Hoffa had been serving a prison sentence for fraud and jury tampering.

Nixon's pardon required that Hoffa "not engage in direct or indirect management of any labor organization" until at least March 1980.

Hoffa, who supported Nixon's 1972 re-election bid, disappeared in 1975. His body has never been found.

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