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Context of 'May 4-5, 1970: Nixon Responds to Kent State Shootings'

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Map showing the 115,273 targets bombed by US airstrikes between October 1965 and August 1973.Map showing the 115,273 targets bombed by US airstrikes between October 1965 and August 1973. [Source: Taylor Owen / History News Network]President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, discuss North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply routes in the neutral border country of Cambodia. General Creighton Abrams, the US military commander in South Vietnam, wants those sites bombed, regardless of the fact that military strikes against locations in a neutral country would be flagrant violations of international laws and treaties. Abrams has assured the White House that no Cambodian civilians live in those areas—a false assertion. Nixon orders Kissinger to come up with a plan for bombing Cambodia. Kissinger, his military aide Alexander Haig, and Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman develop the basic plan in two days. The first wave of bombings will begin three weeks later (see March 15-17, 1969). Nixon’s secret bombings of Cambodia—dubbed “Operation Menu”—will trigger a wave of global denunciations, further energize the antiwar movement, and help precipitate the leak of the “Pentagon Papers” (see March 1971). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 48-49]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Henry A. Kissinger, ’Operation Menu’, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., H.R. Haldeman, Creighton Abrams

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Vice President Spiro Agnew (see 1969-1971, April 10, 1973, and October 10, 1973) gives the following advice: “We must look to the university that receives our children. Is it prepared to deal with the challenge of the non-democratic left? One modest suggestion for my friends in the academic community: the next time a mob of students, waving their non-negotiable demands, starts pitching bricks and rocks at the Student Union—just imagine they are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly.” [Hunt, 9/1/2009, pp. 18]

Entity Tags: Spiro T. Agnew

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

On April 24, President Nixon orders US and South Vietnamese troops to secretly invade the “Parrot’s Beak” region of Cambodia, thought to be a Viet Cong stronghold. The decision is controversial. Nixon knows that many senior military officials, as well as his Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, will oppose the operation, so he carefully keeps Laird ignorant of the invasion plans. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger privately alerts Laird to some of the less controversial elements of the operation (but not the use of US forces in the invasion), and Laird recommends advising Congress of the imminent military action. Kissinger says Nixon will handle that himself. (Nixon only tells one Congressman, Senator John Stennis (D-MS), the hawkish chairman of the Armed Services Committee.) As the evening wears on, Nixon repeatedly calls Kissinger’s office, barking out contradictory orders and hanging up, as he flip-flops on whether to actually go through with the plan. “Our peerless leader has flipped out,” Kissinger tells his staff. Nixon calls Kissinger with further orders and tells him, in a slurred, perhaps inebriated voice, “Wait a minute, Bebe has something to say to you.” Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, Nixon’s longtime friend and millionaire political and personal financier (who has been thoroughly informed of the operation when many senior government and officials have not), takes the phone and says, “The president wants you to know that if this doesn’t work, Henry, it’s your ass.”
Staffers Resign - Kissinger, who has himself kept his staff ignorant of the invasion, tells one staffer, William Watts, to coordinate the National Security Council’s work on the invasion. But Watts, outraged at the secret invasion of a neutral nation, refuses. “Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern establishment,” Kissinger snaps. Watts comes towards Kissinger as if to strike him, then turns and walks out of the office. Watts resigns his position minutes later. Kissinger’s military aide, Alexander Haig: tells Watts: “You can’t resign.… You’ve just had an order from your commander in chief.” Watts retorts, “F_ck you, Al, I just did.” Two other Kissinger staffers, Anthony Lake and Roger Morris, also resign over the invasion.
Others Informed - The plans are finalized by Nixon and Kissinger, with Rebozo sitting in on the discussion. Only on the evening of April 26 do Laird, Secretary of State William Rogers, and other Cabinet officials learn of the plans to invade Cambodia. Rogers is horrified; Laird is ambivalent, but furious that he was left out of the decision-making process. The invasion takes place on April 28. Congress and the press learn of the invasion on April 30. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 199-206]

Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Anthony Lake, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo, John Stennis, Roger Morris, William Watts, National Security Council, Richard M. Nixon, Henry A. Kissinger, William P. Rogers

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

US and South Vietnamese troops invade Cambodia, attacking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases and supply lines. Angered by the move, four men from Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff resign (see April 24-30, 1970). [Blum, 1995; Hitchins, 2001; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2005] By the end of May, scores of villages have been destroyed. [Blum, 1995] Though US ground forces are withdrawn by June 30, the South Vietnamese troops will remain, occupying heavily populated areas and supported by continued heavy US air bombings. During this time, popular support for the Khmer Rouge broadens, its ranks swelling from 3,000 in March 1970 to a peak of about 30,000. [Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2005]

Entity Tags: Henry A. Kissinger

Timeline Tags: US-Cambodia (1955-1993), Nixon and Watergate

James A. Rhodes.James A. Rhodes. [Source: Ohio History Central (.org)]James A. Rhodes (R-OH), the governor of Ohio, says of student protesters at Kent State University: “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes (see 1970). They’re the worst kind of people we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in Ameica.… We’re going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms.” Two days later, National Guardsmen following Rhodes’s orders kill four unarmed students on the Kent State campus and wound nine others (see May 4-5, 1970). [Hunt, 9/1/2009, pp. 19]

Entity Tags: James A. Rhodes, Kent State University, Ohio National Guard

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a slain student during the Kent State shootings.Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a slain student during the Kent State shootings. [Source: John Paul Filo]At 3 p.m. on May 4, 1970, White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman informs President Nixon of the shootings of four unarmed college students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. After a night of rioting and the torching of a campus ROTC building, prompted by outrage over the secret Cambodia bombings (see April 24-30, 1970), about 2,000 students faced off against squads of National Guardsmen in full riot gear. After tear gas failed to break up the demonstrators, and some of the protesters started throwing rocks at the Guardsmen, the Guard was ordered to open fire. Thirteen seconds and 67 shots later, four students were dead and 11 were wounded. Nixon is initially aghast at the news. “Is this because of me, because of Cambodia?” he asks. “How do we turn this stuff off?… I hope they provoked it.” Later his response to the increasingly confrontational antiwar protesters will become far more harsh and derisive. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 213]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Kent State University, H.R. Haldeman

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Governor Ronald Reagan listens to a statement by an antiwar protester, 1970.Governor Ronald Reagan listens to a statement by an antiwar protester, 1970. [Source: Not in Kansas (.com)]Speaking in support of the Kent State shootings, in which National Guardsmen slew four unarmed students and wounded nine others (see May 2, 1970 and May 4-5, 1970), Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA) says of efforts to stop student protests on university campuses, “If it takes a bloodbath, then let’s get it over with.” [Hunt, 9/1/2009, pp. 19]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

President Nixon meets with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director Richard Helms, and the heads of the NSA and DIA to discuss a proposed new domestic intelligence system. His presentation is prepared by young White House aide Tom Charles Huston (derisively called “Secret Agent X-5” behind his back by some White House officials). The plan is based on the assumption that, as Nixon says, “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans—mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.” Nixon complains that the various US intelligence agencies spend as much time battling with one another over turf and influence as they do working to locate threats to national security both inside and outside of the country. The agencies need to prove the assumed connections between the antiwar demonstrators and Communists. The group in Nixon’s office will now be called the “Interagency Committee on Intelligence,” Nixon orders, with Hoover chairing the new ad hoc group, and demands an immediate “threat assessment” about domestic enemies to his administration. Huston will be the White House liaison. Historian Richard Reeves will later write: “The elevation of Huston, a fourth-level White House aide, into the company of Hoover and Helms was a calculated insult. Nixon was convinced that both the FBI and the CIA had failed to find the links he was sure bound domestic troubles and foreign communism. But bringing them to the White House was also part of a larger Nixon plan. He was determined to exert presidential control over the parts of the government he cared most about—the agencies dealing with foreign policy, military matters, intelligence, law, criminal justice, and general order.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 229-230]

Entity Tags: Richard Reeves, Tom Charles Huston, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

President Nixon approves the “Huston Plan” for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. Four days later he rescinds his approval. [Washington Post, 2008] Nixon aide Tom Charles Huston comes up with the plan, which involves authorizing the CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence agencies to escalate their electronic surveillance of “domestic security threats” in the face of supposed threats from Communist-led youth agitators and antiwar groups (see June 5, 1970). The plan would also authorize the surreptitious reading of private mail, lift restrictions against surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information, plant informants on college campuses, and create a new, White House-based “Interagency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security.” Huston’s Top Secret memo warns that parts of the plan are “clearly illegal.” Nixon approves the plan, but rejects one element—that he personally authorize any break-ins. Nixon orders that all information and operations to be undertaken under the new plan be channeled through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, with Nixon deliberately being left out of the loop. The first operations to be undertaken are using the Internal Revenue Service to harass left-wing think tanks and charitable organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. Huston writes that “[m]aking sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore,” since the administration has no “reliable political friends at IRS.” He adds, “We won’t be in control of the government and in a position of effective leverage until such time as we have complete and total control of the top three slots of the IRS.” Huston suggests breaking into the Brookings Institute to find “the classified material which they have stashed over there,” adding: “There are a number of ways we could handle this. There are risks in all of them, of course; but there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful as each day goes by.” [Reeves, 2001, pp. 235-236] In 2007, author James Reston Jr. will call the Huston plan “arguably the most anti-democratic document in American history… a blueprint to undermine the fundamental right of dissent and free speech in America.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 102]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, National Security Agency, Richard M. Nixon, Brookings Institution, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ford Foundation, Internal Revenue Service, Tom Charles Huston, James Reston, Jr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

Nixon aide John Ehrlichman reports that he has successfully created the special investigations unit ordered by the president (see Late June-July 1971). His first choice to head the unit, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, refused the position. Ehrlichman rejected fellow aide Charles Colson’s own choice, retired CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, who has recently joined the White House staff (see July 7, 1971). Ehrlichman turned to his own protege, Egil “Bud” Krogh, and David Young, a former assistant to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, to head the unit. Young gives the unit its nickname of “Plumbers” after he hangs a sign on his office door reading, “D. YOUNG—PLUMBER.” Their first hire is former FBI agent and county prosecutor G. Gordon Liddy, a reputed “wild man” currently being pushed out of the Treasury Department for his strident opposition to the administration’s gun control policies. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 348-349]

Entity Tags: Egil Krogh, Charles Colson, David Young, G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, Patrick Buchanan, John Ehrlichman, US Department of the Treasury

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Bo Burlingame, a former member of the radical antiwar group the Weather Underground, interviews former Nixon White House aide Tom Charles Huston, the author of the notorious, unconstitutional “Huston Plan” (see July 14, 1970). Huston is just coming off a speech to a conservative audience in which he said that his plan, and Nixon’s attempt to seize executive power at the expense of Congress and the Constitution, was excessive and mistaken (see Late 1973). Huston, a lawyer, a former Army intelligence officer, and an early leader of the Indiana chapter of the conservative extremist group Young Americans for Freedom, tells Burlingame that he found an interesting parallel between his group of right-wing extremists and Burlingame’s left-wing extremists: “I was interested to learn that you people were frustrated because nobody was listening to you. You know, we felt the same thing at the White House. It seemed as if a momentous crisis was at hand, and nobody was aware of it or cared.”
Coup d'Etat Begins with Creation of Fear in Populace - Huston is contemptuous and dismissive of many of his former White House colleagues, particularly Richard Nixon. “Frankly, I wouldn’t put anything past him and those damn technocrats,” he says of Nixon and his senior aides. “[Y]ou can’t begin to compete with the professional Nixonites when it comes to deception.… If Nixon told them to nationalize the railroads, they’d have nationalized the railroads. If he’d told them to exterminate the Jews, they’d have exterminated the Jews.” He took a position with the White House in January 1969 “believing that things were finally going to be set straight.”
Disillusioned - Huston became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of idealism in the Nixon White House, and left after deciding that Nixon and his top officials were less interested in implementing true conservative reforms and more interested in merely accumulating power. The Nixon team was an apolitical, power-hungry bunch “whose intellectual tradition is rooted in the philosophy of [marketing and advertising guru] J. Walter Thompson.… This administration has done more to debauch conservative values than anything else in recent history.”
Fear and Repression - Considering his plan to abrogate the fundamental rights of hundreds of thousands of Americans, Huston seems quite supportive of those rights even in the face of national danger. “The real threat to national security is repression,” he had told a New York Times interviewer not long before the Burlingame interview. “A handful of people can’t frontally overthrow the government. But if they can engender enough fear, they can generate an atmosphere that will bring out every repressive demagogue in the country.”
Explaining the Huston Plan - Huston explains the rationale behind his radically repressive plan, telling Burlingame that the country was on the brink of mass insurrection and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was not doing nearly enough to combat the civil rights and antiwar protesters, particularly groups like the Black Panthers and Burlingame’s Weather Underground. By early 1970, many in the White House were ready to ease Hoover out of power; when, shortly thereafter, the mass protests against the Cambodia bombings (see February 23-24, 1969 and April 24-30, 1970) and the Jackson State and Kent State shootings (see May 4-5, 1970) occurred, Huston and others at the White House thought there was a far more organized and systematic underground, left-wing revolution going on than they had evidence to document. “We just didn’t believe we were getting the whole story,” he says.
Removing Hoover - Getting rid of Hoover and replacing him with someone more amenable to the White House’s agenda was the first goal, Huston says. The June 1970 “Interagency Committee on Intelligence” (see June 5, 1970) was designed to maneuver around Hoover and have him implicitly authorize counter-insurrection methods that he had always opposed, including “surreptitious entry” and “covert mail coverage.” The committee was the genesis of the Huston Plan. But Hoover stops the plan in its tracks by going through Attorney General John Mitchell. Whatever he said to Mitchell is not known, but Mitchell chewed out Huston and saw to it that the plan was terminated. Huston says that the unit of illegal campaign operatives later known as the “Plumbers” (see July 20, 1971) stems in part from the White House’s inability to force Hoover from power. Had Hoover made the FBI available to conduct the illegal burglaries and surveillances that Nixon wanted done—had Nixon supported the Huston Plan—the Plumbers would have never come into existence. “I find that totally indefensible,” Huston observes.
Ethical Confusion - Burlingame is bemused by Huston’s apparent ethical schizophrenia—on the one hand, Huston has come out strongly for constitutional freedoms, and on the other hand is now saying that his plan, which he himself has long admitted was blatantly illegal, would have avoided the entire Watergate contretemps and would have worked to bring the country into line. In fact, Huston asserts, he believed at the time that the Watergate conspiracy was completely legal. “I took the view that in internal security matters the president had the right to infringe on what would, in other circumstances, be constitutional rights, but that decision encompassed a decision that you forfeit the right to prosecute.” This view is why he left the Justice Department entirely out of the loop on his plan, he says.
Deliberately Keeping outside the Framework of the Law - The entire Huston plan would have never been used for anything except intelligence-gathering, he says. It was necessary for the plan to be exercised outside the structure of US law, he says. “[Y]ou don’t want a constitutional or legal mandate,” he says. “You don’t want to institutionalize the excesses required to meet extraordinary threats. The law just can’t anticipate all the contingencies.” He now thinks that he went too far with pushing for extraordinary powers; that if Hoover could have been eased out of power, the FBI could have done what needed doing without breaking the law. Burlingame writes that he cannot help but think that Huston is employing “tortured legalisms” to “cover his flank,” and questions Huston’s portrait of himself as an increasingly marginalized conservative idealist who became so disillusioned with the amoral power-mad bureaucrats of the Nixon administration that he walked out rather than further jeopardize his own principles. [Harper's, 10/1974]

Entity Tags: John Mitchell, Bo Burlingame, Black Panthers, ’Plumbers’, Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Walter Thompson, Young Americans for Freedom, J. Edgar Hoover, Tom Charles Huston, US Department of Justice, Weather Underground, Nixon administration, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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