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Context of 'August 25, 1974: Story of Pentagon Moving to Prevent Nixon Coup Allegedly ‘Fabricated’'

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A small August 24, 1974, story in the Washington Post about the Pentagon ensuring that former President Nixon could not unilaterally use military forces to retain power in the case of an impeachment (see August 22, 1974) becomes blazing page one headlines around the country. The stories center around quotes from Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who says that he worried about two unlikely possibilities. First, Nixon might order military units to block Congress from the “constitutional process” of removing him from office, or some other official might try to oust Nixon in something of a coup d’etat. Second, the nation might suddenly face a crisis calling for immediate military action, and Schlesinger and General George Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would have to justify their decision to take such action. “Pentagon Kept Tight Rein in Last Days of Nixon Rule,” the New York Times reports. President Ford is outraged at the story, and sees the leaker of the story—Schlesinger or someone else—as having committed a profoundly disloyal act, not just against Nixon, but against the nation and the military. Ford meets with Brown, who tells him that the story is bogus. “There was no alert,” Brown says. “I’ve checked at headquarters. There are no recorded messages coming out of [Schlesinger]‘s office. Furthermore, if there had been a call, it would have been referred back to the National Military Command Center here at the Pentagon. We have no record of that. I’ve checked every record and it’s all pure fabrication.” Ford learns that the story indeed originated with Schlesinger, who held a lunch meeting with reporters on August 23. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements asks Schlesinger, “Why did you say all this?” Schlesinger’s response, according to Ford’s memoirs: “I don’t know.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 182-185]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, James R. Schlesinger, William Clements, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, George Brown

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Ford fires a number of Nixon holdovers and replaces them with “my guys… my own team,” both to show his independence and to prepare for a bruising 1976 primary battle with Ronald Reagan. The wholesale firings and reshufflings are dubbed the “Halloween Massacre.” Donald Rumsfeld becomes secretary of defense, replacing James Schlesinger (see November 4, 1975). George H. W. Bush replaces William Colby as director of the CIA. Henry Kissinger remains secretary of state, but his position as national security adviser is given to Brent Scowcroft. Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s deputy chief of staff, moves up to become the youngest chief of staff in White House history. Perhaps the most controversial decision is to replace Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s vice-presidential candidate for the 1976 elections. Ford’s shake-up is widely viewed as his cave-in to Republican Party hardliners. He flounders in his defense of his new staffers: for example, when Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) asks him why he thinks Rumsfeld is qualified to run the Pentagon, Ford replies, “He was a pilot in the Korean War.” The ultimate winner in the shake-up is Rumsfeld, who instigated the moves from behind the scenes and gains the most from them. Rumsfeld quickly wins a reputation in Washington as a political opportunist, gunning for the vice presidency in 1976 and willing to do whatever is necessary to get it. Rockefeller tells Ford: “Rumsfeld wants to be president of the United States. He has given George Bush the deep six by putting him in the CIA, he has gotten me out.… He was third on your [vice-presidential] list (see August 16-17, 1974) and now he has gotten rid of two of us.… You are not going to be able to put him on the [ticket] because he is defense secretary, but he is not going to want anybody who can possibly be elected with you on that ticket.… I have to say I have a serious question about his loyalty to you.” Later, Ford will write of his sharp regret in pushing Rockefeller off the ticket: “I was angry at myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives: It’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 340-341] “It was the biggest political mistake of my life,” Ford later says. “And it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.” [US Senate, 7/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, William Colby, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, James R. Schlesinger, Barry Goldwater, Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcroft, George Herbert Walker Bush, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Henry A. Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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