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Profile: Melvin Laird

Melvin Laird was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Nixon makes the final decision to launch “Operation Menu”—secret air strikes against Cambodia (see February 23-24, 1969). He meets with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers, ostensibly to discuss the decision of whether “to bomb or not,” but unbeknownst to the two officials, Nixon has already issued the order and begun a system of phony telephone records put in place to disguise the bombings. Congress is not informed of the bombings. The first stage of the bombing, “Operation Breakfast,” is productive enough to lead Nixon to predict the war in Vietnam will be over by 1970. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 58-59]

Entity Tags: ’Operation Menu’, Melvin Laird, William P. Rogers, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Henry Kissinger.Henry Kissinger. [Source: Library of Congress]Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, determined to prove to President Nixon that news stories about the secret Cambodian bombings are not being leaked to the press by liberals in the National Security Council offices, urges FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap several of Nixon’s top aides, as well as a selection of reporters. Kissinger will later deny making the request. [Werth, 2006, pp. 169] In March 1973, W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s famous “Deep Throat” background source, will confirm the wiretappings, saying: “In 1969, the first targets of aggressive wiretapping were the reporters and those in the administration who were suspected of disloyalty. Then the emphasis was shifted to the radical political opposition during the [Vietnam] antiwar protests. When it got near election time [1972], it was only natural to tap the Democrats (see Late June-July 1971 and May 27-28, 1972). The arrests in the Watergate (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) sent everybody off the edge because the break-in could uncover the whole program.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 271] Felt will tell Woodward that two of the reporters placed under electronic surveillance are Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith. Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg will leak the Defense Department documents to Sheehan (see March 1971). Eventually, future FBI director William Ruckelshaus will reveal that at least 17 wiretaps are ordered between 1969 and 1971. The logs of those wiretaps are stored in a safe in White House aide John Ehrlichman’s office. In all, 13 government officials and four reporters are monitored. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 313] The FBI will send Kissinger 37 letters reporting on the results of the surveillance between May 16, 1969 and May 11, 1970. When the surveillance is revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee, it will be shown that among those monitored are Nixon speechwriter and later New York Times columnist William Safire; Anthony Lake, a top Kissinger aide who will later resign over the secret bombings of Cambodia; and the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, whom Kissinger regards as a political enemy. [Woodward, 2005, pp. 21-22]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry A. Kissinger, Hedrick Smith, Anthony Lake, Melvin Laird, Neil Sheehan, William Safire, W. Mark Felt, National Security Council, William Ruckelshaus

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

The New York Times reveals the secret bombings of Cambodia, dubbed “Operation Menu” (see February 23-24, 1969 and March 15-17, 1969). National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger is apoplectic in his anger: shouting to President Nixon, “We must do something! We must crush those people! We must destroy them!” Kissinger is not only referring to the Times, but Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers, whom he believes leaked the information to the Times in order to discredit him. (Nixon has an unproductive phone conversation with Laird before his meeting with Kissinger; Nixon opened the phone call by calling Laird a “son of a b_tch,” and Laird hung up on the president.) Nixon suggests Kissinger’s own staff may be the source of the leaks. He is most suspicious of Kissinger’s aide Morton Halperin. By lunch, Kissinger has talked to the FBI about wiretapping suspected leakers. By dinner, Halperin’s phone is tapped. The next day, Kissinger’s military aide Alexander Haig has the FBI tap three more men “just for a few days,” warning the FBI not to keep any records of the wiretaps. The three targets are Kissinger’s aides Helmut Sonnenfeldt and Daniel Davidson, and Laird’s military assistant, Robert Pursley (who will again be wiretapped several months later—see May 2, 1970). At the same time, White House aide Jack Caulfield (see April 2, 1969) arranges for a wiretap on a private citizen, syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft. While the FBI wiretaps are legally questionable, Caulfield’s tap is unquestionably illegal. Caulfield has the director of security for the Republican National Committee, former FBI agent John Ragan, personally install the wiretap in Kraft’s home. The tap on Kraft produces nothing except the conversations of housekeepers, as Kraft and his wife are in Paris. Nixon has the French authorities wiretap Kraft’s Paris hotel room. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 75-76]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, William P. Rogers, Robert Pursley, Republican National Committee, Morton H. Halperin, Melvin Laird, Daniel Davidson, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., ’Operation Menu’, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Henry A. Kissinger, John J. ‘Jack’ Caulfield, John Ragan, Joseph Kraft, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

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

May 2, 1970: Haig Orders Four More Wiretaps

When the press reports the secret US-led invasion of Cambodia (see April 24-30, 1970) and the subsequent massive air strikes in that country, Alexander Haig, the military aide to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, notes that New York Times reporter William Beecher has been asking some suspiciously well-informed questions about the operation. Beecher’s latest story also alerts Defense Secretary Melvin Laird to the bombings (Laird, whom Kissinger considers a hated rival, has been kept out of the loop on the bombings). Haig tells the FBI he suspects a “serious security violation” has taken place, and receives four new wiretaps: on Beecher; Laird’s assistant Robert Pursley; Secretary of State William Rogers’s assistant Richard Pederson; and Rogers’s deputy, William Sullivan. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 212]

Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Henry A. Kissinger, William Sullivan, Richard Pederson, William P. Rogers, William Beecher, Robert Pursley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

Gerald R. Ford, Jr.Gerald R. Ford, Jr. [Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library]President Nixon names Congressman Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) as his nominee for vice president. Two days before, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office after being convicted of tax evasion charges unrelated to Watergate (see October 10, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, 5/3/1999] Nixon’s original choice for Agnew’s replacement is former Texas governor John Connally, in hopes that Connally can secure the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, win the election, and continue Nixon’s legacy. But Connally, Nixon’s Treasury Election, is himself under investigation for his handling of a secret Nixon campaign fund. Nixon’s close political ally and strategist Melvin Laird, Nixon’s first secretary of defense, and veteran political adviser Bryce Harlow advised Nixon to select Ford as his new vice president. Other Republicans are recommending better-known party stalwarts—former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, California governor Ronald Reagan, Senate Watergate Committee co-chair Howard Baker, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican Party chairman George H.W. Bush, Connally, Laird, and others—Ford is a complete party loyalist, popular among Congressional Republicans, and an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee. By naming Ford as vice president, Laird and Barlow hope to head off any impeachment vote by that committee. On October 10, Laird phoned Ford and, according to Laird’s later recollection, said: “Jerry, you’re going to get a call from Al Haig [Nixon’s chief of staff]. I don’t want any bullsh_t from you. Don’t hesitate. Don’t talk to Betty [Ford, his wife]. Say yes.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 30-31]

Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Nelson Rockefeller, Spiro T. Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard M. Nixon, John Connally, Howard Baker, Bryce Harlow, Hugh Scott, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, House Judiciary Committee, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Nelson Rockefeller.Nelson Rockefeller. [Source: National Archives]The choice of a vice president for Gerald Ford quickly narrows to two: former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush. Ford’s political adviser Melvin Laird believes Rockefeller is the only Republican who can deliver enough political punch to help Ford win the 1976 presidential election. Others tried to tout outgoing California governor Ronald Reagan as a viable vice presidential choice, but few of Ford’s staff and advisers believe that Reagan is a good choice for the slot. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) refuses consideration, saying that he is too old, but when asked who he would recommend, names Bush. Bush and his supporters mount a strong internal campaign for the job. One such supporter, Nebraska Republican operative Richard Herman, says that Bush’s best qualification is that he is “the only one with no opposition. He may not be the first choice in all cases, but he’s no lower than second with anyone.” Rockefeller is much more ambivalent about his possible selection; he has presidential ambitions of his own, but at age 66 knows that if he ever intends to run for the White House, his time is at hand. Spending four years as Ford’s vice president does not appeal to Rockefeller. And GOP conservatives, spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) loathe and vilify Rockefeller at every opportunity. [Werth, 2006, pp. 61-63] However, Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, is working behind the scenes to promote Rockefeller’s nomination over Bush’s with the RNC. Rumsfeld has no more use for Rockefeller than do the Helms supporters, but he feels he will have a better shot at the 1980 presidential nomination with Rockefeller as vice president than he will with Bush. [Unger, 2007, pp. 52]

Entity Tags: Richard Herman, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, Jesse Helms, George Herbert Walker Bush, Barry Goldwater, Melvin Laird, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Unaware that President Ford has already asked Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president (see August 16-17, 1974), the media continues to speculate on who Ford will choose for the position. Newsweek reports that George H.W. Bush “has slipped badly because of alleged irregularities in the financing of his 1970 Senate race.” White House sources tell the magazine, “there was potential embarrassment in reports that the Nixon White House had funneled about $100,000 from a secret fund known as the ‘Townhouse Operation’” into Bush’s losing Texas Senate campaign, which itself failed to report about $40,000 of the money. The news rocks Bush, who is waiting for Ford’s phone call while vacationing at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. (It is unclear who leaked the Bush information or why. Bush always believes it was Ford’s political adviser Melvin Laird; future Ford biographer James Cannon is equally sure it was Ford’s senior aide Donald Rumsfeld, a dark horse candidate for the position.) The “Townhouse Operation” is an early Nixon administration campaign machination (see Early 1970). Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski is investigating the fund; the nomination of Bush over Rockefeller would almost certainly lead Jaworski to discover that up to 18 other GOP Senate candidates received money from the same slush fund. Jaworski will manage to keep Bush’s name out of his final report, but even had Ford not already chosen Rockefeller as his vice president, the Watergate taint is lethal to Bush’s chance at the position. [Werth, 2006, pp. 114-116]

Entity Tags: Townhouse Operation, Nelson Rockefeller, Leon Jaworski, Donald Rumsfeld, George Herbert Walker Bush, Melvin Laird, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, James Cannon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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