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When Nixon Nailed the SecDef

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Now we know how President Richard Nixon really viewed the role of secretary of Defense, thanks to riveting excerpts of Oval Office conversations (those tapes again!) in the August issue of Vanity Fair.

In April 1972, as the U.S. was stepping up the air campaign against the North Vietnamese communists, Nixon was growing increasingly frustrated with what he perceived as the military's slow response to the requirements of the day, both in Indochina and Washington. When a briefing he ordered for 7 a.m. on April 3 wasn't delivered until 8:30 a.m., the earliest Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird himself could get to the White House (presumably Laird was busy running the war), Nixon wasn't having it.

Later that day, Nixon shared his frustrations with Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

Nixon: I'm not going to have that kind of crap anymore. From now on, that man is to have his ass over here in this office at seven o-clock every morning. Is that clear? 

Moorer: Yes, sir. He'll be here. 

Nixon went on to criticize the air campaign, questioning the number of sorties the Air Force was flying against targets in North Vietnam ("And good God! In the Battle of the Bulge they were able to fly even in a snowstorm. Now what in the hell is the matter with the Air Force that they are unable to, to conduct offensive operations in this area? . . . They're to knock off all the parties, is that clear?")

Before Moorer left, Nixon had a message for his boss.

Nixon: When an order goes out, it's got to go from me. The secretary of Defense is not commander in chief. The secretary of Defense does not make decisions on these kinds of things. 

Moorer: I understand that, Mr. President. 

Nixon: He's a procurement officer. That's what he is and not another goddamn thing. 

The Vanity Fair piece was adapted from "The Nixon Tapes," by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, to be published this summer by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014). 

Katherine is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for GovExec.com and Government Executive magazine. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.

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