Watergate, Vietnam Reflect Complicated Times in American History

By Jim O’Neal

Nixon

Before Richard Nixon went to bed on Nov. 7, 1972, he gathered his supporters at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a few final words of victory. As he turned away to retire, there was a loud chorus of voices chanting “Four more years!” This was an elite group of Republicans, but there was no way for the television audience to know that some of the most eminent chanters were felons.

And although the president had racked up a historic victory with 18 million more votes than his opponent, that was not the whole story. Only 55 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls, a strong indication that perhaps a lot of people rejected both candidates. Plus, the Democrats continued to dominate both houses of Congress, limiting the power of the presidency to enact key legislation.

Even more significantly, this term would be the first (and only) in U.S. history where both the original president and vice president failed to complete their terms in office. Especially poignant was that both had been forced to resign … Spiro Agnew over corruption and Nixon over Watergate.

In a reference to Watergate, Democratic Party nominee George McGovern had described the Nixon administration as “the most corrupt in history,” but Gallup had reported in October that barely half the voters had even heard of the break-in and only 7 percent thought the president might be involved. The men around Nixon continued to be deeply involved in the cover-up … anything to push the issue past the election.

Kissinger

The president’s reelection campaign had been enormously enhanced in the final days by electrifying news from Henry Kissinger: He and Le Duc Tho, Hanoi’s chief negotiator, had achieved a breakthrough in their Paris talks. On Oct. 8, the North Vietnamese had dropped their insistence that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu be ejected and instead a coalition government be installed in Saigon. Eighteen days later, Kissinger told a televised press conference that a final accord could be reached with just one more meeting. “Peace,” he said, “is at hand.”

But it wasn’t.

Saigon didn’t agree and Thieu vowed that, if necessary, his country would continue the war alone. Then the North became difficult again and Kissinger left Paris in despair on Dec. 14.

Nixon was furious with both sides and cabled North Vietnam’s Premier Pham Van Dong, warning him that unless serious negotiations were resumed within 72 hours, he would reseed Haiphong harbor with mines and unleash America’s aerial might: B-52s, F-4 Phantoms and Navy fighter bombers. General Curtis LeMay had proposed “bombing them back into the Stone Age” and Air Force generals assured the president that in two weeks, they could saturate the enemy homeland with more tonnage than in all the great raids of World War II – a terror-bombing on a scale never known before.

Hanoi did not respond and the result was the most savage chapter in the long history of our involvement as U.S. air bases on Guam and Thailand and carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin pounded them 24/7, flying more than 1,400 bombing sorties a week. Americans were stunned. Only a few days before, they thought the long nightmare was over.

Back in Washington, D.C., the other nightmare was also not going away. Despite the best efforts of All the President’s Men, it was also destined to end badly. A very complicated time in our history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Military Officers Swooped In and Saved Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford, left, often took trips with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. This photograph, circa 1924, signed by Ford, sold for $1,195 at a June 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1968, General Curtis LeMay was the vice presidential running mate with American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. This unlikely duo snagged 46 electoral votes and five states with almost 10 million popular votes. This was the last time a third-party candidate won a state.

During World War II, LeMay had implemented a controversial bombing campaign in the Pacific. It was during this time that future Ford Motor Company President Robert McNamara was busy analyzing U.S. bomber efficiency and effectiveness, especially the B-29 command of General LeMay, as part of a team headed by Colonel Tex Thornton.

LeMay and McNamara would cross paths again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the war in Vietnam.

During the late war years of the 1940s, the Ford Motor Company was struggling to remain viable. President Edsel Ford, son of founder Henry, died of stomach cancer in 1943 and the board made the mistake of bringing back an ailing Henry Ford in an act of desperation. The company was losing $9-10 million a month and the Roosevelt administration had considered nationalization to keep vital war materials flowing.

In 1945, Edsel’s son Henry Ford II was discharged from the Navy and the board quickly named him president of Ford. However, the company he inherited was still a shell of a corporation badly in need of modernizing its production, establishing financial controls and building an organization.

In a stroke of genius, Tex Thornton decided to market his staff of nine wartime officers to corporations that were reconverting from military to civil production. After all, his colleagues were part of a management science operation within the Army Air Force and, without a doubt, were the most talented managerial team of the century … young men who had gained 25 years of experience in just four years.

Thornton sent a cable to young (28) Henry Ford II and after an impressive interview, Ford hired the group with salaries ranging from $10,000 to $16,000. Bob McNamara was the second-highest paid and he took over finance at Ford. This is the group that became the famous “Whiz Kids” (although internally they were called “Quiz Kids” since they were always asking “Why?”). The Ford Motor Company would never be the same, fortunately, and slowly started catching up with rival General Motors.

One amusing anecdote involves The Edsel Show, a live one-hour television special designed to promote Ford’s cars. It aired on Oct. 13, 1957, and featured Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. The show drew great reviews.

Clooney received one of the new Edsels as a gift and after the show, she and Henry Ford were walking together when she went over to get in. The door handle came off in her hand, so she turned and said, “Henry, about your car…”

Quality control was still en route to Dearborn, Mich., but arrived after the Edsel’s funeral.

More about Robert Strange McNamara, who became Secretary of Defense in 1961, in future posts.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].