Staying Power

How to Prevent Coups

French soldiers parading in Paris, July 2013.
French soldiers parading in Paris, July 2013. (Christian Hartmann / Courtesy Reuters)

As the Watergate crisis escalated in late 1973, rumors traveled around Washington that President Richard Nixon might call on the military for support. Years later, U.S. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who had been chief of naval operations in those days, recalled a meeting between Nixon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in December 1973. According to Zumwalt, Nixon launched into a rambling speech about how “the Eastern liberal establishment was out to do us all in.” Nixon’s next suggestion was shocking. “We gentlemen here,” declared the president, “are the last hope, the last chance to resist.”

“I got the impression,” Zumwalt recalled, that “he was sort of testing the water with us, to see whether there would be support -- any nodding of heads -- at some of these things. One could well have come to the conclusion that here was the Commander-in-Chief trying to see what the reaction of the Chiefs might be if he did something unconstitutional. . . . He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”

None of the military commanders responded. After the meeting, Zumwalt conferred with Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams, who said he would simply pretend the episode never occurred. If Zumwalt’s depiction is accurate, Nixon floated a trial balloon to see whether the military brass would support him in a coup d’état against Congress. But the balloon popped instantly, and Nixon faced the humiliating trial with stoicism, not Machiavellian machination.

This was not the first time in U.S. history in which a leading official or military commander considered staging a coup. During the U.S. Civil War, George McClellan, a top Northern general, apparently contemplated deposing President Abraham Lincoln over his stance on slaves. Shortly after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves living in Confederate territory, McClellan invited three fellow Union generals to dine with him. After dinner, he told them that his admirers were urging him to take a public stand against the proclamation. The generals pleaded with him to avoid a confrontation with the president and assured him he would be without support. McClellan backed off.

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