Did President Richard Nixon contemplate a coup d’état against Congress?
The evidence, while inconclusive, is startling — especially in light of our general assumption that coups “can’t happen here.”
As the Watergate crisis escalated in the fall of 1973, rumors darted around Washington that the president might call on the military for support.
During one meeting in December 1973, Nixon harangued the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the iniquities of the “Eastern liberal establishment.” The president’s next suggestion was shocking. “We gentlemen here,” he declared, “are the last hope, the last chance to resist.”
“I got the impression,” Adm. Elmo Zumwalt later recalled, “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.”
The military commanders did not respond, and — fortunately! — the moment passed. If Zumwalt’s depiction is accurate, Nixon appears to have floated a trial balloon, to see whether the military brass would support him in some sort of action against Congress. But obviously, they were not interested. After the commanders’ silent response, Nixon faced his humiliating trial with stoic resignation, not Machiavellian machinations.
This was a rare event in American history — a leading politician or military commander insinuating the possibility of a coup. But why is this so rare? And why have we never experienced a coup d’état, or even a coup attempt? For that matter, what makes a coup such an outlandish prospect in many affluent democracies?
My new book, Vanishing Coup: The Pattern of World History since 1310, introduces a new theory to explain why a military coup or revolution is such an unthinkable prospect in advanced democracies like the United States.
As I argue, we should reject the standard theory of stability offered by the field of civil-military relations. This standard theory holds that “professional” military officers are so thoroughly steeped in ethics and self-sacrifice, and so fully internalize the values of civilian control and constitutionalism, that they will not lead a coup. I find this “virtue theory” fairly implausible — mostly because it is difficult to reconcile with basic self-interest. Virtue theory requires an inspired idealism among too many people, for far too long, in the face of staggering contradictory incentives. (And it is certainly not the case that our military personnel are uniformly ethical or law-abiding; they simply avoid the crime of conspiring to seize political power.) Given the stakes — supreme power, riches, and everlasting fame — why haven’t any U.S. politicians or military commanders tried to mimic Caesar, Napoleon, or Mussolini?
Vanishing Coup proposes a simpler explanation. Stability is not about ethics — it is about law. Impartial “rule of law” institutions weaken and dissolve personal loyalty relationships within the political-military establishment. This process inhibits the formation of grand criminal conspiracies, up to and including those aiming at a coup d’état.
Why? Without tightly-knit factions, cliques, and cabals, it becomes inordinately difficult to organize a grand conspiracy to seize state power.
To see why, consider the link between corruption and personal loyalties. “Corruption networks” tend to be based upon family, clan, tribal, and patronage bonds. In societies where corruption is rife, you generally find strong personal loyalties, usually centered on kinship. To get anything done, you have to know the right people. Patterns of nepotism and favoritism reinforce those “strong-tie” bonds at the expense of impersonal rules and state institutions.
But personal loyalties do not merely support corruption — they also lead to coups. As scholars have noticed, coup organizers tend to draw upon the same “strong-tie” kinship and patronage connections to recruit followers. This is because any criminal endeavor — and especially a coup, which is a complex operation requiring the participation of hundreds of individuals — brings the risk of discovery and criminal punishment. As a result, conspirators turn to people they can trust.
Even in rule-of-law states with weak personal loyalties, of course, some corrupt activities occur within government. For example, politicians, civil servants, and military personnel can be susceptible to the temptations of bribery — a crime which may only involve two people, and can remain forever secret. Balancing risks and rewards, it may be individually rational to offer or accept a bribe.
But when it comes to a coup d’état, these personal calculations change pretty dramatically. To mount a coup, hundreds of individuals must join a treasonous conspiracy in advance and then participate in an operation that goes public at the very moment of execution. In a rule-of-law society, a coup organizer would have to approach hundreds of fellow military officers, bureaucrats, or politicians — with whom he or she would only be connected through “weak ties” — and any one of them could betray the plot, perhaps for personal gain.
In this context, one would have to be irrational or desperate to approach even one other person, in any kind of serious way, about a coup d’état. This is because their instinct for self-preservation will push them to report the incident, rather than to join a highly dubious, dangerous, and treasonous conspiracy. In short, the rule of law renders coup conspiracies untenable by creating a monumental collective action problem.
This is probably why Nixon preserved plausible deniability in his conversation with the Joint Chiefs. We see similar hedging in other “coup solicitation” episodes. (But let’s be clear: In the United States at least, these incidents are exceedingly rare.)
During the Civil War, Gen. George McClellan seems to have considered the possibilities for taking down President Abraham Lincoln. Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan invited three fellow Union generals to dine with him. After dinner, McClellan told them that his admirers were urging him to take a public stance against the proclamation. The generals were shocked. They pleaded with him to avoid any confrontation with the president and told him that no soldiers would stand by him. McClellan agreed, but some historians believe he may have been probing the officers’ attitudes.
As these episodes suggest, high-ranking officials in rule-of-law states are not so uniformly virtuous that they refuse to contemplate an extra-constitutional adventure. Instead, it looks as though they cannot orchestrate a coup d’état because: (1) they cannot recruit followers; and (2) they even fear to broach the subject openly in conversation.
Under rule-of-law conditions, as a practical matter, the idea of a coup grows outlandish and absurd. No one can alter this dynamic, and constitutional government persists for decades and centuries.