Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico bears many of the hallmarks of a strategy used by President Richard Nixon nearly 50 years ago when he put into action a novel plan cooked up by Watergate plumber G. Gordon Liddy and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The results of this long-forgotten incident carry a warning for those who think that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric is bound to backfire.
Illegal immigration never much concerned Nixon. (He’d wait until 1972 before blaming it for high unemployment.) Instead, he was looking for a way to distract America’s attention from his expansion of the Vietnam War in the face of growing domestic opposition.
Looking at the shaky electoral math for the looming 1970 midterms, Nixon was horrified to see that crime was rising in every category followed by the FBI, from burglary to murder. Having run as a tough law-and-order candidate, it frustrated him that there was so little the federal government could do about crime. Attorney General John Mitchell, however, pointed out that thousands of federal agents could be dispatched right away to make headline-grabbing drug busts. In the summer of 1969, Nixon had Mitchell convene a secret White House group, Task Force One, to come up with a plan.
Turkey was the source of most of the heroin flooding into the United States. But Nixon couldn’t very well afford an entanglement in Eastern Europe. As a result, Mexico became the next most convenient target. In a report to the president dated June 1969, Mitchell’s task force began with the (dubious) premise that marijuana was a steppingstone to heroin addiction. Therefore, it reasoned, the traffickers who were using peasants to grow marijuana in the Mexican foothills were the real enemy.
The chief architect of this policy was Liddy, then a 38-year-old former FBI agent who’d recently made headlines as a prosecutor for ordering the arrest of the psychedelic drug proponent Timothy Leary. Liddy was like Trump in that he had no foreign policy experience but enough self-confidence to assume that he did. Immediately, he got under the skin of Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, by arguing that Mexico had been slow-footing its drug problem and that its “efforts continue to be inadequate.”
While others were dug in behind their desks, Liddy grabbed Arpaio, then a US drug agent stationed in Mexico, and flew through Mexican air space to identify the marijuana fields he wanted to target. “We both felt we needed to make a strong statement,” the long-serving sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who was recently held in contempt by a federal court for racially profiling Latinos, told me.
The American plan to eradicate the marijuana fields was initially brought up to the Mexicans in June 1969. But, as Liddy recalled in his memoir, “Using diplomatic language, [they] told us to go piss up a rope.”
Nixon hit the roof. “The Nixon Administration didn’t believe in the United States taking crap from any foreign government,” Liddy wrote. (Multiple attempts to reach Liddy for this story were unsuccessful.) Still, Nixon was coy about his intentions when he met Mexico’s president, Gustavo Diaz, in September 1969. He said he hoped the two countries could keep working together and that he “appreciated” Mexico’s efforts. What he didn’t say was that he’d already green-lighted the first battle in the War on Drugs.
Operation Intercept began two weeks later, while tourists were filling the restaurants and souvenir shops along the 2,000-mile border from Brownsville, Texas, to Baja, Calif. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Mexican residents with US work visas were also lining up at the more than 30 border checkpoints.
At 2 p.m., thousands of US agents suddenly appeared, grinding the sluggish pace of traffic to a standstill. Cars and trucks were all checked for illegal contraband, and, as the day wore on, drivers who’d waited for hours without air conditioning or water were strip-searched.
Over the next two weeks, as tens of millions of dollars evaporated from the economies of the border towns, Nixon came under enormous political pressure to back off. La Prensa — San Antonio’s bilingual newspaper — headlined one of its front pages “Humiliating Mexicans,” and Diaz accused Nixon, in terms that would be particularly ironic nearly 50 years later, of creating a “wall of suspicion” between the two countries.
Almost no marijuana was seized. Mexico’s largest narco-traffickers had gotten wind of Intercept and shifted to new and safer air supply routes. By mid-October 1969, with the press and a wide swath of his own administration rallying to Mexico’s side, Nixon finally called off the operation. “In a dramatic overnight reversal of position,” The New York Times reported, “the United States bowed to Mexican demands.”
All of which might be a cautionary tale for Trump’s threats to build a wall along the border except for one thing: The plan worked.
“There was never an expectation that the operation would go on indefinitely,” says Kate Doyle, a senior analyst in Latin American policy at the National Security Archive. “It was a way for Nixon to convince Mexico to cooperate on his terms. And he got his way.”
Sure, Mexican leaders have fumed at Trump’s call for a wall. But is that so different from their predecessors telling Liddy to “piss up a rope?”
Indeed, by early 1970, Operation Intercept had morphed into the fuzzier Operation Cooperation, and the Mexican government was no longer turning a deaf ear to Nixon’s demands.
In an analysis for the Security Archive, Doyle argues that Nixon won three important victories: He burnished his domestic law-and-order credentials, caused Mexico to come around on an issue he cared deeply about, and fired the first shot in a drug war that has been expanded by six presidents over five decades.
It remains to be seen what will happen if Trump becomes the next president. But his idea for building the wall is similar enough to Nixon’s Operation Intercept that it’s not as unprecedented as some would suggest.
Sure, Mexican leaders — past and present
The key is the end game.
Nixon knew what he wanted. Does Trump?Shaun Assael is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin And Heavyweights.”