Book Review: Nixon’s War at Home

Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism. By Daniel S. Chard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 384 pages. $32.95 (hardcover). 

Book cover to "Nixon’s War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism"  By Daniel S. Chard.  The lettering is in white while the background is red with repeated images of Richard Nixon's face; most of them have the yeas blacked out except for one image.

The late Todd Gitlin titled his 1987 book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. In the wake of conservative presidencies, rising levels of global terrorism and the Patriot Act, the Days of Rage have dominated the discourse on the Sixties. It’s as if the entire Zeitgeist was defined by violence-prone groups, such as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and the Weather Underground.  

Nixon’s War at Home is eye-opening. Daniel Chard (Ph.D. UMass Amherst, 2016) draws upon recently released FBI documents, archival sources, interviews, and other primary sources to reveal, “how institutional conflict over how to combat terrorism led to Watergate, (13) reshaped how the government defined domestic protest and paved the way for the Patriot Act. It pivots on Chard’s distinction between domestic guerillas and terrorists, which is far more than a matter of semantics. 

Chard takes on blame-the-Left narratives but pulls back from “uncritical nostalgia” for internal “paramilitary groups” (267) that fractured the Left. His main targets, though, are police repression, illegal tactics, and the political fanaticism of the Right that exaggerated threats precipitated more violence than it deterred, ignored civil liberties, and sought to undo Great Society programs.

Chard’s book has a surprising voice of moderation: FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover despised the Left and had few qualms about unleashing police power, but he was reluctant to embrace more extreme methods favored by Nixon. Hoover’s FBI was more geared to investigating the Old Left, a major reason its Counterintelligence Program was constantly bamboozled by New Left tactics. Nevertheless, Hoover was increasingly protective of his legacy and the reputation of the FBI. 

That he worried about the honor of an agency that had long conducted illegal wiretaps is a measure of how unsettling Hoover found Nixon’s proposals to be. Chard writes, “Nixon, for the first time in U.S. history, sought direct White House control over America’s intelligence agencies.” (115) At its heart was the Huston Plan hatched by an ultra-conservative attorney, which would have expanded existing FBI practices such as warrantless wiretaps, but Hoover balked over White House oversight, reclassifying Leftist insurgents as terrorists, and expanded break-ins of offices, homes, and businesses. (Hoover, a racist, made exceptions in dealing with the BLA.) To Nixon, a president who notoriously fashioned an enemies list, any resistance to his will ran the risk of being pegged as disloyal. Hoover’s fears were justified; when appeals to “national security” were used to justify break-ins against a Media, Pennsylvania group that stole FBI documents, and courts ruled against the agency. This had the additional effect of outraging an American public that hitherto had little idea of the extent of FBI surveillance.

Hoover died in 1972, but the bifurcation within the FBI outlived him, as several successors, including Nixon’s chosen replacement L. Patrick Gray, would discover. Chard draws connections between the Watergate break-ins and the illegal and questionable tactics used against domestic guerillas (including attempts to link them to international terrorism). In this discussion, Chard introduces a Machiavellian villain: Mark Felt, the infamous “Deep Throat” whose tips were crucial in forcing Nixon’s resignation. Far from being a public guardian who underwent a life-altering reexamination of his values á la Daniel Ellsberg, Felt supported the Huston Plan, wanted to succeed Hoover, and undermined those in his way, including assistant director William Sullivan and Gray. In Chard’s assessment, Felt was simply a spurned self-seeking hardliner. 

Chard argues that the ultimate misfortune is that terrorism came to be applied solely to the Left. He writes, “Today, if we are going to use the word ‘terrorism’ as it came to be understood in the early 1970s, the greatest terrorist threat comes from the Right. Since 9/11, white racists have conducted far more violent attacks inside the United States than have Islamic extremists and have left more victims dead.” (266) In addition to his list abortion clinic assassins, Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, and the murderous actions of anti-Semitic, homophobic, and neo-Nazi groups. And yes, the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

Robert E. Weir 

University of Massachusetts Amherst  

Full disclosure: I befriended Dan Chard when he was in the UMass graduate history program, but I retired before this book took shape.

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