As I’ve mentioned before, the Nixon Library is Disneyland for cynical left-wing historians. It’s located in boring ol’Yorba Linda, Nixon’s birthplace. Turns out this was very disappointing for Nixon, who had incredibly grand ideas about what his library should look like. And that included stripping the western part of Camp Pendleton for it.
Obsessed with his place in history, Nixon needed to acquire a location that, in and of itself, would command respect – awe, even. He had the exact spot picked out, and it was spectacular: vast, open, California wilderness, miles of stunning beaches, and magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Its setting alone would trump all past, and likely future, presidential libraries. The only thing preventing Nixon from realizing his vision was something that, in so many other parts of his political life, he never let stop him: it would not be legal.
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 prohibits the use of federal land for a presidential library, and that presented a problem: Nixon’s perfect site just happened to be on federal property. Worse, the exclusive parcel was, inconveniently for Nixon, in the western part of Camp Pendleton, one of the country’s largest Marine Corps bases.
Occupying eighteen miles along the Southern California coast and more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand acres between Los Angeles and San Diego, the camp was – and is – the main training base for all West Coast Marines. Vital to the mission and readiness of the Corps – particularly those then training to go to southeast Asia – the Marines did not want to give up a single acre or a foot of shoreline. The Department of Defense (DoD) protested that Nixon’s plan would “severely handicap” military functions at Camp Pendleton, pointing out that during 1970 alone, more than 77,000 Marines trained in the specific area of the base that he wanted.
To say the least, Nixon did not get his wish. But he and his henchmen sure tried:
When Congress got word that the president desired to transfer the land – but not that he wanted it for his library, only for a state park, the cover story – it prohibited the sale, lease, or transfer of Camp Pendleton without further congressional authorization.
Nixon, along with All the President’s Library Men – which included H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Nixon Library Foundation’s board of executive trustees), Donald Rumsfeld, Fred Fielding, and John Dean – went ahead anyway. They wrested thousands of acres and miles of beach away from the Corps, enlisting the National Archives and Records Service, the General Services Administration, and even the United States Secret Service in hiding the fact that he planned to build his library on the stolen land.
Like many of Nixon’s plans to circumvent the law, this one included a cover-up. Unlike many of his plans, though, the cover-up had been part of the strategy from the start. While Nixon’s plan wasn’t fully successful, the cover-up lasted for more than forty-five years – until I discovered hundreds of pages of evidence in what was then known as the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.
The whole story is pretty amazing. The actual library is insane enough. What this would have looked on a spread like Nixon envisioned, I can only imagine. I almost wish it happened, just so I could make fun of it.