How We Got Here: The Education of Tom Charles Huston

Of all of Richard Nixon’s men, Tom Charles Huston remains the most elusive. The lanky, bespectacled ideologue from Logansport, Indiana entered politics at an early age. At age 24, he chaired America’s largest conservative organization; at age 28, he became Nixon’s speechwriter. Just a year later, he drafted a wide-ranging domestic intelligence program, officially discarded only to be adopted piecemeal, forming the blueprint for Watergate. His brief but eventful career illustrates how easily conservative appeals to small government curdle into naked assertions of state power – so long as conservatives exercise it.

Though raised by “Stevensonian Democrats,” Huston became conservative after reading Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative as an undergraduate at Indiana University. Huston soon organized the IU Conservative League with R. Emmett Tyrell, future founder of the American Spectator. Huston also joined Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative student group founded by William F. Buckley and M. Stanton Evans; he soon became Midwestern regional chair and campaigned extensively for Barry Goldwater. Huston traveled “about thirty-some thousand miles around the country speaking to college groups” during the 1964. His devotion to the cause wasn’t uncommon to young conservatives of his era.

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Tom Huston (far right) with Barry Goldwater and friends

With memories of the New Left dominating discourse about the ’60s, it’s instructive to remember that the New Right came first. Buckley first drew attention with his best-seller God and Man at Yale (1951), an attack on “liberal academia” for encouraging secular, modernist thought (implicitly defending McCarthyist academic purges as a necessary evil). He then founded National Review, the house organ for movement conservatism. Erudite and clever, a prolific writer and (on his show Firing Line) a telegenic interviewer, Buckley stood for a new, ostensibly intellectual conservatism – though his opinions were often as reactionary as the Old Right he eschewed.

Evans, an Indianapolis journalist and author of the Sharon Statement, YAF’s declaration of principles, framed conservatism in anti-authoritarian terms. “It is the Liberal…who has aged in the comfortable exercise of power,” Evans asserted in Revolt on the Campus (1961), “and it is the conservative who is young, angry, declasse.” He framed upholding the status quo as rebellious, even exciting in the face of Communism and a seemingly hegemonic Liberal establishment. This appealed to young Americans, largely working or middle class who supported Barry Goldwater, free market economics and campus loyalty oaths as vehemently as others protested Vietnam and racial segregation.

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M. Stanton Evans and William F. Buckley

YAF boasted 32,000 members at its peak, dominating the movement which propelled Goldwater to the Republican nomination in 1964. Behind the scenes, however, YAF was as faction-riven as any New Left group. Their conferences regularly dissolved into backstabbing, vote-buying frenzies where personalities overshadowed principle. Huston played a key role in the 1963 convention which elected Robert Bauman YAF’s national chair, an election so nakedly rigged that Stan Evans afterwards dissolved ties with the group. (Nonetheless, Evans continued writing books and editorials attacking the “Liberal Establishment,” including a hagiography of Joe McCarthy published in 2007.)

Young Republicans (organized by F. Clifton White, Goldwater’s campaign manager) behaved even worse, with regional leaders establishing fake chapters and rigging votes. One convention, held in San Francisco in June 1963, escalated into violence: as an electric organ played patriotic anthems, delegates incensed by platform disputes clobbered each other with fists and folding chairs. Observers mocked the Young Republicans as “well-dressed beatniks,” too busy brawling to advance their cause. It presaged the disastrous Republican National Convention of 1964, where Goldwater’s supporters booed and heckled Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, to the horror of moderates and television viewers.

When Huston ascended to the chairmanship in January 1965, while attending law school, he chided those “who seek victory at any price without regard for the broken lives…incurred by those who stand in the way.” A noble sentiment which Huston, like many conservatives, honored in the breach. “It was fine to say that it’s better to be right than president,” Huston commented of his “kamikaze mission” for Goldwater. “My notion was you ought to strive to be right and [be] president.” As Lyndon Johnson’s presidency collapsed amidst foreign war and domestic unrest, Huston would soon get the chance.

YAF Flyer

As national chair, Huston championed causes both momentous and trivial. He oversaw a national boycott of Firestone for opening a rubber plant in Romania (along with a less successful campaign against IBM for trading with the USSR). He attacked the National Student Association as a socialist front (little knowing it was heavily funded by the CIA) and warned that closing college fraternities would trigger “the extermination of all those institutions and traditions which are part of the American way of life.” But when Huston called for YAF to repudiate racism and allow “American Negroes to be made full-fledged citizens,” he received death threats from colleagues and backed down.

In January 1966 Huston engaged Carl Oglesby, chairman of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in a televised debate on Vietnam. Though the result was inconclusive, it highlighted the overlap between left and right protest movements. The two men shared, if little else, a contempt for the “liberal establishment” of the Kennedy-Johnson years. “In a strong sense,” Oglesby argued, “the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate” in opposing liberal interventionism. Indeed, for a brief time SDS and YAF collaborated on free speech and anti-draft protests nationwide, becoming unlikely allies in the war against conformity.

But Huston wasn’t always civil towards the opposition. Along with other YAFers he regularly harassed and dsirupted New Left groups at Indiana, earning a reputation as “a walking provocation, intent on smoking out Communists from every dark corner.” He attended one SDS meeting posing as a radical, only to seize the microphone and harangue the assembled leftists that theirs was a “totalitarian Communist front.” Two SDS members, Allen Guervitz and James Retherford, ended his tirade by rushing the mike, wrapping Huston in an American flag and dragging him offstage, to cheers from the audience.

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February 1967 protest against IBM in St. Louis

Inevitably, the Vietnam War consumed YAF as it did American society. Huston’s predecessor, Rob Bauman, insisted that “we must not let it seem for one minute that the small cliques of pacifists, left-wing extremists and beatniks calling for retreat speak for our generation.” Huston was an eager convert; having lost an uncle to Chinese Communists, he embraced the “Holy War Against Communism” and excoriated Lyndon Johnson for “fighting a guerrilla version of Korea.” Any efforts to cooperate with the New Left vanished, as YAF labeled SDS “traitors and sappers” worthy of destruction.

Huston’s activism took many forms. Backed by conservative businessmen, Huston founded the World Youth Crusade for Freedom. Huston described this as “the first step towards molding together a permanent anti-Communist international apparatus.” Its instrument was the Freedom Corps, their equivalent to the Peace Corps, sending conservative youth abroad for recruitment and networking. Facing hostility and indifference (most of its members visited Taiwan and returned home, with only a handful reaching Vietnam), the Corps folded by 1968, with activist Marvin Lieberman admitting that “despite our great hopes and rhetoric…I considered it fruitless.”

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“Tell it to Hanoi” rally in Boston, December 7, 1969

Undeterred, Huston attended several anticommunist conferences in Asia and visited South Vietnam. There, he met with American soldiers, Vietnamese officials and Taiwanese anticommunists who assured him that “the Vietnamese people…fear [Communism] and are prepared to fight to the death against it.” Afterwards, Huston defended the war effort and praised Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky for his “determination to solve the difficult problems of inflation, corruption, profiteering and rural reconstruction.”

Perhaps Huston shouldn’t be criticized for his myopia. Admittedly, he had nothing to say about Ky’s role in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, his arrest of political rivals or admiration of Adolf Hitler; his oppression of Buddhists which later triggered an armed rebellion; or his admission that the Vietcong were “closer to the people’s yearning for social justice and an independent life” than his own government. Huston cared less for the opinions of actual Vietnamese (who lived between Vietcong attacks, ARVN raids and American bombings) than foreign activists about the state of Vietnam. But then, this law student wasn’t any more delusional than American policymakers.

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YAF rally at Columbia University

Back home, Huston organized demonstrations, loyalty parades and campaigns like Operation Hand Clasp, working with the Marine Corps to aide Vietnamese refugees, or a “bleed-in” to collect blood donations for American soldiers. Nor were YAFers above ridiculing antiwar demonstrators. At Huston’s home in Bloomington, Indiana, a 1966 meeting between left and right-wing students turned into an egg-throwing riot. When several New York leftists went on an antiwar hunger strike, a group of YAFers force-fed them while waving “better fed than red” banners. Such actions were disruptive rather than violent, yet showed the contempt in which conservatives held antiwar students.

YAF also tried to diffuse antiwar sentiment by opposing the draft. The New Guard, YAF’s house organ, regularly railed against conscription as “the spirit of authoritarianism” and insisted that activism at home preserved freedom as much as service abroad. This didn’t sit well with Jerry Norton, one of the few YAF officers who’d served in Vietnam. “It offends the hell out of me that that so many YAF leaders make Vietnam sound like a holy crusade, while judiciously doing anything they can to avoid serving there themselves,” he complained.

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Loyalty Day Parade in Philadelphia, June 1966

For his part, Huston joined the Army in 1967, serving an uneventful stateside hitch in military intelligence. During this time he discreetly assisted Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, urging YAF to endorse Nixon instead of Ronald Reagan, the student Right’s favorite. “I was not under any illusions that Nixon was some sort of…a closet conservative,” Huston recalled, “but I was convinced that he was a person who was open to conservative thought.” That and Reagan was a lightweight, and probably couldn’t win. Nixon could, and afterwards Huston found a speechwriting job at the White House.

Whatever their reservations about Nixon, young conservatives flocked to his Administration, investing it with energy, ambition and a taste for political warfare. They included speechwriter Pat Buchanan, the fire-breathing columnist and YAF secretary during Huston’s tenure; John Dean, the ambitious 32 year old lawyer who became Nixon’s White House Counsel; Egil “Bud” Krogh, John Ehrlichman’s hard-nosed 30 year old protege; and Dwight Chapin, the presidential appointments secretary whose “USC Mafia” included dirty tricks maestro Donald Segretti.

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Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan

Even among this crowd, Huston’s intensity stood out. He decorated his office with a portrait of John Calhoun, the notorious defender of nullification and slavery, and wrote memos dubbing himself “Cato the Elder.” What he lacked in experience, Huston made up for in strident ideology and overweening arrogance. Within months of Nixon’s inauguration, for instance, the 28 year old wrote him that “through his judicial appointments, a president has the opportunity to influence the course of national affairs for a quarter of a century after he leaves office,” urging Nixon to play a greater role in circuit and district court appointments. These words were music to Nixon’s ears.

Around this time, sparring with fellow speechwriter William Safire, Huston clarified the limits of his libertarian principles. “The real threat…to internal security is repression,” he wrote. “A handful of people can’t frontally overthrow the government; but if they can engender enough fear, they can create an atmosphere that will bring out of the woodwork every repressive demagogue in the woodwork.” Better that someone responsible, like Richard Nixon, take the lead in crushing dissent than some “repressive demagogue.” In the parlance of the times, Huston felt that to preserve civil liberties, it was necessary to destroy them.

Nixon admired Huston’s moxie. He ordered him and domestic adviser Arthur Burns to squeeze the IRS for material on New Left groups and liberal politicians. “I want action,” Nixon instructed Burns. “Have Huston follow up hard on this.” Siccing the IRS on political foes wasn’t unheard of (Kennedy and Johnson’s abuse of IRS audits was an open secret), yet Nixon defined “foes” in an exceedingly loose fashion: political rivals, protesters, blacks, reporters, bureaucrats, anyone not expressly loyal to Nixon. Most pressing were the antiwar movement and its radical allies, whom Nixon despaired of reaching.

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Bob Moustakas, Nixon’s hippie friend

Exchanges between the White House and protesters invariably failed, from Nixon’s nighttime sojourn to the Lincoln Memorial to more formal encounters. Once, John Ehrlichman told organizer David Hawk that “you’re going to have to force us to up the ante to the point where we have to give out death sentences for traffic violations.” In October 1969, just before the National Moratorium protests, Nixon responded to a letter from Georgetown student Randall J. Dicks, telling him that for a President “to be swayed by public demonstrations…would invite anarchy.” A nonplussed Dicks lectured the President “that a monarchy is a superior form of government because a king is above partisan politics and can therefore be responsive to the people.”

Huston bemoaned Nixon’s inability to mobilize conservative students. “The Administration does not have a youth program,” he complained in August 1969. “It has manifested no particular interest in youth problems; it has made no effort to convince young people that their problems are of interest or concern.” Pat Buchanan further urged Nixon to work with the Young Republicans. “The American people are hungry for some neatly dressed young Americans to applaud,” he insisted. And as campaigns like the Tell it to Hanoi rallies (the brainchild of Nixon adviser Roger Ailes) showed, there remained enough conservative youths to make themselves heard.

Nixon, however, dismissed these groups as “about as nutty…as the militants” and saw little value in cultivating them. He wasn’t entirely wrong, especially as the war splintered YAF into factions. In August 1969 YAF experienced a disastrous convention in St. Louis, where libertarians heckled keynote speaker William F. Buckley, chanted “Fuck the Draft” at pro-war delegates and ultimately walked out. “What has YAF…ever done on behalf of the free market?” Murray Rothbard asked, while Karl Hess defended “the student’s right to revolution” while denouncing American imperialism. For these dissenters, YAF’s anti-authoritarian spirit had long since staled into conformity.

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Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard

If Nixon wouldn’t heed Huston’s advice about the student Right, he happily used him for other tasks. Radical terrorists like the Weather Underground began in 1969 a nationwide bombing campaign against colleges, police stations and government buildings that caused few casualties but terrorized Americans. In March 1970, Huston warned about their “critical situation in which people live in fear throughout this country” and asked Nixon to consider “whether the resources of the Federal government are being adequately mustered to cope with the threat.”

Certainly, Huston seemed eager to muster these resources, to the chagrin or amusement of colleagues. Mark Felt of the FBI mocked Huston as “the White House gauleiter” (a regional Nazi leader); White House aides dubbed him “Special Agent X-5,” obsessed with espionage and secrecy (John Dean recalls that Huston, for reasons unknown to him, often brought a phone scrambler to his office). But between the Weathermen’s escalating terror campaign, the protests following Kent State and the intelligence community’s inability to halt them, the White House might have use for a gauleiter.

On June 5, 1970 held an Oval Office conference with the heads of America’s intelligence agencies: Richard Helms of the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, Vice Admiral Noel Gayler of the NSA and Lieutenant General Donald Bennett of the Defense Intelligence Agency. General Bennett recalled that Nixon “chewed our butts”; the President complained that “I am convinced that we are not currently allocating sufficient resources within the intelligence community to the collection of intelligence data on the activities of these revolutionary groups.” He created the Interagency Committee on Intelligence (ICI) and named Hoover as chairman. Huston would be the White House liaison.

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Huston before the Church Committee, 1975

At a follow-up meeting on June 8th, Hoover told the chiefs that “the President wants a historical study of made intelligence operations in the United States and the present security problems of the country.” Huston responded that “we’re not talking about the dead past, we’re talking about the living present.” He reiterated that the President “was dissatisfied with present day problems in the security and intelligence fields.” William C. Sullivan, Hoover’s Assistant Director, recalled that “Hoover became crimson” listening to Huston’s lecture. The other chiefs sided with Huston; Hoover angrily dismissed the meeting, delegating future conferences to Sullivan.

Hoover spent the next several days fuming about the “hippie intellectual” who’d humiliated him. He was further mortified when Sullivan commented that “individually, those of us in the intelligence community are relatively small and limited. Unified, our combined potential is magnified and limitless.” Indeed, Sullivan became the Huston Plan’s coauthor; he resented Hoover scaling back the Bureau’s extralegal burglaries, mail opening and wiretaps, and worked eagerly with the White House to undercut the Director. Sullivan, who’d once penned a letter urging Martin Luther King to commit suicide, wondered whether his boss had gone soft.

Certainly, Hoover hadn’t developed concerns about civil liberties: his COINTELPRO surveillance of Communists, civil rights groups and other “subversives” remained ongoing. His feud with the CIA and reluctance to share his bailiwick were major factors. And increased pressure on the Bureau from liberal groups limited his options. He sensed that Nixon, who often complained about Hoover’s “senility” to aides and friendly reporters, wanted to pin blame on Hoover, should it backfire. “I am not opposed to doing this,” Hoover allowed, but “I no longer want the full responsibility.” Without Nixon expressly signing off, “that leaves me alone as the man who made the decision.”

J. Edgar Hoover Conferring with President Elect Richard Nixon
Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover

Huston and Sullivan found other agencies more amenable. Louis Tordella, the NSA’s Deputy Director, cheered the ICI as “nothing less than a heaven-sent opportunity for NSA.” An aide to Richard Helms “saw these meetings as a perfect opportunity to get back the [intelligence] methods we needed,” while James Jesus Angleton hoped it would “resolve conflicts…between the FBI and CIA.” (Helms was warier, but expected that “since the President was so forcefully behind it…the improvements would probably come into being.”) The DIA withdrew from the arrangement; with the military under Senate investigation for internal surveillance, Bennett found it prudent to “keep the hell out.”

Huston presented a 43 page draft on June 25th. Much of the Huston Plan involved greater coordination between intelligence agencies, a defensible proposition…except for the goals Huston set for them. He asked that the NSA escalate its electronic surveillance of American citizens; that the CIA and FBI resume opening mail and warrantless wire taps; that the CIA use operatives to infiltrate student groups and antiwar organizations (something the CIA already did through Operation CHAOS). Many of these directives merely intensified existing programs; obviously, that wasn’t enough for Nixon.

The Plan also stressed the reintroduction of burglaries, so-called “black bag jobs” where FBI agents illegally raided suspect’s homes and offices for incriminating evidence. “Use of this technique is clearly illegal,” Huston allowed; he also cautioned that it “could cause great embarrassment if exposed. However, it is also the most fruitful tool and can produce the kind of intelligence which cannot be obtained in any other fashion.” At least Huston ruled out an early suggestion from one planner that the ICI establish detention camps for mass arrests of dissidents.

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William C. Sullivan

Other sections of the Plan targeted the government bureaucracy and liberal organizations, making it clear that terrorists weren’t Nixon’s only concern. Huston complained that “making sensitive political inquiries at the IRS is about as safe a procedure as trusting a whore.” He viewed the IRS, and other agencies, as honeycombed with Democrats and disloyal civil servants who might question illegal orders. He also proposed “going into Brookings [Institution] after the classified material which they have stashed over there.” The risk was great, but “there are also risks in allowing a government-in-exile to grow increasingly arrogant and powerful.”

The Plan ran afoul, as expected, of J. Edgar Hoover. Presiding over another conference of intelligence heads, the Director began by insulting Admiral Gayler for arriving late (“We hope this is not characteristic of the Navy”) and read a list of footnoted objections to Huston’s paper. He asked Helms and Gayler (irritated that a brief ten minute meeting dragged on for an hour) whether they understood his footnotes, then finished by savaging the White House aide. “Do you understand, Mr. Hoffman? Mr. Hutchison?” Hoover asked. He continued peppering Huston with make-believe names until the infuriated aide stopped correcting him.

Nonetheless, President Nixon approved the plan on July 14th, completely ignoring Hoover’s objections. Huston didn’t take his victory gracefully. In a memo to Bob Haldeman, he unloaded on Hoover, writing that “Mr. Hoover is set in his ways and can be bullheaded as hell,” calling his objections “bullshit” and accusing him of “getting old and worried about his legend” (an assessment Nixon shared). Fortunately, Huston thought Hoover remained “a team player” who would “respond to direction from the President and that is all we need to get our domestic house in order.”

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John Mitchell

But Hoover was too experienced to surrender so easily. On July 25th, he arranged a meeting with John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General whom the President had excluded from ICI. Mitchell was furious to learn about this; he told the President that “the proposals contained in the plan…were inimical to the best interests of the country and certainly should not be something that the President of the United States should be approving.” Nixon backed down, and the Huston Plan was formally scuttled.

Nixon wasn’t surprised by the Plan’s demise. “I knew that if Hoover had decided not to cooperate,” he would write, “it would matter little what I had decided or approved.” Bob Haldeman agreed, adding that “the jealousies among the various intelligence agencies were working at a white hot pitch.” Despite Huston’s continued complaints that “Hoover…is putting himself above the President,” Haldeman quietly removed him from his intelligence post, handing his responsibilities to John Dean. Nor did William Sullivan long survive his attempted mutiny; in October 1971 he found the locks changed on his office, his career with the Bureau abruptly terminated.

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Huston’s heirs: Bud Krogh, Chuck Colson, John Dean

In hindsight, the Huston Plan was rejected in name only. Dean told John Mitchell that “it would be inappropriate to have any blanket removal of restrictions; rather, the most appropriate procedure would be to decide on the type of intelligence we need…and then proceed to remove the restraints as necessary to obtain such intelligence.” Thus Dean and Robert Mardian, Mitchell’s deputy, used the Justice Department’s Intelligence Evaluation Committee (IEC) to affect many of the Huston Plan’s recommendations, albeit in a less coordinated fashion. When that still wasn’t enough, Nixon decided to create an agency accountable only to him.

Huston remained on the White House staff for another year, though his responsibilities were much diminished; he admitted that after awhile, “I was for all intents and purposes writing memos to himself.” Dean handled domestic intelligence; Chuck Colson managed the “dirty tricks” operations; and Bud Krogh, only two years older than Huston, took charge of the White House’s new in-house intelligence group – the Plumbers. “Anyone who doesn’t support us,” Krogh vowed, “we’ll destroy” – summarizing the mindset that would engulf, and destroy Nixon’s White House.

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Huston (third from right) in 2014 at Indiana University

As Watergate spiraled out of control, Huston fell into obscurity, even after Dean informed Congress about the Huston Plan and proclaimed it a blueprint for Nixon’s “White House Horrors.” The intelligence community played a role in Nixon’s downfall: Richard Helms refused to block the FBI’s investigation, while former CIA operative James McCord confided the burglars’ White House connection; L. Patrick Gray, Hoover’s successor at the FBI, bumbled his way into exposing the cover-up; while Hoover’s former aide Mark Felt became an informant to Bob Woodward and other reporters.

After a grilling by the Church Committee in 1975, Huston retired to a lucrative law practice in Indianapolis, Barnes and Thorburg. He mostly avoided discussing his past, though he remained active in Republican politics and continued his ties with YAF, mentoring any number of young conservatives in the ’80s and ’90s. One of them, a future Congressman, Governor and Vice President, followed Huston’s path to law school at Indiana University, where Huston met him and began discussing politics. “That was when I turned my attention more to conservative thought,” Mike Pence recalled.

Today, Huston is retired, resurfacing only for occasional editorials about Indiana politics, or to rail about typical conservative bugbears like Confederate monuments or trans rights. He is also a fan of Donald Trump, complaining about the “Deep State” without evident irony. Curious how this relic of an older, supposedly more principled conservatism sounds like your typical Breitbart commenter. But then, perhaps, there wasn’t much difference to begin.

YAF Tell It To HanoiSources and Further Reading:

For Huston’s background and Young Americans for Freedom, see John Andrew, “Pro-War and Anti-Draft: Young Americans for Freedom and the War in Vietnam” in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed.), The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums (2001); Elizabeth Andrew, “The American Spectator: Born and Bred in Bloomington” (Bloom Magazine, February/March 2005; online here); Jason S. Lantzer, “The Other Side of Campus: Indiana University’s Student Right and the Rise of American Conservatism” (Indiana Magazine of History, June 2005; online here); Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001); Sandra Scanlon, The Pro-War Movement: Domestic Support for the Vietnam War and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2013); Gregory L. Schneider, Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right (1998); and Huston’s oral history with the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

For the Huston Plan, see: James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1982); Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991); Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1990); J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1987); Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001); Mark Riebling, Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and the CIA (1994); and Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (1994).