Though their story has become gospel for many CIA critics, the Copley Newspapers have consistently denied its truth, and records that might back up the accusations remain classified, locked away or perhaps destroyed, by the CIA. But as the correspondence in the Nixon archives make clear, there was little doubt that Copley was willing to do almost anything the vice president asked of him.
Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential race to Kennedy, along with his 1962 “comeback” campaign against incumbent California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, after which the ever-present Herb Klein could be seen hovering in the background as the failed candidate uttered his famous line, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
But Copley never wavered, even during the lowest point of Nixon’s “desert years,” when the ex–vice president moved away from California, joined a Manhattan law firm, and sat out the 1964 debacle of Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson.
Four years later, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, and Copley, accompanied by his young second wife Helen, made a triumphant return to Washington to celebrate at the White House. It was a heady time. An era of peace, prosperity, and Republican domination seemed to beckon: Nixon said he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.
As during all previous conflicts of the 20th Century, San Diego was vital to the war effort. Coronado-based warships plied the Vietnamese coast and deltas. Miramar-trained fighter squadrons dueled with MIGs over Hanoi. Ironworkers labored in the bowels of the Navy Rework Facility. Much of the local economy still depended heavily on the Navy payroll.
When sailors came home from the sea, they spent their liberty at the peep shows and honky-tonks strung out along downtown’s lower Broadway. When they were killed in action, they were put to rest at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma. To Copley and many of the readers of the Union and Evening Tribune, waging the war until absolute victory over the Vietnamese Communists was a matter of faith.
By the mid-1960s, however, there was something new in the town’s political mix. True to the booster roots of his father, Copley had led the crusade to build a new University of California campus on Torrey Pines mesa. The growing city owned thousands of acres of open space remaining from a Spanish land grant. After a Copley-backed referendum campaign in 1958, the city’s voters easily approved ceding a big chunk of the coveted property to the state in exchange for the promised economic and cultural riches the university would bring.
UC delivered the promised material wealth; it also brought to town something else Copley and his conservative business allies had not bargained for. Antiwar radicals, led by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a scholar of Hegel and Marx, took up residence there and began talking revolution.
As resistance to the war grew, so did San Diego street protests. The city had seen nothing like them since the darkest days of the Great Depression, when radicals clashed with nightstick-wielding policemen, and the Copley papers railed against the “vicious Reds” besieging the city.
In the 1960s, Copley photographers recall being dispatched to the rallies at UCSD and taking thousands of pictures of the student demonstrators; few if any of the photographs ever made the paper. The rest, the old-timers believed, were being sent to the FBI for analysis.
Among the protestors were many of Marcuse’s graduate students. In 1966 one of them was 24-year-old Lowell Bergman, the future muckraker and 60 Minutes producer, who decided to start an underground newspaper.
“The spark was the incessant appearance of editorials in the San Diego Union-Tribune demanding that the University of California regents fire Marcuse,” Bergman recalled to an interviewer for Britannica.com in August 2000. “This came after students in Europe ran around in 1968 chanting ‘Marx, Mao, Marcuse!’ Someone drove by and fired at his garage door. There were phone threats. The tension was mounting. San Diego had an active right-wing vigilante movement, which I encountered later when I got into journalism.
“San Diego was not only the largest staging area for the Vietnam War; it was also home to a large military retirement community and politics that made parts of the Deep South look liberal. Thus was born the San Diego Free Press, which a year later was renamed the San Diego Street Journal.
“Our focus became the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community. And so it was that number one was a gentleman by the name of C. Arnholt Smith — Mr. San Diego of the Century. Number two was one John Alessio — Mr. San Diego for 1969.
“In the tightly controlled world of San Diego, they reigned with undisputed power. We told the story of how Alessio used his political clout (in the Democratic Party) to get the Navy to give in to building a bridge to nearby Coronado Island and his new renovated hotel, the Del Coronado.
“Then Smith, Alessio’s mentor and partner, used his own political clout (in the Republican Party) to garner all kinds of favors from his favorite politician, Richard Nixon. Smith was his first big contributor back in 1946 and was alone with him on election night in 1968. Suffice it to say that Smith and his bank and conglomerate were heavily involved in dealing with and influencing city politicians and the police bureaucracy.
“All this started appearing in detail in our pages, which resulted in all kinds of vigilante attacks, harassment, and fire bombs, with a few arrests sprinkled in. We survived; the two gentlemen — and a cast of other characters — wound up going to jail. It just took a couple of years and a lot of harassment.”
Bergman may have overstated the role of San Diego’s nascent underground press in bringing about the end of the Smith era. TIME magazine reported in March 1970 that the Street Journal’s October 1969 piece on Smith that triggered the violence against the paper was “essentially a rehash of a Wall Street Journal story.”