February 10th, 2020


Presidential Primaries and Caucuses: The 1972 New Hampshire Democratic Primary

Richard Nixon won a resounding victory in his re-election bid for president in 1972. But early on it wasn't clear that this would be the case. As the year opened, Nixon was still managing a war that he had been elected to bring an end to. Nixon had been elected in 1968 on a platform of ending American involvement in Vietnam, but his strategy of gradually handing over operational control of the conflict to the South Vietnamese military (known as Vietnamization) was proceeding more slowly than Nixon had hoped or planned. In fact Nixon had widened the conflict when, at his order, US troops invaded Cambodia in 1970, in order to cut off supply lines from the North Vietnamese to the Viet Cong. The move was met with intense criticism in the press and Congress and growing protest and disorder on college campuses. The Paris Peace Talks had bogged down, diminishing hopes for a negotiated settlement to the war. On the domestic front, Nixon also had to address a sharp economic recession which began in 1969 and which had shaken investor confidence. Nixon's plan to control inflation with wage and price controls had failed. The administration's attempt to steer a middle course on issues of domestic issues such as busing and affirmative action had failed to pleased both liberals and conservatives and Nixon faced criticism from within his own party. Republican losses in the 1970 midterm elections further weakened the party's hopes of hanging on to the reigns of power.

Sensing that the time might be right to take back the White House, a large field of Democratic candidates for President emerged. The favorite of the party establishment was Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. Muskie was seen as a moderate who had been the 1968 Democratic candidate for vice-president on a ticket with Hubert Humphrey. He had performed well in that role, and in August of 1971 Harris polling reported numbers supporting a Muskie victory over the incumbent Nixon if the election had been held that day.

An interesting feature of this campaign was the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, a member of the US House of Representatives from New York. She announced that she would seek her party's nomination for President, making her the first African-American ever to seek the nomination for president for a major party and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan was "Unbought and Unbossed", stressing her independence.


The Iowa caucus was held first on January 24. Edmund Muskie won 35.5% support, George McGovern 22.6% and 35.8% of delegates were uncommitted. It looked as if Muskie's plan to win the nomination and the presidency was unfolding according to plan. But then came the New Hampshire primary, and something called the "Canuck Letter". This was a letter that was published in the Manchester Union-Leader. The Canuck letter was a forged letter to the editor of the Manchester Union Leader, published February 24, 1972, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary vote. The gist of the letter was that Senator Muskie was prejudiced against Americans of French-Canadian descent, a sizeable demographic in the north-west region at the time.

The letter was later determined to be the sabotage work of Donald Segretti and Ken W. Clawson, member of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks squad". It was writtem in a childish scrawl with poor spelling. The author of the Canuck letter claimed to have met Muskie and his staff in Florida, and to have asked Muskie how he could understand the problems of African Americans when his home state of Maine has such a small black population. According to the letter, a member of Muskie's staff was said to have responded, "Not blacks, but we have Canucks" (which the letter spelled as "Cannocks"). The author further claimed that Muskie was present when the remark was made and laughed at it. Although the term in an innocuous one today, with many Canadians using it to describe themselves (the Vancouver NHL hockey franchise even bears that name), the term "Canuck" was considered derogatory among those Americans of French-Canadian ancestry who lived in New England. This was a significant number of New Hampshire voters at that time.

It was only much later, on October 10, 1972, FBI investigators revealed that the Canuck letter was part of a dirty tricks campaign against Democrats orchestrated by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), but even then, this fact was not made public. The letter would indirectly contribute to the implosion of Muskie's candidacy.

Subsequently, the paper published an attack on the character of Muskie's wife Jane, reporting that she drank and used off-color language. On the morning of February 26, two Saturdays before the March 7 primary, Muskie delivered a speech in front of the offices of the Union Leader, calling its publisher, William Loeb, a liar. Muskie attached Loeb for impugning the character of Muskie's wife, Jane. Newspapers reported that Muskie cried openly. David Broder of The Washington Post wrote that Muskie "broke down three times in as many minutes". David Nyhan of The Boston Globe reported Muskie "weeping silently". Muskie acknowledged that his voice cracked, but claimed that it cracked from anger. Muskie had an antagonistic relationship with Loeb, who had referred to Miskie in the 1968 election as "Moscow Muskie", and called him a flip-flopper. Muskie claimed his tears were actually snow melting on his face. Muskie made an emotional defense of his wife in the speech, which did take place during a snowstorm. Here is a video of Muskie's remarks. From this video, it seems as if reports of his crying are exaggerated:

New Hampshire voters took Muskie's emotional reaction as a sign of weakness. Muskie did worse than expected in the primary. Although he won the primary, Muskie's winning margin of 46% to McGovern's 37%, was smaller than his campaign had predicted. The second-place finish gave the McGovern campaign a boast of its momentum. He won the Illinois Primary as well as the caucuses in his home state of Maine, but that was it. McGovern won subsequent contests in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, races that Muskie was expected to win. Alabama governor George Wallace did well in the South, winning every county in the Florida primary with the exception of Miami-Dade. Later in the year, Wallace was shot while campaigning, and left paralyzed in an assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer. The Nixon campaign attempted to plant McGovern campaign literature in Bremer's apartment as a means to drive Wallace supporters away from the Democratic Party. Wallace won the Maryland primary and the Michigan primary both held the following day (May 16th), but the assassination attempt effectively ended his campaign.


McGovern succeeded in winning the nomination by winning primaries through grass-roots support in spite of establishment opposition. He had led a commission to redesign the Democratic nomination system after the messy and confused nomination struggle and convention of 1968. The fundamental principle of the McGovern-Fraser Commission was that the Democratic primaries should determine the winner of the Democratic nomination. However, the new rules angered many prominent Democrats whose influence was marginalized, and those politicians refused to support McGovern's campaign, leaving the McGovern campaign at a significant disadvantage in funding compared to Nixon.

Potus Geeks Book Review: A Crisis of Peace by David Head

Before the Constitution was signed in 1787, the 13 colonies that had fought the American Revolution against the British had formed a confederation of states. They operated under the Articles of Confederation, a loose association that gave almost all the power to the states and very little to the central government. This presented a number of problems, perhaps the greatest of which was paying the bills to fight the Revolution. After the British were defeated at Yorktown in October 1781, the Revolution had ground to a halt as peace talks began between British and American diplomats took place. The American Continental Army was based at Newburgh, New York, from where they monitored British-occupied New York City. With the end of the war and dissolution of the Continental Army approaching, soldiers who had not been paid feared became anxious about whether the Confederation Congress would keep previous promises concerning back pay and pensions, and for good reason.

Professor David Head's 2019 book A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution tells the story of this often overlooked crisis, and how the future of the nation was threatened with the potential loss of the crucial element of civilian control of the army. The book details how a second American revolution almost occurred, this one by soldiers against their government. The author describes how the steady leadership of the army's Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington, averted a crisis in what was perhaps the greatest post-war challenge confronting the new nation.

In 1782 Congress had promised Continental officers a lifetime pension of half their pay when they were discharged. In Philadelphia, where Congress met, financier Robert Morris had stopped army pay in 1782 as a cost-saving measure, promising that when the war finally ended the arrears would be made up. Professor Head tells the story of how this issue was a prominent topic of debate in Congress and in the army camp at Newburgh, and how numerous memos and petitions from soldiers had failed to bring about any significant action to address soldiers' needs.

In late 1782, a number of officers under the leadership of General Henry Knox, drafted a memorandum to Congress. Backed by enough general officers that it could not be ignored, the letter was delivered to Congress by a delegation consisting of General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden in late December 1782. The soldiers offered to accept a lump sum payment instead of the lifetime half pay pension. It also contained the vague threat that "any further experiments on [the army's] patience may have fatal effects."

The author tells the story of the Newburgh Conspiracy, a possible planned military coup instigated by members in the Congress and officers, who circulated an anonymous letter in the army camp at Newburgh, New York, on March 10, 1783. The letter suggested that they should take unspecified action against Congress to resolve the issue. He also describes the efforts of George Washington to head off any rebellion, and his famous emotional address to his officers calling for cooler heads to prevail. This was a time when what should have been a transition from war to peace turned into a tense situation that severely tested the bond that held the colonies together and demonstrated the need for the strong central government that Washington would come to advocate for.

This book is superbly researched. The author carefully delves into the correspondence of the major actors in the drama. These include Washington and his fellow soldiers Henry Know, Horatio Gates, Alexander McDougall, John Brooks, and the trouble-making John Armstrong and Walter Steward. The letters and motives of leading members of Congress are also scrutinized, including Robert Morris, Gouveneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Their frustrations and machinations in dealing with those states refusing to approve efforts to reward the soldiers and to finance the cost of the war by tariffs and taxation are palpable to the reader from the author's thoughtful descriptions.

Professor Head succeeds in bringing to life the story of a little-known but important piece of American history, at a time when the union of the newly independent nation was fragile. He educates the reader about the important contribution of those who held it together at this pivotal time in its history.