“And that’s the way it is, January 19, 1970”
Brody and Renée plunked down $650, cash, for a helicopter ride from JFK International Airport to National Airport outside Washington, D.C. The JetRanger could seat four, so Brody chose Michael Aronin, the ex-Marine, to come along as his bodyguard. Who better than an ex-Marine to be there when Brody talked to Nixon about ending the war? During the ride, Brody was elated. The press conference at JFK had not gone well, but he had played The Ed Sullivan Show, and now he was heading to the capital to meet Nixon. It all made sense. His plan to end the war seemed to be working. In a mere eight days, he had become world famous and now stood alongside John Lennon as the leader of the anti-war movement, but Lennon was not flying to D.C. to meet Nixon. He was. And all it had taken was money.
As the JetRanger reached D.C., Brody started handing the pilot $100 bills, one after another. He wanted to land on the White House lawn, just as he had promised the press at JFK. He would land on the lawn, walk up to Nixon and end the war. The pilot would have none of it, telling Brody that they would get shot down. A few-hundred dollars later, the pilot was willing to give Brody a view of the city by circling outside the no-fly zone that encompassed the National Mall and the White House. Brody persisted, handing more and more cash to the pilot, who eventually steered the copter closer to the Prohibited Area. Soon the radio crackled with a warning to the pilot.
Brody handed the pilot a fist full of bills and laughed. He pointed to the White House. The pilot shook his head no. Brody handed the pilot the rest of his cash and smiled. “The White House,” Brody said. He pointed again to the White House lawn. The pilot circled again, edging even closer to the no-fly zone. Another stern warning came over the radio. The pilot looked at Brody and smiled. “We’ll get shot down,” he said. He put the copter into a smooth turn and guided it across the river to National Airport.
A 30-minute taxi ride later, the travelers were outside the Northwest Gate of the White House across from Lafayette Park. Brody had given all his money to the pilot. He had nothing left to pay the cab driver, but took his name and address and promised to send him enough money to live on for the rest of his life. The cabbie thought that proposition a pretty good gamble (especially since he had seen Brody on Ed Sullivan the night before). He waived the fare. It was late in the day and getting dark. The temperature was below freezing. Passersby gathered around as it became clear that Brody was present. Brody turned to the crowd.
“The war in Vietnam is over and the North Vietnamese troops have gone home,” Brody announced. Some in the crowd chuckled. Brody repeated some of the statements he had made at JFK earlier. “I have just learned this from superior intelligence,” Brody added. It was unclear whether he meant his own superior intelligence or the intelligence of a superior being. “I have 500 jet planes stationed at various points around the world ready to fly the boys home by Saturday.” He also claimed to have 48 missiles positioned around the world “ready to go—all I’ve got to do is push the button.”
The White House Press Corps had learned of Brody’s presence and had trickled outside to view to the show. Brody and his group approached the security guard at the gate and asked to see the President. The guard asked if they had an appointment. They didn’t, and the guard explained that the President doesn’t take visitors without appointments. Brody said he needed to discuss the war with Nixon. A photographer snapped a picture of the Brodys with the guard, who looked uncomfortable and highly skeptical. The guard told them to wait while he inquired. The guard called his supervisor. Two Secret Service agents soon appeared, followed by two more. They brought Brody’s group inside the guard’s booth and questioned them for over forty minutes. The agents took names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth. Eventually, the agents told the Brodys that the President was tied up. They would have to come back when they had an appointment.
“I’m sure I will see President Nixon in the next week,” Brody told the White House press corps as he exited the guard’s booth. He shivered in the cold, explained that he and Renée needed to return to New York. They could not keep up the vigil, he said. He had more pressing matters. “I am going to address the United Nations tomorrow on the Middle East.” The FBI arrived a few minutes later.
Inside the White House, President Nixon phoned White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Nixon was in the process of fine tuning his State of the Union Speech, which he was scheduled to give three days later. They spoke for four minutes. The exact content of the conversion is not known but it likely concerned the manner in which he would address Vietnam in the speech. Nixon wanted to tell the American public that prospects for peace were good, and he was working that line into his speech. Nixon then tried to call Kissinger but couldn’t reach him.
Vietnam was very much on Nixon’s mind. He was approaching his first State of the Union address, and he needed to navigate through the political shoals. During his first year in office, Nixon had struggled with the growing anti-war movement. Like Johnson before him, Nixon suspected that the anti-war movement was sponsored by the Red Chinese or the Soviet Union, and that the movement was undermining his attempt to negotiate peace. When neither the CIA nor the FBI could find any evidence supporting this view, Nixon could not understand how young American men and women could oppose their government. He could not understand how they could oppose him, their President. If Nixon gave Brody any thought, he would have perceived Brody unfavorably, as another long-haired anti-American. A “peacenik.” He was just another “bum” in a long line of anti-war protestors who needed to be watched. Anyone who was for peace could not be trusted.
Kissinger called Nixon back about 6:12 p.m. They spoke for 12 minutes about the War, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and prospects for peace. Nixon’s strategy for peace in Vietnam involved triangular diplomatic talks with the Soviet Union and Communist China. He saw détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with Communist China not only as a way of establishing closer ties with those countries but also to have them bring diplomatic pressure on North Vietnam to end the war or, at the very least, engage in meaningful peace negotiations with the United States. Additionally, Nixon thought that by approaching both countries, he could play each against the other. The fact that the United States had made overtures toward Communist China worried the Soviet Union, which perceived the latter as an enemy.
Kissinger began the conversation with a note about Moscow Radio, which had announced that it would broadcast messages from American POWs back home to their families.
“That’s rough,” Nixon said.
Kissinger agreed that it was an “unfriendly gesture.” He had spoken to Bill Rogers, the Secretary of State, who then relayed the White House’s objections to the Soviet Ambassador.
“Good. We don’t take that from anyone,” Nixon said. “When do you next see Dobrynin?” he said, referring to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States.
“I haven’t set it yet. I thought maybe next week. Maybe I should wait a while after this.”
“I would wait a week,” Nixon said. “Let’s play it tough. Tough in a sensible way.”
They talked about the Soviet Union’s fears about the United States negotiating with China. Nixon and Kissinger were happy that the triangulation was working.
“Is there anything new on Vietnam?” Nixon asked.
Kissinger explained that he had just received a briefing from the CIA. “Many things are beginning to bother me,” he said. He mentioned that the North Vietnamese had apparently massed hundreds of trucks on the border.
“I hope we are bombing the hell out of those trucks,” Nixon stated.
“Yes, we are,” Kissinger assured him. “Maybe there is to be a new thrust.”
“There’s nothing left for a new thrust,” Nixon said confidently.
The conversation continued. Both agreed that the situation in Vietnam—including Vietnamization—was fragile. Nixon began to relate a story told to him the night before by a dinner guest about a professor who raised butterflies.
“The butterflies were in a cocoon and the professor decided to help them along by cutting the cocoon a little,” Nixon explained. “The butterflies came out but soon died because their wings weren’t strong enough because they hadn’t struggled enough.”
“Good,” Kissinger said.
“That’s the point of our Asian policy,” Nixon said. “People have to struggle a bit.”
Outside, the FBI agents swarmed in force around Brody and his small group, but the agents were not after Brody. They were looking for Aronin, who was wanted on a federal warrant out of Nevada in connection with a wire fraud charge. The FBI separated Aronin from the others and cuffed him. He was placed in the back of a black sedan and whisked away. The agents said that the others could go. Some of the White House reporters escorted a dazed and angry Brody to a nearby hotel, where a press conference was held in a small room.
“Mr. Brody, you came down here today from New York. Why?” The reporter held the microphone up to Brody, who had just sat down with Renée behind a folding table that had been hastily set up for the interview.
“I came down here today from New York to offer to end the war in Vietnam,” Brody began. He held his hands on his cheek bones with his elbows resting on the table. He was visibly shaken, and his voice was tinged with anger. “I came down here with 100 billion dollars’ worth of support. I came down here with a sure-fire peace plan that’s already been accepted by the North Vietnamese. It’s already been cleared through every channel possible. But I came down here, and President Nixon showed how much he cared by arresting the person that came around with me.” Brody shifted in his seat. “I’m just so blown away. I’m so distraught about the whole thing. I can’t believe that we’re living in a country like that.” Brody continued. He spoke of the F.B.I. and the Secret Service. He promised to bail out Aronin “with any amount of money they want.”
The reporter tried to interject a question, but Brody plowed forward with his diatribe. “I was given the run-around. They let me in, took down everything about my life that I’ve done and then they arrested my best friend, my traveling companion, an ex-Marine who fought in Santo Domingo. The war is over. The North Vietnamese have already started to regroup to go home, but they’re not going to go home until President Nixon lets them. And President Nixon, right now, is the only person in the whole wide world that’s stopping peace in Vietnam.” He spoke of Biafra and the Middle East and the C.I.A. “If I do get shot, it will be by the CIA. And, you know, if I die, the whole world dies. I’ve got 100 billion dollars of support. I can do an awful lot of damage as well as good.”
“What is the 100 billion dollars’ worth of support?” the reporter asked.
“From all around the world. From all around the world, I’ve received personally 200 million letters at my home. I’ve received an additional 100 million letters at my offices from all around the world, from Germany, from Czechoslovakia, from Poland from Russia, from China, from Japan, from all around the world.” He described how he had tied up the telephone system. “And I’ve shown Nixon—President Nixon many of the things that I can do. I can create miracles. I can end all wars in seven days. But without President Nixon’s support, I can’t do a thing. I begged President Nixon many times now.”
“What do you want him to do?”
“I just want to see him for ten minutes. My proposal in Vietnam goes like this. I have offered the North Vietnamese government 10 billion dollars if they will withdraw all of their troops to the north so that President Nixon can withdraw all of our troops from the south. I’ve already got jet planes standing by to do this. The troops could have been home by Saturday if I would have seen Nixon tonight. The second part of the proposal goes like this. The north and the south decide what they want to do for themselves. But if they decide it peacefully, I will throw in an additional 20 billion dollars’ worth of aid, making a grand total of 30 billion dollars if the Vietnam people can decide their destiny in peace. And I think with 30 billion dollars, they can do an awful lot of rebuilding. And I think it’s an awful lot of love. And I think the world owes it to them. And the world has already agreed with me. The only person that hasn’t agreed with me is President Nixon.”
Brody then made a plea. “I ask everybody that is listening to this news interview to send a letter to President Nixon saying that you have the deepest love and respect for him and that he should see me, at least for ten minutes, some time in the next month. Because I want to get this thing over with as soon as possible and before -- and until I get this thing done, nobody is going to get anything. This is the most important thing to me, because people are dying in Vietnam that don’t have to die. There are people starving in the world that don’t have to be starving. And I’m saying another thing. Don’t address your letters to me anymore. If you’re starving, knock on your neighbor’s door. And if your neighbor won’t give you shelter, knock on another neighbor’s door. I want everybody in the world right now to find out who’s hungry. And if it’s a matter of money, give them the food that they need with your money and send me the bill and I’ll get it to you right away.”
“Mr. Brody, this war has been going on for ten years. You’ve only gotten into this thing in the last – “
“Ten days,” Brody interrupted.
“Ten days. Where were you before this?”
“I wasn’t 21. I couldn’t sign any contracts. I wasn’t old enough.” Brody described how he was turned away from the White House. He was told he needed to make a written request to see the President.
“Is that what you were told at the White House?”
“Yeah. That’s what they said.”
“A written request?”
“I had to have an appointment. And people are dying, but I have to have an appointment while Nixon wines and dines. I love President Nixon. I’m sure he wines and dines. I haven’t been able to eat myself. I like to wine and dine, too. But I’m not going to wine and dine until we have something going here. The North Vietnamese have regrouped their 9-to 13-year-old soldiers and started heading north yesterday on good faith. But I don’t know what they’re going to do now. I sure hope that they give me a little bit more time. North Vietnam, give me another week. I’m going to convince Nixon that the war is over and that we can do everything and that we can build love into the world. And that we can—the north and the south can unite again and be brothers. All Vietnamese, I make an appeal to you right now, unite as brothers. Throw down your guns. Kiss each other and say let’s get this war over with. The war is over. Just give me a chance to prove it to you. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
The reporter tried to steer the topic to Brody’s finances. “What about your banker saying that you didn’t have any money to give away?”
“My banker,” Brody began, his voice full of emotion. “First of all, the Continental Illinois Bank is crazy.’ He fumbled for words. “First of all, I only have a million dollars in that one little bank. It’s only the eighth biggest bank in the world. They ought to call up the Illinois—well, wait until I sign my 100 million dollar record contract tomorrow and then see what my banker says. And if you don’t believe me, just wait until tomorrow. That’s all I’ve got to say. I’m going to go home now and sleep. I’m tired. Thank you very much. I really appreciate this, gentlemen. It’s really been great. Bless you all. Good day. Peace to the world. I love you President Nixon. I love you CIA. I love you FBI.”
Brody stood up, smiled a weary smile and walked out, Renée trailing closely behind. The reporters followed. Outside, Brody hesitated. He needed to get back to New York to get bail money for Aronin, but he had no cash to pay for the trip back to New York. He asked if anyone could lend him some money so that they could buy bus tickets. The reporters in the Press Corps shook their heads no. Some held their hands out and open and said, “Sorry.” A young man wearing a black leather jacket offered to drive them to New York, and they accepted.
That night, Walter Cronkite closed the CBS Evening News with a recount of Brody’s peace plan: “Well, here is today’s installment in the strange adventures of the 21-year old oleomargarine heir, Michael James Brody Jr.” Cronkite repressed a smile. “That’s the young New Yorker who professes to be trying to give away his fortune. Now he claims he has ended the Vietnam War and has 500 jets ready to bring the troops home. He also says, “I may be the greatest con man in the world.” Cronkite signed off: “And that’s the way it is, Monday, January 19, 1970.” The FBI and Secret Service would open files on Brody the next day.