In a weird way, I feel like I’d almost written this essay before I’d even started. Throughout previous discussions about why Captain America would rebel against unjust authority, or how he’d react to modern culture, or what his political orientation would be, one thing kept coming up: in Marvel continuity, Captain America brought down Richard Nixon.
To people who haven’t read classic Captain America from the 1970s, that factoid might seem outlandish on its own. But the details of how the saga actually unfolded are so baroque that they demand an in-depth exploration.
Rather that starting with an action sequence (as one might expect from a superhero story) or intrigue in the halls of power (as one might expect from a 70s paranoid thriller), Captain America’s struggle with Richard Nixon begins with a slice of life interlude in Captain America and the Falcon #166:
In the midst of everyday class struggle, Steve Rogers notices a full page advertisement – on the back page of the Daily Bugle, no less! – attacking Captain America as a lawless vigilante, seeking to raise doubts in the minds of the Daily Bugle’s urban working-class audience (given the Bugle’s status as a stand-in for the New York Post and the New York Daily News) as to whether Cap defends them. Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema hint at the ads’ ultimate author through the Daily Bugle’s front-page headline on a presidential address from Nixon, positioning him as Cap’s opposite number both in the media and in morality.
Starting the story off this way is an interesting choice for a genre generally dependent on punching to advance the plot, as Cap can’t really hit back at a foe which is incorporeal, insidious, and above all immaterial. What’s at threat isn’t Cap’s person but his reputation, and more broadly Cap’s vital connection to the American public. We see this much clearer in Captain America and the Falcon #169, where Englehart and Buscema give us a full-page example of the propaganda campaign being waged against our hero:
This television commercial makes the political allegory clear: here, the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) is an obvious stand-in for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (which everyone in 1974 knew better as CREEP). More than just Nixon’s re-election campaign, CREEP was the crucial financial link between the Watergate burglars and the White House through which Nixon not only paid the legal fees for the men arrested in the break-in but used campaign funds to attempt to bribe them into not testifying about the White House’s involvement.
The style of this attack ad – which positions Captain America as a dangerous vigilante acting against “recognized legal agencies” like SHIELD, subtly suggests that Captain America’s Nazi punching (note that the “private citizen” shown being attacked by Cap is actually HYDRA psychologist Doctor Faust) should be condemned, raises ominous questions about whether the super soldier serum has driven Captain America mad (shades of faux-populist attacks on “elitist” experts, from anti-vax to Brexit there), and once again raises the question of whether Cap fights for the “law and order” America of the “silent majority” or the America of the student movement and the counter-culture – would also have been familiar to readers in 1974. Only two years earlier, many of them had seen on their television a deluge of attack ads created or funded by CREEP against George McGovern’s campaign, as a part of a deliberate strategy of “positive polarization”:
While this liberal critique of political advertising might seem like an odd choice for an antagonist in a superhero story, this isn’t the first time that Captain America has run afoul of the advertising industry. In issue #157, Cap had already clashed with the ad executive turned snake-branded supervillain Viper and his Serpent Squad (later re-branded as the Serpent Society and later as Serpent Solutions), who’ll get name-checked later in this storyline.
Moreover, this focus on the media, advertising, and public relations was a common preoccupation of Marvel creators in the 70s and 80s, whether we’re talking about Steve Gerber’s run on Howard the Duck, Jim Shooter and Ann Nocenti’s take on Hollywood phonies in Dazzler, Ann Nocenti’s Longshot miniseries, or Louise Simonson’s run on X-Factor. This common thread wasn’t because Marvel creators were huge fans of the Frankfurt School, but rather because comics writers and artists were working in the broader media industry (Marvel Comics was located on Madison Avenue, after all) and were writing from their personal experience.
The media angle is particularly appropriate for this storyline, because there were deep connections between the advertising industry and the Watergate scandal. We see this more clearly when Cap goes to confront the bryl-creamed man behind CRAP’s ad campaign:
Quentin Harderman would have been instantly recognized by a 1974 audience as a stand-in for H.R Haldeman, “the President’s son-of-a-bitch.” An ad man at J. Walter Thompson for 20 years, Haldeman had managed Nixon’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 1962 and became Nixon’s Chief of Staff in 1969. Known to history more as the man who Nixon turned to threaten the CIA into pressuring the FBI to drop the Watergate break-in and the other man in the missing 18 ½ minutes of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, Haldeman had previously been known for bringing Madison Avenue techniques to the White House, organizing tightly scripted public events, establishing the Office of Communications to coordinate messaging, and installing his fellow J. Walter Thompson alumni Ronald Ziegler as Nixon’s Press Secretary.
After this tense confrontation, Harderman and CRAP set the next phase of their conspiracy into motion by luring Captain America into participating in a charity boxing match where his opponent turns out to be the Tumbler, a petty supervillain whose robberies Cap had foiled. When Cap pursues the Tumbler, an assassin hiding in the rafters (shades of the second shooter on the grassy knoll) makes it look like Cap has murdered the Tumbler:
While the Watergate scandal never quite made it to the level of assassinations, both CREEP and Nixon’s “plumbers” were known for using false-flag operations as part of a broader campaign of “ratfucking.” Originating in the fraternity politics of USC where Donald Segretti (future mentor of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) and the future “mad men” Ronald Ziegler and H.R Haldeman got their start. “Ratfucking” started as a combination of opposition research, ballot-stuffing, and “dirty tricks” aimed at discrediting opponents. As was gradually revealed during the Watergate investigations, CREEP and the U.S Attorney General John Mitchell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to disrupt the 1972 presidential campaign – this included “false flag” operations where Republican operatives like then-20-year-old Roger Stone would steal stationary from the campaigns of Senator Edmund Muskie, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and others in order to create forged letters attacking other Democrats or people of French-Canadian descent.
Similar to his real-world counterpart, Harderman’s objective isn’t to use the legal system against Cap – after all, an autopsy would raise unwelcome questions about the real cause of death – but to discredit him in the court of public opinion. In a truly baroque complication to an already complicated master plan, Hardeman organizes a “false flag” jailbreak and deliberately avoids killing Cap when he gets the chance (something else he shares with other supervillains).
As the bottom two panels emphasize, the point of all of this is to produce images – both of Captain America as a fugitive criminal and Moonstone as the hero bringing him to justice – that can shift public opinion in CRAP’s favor. (We also see Englehart elaborating on his media critique by pointing to both the prurient-yet-prudish audience and the passive news media who let themselves get worked by the Nixon Administration.) It’s also a good opportunity for some costumed fisticuffs in a storyline that is heavy on the talking and light on the usual super-heroic fare:
As antagonists go, Moonstone is almost painfully generic – the costume lacks any visual distinction, the light blue/purple/yellow color scheme doesn’t exactly pop, and the helmet takes away any distinctive facial features without adding anything to compensate – but deliberately so. It’s visual evidence (along with the fact that the reader has already seen Moonstone shoot the Tumbler on behalf of Harderman) that the man who intends to “replace” Captain America is a fraud, an uninspired phony cooked up by Madison Avenue hacks who lacks the deeper ideological commitments that Cap clings to even in his lowest moment.
The purpose behind Harderman’s build-up of Moonstone in the public eye becomes clearer when the pseudo-hero makes an appearance on television (which I’m almost certain is meant to be NBC’s Today Show, then hosted by Frank McGee, although it could well be a pastiche):
This is where Englehart moves from mere allegory to direct political commentary, directly commenting on the Watergate scandal. What this page suggests is that, in Earth-616, Nixon tried to distract the country from the unfolding Watergate scandal through engineering the downfall of Captain America, in the hopes that political whataboutism would tar his opponents or at the very least that Captain America would be unable to speak out about the crisis at the heart of government. In this broader conspiracy, Harderman engineered Moonstone as “the stranger in the midst” who would replace Cap in the imagination of a public desperation to find something to believe in – and at this pivotal moment get “regular Americans” to focus on the conservative goal of “keep[ing] the ship of state afloat,” rather than getting to the bottom of political corruption.
Here we see Englehart and Buscema’s media critique at its sharpest, seeing the media as a passive, spin-regurgitating machine easily manipulated by political operative like Hardeman, and the audience as eagerly “lapping” up vapid celebrity gossip and mild titillation rather than paying attention to the real issues facing America.
Now that the Watergate issue has been brought to the fore, we get to the part of all of the best Captain America stories where Steve Rogers learns to connect his own struggles to broader issues of systemic injustice. And this being the Marvel Universe, the minority group bearing the brunt of repression from Nixon’s campaign and Administration is everyone’s favorite metaphorical minority:
A year before Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men begins, we see an interesting extension of the mutant metaphor – not just “hated and feared,” mutants are being hunted like animals, not merely by prejudiced mobs but by a corrupt establishment. Indeed, the very language used by Professor X has some interesting connotations within the broader Nixon allegory: the term “open season” was used to describe a series of police shootings of Black Panther Party members which culminated in the shooting of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of 1969.
Beyond a mere cameo, Professor X’s intervention is crucial for getting Captain America to see that “the group that hunts you is the same group that hunts us” – the foundational element of solidarity. Moreover, Professor X’s more direct experience with persecution means that he can provide critical context linking Harderman and CRAP to the real enemy, the vast conspiracy at the heart of everything:
While hardly a perfect person – Cap is understandably preoccupied by the being-framed-for-murder thing – this does demonstrate why Steve Rogers is a good ally. Not because he’s perfectly informed or fully enlightened (after all, he does start from a position of asking “how are your problems connected with mine”) but because when he’s confronted with new information or new perspectives, he doesn’t react defensively but rather instantly takes it on board and then acts in solidarity:
As someone who hasn’t exactly been thrilled by how Captain America’s been characterized in crossovers with the X-books from Avengers vs. X-Men up through last month’s Uncanny X-Men #11, I’d like to point out this scene specifically to Marvel’s writers and editors who might think that Cap’s position would be the reflexive defense of the status quo. We already know which side Steve Rogers will come down on in a conflict between mutants and the state, even if it comes down to blows with Nick Fury and SHIELD, because he made that decision forty years ago. Nor is Steve the type to sleep on pressing issues of social injustice – if anything, his instincts are to act in a decidedly militant fashion. (Not that he’d always make the right decision, but rather that his “sins” would be of the “warm-hearted” rather than “cold-blooded” variety, to borrow a phrase from FDR.)
After coming to blows with SHIELD, Cap and the X-Men succeed into breaking into the Secret Empire’s base and learn that this “silent, subtle, and sinister war” against mutants has been launched for the purposes of literally weaponizing prejudice:
Operating on the (sadly, probably accurate) assumption that no one will miss mutants, the Secret Empire has been abducting heroes and villains alike to power their doomsday devices, treating mutant bodies as nothing more than living batteries for their engines of war.
All of which brings us to the question: what is the Secret Empire, and what do they want? As Cap learns shortly before he goes undercover to infiltrate the Secret Empire, he learns that they “like AIM, were originally an arm of HYDRA” who “broke away from the big boys, to try to conquer the world on their own.” This is a particularly significant association, because contrary to what Nick Spencer might argue, HYDRA is an inherently Nazi organization.
Add on to that already foreboding backstory the particular iconography and rhetoric of the Secret Empire, a group of white dudes who like to dress up in purple hoods and robes, stand in orderly ranks and throw one arm up into the air in the direction of their leader, and plot the overthrow of the United States:
The symbolism might mix and match a bit between Nazism and the Klan – with just a soupçon from the Prisoner in the way that they all go around with numbers on the front of their hoods which they use in place of names when addressing one another – but the overall political direction fairly straightforward. Englehart puts even more of a point on things when he has the leader of the Secret Empire refer to his organization as the “invisible government,” paralleling the Klan’s self-appointed title of the “invisible empire.” As allegory goes, this is hardly subtle, but I don’t think Englehart and Buscema are trying for subtlety; rather, they’re grabbing up the most charged imagery of the worst enemies of America from without and within and hurling it in Richard Nixon’s face.
Beyond being totalitarian anti-mutant bigots who want to take over the world, the Secret Empire have a broader plan which ties into what we know about the Harderman/CRAP conspiracy already:
As it turns out, the Secret Empire’s plan turns out to hinge on that peculiar neuralgia of the 1970s which Jimmy Carter so fatefully termed “malaise.” In part reacting to an unforeseen revelation of a real crisis – the Watergate break-in – and in part manufacturing a false crisis – the framing of Captain America – the Secret Empire is deliberately attacking America’s ideals and its faith in its of own institutions. In such a state of division and despair, the Secret Empire seeks to use the public’s “desire for a new, untarnished hero” to legitimize a fascist coup.
Because this is still a superhero comic, however, said coup takes the form not of a military junta but rather a mutant-powered flying saucer:
Fortunately for the survival of American democracy and unfortunately for the Secret Empire, Cap’s infiltration of their secret base allows him to first thwart their doomsday device and then pummel Moonstone into turning state’s evidence against CRAP and the Secret Empire both:
The result is a kind of liberal fantasy of how the Watergate scandal should have ended:
Like something out of Aaron Sorkin’s fantasies, the news media does its job and beams the unvarnished truth straight into America’s living room. And unlike the deeply conflicted outcome of the actual Watergate scandal, which saw relatively light sentences and the political rehabilitation of many of the Watergate conspirators, here the whole of the Secret Empire – notably including the “sanitation squad bombers,” a pretty clear reference to the White House “plumbers” – are brought to justice. This time, the long hand of the law reaches all the way into the Oval Office:
While Buscema never shows us Number One’s face – possibly for libel reasons? – Englehart’s portrayal of Nixon’s character is worth commenting on. In some ways, I think Englehart has a surprisingly canny angle (given the comic book nonsense he surrounds it with), describing Nixon as a man who could never be satisfied (after all, Nixon did his level best to steal an election he was always going to win handily), as a man who refused to accept the constraints of legality (hence the creation of the enemy’s list as a way to use the government against his domestic critics, hence the creation of the “plumbers” to pull “dirty tricks” that the CIA and FBI wouldn’t). And while it never came anywhere close to a coup in real life, there was a moment when Nixon was ordered to hand over the tapes where it could have come down to a conflict between the U.S Marshals Service executing a warrant and the U.S Secret Service obeying the orders of the president to block what he considered to be a violation of executive privilege. Finally, Englehart’s use of a poker metaphor as Nixon chooses to commit suicide rather than stand trial (speaking of something that would change America forever) even evokes Nixon’s skill at the game which made him enough money as a Navy ensign in WWII to finance his first red-baiting campaign for Congress.
Despite this complete triumph over the forces of reaction, though, Englehart realizes that Steve Rogers’ idealism has been strained to the breaking point. Thus, rather than exhilarating in his restored reputation or basking in the adulation of the American people, like many of the American people in the 1970s, Steve Rogers has to take his motorcycle and go in search of the American people once again as Nomad…but that’s a subject for a future edition of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe.
 An issue that otherwise focuses on a rather problematic Yellow Peril villain bringing mummies to life in the Museum of Natural History, but I digress.
 Incidentally, Roger Ailes of Fox News infamy got his start putting together Nixon campaign ads in 1968…
 Which at the time that Captain America and the Falcon #174 went to print in June of 1974 was in a highly delicate state, with the House Judiciary Committee beginning impeachment prosecutions against Nixon but before the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes which would already bring him down. As late as June of 1974, Nixon’s approval and disapproval ratings remained tied, and support for removing Nixon remained below a majority and had actually slightly declined over the spring.