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web exclusive: Nixon & Detroit:Inside the Oval Office

Feb. 21, 2002

On the morning of April 27, 1971, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca -- the chairman and president, respectively, of Ford Motor Company -- sat down in the Oval Office for a private meeting with President Richard Nixon. (See the photograph above.) At that moment the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the fledgling federal auto-safety agency that grew out of Ralph Nader's consumer crusades of the mid-1960s, was gathering momentum in its push to regulate Detroit's Big Four automakers. At the top of the agency's agenda was a proposed safety regulation, strongly favored by Nixon's Secretary of Transportation, requiring "passive restraints" (usually airbags) on all new cars.

Throughout its history, whether the issue was airbags or SUV rollovers, NHTSA's mission has been hampered by political intervention. Nixon's meeting with Ford and Iacocca can now be seen as an early and dramatic example of the auto industry flexing its political muscle to influence, and even thwart, impending regulations.

Here's the story of Nixon's dance with Detroit in 1971, as told through a series of recently released White House documents and a tape recording of the Oval Office meeting which has never been broadcast, and which FRONTLINE presents here on the Web for the first time. The documents and the recording were provided by the Nixon Presidential Materials staff at the National Archives.

"Serious Risk of Adverse Publicity" as Nixon
Prepares to Meet Automakers

April 21, 1971

Memorandum to: H. R. Haldeman
From: Peter Flanigan
Subject: Meeting with Automobile Industry Leaders

This memo from Nixon aide Peter Flanigan -- an adviser on economic, commercial, and financial policy -- to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, outlines several pending auto-industry regulations in anticipation of a meeting President Nixon had requested with the leaders of the Big Four automakers: Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, and American Motors. The most contentious of the new regulations was NHTSA's proposed "passive restraints" rule requiring that all cars made after August 15, 1973, have "passive restraint systems," such as airbags or thick padding, to "guard against injury in a 30-mph perpendicular crash whether or not seat belts are fastened," and that by August 15, 1975, "they must protect against injury in all types of 30-mph accidents."

After summarizing the various regulations on the table and the automakers' various positions (ranging from minor objections by GM and Chrysler to strenuous objections by Ford and American Motors), Flanigan asks whether Nixon risks the appearance of selling out to Detroit if a meeting with the Big Four is publicized.

... is there not a serious risk of adverse publicity that the President "sold out" to the Big Four if after such a meeting we make decisions favorable to the industry on some of the issues listed above? A possible alternative would be to meet separately with the major leaders. For example, the President could meet with [Henry] Ford [II], with or without [Lee] Iacocca. Then ... he could meet before or after with [James] Roche [of General Motors] and [Lynn] Townsend [of Chrysler].

Talking Points for the President's Meeting
with the Transportation Secretary

April 22, 1971

Memorandum for: The President
From: Ken Cole
Subject: Meeting with Secretary Volpe
Friday, April 23, 1971
4 p.m. (1/2 hr.) - Oval Office

To prep President Nixon for a scheduled meeting with Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, who strongly supported NHTSA's passive-restraints regulation, White House aide Ken Cole wrote a routine memo laying out the agenda for the meeting, including background and possible "talking points." The memo concludes with this note:

Automobile Safety
Although Peter Flanigan has been in close touch with the Secretary on the development of passive restraints in the automobile safety area, the Secretary may raise this issue with you, specifically the airbag. If the Secretary raises this, you should point out that you understand that hearings are still going on and that there is considerable disagreement yet as to whether passive restraints, particularly the airbag, have a real value. You should advise the Secretary that before the Administration takes a position or any regulations are issued, the hearings must be completed and the merits of any passive restraints well demonstrated. There must also be an agreement with the industry before any such position or regulations are issued. Any position developed by the Department of Transportation and the Secretary must be reviewed by the White House before it can be considered approved.

The Meeting: Ford and Iacocca Make Their Pitch

April 27, 1971

A Meeting in the Oval Office - 11:08 a.m. to 11:43 a.m.
Present:
Richard Nixon, President of the United States
John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President
Henry Ford II, Chairman of Ford Motor Co.
Lee Iacocca, President of Ford Motor Co.

On the morning of April 27, 1971, President Nixon met privately in the Oval Office with Henry Ford II, chairman of Ford Motor Co., and Lee Iacocca, Ford's president. In the course of the meeting Ford and Iacocca complained that new environmental and auto-safety regulations, in particular the proposed passive-restraints rule, would harm the U.S. auto industry as it struggled to compete with the Japanese, and by extension would harm the U.S. economy. The meeting with Ford and Iacocca was secretly recorded by Nixon, and FRONTLINE has acquired the audio tapes and transcript with the help of the Nixon Presidential Materials staff at the National Archives. To our knowledge, the recording has never been broadcast.

  • As the meeting got underway, Nixon indicated that he would be sympathetic.

  • audio excerpts

    (you'll need realplayer to listen)

    1. Nixon (3:23)

    2. Ford (2:22)

    3. Iacocca (2:31)

    4. Nixon (1:12)

    (read the full transcript.)

    audio: click here to listen President: [My] views are, frankly, whether it's the environment or pollution or Naderism or consumerism, are extremely pro-business. We are fighting, frankly, a delaying action in many instances. ... There is pollution. We all know that. You can fly over various places and you can see the stuff in the air. Maybe, there are safety problems, I assume. [Unintelligible] I think they're greatly exaggerated, but there are some. But where there is pollution and where there is safety, the general principle that I believe in is that, well, then we'll do the best we can to eliminate the toxins. But we can't have a completely safe society or safe highways or safe cars and pollution-free and so forth. Or we could have, go back and live like a bunch of damned animals. That won't be too good, either. But I also know that using this issue, and, boy, this is true. It's true in, in the environmentalists and it's true of the consumerism people. They're a group of people that aren't one really damn bit interested in safety or clean air. What they're interested in is destroying the system. They're enemies of the system. So, what I'm trying to say is this: that you can speak to me in terms that I am for the system. ...

    I try to fight the demagogues to the extent that we can. ... The safety thing is the kick, 'cause Nader's running around, squealing around about this and that and the other thing. And so out of all this sort of thing what we have to do is get beyond that: one, to do what is right to do, and then, second, what we, having determined what is right to do, we have to determine [unintelligible] we can do, and having in mind the political problem we have, I mean, down in the Congress, in the things they will pass and the things that they will ask us to do. So, it's with that in mind, that's the background. Now, tell me the problem you've got with the industry, with the Department of Transportation, and all these things and let me listen. ...

  • Ford makes the case that the safety regulations in particular are harming the industry and will cause the price of cars to go up.
  • audio: click here to listen Ford: I think the thing that concerns us more than anything else is this total safety problem. And, what we're worried about really, basically, is -- this is an industry problem -- is really the economy of the United States, if you want to get into the broad picture because we represent the total automotive [unintelligible] supply, industry supplies, dealers, dealer [unintelligible] the whole bit, about one-sixth of G.N.P. Now, if the price of cars goes up because emission requirements is gonna be in there, even though we, though we've talked about this morning, safety requirements are in there, bumpers are in there. And these things are, and that's leaving out inflation and material costs increases, which are also there. We think that the prices of cars are going to go up from next year through '75 anywhere from a hundred dollars to, up to maybe seven or eight hundred dollars in the next four years because of the requirements. ...

    We're talking about trying to put some sense into the DOT and how they go about doing their business.

    We see the price of a Pinto, which now sells for nineteen hundred and nineteen dollars going something like fifty percent in the next three years with inflation part of it, but that's not the big part of it. It's the safety requirements, the emission requirements, the bumper requirements. Now, what are we really talking about? We're talking about trying to put some sense into the Trans-, to DOT and how they go about doing their business. ... They've got bumper standards for '73, they've got different bumper standards for '74, they've got air bag standards. All of these things, the only thing that we want to try to talk to you about this morning is the fact that these things are all going to cost money. If these prices get so high that people stop buying cars ... they're gonna buy more foreign cars. ...

  • Iacocca, who does most of the talking throughout the meeting, complains about the manner in which Secretary Volpe is running the Department of Transportation, and claims that Ford Motor Co. is reaching the "despair point" and has started a "downhill slide."
  • audio: click here to listen Iacocca: I've been in the office of Secretary Volpe a number of times on this. ... being real candid with him, I think that they have said in the Department of Transportation that we are dedicated to passive restraints. The citizens of the U.S. must be protected from their own idiocy, so we will put in a sophisticated device that will blow up on impact and package him in an air bag and save their lives. Well, we agreed that work has to be done in this area. But look where we are: they have, this is law; this is the law of the land, now, for 1974. ...

    So I'm in a position to be saying to ... Volpe, 'Would you guys cool it a little bit?

    ... we have already sunk two hundred and forty million into the safety area. And we have on our cars today a hundred and forty dollars of, I don't say all gadgetry, 'cause the steering columns, I think, are saving lives, the collapsible column and the like, but the shoulder harnesses, the headrests are complete wastes of money. ... Which gets me to the crux of it: there is nobody, I mean nobody, whether I talk to Muskie, whether I talk to, someone, Secretary of Transportation, that ever wants to talk to me as a businessman about costs. ... We're not only frustrated, but, we've reached the despair point. ...

    I have a feeling that the auto industry -- I'm only speaking for Ford -- ... we are in a downhill slide, the likes of which we have never seen in our business. And the Japs are in the wings ready to eat us up alive. So I'm in a position to be saying to Toms and Volpe, 'Would you guys cool it a little bit? You're gonna break us.' And they say, 'Hold it. People want safety.' I say, 'Well, they, what do you mean they want safety? We get letters. We get about thousands on customer service. You can't get your car fixed. We don't get anything on safety! So again, give us a priority.' We cannot carry the load of inflation in wages and safety in a four-year period without breaking our back. It's that simple, and that's what we've tried to convey to these people.

  • Wrapping up the meeting, Nixon assures Ford and Iacocca that he will look into the specific problem and sums up his views on the larger issue of regulating industry.
  • audio: click here to listen President: The thing we've got, the thing we have got to do, let me, let me say, I, I'll, let me take a look at the whole, uh, John, what I can do here. But the other thing is I want to see what the hell the department is doing in the future. ...

    I want to see what the hell the department is doing in the future.

    I'll have to look at the situation, and I will on the air bag thing and the rest. And, and, but, but I think this is an element that had, you see, goes beyond the DOT because it involves America's competitive position, it involves the health of the economy, it involves a lot of things. ...

    We all want to do the right thing. The question is doing the right thing at the right time and in a [unintelligible] way ... rather than doing it in a revolutionary way, too drastic a way, that will just throw the baby out with the bath water. ... That's the problem. ...

    You see, what it is, too, is that we are, we are now becoming obsessed with the idea that ... a lot of, what, what it really gets down to is that ... progress ... industrialization, ipso facto, is bad. The great life is to have it like when the Indians were here. You know how the Indians lived? Dirty, filthy, horrible.

Read the full transcript

Ehrlichman to Volpe: "The President desires
that the order be suspended"

April 30, 1971

Transcript of a telephone conversation between John Ehrlichman and Secretary of Transportation John Volpe

Three days after Nixon's meeting with Ford and Iacocca, John Ehrlichman called the Secretary of Transportation to convey the president's desire that the Transportation Department hold off on issuing the passive-restraints regulation. In the course of the conversation, Volpe voices his concerns about the political fallout from the decision, and even hints that he could leak the story so as to make Nixon take the heat. The phone call was recorded and a transcript has been made available by the National Archives. Following is an excerpt:

Volpe: There will be an avalanche, and I mean an avalanche, of protest in every newspaper in this country. ... we've postponed ... for a two year period, listened to their [the auto industry's] complaints and their woes and done everything we possibly could to accommodate their requirements and we have allowed them to meet their goals in performance standards in several ways rather than the air bag. Now I suggest to you, John, very sincerely that I think the President and John Volpe and this Department particularly will receive some of the worst editorial comments that we have seen in this area. ...

Ehrlichman: Well, I appreciate that the Nader element is very [unintelligible] with their public relations and with their access to the press. At the same time ... the two controlling considerations as far as the President's concerned are, first of all, the showing that was made to him [by the auto industry] that the idea is not a good idea -- number one and basic. Number two that we're dealing here with an industry which are basically our friends.

Volpe: ... Mr. Ford [a Democrat] isn't your friend.

Ehrlichman: He sure is.

Volpe: Well, you know what he did in 1960 and what he did in 1964.

Ehrlichman: Yes sir, but I know where he is today. I know exactly where he is today. The point here is that pleasing Ralph Nader doesn't get us anything.

Volpe: It isn't Ralph Nader I'm worried about. Christ, I've kicked him in the teeth several times. Ralph Nader doesn't bother me a damn bit. What I'm concerned about is the editorials of the newspapers of this nation.

Ehrlichman: Well, apparently, the President's willing to take that heat.

Volpe: ... [sic] the President will take the heat, it's John Volpe, as you know, unless, of course, the story gets out ... won't get out from here, but these damn things have a way of leaking that we're ordered to do it. ...

Ehrlichman: Well, the whole point here, as far as the scope of my instructions is concerned, is that I'm instructed to advise you that the President desires that the order be suspended. ...

Volpe: Well, I know what the President has asked you to do and you're carrying out his instructions. I personally think it's a mistake but I will comply with it. ...

Read the full transcript

Costs and Benefits

April 30, 1971

Memorandum for: Peter Flanigan
From: George Crawford
Subject: Automobile Safety

This memo from White House aide George Crawford spells out the proposed regulations to be reconsidered by the Department of Transportation (the "passive restraints," as well as a requirement that lights and buzzers warn when seatbelts are not fastened) and summarizes the industry's response. All of the automakers agreed to the seatbelt-warning rule; the response to the passive restraints was more varied. Although GM and Chrysler had objections, both companies agreed to the passive-restraints ruling, while Ford and American Motors, according to this memo, "objected strenuously, and Ford may sue to challenge the rule as impracticable." The memo goes on to summarize the Department of Transportation's estimates of the costs and benefits of passive restraints:

With regard to passive restraints, DoT says airbags for 1973 would cost $100 [per car], for 1975 $150-$200, for a cost by 1976 of $1.5 -$2 billion annually, saving 600 lives and 25,000 disabling injuries this first year; 5500 lives and 200,000 disabling injuries in the tenth year, when virtually all operating cars would be equipped. ...

John Huntsman reports that the President, reading your briefing summary, said "No! John, let's not go crazy on this," referring to the paragraph setting out these rules.

A Faithful Servant

May 12, 1971

Handwritten Letter from John Volpe to President Nixon

In a handwritten letter, Secretary of Transporation John Volpe wrote Nixon to say that he was prepared to carry out the president's decision on the passive-restraints ruling, but that he would first like to have an opportunity to present his case to the president and advisers John Ehrlichman and Peter Flanigan. The text of the letter is quoted here in full:

Dear Mr. President:

John Ehrlichman and Peter Flanigan have passed on to me your concerns and instructions regarding my Department's promulgation of a passive restraint rule for the auto industry.

I will of course carry out your wishes in this matter and attempt to achieve your objectives in the most effective and least politically damaging manner. Since meeting with John and Peter I have conducted a complete review of the pending legal and administrative procedures to determine the most advantageous time to repeal or drastically modify this proposed rule. I believe it to be around June 14, when the Department files the administrative record in response to the industry's petition for reconsideration.

Within the next 30 days, however, and before we take this course of action, and provided I believe there are facts, which have not been put into the equation, I respectfully request that I be allowed to make a presentation to you, John and Peter, so that your decision may be based on the very latest and complete facts.

In addition, you might find it useful to talk to Ed Cole [of GM], who I believe has a different viewpoint than Henry Ford.

As always, I am prepared to implement whatever decision you finally reach.

With fond regards,

John

The Follow Up: You've Got a Friend in Washington

May 17, 1971

"Personal/Confidential" Memorandum
For: Charles Colson
From: John Ehrlichman
Subject: Automobile Safety

Ehrlichman asks White House aide Charles Colson to "follow up" with the leaders of Ford and GM following their meetings with the president, and to make clear to them that the Department of Transporation's decision on the safety regulations was ordered by President Nixon himself. The implication is that Nixon wants to curry political favor with the auto industry, and in his reply to Ehrlichman on May 27, 1971, Colson wrote, "I understand the point fully and will proceed accordingly." Following is the complete text of Ehrlichman's memo to Colson:

PERSONAL/CONFIDENTIAL

FOR CHUCK COLSON

Would you please now "follow up" on the meetings which the President has had with Henry Ford II and James Roche of General Motors?

The President was very glad that these gentlemen came in to talk to him about the air bag which, it turns out, would have been a very onerous and expensive regulation for the automobile industry.

Mr. Ford and Mr. Roche in separate meetings convinced the President of the lack of wisdom of these regulations.

For your private information Secretary Volpe will, on or before the 14th of June, cause a reconsideration of the safety regulations to be completed, pursuant to petitions now pending, in favor of the auto companies.

However, it should be made clear to the manufacturers that the President in fact ordered the reconsideration and the result.

If in doubt, call me.

John D. Ehrlichman

see a facsimile image of the memo

According to The New York Times, Ehrlichman later testified that Nixon "instructed me to tell Charles Colson, one of his assistants, to exploit the Ford meeting. ... I wrote a memo to Charles Colson conveying the president's wish that he hit up the Ford people for a political contribution."

Big Four to Nixon: "Very Reasonable"

Sept. 8, 1971

Memorandum for: The President
From: Peter Flanigan
Subject: Airbags and Bumpers

This "action" memo from Peter Flanigan to President Nixon spells out the administration's decision on the auto safety regulations and asks for the president's approval. In the memo, Flanigan writes:

As I reported to you earlier the automobile industry unanimously agrees that:

-- Passive restraints will be desirable when the technology has been developed;

-- The inflatable airbag is the most promising way of providing a passive restraint;

-- The technology does not presently exist to manufacture and install safe airbags.

As a result of negotiations with the automobile industry, Secretary Volpe proposes, subject to your approval, to issue a revised rule. He points out that the revisions will "draw fire" from safety advocates, including 75 Congressmen and Senators who signed a petition, and will be interpreted as a retreat in favor of the industry. ...

Because of the checkered history of both passive restraints and bumper requirements, I personally talked to Roche and Cole of G.M., Ford and Iacocca of Ford, Townsend and Riccardo of Chrysler and Chapin of American Motors. All of these men find the proposed rules entirely acceptable, characterizing them as "very reasonable" and "more than acceptable."

see a facsimile image of the memo

"For political purposes..."

Sept. 22, 1971

Memorandum for: The President
From: Peter M. Flanigan
Subject: Airbags and Bumpers

The Transportation Department's revised ruling (to which the auto industry leaders agreed) required 1977 models to carry a passive-restraint system. Here, Flanigan asks Nixon to approve a request from Volpe to move the requirement up to 1976 models, because of political considerations. Flanigan informs Nixon that he has spoken to the auto industry leaders and that they find the 1976 deadline "entirely acceptable," but that for "political purposes" they will publicly voice disappointment with the revised ruling.

You approved a proposed change in the ruling by Transportation on passive restraints (airbags) which would include, among other things, passive restraints in the 1977 models. Because of serious potential political repercussions resulting from this change in the current rule, Secretary Volpe has urged that this date be brought forward to the 1976 model year. I have discussed this proposed revision with Lynn Townsend [of Chrysler], Ed Cole [of GM], and Henry Ford, and all agreed that the revision would be acceptable. For political purposes they will, when the rule is announced, indicate that they would have preferred a later date. However, they have assured me that they find this program entirely acceptable.

see a facsimile image of the memo

Coda

The airbag controversy would drag on for 20 more years, becoming perhaps the most tangled and emotional auto-safety issue of them all, even reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June 1983 against a Reagan administration effort to rescind an airbag regulation scheduled to go into effect. The auto industry successfully delayed introducing airbags for several more years, however, pointing to the dangers posed in some cases to drivers and unrestrained small children, while safety advocates argued that the benefit of saving thousands of lives far outweighed the possible risks. In December 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was passed, requiring passenger airbags in all 1998 model year cars and all 1999 model year vans and light trucks. It is worth noting that in the fiercely contested negotiations over the ISTEA legislation, airbags were the primary victory for safety advocates, while SUV rollover regulations, among other things, were sacrificed.

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