Nixon and the Chiefs

In the last days of 1971 President Richard Nixon and his closest aides met to discuss the astonishing discovery that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been spying on the White House. Transcripts of Nixon's secret tapes of these meetings, published here for the first time, offer a case study in Nixon's paranoid style of governing—and his surprisingly successful efforts to salvage advantage from misfortune

At 6:09 on the evening of December 21, 1971, President Richard Nixon convened a tense and confidential meeting in the Oval Office with his three closest advisers—John N. Mitchell, his Attorney General; H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff; and John D. Ehrlichman, his top domestic-policy aide. Notably absent was Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national-security adviser. The men had come together to discuss a crisis unique in American presidential history—"a federal offense of the highest order," as Nixon would put it in the meeting. Just days before, Yeoman Charles E. Radford, a young Navy stenographer who had been working with Kissinger and his staff, had confessed to a Department of Defense interrogator that for more than a year he had been passing thousands of top-secret Nixon-Kissinger documents to his superiors at the Pentagon. Radford had obtained the documents by systematically rifling through burn bags, interoffice envelopes, and even the briefcases of Kissinger and Kissinger's then-deputy, Brigadier General Alexander Haig. According to Radford, his supervisors—first Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson and then Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander—had routinely passed the ill-gotten documents to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and sometimes to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the chief of naval operations. It was, in short, an unprecedented case of espionage that pitted the nation's top military commanders against their civilian commander in chief during wartime. Nixon and his advisers had gathered to consider how to react.

Related link:

The Nixon Era Center
James Rosen, in a joint effort with Mountain State University's Nixon Era Center, constructed the transcript of the center's enhanced version of the December 21, 1971, White House tape. Click here to read the transcript and White House conversation.

The Joint Chiefs' espionage effort was not born in a vacuum. Nixon's style of governance was highly secretive, and his presidency hung precariously on the constantly shifting lines of "back-channel" communication that he encouraged among Kissinger, Haig, the Joint Chiefs, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and Secretary of State William Rogers. The military often felt cut out of crucial decision-making on matters of national security, foreign policy, and the conduct of the war in Vietnam. In his 1976 memoir, On Watch, Admiral Zumwalt lamented "the deliberate, systematic and, unfortunately, extremely successful efforts of the President, Henry Kissinger, and a few subordinate members of their inner circle to conceal, sometimes by simple silence, more often by articulate deceit, their real policies about the most critical matters of national security." Scarcely alone in his views, Zumwalt marveled "that rational men could think that running things like that could have any other result than 'leaks' and 'spying' and all-around paranoia." Indeed, he said, "they had created a system in which 'leaks' and 'spying' were everyday and essential elements."

The espionage case ultimately came to be known as the Moorer-Radford affair. Although the details of the story may be new to many readers, historians and journalists have written about Nixon's handling of the affair—most notably Seymour M. Hersh, in The Price of Power (1983), and Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, in Silent Coup (1991). Until now, however, chronicles of the White House's reaction have mostly been derived from the selective memories of some of those involved (including Radford, who has spoken to the press)—and have therefore proved either incomplete or less than fully reliable. But in October of 2000 the secret tapes that Nixon made of his initial conversations about the affair were declassified and released for public access, buried amid 420 hours of other Nixon recordings. Published here for the first time, excerpted transcripts of those conversations do much more than fill out the historical record. In fact, they offer an absorbing case study in the behavior and tactics of Richard Nixon under fire, trying to cope with a potential disaster of his own making. "Damn," he exclaimed to Haldeman on the day following that first meeting, as the details began to unfold. "You know, I created this whole situation, this—this lesion. It's just unbelievable. Unbelievable."

The tapes show that Nixon was stunned by Radford's revelations. He pounded his desk in anger. He spoke gravely about prosecuting Admiral Moorer, along with others involved. He voiced deep suspicion about the role played by Haig, who had personally selected Radford to accompany him and Kissinger on the foreign trips during which Radford had done his greatest damage. Nixon pronounced Kissinger, his national-security adviser, a threat to security. And yet within days he had developed a strategy for handling the affair that not only averted a major public crisis—which is where most Presidents would have been content to stop—but also skillfully salvaged advantage from misfortune and furthered his personal and political agendas.

Shaped considerably by Attorney General Mitchell, Nixon's response to the Moorer-Radford affair essentially consisted of covering it up, transferring Admiral Welander and Yeoman Radford to remote posts, and, daringly, retaining Moorer as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The President—who had alternately conspired with and against the Chiefs—"had two ways of going," as Ehrlichman later recalled. "He could either tear up the Joint Chiefs or he could continue to do business with them." Nixon chose the latter, figuring, in Ehrlichman's words, that Moorer would from then on be a "preshrunk" admiral over whom Nixon could exert increased influence. Indeed, within days of the first White House meeting about the affair, having recovered from the shock of the revelations, Nixon and Kissinger were already plotting how to use Moorer's diminished status to further a secret policy goal. Nixon also reckoned that disclosing the scandal could irreparably damage the armed services—something he felt the country could ill afford in the Vietnam era.

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James Rosen is Fox News' chief Washington correspondent and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. His article "Nixon and the Chiefs," about the Joint Chiefs' espionage ring targeting Nixon and Kissinger, appeared in the April 2002 edition of The Atlantic.

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