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

"I agree," Nixon replied. "We can't touch him, because it hurts the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs, the military, et cetera—not to be viewed as our enemy. We cannot have it."

Nixon remained focused on Radford, convinced that transferring him was not enough. "One thing that I'd be worried about," he fretted to Mitchell and Ehrlichman on December 22, was that "this guy is a potential [Daniel] Ellsberg." This was a reference to the Defense Department consultant who, six months earlier, had leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of documents relating to America's involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1968. "He knows more than even Ellsberg knows ... Is there any way that we can keep him scared to death, so that he doesn't get off and think, 'Oh, I'm now going to write the book?'" Nixon added, "I think [Radford's] got to be told that a criminal offense hangs over him, that it's going to hang over him ... I'd like to scare the son of a bitch to death!"

Nixon had a habit of viewing scandals that occurred during his presidency through the prism of the Alger Hiss spy case, in which Nixon had first gained national fame, and around which there had long been unsubstantiated whispers that Hiss was a homosexual. The Moorer-Radford affair was no exception. Observing that homosexuality "poisons a lot of these things," Nixon ordered Mitchell to explore whether Radford was sexually involved with the prominent syndicated columnist Jack Anderson. (It was a high-level leak to Anderson, detailing Nixon's covert "tilt" toward Pakistan in its December 1971 war with India, that had first led investigators to Radford. The yeoman and the columnist, both Mormons, acknowledged knowing each other, but both denied that Radford was Anderson's source. Under interrogation, however, Radford surprised everybody by confessing to spying for the Pentagon.)

Nixon thought the Radford-Anderson relationship was "sexual up the ass," and he wondered whether Anderson had Radford "under blackmail." Ehrlichman followed up on Nixon's order, but investigators balked, and the idea was dropped.

Haldeman contributed little to the December 21 meeting, with one notable exception: with Ehrlichman, he raised the specter of more-pervasive military malfeasance.

EHRLICHMAN: The thing that disgusts me about this is, if they'll do that—

NIXON: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: What else are they doing?

EHRLICHMAN: What else are they doing? You got military drivers, military gals, military everything around here.

NIXON: Yup, yup, yup, yup.

HALDEMAN: Christ. We've all used this office.

Such suspicions later proved well founded. A previously unpublished Senate Watergate committee memorandum, dated December 5, 1973, and addressed to Fred Thompson, the committee's minority counsel (now a U.S. senator from Tennessee), noted that the investigation of Radford had turned up "another person on the NSC staff who was helping" him, named David Oscar Bowles. Like Radford, Bowles was swiftly transferred—to Corpus Christi. But unlike Radford, Bowles has never spoken on the record about his role in the military espionage; indeed, until now his alleged involvement in the Moorer-Radford affair has never been publicly disclosed.

On the afternoon of December 23 Ehrlichman briefed Nixon again, this time on the results of Mitchell's sit-down with Moorer.

EHRLICHMAN: Admiral Moorer feels that [Welander] should go to jail! For all the terrible things he's been doing over here! ... [Mitchell] said that Moorer admits that he saw stuff, but that he operated on the assumption that his liaison man was working this all out with Henry ... I said, "Well, did you get a plea of guilty or a not guilty?" And [Mitchell] says, "I got a nolo contendere." NIXON: [Did Mitchell] tell him about the briefcases and all that?

EHRLICHMAN: Yup.

NIXON: And?

EHRLICHMAN: Moorer said, "Why, that's shocking." Told him, "Whoever did that should go to jail."

Two hours later Haldeman briefed the President on Ehrlichman's attempt to break all of this news to Kissinger. Nixon, working hard to assess the mood of the various parties to the affair, asked what Kissinger—a primary target of the spying—had said about the prospect of criminal prosecutions in the case. Haldeman reported that Kissinger had asked Ehrlichman, "What do you do on that?," to which Ehrlichman had responded, "Well, that's, that's the question now. It's in the hands of the Attorney General, and he has got to determine what we do. Obviously, Admiral Welander thinks that we should put the yeoman in jail; Admiral Moorer thinks we should put Welander in jail." Haldeman said that Kissinger thought Moorer should go to jail. "John and I both laughed," Haldeman told the President, "and said as you go up the ladder, everybody's going to crucify the guy under him, and nobody'll take the blame himself."

As his knowledge of the affair deepened, the President realized that despite his aversion to personal confrontations, he would have to address it directly with many of those involved. He chose to do so by telephone, with Christmas as his pretext for reaching out. The recipients of Nixon's calls got different messages, delivered with varying doses of circumlocution and subtlety.

First came Haig, shortly after 5:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve. Hoping to preserve his informal channel to the military through Haig, Nixon sought at the outset to allay any fear of repercussions for what he had that first evening called the "curiousness" of Haig's involvement in the affair.

NIXON: Just called to wish you a merry Christmas.

HAIG: Oh, God bless you—

NIXON: And also to tell you not to worry about all this, er—not to—you, you mustn't, uh, uh—I could see Henry's in one of his, uh, sort of doldrums.

After warming up with some criticism of Kissinger, Nixon returned to the Moorer-Radford affair. His primary message was meant not for Haig but for Moorer: no action would be taken against the admiral—for now—but Moorer might not be reappointed when his term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs expired, the following July. During the conversation Haig expressed no surprise at the espionage.

NIXON: But, uh—on the other thing, incidentally, on the Moorer thing. That's just—you just couldn't even dream of having Moorer out of that thing. I mean, he's part of a system. And the damn thing, I'm sure, started before he was there.

HAIG: That's right.

NIXON: I think—I think it goes back over years, and it probably went further than he ever expected it was gonna go. That's my guess.

HAIG: That's what I think, sir—

NIXON: And I—we gotta remember that, basically, he's our ally, in terms of what we believe in. And the worst thing we can do now is to hurt the military. I—I tried to get [that] through Henry's head. But—but that's what, that's the line we're playing on today.

HAIG: Sure.

NIXON: Don't you agree?

HAIG: Absolutely.

NIXON: We [have] just got to do that. And in June, of course, we can take a look—but not now ... After all, Moorer's a good man, and he's with us. This thing, of course, is pretty bad! It's, uh—understand: not the, not sending the information over [to the Pentagon], but goin' through briefcases. That goes too far!

In another talk with Haig, two days later, Nixon offered more reassuring words for Moorer's consumption. He wondered whether Moorer "thinks maybe now he's blown it." Nixon emphatically answered his own question. "He hasn't," he said. "He hasn't."

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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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