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

Minutes after his Christmas Eve conversation with Haig, Nixon had John Mitchell on the line. Their talk began with a discussion of "the Hoffa thing": Nixon's controversial commutation of the prison sentence of the former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. With Hoffa and Radford in mind, the President offered Mitchell—the man destined to become, after Watergate, the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to be incarcerated—some eerily prophetic words.

NIXON: I'll tell you, being in prison isn't, isn't all that, uh, that it's cracked up to be. You have some lonely days.

MITCHELL: I would certainly believe it ...

NIXON: Incidentally, on our other subject [the Moorer-Radford affair], I think we are better advised—I mean to—we've really just got to keep the lid on it ... keep it under as close control as we can. But I, uh—we cannot move to do anything to discredit the uniform. That's what I'm convinced of.

MITCHELL: Absolutely ... I have talked to Mel Laird, and ... he made a very interesting point. [Laird told Mitchell] "Come on over here one day into the Pentagon. I want to show you some of the memorandums that I've written to Henry about this and just warned him of it, to just cut it off"... He's actually backed up with [copies], maybe self-serving.

NIXON: Isn't that interesting!

MITCHELL: It is interesting ... 'cause of the daily jealousy of your direct approach to the Joint Chiefs.

NIXON: I know, I know ... I think it's important to—for Henry to sort of cool off and, and recognize that our best interests are served by not raising holy hell.

On Christmas Day, Nixon rang the concerned party he trusted least: Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. After delivering holiday greetings the President artlessly made a transition to the Moorer-Radford affair.

NIXON: Oh, incidentally, on that, er, matter that you're familiar with, er— LAIRD: Yes.

NIXON: I think it's very important, and I've given the orders around to everybody, that we not allow this thing to hurt the military. You know, we, we know it's wrong—

LAIRD: I know.

NIXON: —but we must cut it. So we gotta clean it up, but we gotta stand by Moorer and these fellows, because they are good guys. They just—they just got trapped in a system that was bad.

LAIRD: Bad, bad.

NIXON: Don't you agree?

LAIRD: I agree, Mr. President.

Well aware of Nixon's distrust, Laird portrayed himself as disappointed by the Moorer-Radford affair, and sought to remind Nixon that he had tried, in 1968, to eliminate the office for which Radford worked. Nixon was having none of it; he spoke more sharply to Laird than he had, for example, to Haig.

NIXON: As you pointed out to Mitchell, apparently, eh, you knew about this years ago. This has been goin' on for years! And they—

LAIRD: Yeah.

NIXON:—and it's just surprising they had it now, and I just think it's the way the system works.

LAIRD: Well—

NIXON: But now that it's done, we'll, uh—

LAIRD: ... I'm just gonna stay out of it now, and just shut it off.

NIXON: Absolutely. Leave it. Stay out of it, and let Mitchell do whatever has to be done. That way, we can stay sort of apart from it. Because we've got to work with these fellows, you know.

LAIRD: It is important.

NIXON: Particularly with Tom Moorer.

LAIRD: Right. And he's mine. You know, it's just too bad that—

NIXON: He's a good man.

Seven days later, on New Year's Day 1972, while spending the day preparing for a one-hour prime-time interview with Dan Rather, Nixon made another Moorer-Radford call, to Henry Kissinger. Punctuated by Kissinger's trademark flattery ("You do these office press conferences so damned vell!"), their talk focused mostly on when to disclose that Hanoi had rejected a recent peace overture. Nixon also wanted Kissinger to secure Laird's agreement to end the draft. "Go back to Laird and see if we can get the no-more-draftees thing," he said. Kissinger responded by suggesting a more secretive approach.

KISSINGER: Mr. President, I have almost reached the point where you may have to do this without telling Laird beforehand.

NIXON: Whoa! Couldn't do that, Henry, he'd go up, he'd just—

KISSINGER: He'd go up the wall. But, uh—

NIXON: But you're afraid he's going to leak it out, huh?

KISSINGER: But I'm afraid he's going to come back with so many caveats.

Kissinger had an idea that appealed to Nixon. "Let me talk to Moorer," he said. "He owes us one." "He sure does," Nixon replied, confirming Ehrlichman's assessment that the President sought to use the Moorer-Radford affair as leverage with Moorer, his "preshrunk" admiral. Of this gambit Nixon told Kissinger, "Keep it in greatest of confidence."

Nixon and Kissinger had come full circle. Less than two weeks after learning of the espionage, which Nixon had termed a "lesion" created by his own machinations in the Oval Office, the President was plotting with Kissinger, whom he had so recently described as "not a good security risk," to make use of a back channel to the Joint Chiefs and to circumvent the Secretary of Defense.

In the murky Cold War milieu in which he had come to power, Nixon apparently saw such deception as integral to the practice of politics and governance. The new Nixon tapes confirm this. In an almost comic conversation with Haldeman on December 22, in the midst of the Moorer-Radford discussions, Nixon summarized his philosophy.

HALDEMAN: The worst thing about it is you get, you start—which we've managed to avoid, maybe too much—you start getting paranoid, and you start wondering about everything and everybody, and—

NIXON: I know.

HALDEMAN: —you figure you can't—

NIXON: But don't be too damn sure of anybody! I mean, that's—don't be too damn sure about anybody!

HALDEMAN: You can't.

NIXON: I am never sure of anybody.

HALDEMAN: Well [unintelligible]—

NIXON: You know, Bob, the reason you and I ain't so close now is, as you've noticed, I don't put that—[inaudible]. Do you not now see why I don't have staff meetings?

HALDEMAN: Damn right!

NIXON: Do you agree?

HALDEMAN: Oh, yeah!

NIXON: Don't you think I'm right?

HALDEMAN: I sure as hell do!

NIXON: I don't have staff meetings. Now I'd rather—I know it would charge up the staff for me to sit around and talk to 'em directly. But who knows—first, with—without evil intentions, some are going to leak.

HALDEMAN: That's right.

NIXON: Beyond that, there might be somebody in there that just—like a little guy like this [Radford] will get it all ... I tell you ... if there's ever anything important, just don't tell anybody. You know, I, uh—it's, it's really tough. It's got to be "Don't tell Rogers, Laird, anybody." We just don't tell the son—any son of a bitch at all.

HALDEMAN: And it is—it's a horrible way to have to work, but it's—

NIXON: Yeah.

HALDEMAN: —it's essential.
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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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