This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon's resignation. In 1974 the Watergate investigation had been under way for more than two years, during which time Nixon had denied any wrongdoing. His claims unraveled, of course—in part because of conversations he himself had tape-recorded.
Nixon left behind some 3,800 hours of taped conversations in all, dealing with virtually every aspect of his presidency. In February of 1971 he had begun installing what was to become an extensive recording system in multiple locations. The only people with knowledge of the system were H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff; Alexander Butterfield, one of Haldeman's aides (Butterfield later disclosed the existence of the tapes to Watergate investigators); and a handful of Secret Service technicians. Nixon shut the system down in July of 1973, as the Watergate investigation gathered force.
The National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, has been gradually releasing the Nixon tapes since 1996. Some 2,019 hours have been made available to date. The recordings provide a window onto a highly complicated man: deeply insecure, venal and petty and given to racial and ethnic slurs, but also sophisticated in his understanding of domestic and foreign affairs (and of the often frustrating ways of the giant bureaucracy under his command). I have listened to Nixon tapes as each batch has been released, creating transcripts of conversations that are frequently elliptical and sometimes difficult to hear. Following are excerpts from recordings made in 1971 and 1972.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, April 7, 1971
Nixon had just delivered a televised address on Operation Lam Son 719, in Laos, an invasion planned by the United States but carried out largely by the South Vietnamese army, and intended in part to show that the South Vietnamese could undertake offensive operations successfully—that the policy of "Vietnamization" was working. Displeased with the reaction in Congress and even in his Cabinet, Nixon telephoned Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, clearly seeking reassurance. Kissinger was in deep flatter-the-king mode.
RN: How did it come off in delivery? I didn't look up much.
HK: It was by far the best delivery I've heard you give. It was dignified, strong, it was not ingratiating. If anything can do it—I don't know what the results will be, Mr. President.
RN: Ah, well, we won't … those leaders were a miserable lot, weren't they?
HK: Well, [House Speaker Carl B.] Albert is all right, but—
rn:[Senator Hugh] Scott didn't—I mean Scott—[Representative Gerald R.] Ford's fine, but that goddamn Scott—was—and [Senator Robert P.] Griffin suckin' around.
HK: Well, Scott. Anything you tell Scott you might as well tell The New York Times.
RN: But I was, ah, after you left, I stuck it to 'em. I said, Look, you know, on that point—I said if Congress wants to take over, that's fine, but then they take the responsibility for this going down the drain and that is clear, gentlemen. By God, I'm not going to let them get off this hook.
HK: Well, it is a disgrace, Mr. President. You are saving this country. It is—
RN: Well, incidentally, let me say, screw the Cabinet and the rest of those. As far as I'm concerned, I've made the speech now and the rest of them—if they like it, fine. But no more suckin' around. From now on they come to me. I'm sick of the whole bunch.
HK: Well, you gave a speech that we—that you can—that we can all be proud to have had the privilege to be associated with.
RN: Well, I'm glad you feel that way.
HK: It is—it was also magnificently delivered. It was the best delivery—
RN: Well, it was a goddamn good little speech, actually.
HK: Deep down they all know you're right. That's the end of it.
RN: And the others are a bunch of goddamn cowards, and they—
HK: Cowards and publicity seekers.
RN: That's right. I'll tell you this, though, Henry. You've convinced me the staff, except for Haldeman and one or two others—
HK: [John D.] Ehrlichman has been—
RN: Haldeman, Ehrlichman. Well, [OMB director George] Shultz is fine, but he's in another league. But the staff, generally, screw 'em, and, ah, they can do their jobs, but … and as far as the Cabinet, except for [Treasury Secretary John] Connally, to hell with them. That's all there is to it.
HK: Well, Mr. President, you've done this one—
RN: And if it doesn't work, I don't care. Right now, if it doesn't work—then let me say, though, that I'm going to find out soon and I'm gonna turn right so goddamn hard, it will make your head spin. We'll bomb those bastards right out, off the earth. I really mean it.
Richard Nixon and William Rogers, February 2, 1972
The preceding month had been an extraordinarily violent one in Northern Ireland: twenty-five people had been killed in civil unrest, including thirteen who were shot by British troops during a demonstration in Londonderry on January 30—the so-called Bloody Sunday. On February 2 a crowd of about 25,000 burned down the British embassy in Dublin. Nixon and his Secretary of State, William Rogers, spoke by phone later that day about the political conundrum these events posed for the United States.
RN: Hello, Bill.
WR: Hi, Mr. President.
RN: You went to another reception, eh?
WR: Oh, yes, International Club.