The Untapped Secrets of the Nixon Tapes

Forty years after Watergate, it's easy to imagine we know all there is to know about Tricky Dick. Two new books show how wrong that is.
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Jim Palmer/AP

Richard Nixon taped roughly 3,700 hours of his conversations as president. About 3,000 hours of those tapes have been released, while the rest remain closed to protect family privacy or national security. The public has a general impression of what’s on the Nixon White House tapes—the expletives deleted, the so-called “smoking gun” when Nixon appeared to try to use the CIA to derail the FBI investigation of Watergate, the slurs against blacks and Jews.

But very few people have actually listened to more than a few hours of tapes. Less than five percent of the recordings have been transcribed or published. The tapes, stored at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, will in time give us a much clearer and more accurate picture of Richard Nixon. Two tapes-based books published this summer, timed to the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, go a long way toward showing Nixon’s underappreciated geopolitical genius and how he became the victim of his own emotionalism.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Nixon who emerges from Luke Nichter and Doug Brinkley’s massive (700-plus pages) The Nixon Tapes, a collection of transcripts from 1971 to 1973, is at times profane and raw. Speaking of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he tells National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, “We really slobbered over that old witch.” He shows the typical prejudices of his generation against gays. But there is no doubt that he is in charge—ruthlessly so, exploiting rivalries between his aides. He seems to delight in secrecy and in playing the great game of power diplomacy, even when he is frustrated by the Russians, Chinese, and North Vietnamese, as well as America’s allies. It’s not always clear where Nixon is going—he vents, rages, tries on bluffs and provocations—but he, and not Kissinger, is calling the shots.

He also emerges as daring and cunning. In 1972, Nixon runs the risk that the Soviets will cancel a crucial summit meeting in the spring if he bombs Hanoi and mines Haiphong harbor as part of his relentless (and vexed) effort to pressure the North Vietnamese. The bet paid off. The Soviets looked the other way—they wanted arms control—and Hanoi finally got the message and agreed to a peace deal.

But Nixon’s emotional neediness shows through, and not just once or twice. He is obsessed with John F. Kennedy, or more specifically, Kennedy’s image in history, which Nixon feels (not without justification) was inflated. On April 15, 1971, Nixon complains to Kissinger and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, “Kennedy was cold, impersonal, he treated his staff like dogs.” (Nixon was more considerate to his staff.) “His staff created the impression of warm, sweet and nice to people, reads lot of books, a philosopher, and all that sort of thing. That was pure creation of mythology .…”

As he often did, Nixon then complains he’s not getting credit for his virtues and blames his staff. “For Christ’s sake, can’t we get across the courage more? Courage, boldness, guts? Goddamn it! That is the thing!” He rants on, fishing for reassurance:

NIXON: What is the most important single factor that should come across out of the first two years? Guts! Absolutely. Guts! Don’t you agree, Henry?

KISSINGER: Totally.

Nixon tried to control his feelings, pretending he did not resent the press, but from time to time his anger surged up, occasionally in rash ways. Remarkably, we still do not know who ordered the June 1972 Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s downfall. There are lots of theories, including CIA plots and convoluted conspiracies about sex rings, but no conclusive evidence. There is, however, recorded proof of Nixon ordering a different break-in—at the Brookings Institution in 1971. This is the starting point for Ken Hughes’s intriguing new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate.

University of Virginia Press

When the New York Times began printing the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, Nixon and his aides were outraged at the leak of secrets—but they also saw a chance to pile on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. On the eve of the 1968 election, President Johnson had halted the bombing of North Vietnam—in an attempt, Nixon suspected, to help his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, come from behind and defeat Nixon. In a tape-recorded conversation on June 17, 1971, Haldeman suggests that Nixon retrieve a file from the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, that supposedly showed how Johnson played politics with national security.

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Evan Thomas is the author of eight books, including The War Lovers and Sea of Thunder. Editor-at-large of Newsweek until 2010, he wrote more than 100 cover stories there and won numerous journalism awards, including a National Magazine Award. He teaches writing at Princeton and is writing a biography of Richard Nixon.

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