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.
RN: What about the Irish?
WR: Well, the Foreign Minister is coming to see me in the morning.
RN: Foreign Minister of Ireland?
WR: Ireland, yeah. The British ambassador was in this afternoon. And it's gonna become a very important political issue here at home.
WR: [Senator Edward] Kennedy's trying to make a lot of it.
RN: I know.
WR: And I wanted to get your guidance on what I should say. My own judgment is that I should say something that was really expressing our concern and, ah, indicate we hope that discussions will be held. He knows our concern to see that something can be worked out. Now, I talked to Cromer [George R.S. Baring, the Earl of Cromer, who was Britain's ambassador to the United States] about it today and said we didn't want to say anything unless it was agreeable with them. But I think that from your standpoint you should, because the, ah, Jim Buckley [a senator from New York]—
RN: And all the Irish—
WR: Kennedy, and all the others, are making a lot of it. And even though it's a little embarrassing with the British, I think that—
RN: What did Cromer say? Did he—
WR: Well, he said he understood, and I told him I'd get in touch with him in the morning. But did you say anything to [British Prime Minister Edward] Heath on this subject? Do you remember?
rn: No. Oh, yes! We—of course, it hadn't escalated at that point. And I said, look, that—I said, in effect, this—the agony of Ireland and England—is something we don't want to exacerbate. That we just hope that we won't say anything that's gonna make it more difficult for you, but we hope you can work it out. I just sort of left it that way. I don't want to be in the—I don't think we should be in the position of demagoguing it …
WR: Right. I got a letter, a telegram, from [British Foreign Secretary] Sir Alec Home today.
RN: What's he say?
WR: Well, he was presenting a point of view. And, ah, he didn't—he hoped that we wouldn't take sides. And we can't take sides …
RN: Of course, you know it is a terrible tragedy, because the British, with all of their great points, always mishandled Ireland.
RN: And I don't know whether they're mishandling it now or not. But they probably aren't. But the point is, the historical record is so bad that they now just can't look good, anything they do.
WR: Really a terrible dilemma.
RN: Isn't it, though? 'Cause you know, and let's face it, the Irish are—these people, the Irish, are pretty goddamn bad here. They're the Kennedy type, out raising hell, blowing up the place, burning down the embassy and all that.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, April 18, 1972
During a conversation at Camp David, Nixon and Kissinger discussed developments in Vietnam. Two weeks earlier, with the Paris peace talks stalled, the North had resumed military incursions into the South. Nixon, in turn, had ordered intensified bombing of the North. Kissinger informed the President of a meeting he had attended the previous day with the presidents of the Ivy League schools, who were preparing a statement denouncing the bombing.
HK: I had the Ivy League presidents in yesterday. They asked to see me.
RN: Holy shit. Sons of bitches—I wouldn't have seen them. They don't deserve it. They don't deserve it. I'll tell you this, they are never—I'm surprised that we really have—who did this? Haldeman told you to have them in?
HK: They called him for a meeting with you.
RN: The Ivy League presidents? Oh, I won't let those sons of bitches ever in this White House again. Never. Never. None of them. They're finished. The Ivy League schools are finished. My God—
HK: I spent an hour with them, and it was revolting, because they have now embraced the program of the radicals. They said, in effect, they want us to cut off economic and military aid—
RN: And what happens?
HK: They said, have a Communist government in power in Saigon. I said, Have you considered that? I'm amazed that leaders of educational institutions should take such a position on a moral issue. The president of Harvard said, Look, there are a lot of immoral things happening in the world which we don't resist.
RN: So, Henry, look, I would not have had them in. So don't ever do that again. Don't ever have them in. They came out against us when it was tough. Don't ever have them in again. And when they [unintelligible]. Don't ever go to an Ivy League school again. Ever. Never, never, never.
Richard Nixon and Tricia Nixon, April 18, 1972
In February of 1972 Nixon opened U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China. That spring his daughter Tricia accompanied a Chinese table-tennis team on a tour of the United States. Arriving at the University of Maryland in College Park for an exhibition tournament, the group encountered both Vietnam War protesters and supporters of the Taiwanese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, who were furious about the rapprochement with mainland China.
TN: Hello, Daddy, it's me.
RN: Hi, Trish. How did it go last night?
TN: Oh, did you hear?
RN: Bill Rogers told me he saw you there. He said there were a few demonstrators around but he says it went all right. How'd you feel?
TN: Oh, he thought it went all right?! That's interesting. Well, he called this morning. There were quite a few demonstrators, because it was held at the University of Maryland.
RN:Well, they were demonstrating on all sides, though, some of them Chinese—
TN: The national Chinese were out, and they were shouting, "Down with Mao" [pronounced Mayo], and then the other people were shouting, "Ho Chi Minh."
RN: Ho Chi Minh.
TN: But we were very loudly booed when we walked in.
RN: You were?
TN: Very loudly, yeah.
RN: You and who? You and Rogers?
TN: And Rogers, yuh.
RN: You think you should not have gone?
TN: Yeah, I think it was a bad one to do. It was a good idea, but we shouldn't have gone to the University of Maryland … It was the motliest crew you've ever seen.
RN: Well, that's my view about going to the universities. Well, I hope it didn't bother you too much.
TN: No, it didn't. It was just—I know, I was just embarrassed because the Chinese issued a complaint.
RN: A complaint about what?
TN: Oh, you know, that they were being rude to the chairman—they were insulting Chairman Mao. There was nothing we could do! It's a free country!
RN: Did they boo the Chinese, too?
TN: No, they didn't boo the Chinese, 'cause—uh, no, they didn't.
RN: But did they announce you and the Secretary when you went in?
TN: Yeah, first they announced me, and there were loud boos. Oh, it was incredible. Of course, our people aren't very vociferous, so it just sounded much louder. And that's what was carried on the news.
RN: And, then, ah, carried on the news?
TN: And of course they didn't even say that later rocks had been—there was rock-throwing by these people, and—
RN: Was there? Who'd they throw at?
TN: The authorities. A number were arrested.
RN: And then did they introduce Rogers? They boo him, too?
TN: Yeah, they booed him, too. And then they had chants. There was a chant about me. But they didn't really take on Rogers. So, that was good …
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, May 5, 1972
It was during this conversation that Nixon arrived at the decision to blockade and mine the North Vietnamese harbor of Haiphong.
RN: The United States of America, at this point, cannot have a viable foreign policy if we are humiliated in Vietnam. We must not lose in Vietnam. It's as cold as that. Right?
HK: I agree.
RN: And they have not given us any way to avoid being humiliated. And since they have not, we must draw the sword, so the blockade is on. And I must say that I, I—and incidentally, I want one thing understood—you say bombing. Moorer [Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] is right, the surgical-operations theory is all right. But I want that place, whenever the planes are available, bombed to smithereens during the blockade. If we draw the sword on 'em, we're gonna bomb those bastards all over the place.
HK: No question.
RN: And let it fly, let it fly.
HK: The only point I disagree—we can do all of this without killing too many civilians. I just know we can.
RN: I don't want to kill civilians, you know that. I don't try to kill any. But, goddamn it, don't be so careful that you don't knock out the oil tanks.
HK: God, no.
RN: See my point?
Richard Nixon and Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, May 9, 1972
Rebozo, one of Nixon's oldest friends, called Nixon to congratulate him on a televised speech he had given the night before, announcing the blockading and mining of Haiphong Harbor and reporting on his current peace proposal.
RN: Well, you know their question now is whether it works.
RN: It will work over a period of time and, ah, 'cause I intend to squeeze these bastards if it takes a year.
BR: Exactly. Well, I guess they've had three days to bring everything they want in, haven't they?
RN: Ah, no, no, hell, no. Boy, if they start bringing it in, then the ships are stuck, so nobody's going to go in.
BR: It's just obvious—
RN: Yeah, twenty ships are lined up to get out right now—they've clogged the channel, there's no way they can get in.
RN: Hell, no. And we're gonna bomb the railroad yards tonight.
BR: Beautiful. Beautiful.
RN: And so—
BR: I'll tell you, they just didn't dream that you would do this in an election year, see.
RN: Yup. Well, it'll—of course, probably, as they've already said, most people think it will sink the Russian summit [a U.S.-Soviet arms-control meeting was scheduled for late May]. But I don't—
BR: I don't—
RN: But if it does, what the hell?
BR: I don't think it will. I think they're gonna want it all the more.
RN: Ah, I don't know.
BR: You didn't say a thing about China. I tell you, it was just a magnificent thing. I've never had such a reaction on any of them. Never. My phone was just ringing off the hook from people who don't normally call. They might express themselves later. But it was just a phenomenal thing. And the reaction is just, ah—
RN: Were the calls all male?
[Rebozo snickers. Nixon chortles a little.]
BR: I told Bob—
RN: Abplanalp [a wealthy Republican businessman]?
BR: No, I told Bob Haldeman, last night one woman called, and I didn't know whether she was drunk or just emotional, crying, and I don't know who she was! And I didn't want to ask her! And how she got my home number, I don't know—it's unlisted.
RN[cackling]: She probably got it off the wall of some toilet!
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, September 24, 1972
At Camp David, Nixon and Kissinger discussed events in Africa: Uganda's President Idi Amin had recently ordered the expulsion of Asians with British passports. (He later expanded the order to include Asians of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi descent.) Great Britain, which had cut off economic aid to Uganda, was concerned about the safety of its remaining citizens there.
HK: Hello, Mr. President.
RN: Hi, Henry [clearing throat], how are ya?
HK: I am fine. Sorry to disturb you.
RN: No, that's all right. Fine, fine.
HK: We have a problem in Uganda.
HK: And the problem is this: the British are very worried that there may be a massacre of their seven thousand, ah—
HK: British they've got there, and they're scattered all over the country.
RN: Of course.
HK: And they'd like to have some secret talks with us about some logistics help.
RN: Sure—well, then, have them.
HK: They tried it earlier this week, and State has turned them down repeatedly.
RN: Screw State! State's always on the side of the blacks. The hell with them.
HK: I knew this would be your reaction!
RN: I just can't understand why we haven't had them before. You know, like that thing on Burundi [that spring and summer more than 100,000 Hutus were killed after an uprising against the Tutsi government]. I want State's ass reamed out on that for not, for not—Henry, ah, in the whole Burundi business—I've been watching it in the press—did you know that State has not sent one memorandum over to us on it?
RN: Or have they? Or have you had something I haven't seen?
HK: No, no, they have not.
RN: Well, how do you feel about it? Don't you really feel—just be, let's be totally honest, isn't a person a person, goddamn it? … You know, there are those, you know, they talk about Vietnam, about these people far away that we don't know, and you remember that poor old Chamberlain [Neville Chamberlain, Britain's Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940] talks about the Czechs, that they were far away and we don't know them very well. Well, now, goddamn it, people are people in my opinion.
HK: Well, it's not only that—
RN: I don't mean our national interest gets involved. But every time, every time, that anybody else gets involved—every time it's one other individual or us and you have a little pressure group here—State goes up the wall. But I'm getting tired of this business of letting these Africans eat a hundred thousand people and do nothing about it.
HK: And when they have—and all these bleeding hearts in this country, who say we like to kill yellow people.
RN: That's right.
HK: There haven't been as many killed in eight years of the war as were killed in three months in Burundi …
RN: Isn't it awful, though, what these, this goddamn guy—the head of Uganda, Henry—is an ape!
HK: He's an ape without education.
RN: That's probably no disadvantage. I mean—
[Kissinger laughs heartily.]
RN: You figure that asshole that was the head of Ghana had a brilliant education in the United States. Then, I mean, so let's face it—
HK[laughing]: That's right.
RN: No, no, what I mean is, he really is, he's a prehistoric monster. But the same with Burundi.