Do the New Nixon Tapes Tell Us Anything New?


Mr. Moss is a Ph.D candidate in History from George Washington University. Mr. Nichter is a Ph.D candidate from Bowling Green State University. They are currently working on a book about the Nixon tapes, and post the transcripts of Nixon tape conversations, included this newest release, at nixontapes.org.

The Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library—now officially integrated into the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)—and its director, Dr. Timothy Naftali, should be commended for the release of Nixon tapes that occurred on July 11, 2007. The release, totaling 165 conversations recorded between November 3 and November 19, 1972, was both symbolic and substantive.

The release was symbolic, coming as it did on the first day of the Library’s new federal status, and it was substantive, as these tapes shed light on issues such as the Vietnam negotiations breakthrough, the Nixon administration’s second term staff reorganization plans, and as the only presidential recordings to preserve the president’s and his closest adviser’s thoughts during a presidential election. Although the release comprises only 11 1/2 hours out of a total of 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes recorded between 1971 and 1973, there are numerous gems for scholars and curious listeners alike.

The release represents the first—and perhaps only—time tapes comprehensively document a presidential election. The election coverage on the new tapes can be split into three parts: Nixon’s phone calls from the White House Lincoln Sitting Room as the early November 7, 1972 election night returns came in; then, late night phone calls and meetings in his Executive Office Building (EOB) hideaway office as the West coast returns were announced; and finally, meetings and phone calls in the Oval Office the next morning on final vote tallies from around the country.

The man President Nixon turned to for the latest election results was Counsel to the President, Chuck Colson. Colson was the first adviser to speak of a “landslide” Nixon victory, even before polls were closed on the West coast. After Nixon gave his thank you speech at the Shoreham Hotel, he returned to his EOB office with only Colson and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman to monitor the late returns. That was when victory set in for the president, who at one point whooped “we’re in!” That, of course, called for a celebration, so Nixon ordered up a celebratory meal of fried eggs, bacon, and toast for three, shortly after 2:00 am from a surprised White House Mess. However, victory did not mean the end of all hard feelings. After Nixon’s opponent, Senator George McGovern, conceded, Nixon remarked, “you know, this fella’ to the last was a prick.” In another election night conversation, Nixon commented that McGovern “doesn’t know his ass from first base.”

The new tapes provide a unique window on the eve of the election into the major snag in peace negotiations aimed at ending America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict by removing the last remaining troops and bringing home the POWs. The negotiations were stalled not by the intransigence of America’s enemy, North Vietnam, but rather by the intractability of America’s ally, South Vietnam. The tapes also confirm long-held suspicions about a “decent interval” theory first argued by ex-CIA agent Frank Snepp and subsequently reaffirmed by historians such as Jeffrey Kimball, that Nixon hoped to keep South Vietnam afloat only so long as it did not affect his chances for reelection. Privately, Nixon instructed Colson on the proper line to take with the McGovern camp: “The election is not going to hurry us into making a bad agreement and it isn’t going to delay us from making a good agreement.” Despite the statement, the newly released tapes show how Nixon’s approach to handling South Vietnamese president Nyugen Van Thieu changed with his own landslide reelection. Nixon stated to Haldeman: “we’re just going to have to, in my opinion, then say to Thieu, ‘This is it. If you don’t want to go, fine. Then we, we’ll make our own deal and you’ll have to paddle your own canoe.’ ”

Finally, the tapes reveal a great deal about the post-election plans for an executive branch reshuffle. In his memoirs Haldeman recalled: “the senior White House staff was assembled basking in the glory of Nixon’s landslide reelection the night before… eyelids drooping, they looked on sleepily as Nixon entered to make his ritual speech of thanks for their efforts. Instead, they were shocked awake as Nixon, instead of lauding them, stated quietly that they were all required to resign.” On the newly released tapes, we hear Nixon comment that the “only fair thing [to do] is to have them all submit their letters [of resignation.]”

Other related tidbits on the new tapes include that Nixon assumed that national security adviser Henry Kissinger would be “not as influential” in a Nixon second term, now that historic agreements with the Soviet Union and China were in the past. Other top officials, such as Secretary of State Williams Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Nixon and Haldeman agreed, were “special problems,” and it was hoped they could be compelled to leave the administration within six months.

Also, Nixon, distraught by the poor performance of his party’s Congressional candidates, stated that the “Republican Party can’t be rebuilt.” Most dramatically, while giving serious consideration to the Party’s potential future leadership—perhaps Michigan Governor George Romney or California Governor Ronald Reagan—Nixon pointedly commented, “I don’t know how it would work out, but don’t rule out [former Texas Democratic Governor] John Connally.” Nixon seemed to suggest that now that his mandate was clear, that he desired to start a new political party with John Connally as its leader, who would become, by default, Nixon’s chosen successor in 1976. Nixon summed up that the “only ones opposed to that [idea] are the poor bastards in line to get the [president’s] job.”

We have learned a remarkable amount from such a relatively small release of tapes, and with over 1,000 hours yet to be released, we are bound to learn much more from the Nixon tapes. The symbolic decision of the Nixon Presidential Library to release these additional hours marked a commitment to transparency and a reinvigorated effort to process and make public backlogged materials, a vigor matched only by that of so many researchers still interested—after more than three decades—in eavesdropping on one of our most controversial presidents.

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Maarja Krusten - 7/14/2007

Finally (!!) we get the tape segment released with the comment to Bob Haldeman by President Nixon on November 18, 1972 that Mr. Moss and Mr. Nichter:

"Despite the statement, the newly released tapes show how Nixon’s approach to handling South Vietnamese president Nyugen Van Thieu changed with his own landslide reelection. Nixon stated to Haldeman: “we’re just going to have to, in my opinion, then say to Thieu, ‘This is it. If you don’t want to go, fine. Then we, we’ll make our own deal and you’ll have to paddle your own canoe.”

In 1987, Nixon's representatives formally filed objections to block NARA from opening some of Haldeman's meeting notes in the White House Special Files. They claimed that items were private, personal, or privileged.

The objections list at one time was available for any researcher to study or copy. According to this list, of the materials that NARA had marked for opening in 1987, Nixon's representatives objected to and blocked the release of a number of Haldeman's notes (the "H Notes") for November 1972.

The objections list included the following (the quote is verbatim): "File: 11/17/72-12/21/72 Note: Practically all the documents are objectionable."

Publicly available forms showed that NARA's archivists had marked all but 10 pages in that file for release in 1987; at Nixon's insistence, all 270 pages were closed for consideration of his objections to our proposed release of the materials.

Haldeman's diary, published in 1994, includes for the time period of the folder of "H Notes" the following entry:

November 18, 1972 [extract]
"P mentioned at noon that K was having problems with Thieu. He's gotten a new cable and apparently Thieu is causing trouble again. The P told him to just go ahead and get the best deal we can and then let Thieu paddle his own canoe. Then when the P called in the evening, he said K has now read the message and it wasn't nearly as bad as he thought, so it was another crisis that Henry was stirring up."

In 1994, I filed a petition with NARA under 36 CFR §1275.56. Using regulatory language, I asserted that segments of the diary suggested that for equivalent portions of the Haldeman meeting notes, the continued "restriction of specified materials is inappropriate and should be removed." NARA in 1996 opened many of the meeting notes that Nixon had objected to, including a note in Haldeman's files for November 18, 1972 about getting "best deal" and Thieu paddling his own canoe. Whether the release would have occurred had Nixon not died in 1994, I do not know.

And now, 20 years after NARA first tried to open the canoe comment by Nixon recorded in the "H Notes," the tape segment finally is released.

I've been waiting a long time for some of this to see the light of day.

Maarja Krusten - 7/14/2007

I should have made it clear that the need to segregate personal-political from governmental information applied to the Nixon tapes, as well. I worked with both types of materials (tapes from 1977 to 1987, documents from 1987 until January 1990). The scope of each class of information (political and governmental) was a central issue in the Kutler litigation in 1992. Some NARA officials stated in testimony that they wanted to make determinations on what Nixon had claimed was personal in his documents before releasing the tapes.

Nixon's lawyer, R. Stan Mortenson of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, sought to broaden the scope of personal materials. He argued in a letter sent to NARA in 1987 (and later released under FOIA) that the Nixon records act's regulations were "capricious and constitute an abuse of discretion . . . the regulations too narrowly define 'private or personal' materials as those 'relating solely to a person's family or other non-governmental activities.'"

Future archivists will have a much easier time of it, now that Nixon's family is permitting NARA to open purely political information.

BTW, I think H. R. "Bob" Haldeman did an enormous service to historians (and archivists) in publishing his diary when he did, in 1994. I'll never know what NARA would have done with some of the records in its care had he not done so. As I've said before, I chatted with Bob about why he wanted to do that when he worked with us at NARA in 1987. He was very interested in history and actually had expected NARA to release his diaries -- the originals of which it held -- while Nixon was alive. That didn't happen.

Maarja Krusten - 7/14/2007

Don't forget that the only reason you are learning about some of the purely political angles is because Nixon's family was gracious enough to deed back the materials to the National Archives. It is easy to forget that because H. R. Haldeman covered so much of that type of purely political information in the Haldeman Diaries, to which he had legal title and which he published in 1994.

For 20 years, from 1987, when the National Archives finished and prepared to open the so-called White House Special Files, until the Nixon family signed a deed of gift, purely political materials were considered personal property. That is because the Supreme Court directed us archivists to consider Nixon's right to "private political association," distinct from "public political association." The same concept is embodied in the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, under which White House records have been administered since 1981.

However, instead of archivists segregating personal-political material from governmental material, as we did with Nixon's records, under the PRA, since 1981, the President and his staff have the obligation to separate such materials (in paper based records, electronic records, email, etc.) while still in the White House. The White House counsel's office provides them guidance on how to do that.

Former President Nixon even had the right to burn the personal and purely political documents that the Archives returned to him. That did not occur, fortunately. It's unclear what percentage of the materials that we once returned to him was deeded back, but clearly the collection covers a lot of information. But again, it is important to keep in mind that in a purely statutory sense, historians and the public at large have no inherent right to know about purely political matters. The courts have protected that class of information as personal, not official in nature, and it also is recognized in the legislative history of the PRA. So the return of such material to NARA under deed of gift by Nixon's family was discretionary.

Brian Robertson - 7/14/2007

Comment removed at request of poster.