These transcripts document two years of the Richard Nixon presidency and take you directly inside the White House: “A treasure trove” (The Boston Globe).
These are the famous—and infamous—Nixon White House tapes that reveal for the first time President Richard Milhous Nixon uncensored, unfiltered, and in his own words.
President Nixon’s voice-activated taping system captured every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, other key locations in the White House, and at Camp David—3,700 hours of recordings between 1971 and 1973. Yet less than five percent of those conversations have ever been transcribed and published. Now, thanks to historian Luke Nichter’s massive effort to digitize and transcribe the tapes, the world can finally read an unprecedented account of one of the most important and controversial presidencies in US history.
This volume of The Nixon Tapes offers a selection of fascinating scenes from the period in which Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated the SALT I arms agreement with the Soviet Union, and won a landslide reelection victory. All the while, the growing shadow of Watergate and Nixon’s political downfall crept ever closer. The Nixon Tapes provides a never-before-seen glimpse into a flawed president’s hubris, paranoia, and political genius—“essential for students of the era and fascinating for those who lived it” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
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THE START OF TAPING TO THE CHINA ANNOUNCEMENT
The start of taping
February 16, 1971, 7:56 a.m.
When Richard Nixon entered the White House on January 20, 1969, he rejected Lyndon Johnson's suggestion to secretly record his meetings and telephone calls. Presidents had taped for over thirty years, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt's Oval Office press conferences in 1940.
Two years later, in early 1971, Nixon changed his mind. He wanted an accurate, private record of his conversations. He did not want a system that had to be turned on and off, or was difficult to operate. The system the Secret Service installed was sound activated, so it recorded everything whenever Nixon was within range.
Taping started in the Oval Office and was later expanded to locations where the president spent time: various White House telephones, Nixon's office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and Camp David. The taping system was one of the most closely held secrets in the Nixon White House. Even many of Nixon's most senior assistants did not know they were being recorded. The existence of 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes was not revealed until July 1973, during Alexander Butterfield's sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee.
Immediately following the installation of the taping system on February 16, 1971, Alexander Butterfield briefed Nixon on its operation. Nixon inquired if it would be possible to expand the system, which at the time operated only in the Oval Office. Butterfield acknowledged that it was possible to expand the system to include other locations, and that he had reviewed with Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman the potential use of the tapes for note-taking purposes.
"There is audio content at this location that is not currently supported for your device. The caption for this content is displayed below."
2/16/71, 7:56 a.m. (02:16)
* * *
NIXON: How does it work in here?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, they're [the Secret Service] sorting it out now. What activates it [unclear] locator on [unclear] the machine starts. [unclear] You might not be surprised by this [unclear], locator on. It tells us where you are, including [unclear] the office [unclear]. It's automatically working, so it's working now. [unclear]
NIXON: The system stays off, no? It's working?
BUTTERFIELD: You're wearing the locator right now and you're in the office [unclear] it depends on voice activation —
BUTTERFIELD: — so you don't have to turn it on and off.
NIXON: Oh, this is good. Is there any chance to get two? You see, the purpose of this is to have the whole thing on the file —
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, sir.
NIXON: — for professional reasons.
BUTTERFIELD: Right, but if it were voice activated in the Cabinet Room, because there's so much going on there all the time —
BUTTERFIELD: [unclear] it'd be using up stuff so fast [unclear], so —
BUTTERFIELD: I mean you can come in but [unclear] chance that you turn it off and you've got no record. I can tell when it's on and off, but only from my office. There's no way of telling that [unclear]. When it is going on, you just have to remember we selectively [unclear].
NIXON: All right.
BUTTERFIELD: It could be used to make notes [unclear]. I was going over this [unclear] this morning with Bob.
BUTTERFIELD: And we're going to monitor it. [unclear] He called my attention to this.
NIXON: How does that work, Alex? Does it work with you here?
BUTTERFIELD: Uh, no. I'm going to monitor this [unclear].
NIXON: I don't want it monitored, you see?
NIXON: What happens when a record is made — a tape?
BUTTERFIELD: A tape is made, yes, sir.
NIXON: And then it's, well —
BUTTERFIELD: There are only five people that know about it, outside of Haldeman, Ziegler, you, and me. Only five people in our office, [and] Secret Service — none of Taylor's people [Robert H. Taylor, the Secret Service special agent in charge of the White House detail for both Presidents Johnson and Nixon].
NIXON: No. No.
BUTTERFIELD: None of Taylor's people. They're all [unclear].
NIXON: Yeah, then it's used for, uh —
BUTTERFIELD: They only change the spools. They cannot monitor it.
"I will not be transcribed."
February 16, 1971, 10:28 a.m.
In one of the first recordings made in the Oval Office, Nixon stated that the purpose of the system was that a record of every conversation would "be put in the file." This new system of recording meetings and phone calls was to replace the prior practice of having a note taker sit in on every meeting and prepare a memorandum for the president's files.
BUTTERFIELD: You don't have any questions on this other business that you might want me to answer now? This, this voice, I explained to the president that the secretary can't — NIXON: No. Mum's the whole word. I will not be transcribed.
NIXON: This is totally for, basically, to be put in the file. In my file. I don't want it in your file or Bob's or anybody else's. My file.
NIXON: And my [unclear] today. The whole purpose, basically, is [unclear] so there may be a day when we have to have this for purposes of, maybe we want to put out something that's positive, maybe we need something just to be sure that we can correct the record. But we're going to [unclear] that's all. And also, though, because I won't have to have people in the room when I see people —
HALDEMAN: That's right.
NIXON: — which is much better. I can have my personal conversations, which I want to have, and don't have the people there, you know, which I'd much rather do anyway, unless I feel that I need them there to carry out something or as buffers. Then I'll have them, of course. So I think it'll work fine. It's a good system.
HALDEMAN: Just don't tell anybody you've got it and don't try to hide anything [unclear] —
HALDEMAN: Anytime that anything gets used from it, it's on the basis of "your notes" or "the president's notes" —
NIXON: That's right.
HALDEMAN: — or "my notes" or —
NIXON: [unclear] For example, you've got nothing to use from this today. Just forget it. File it. Everything today will be filed.
NIXON: Fair enough?
BUTTERFIELD: I think it's gonna be a very fine system.
A Soviet nuclear submarine in Cuba
February 16, 1971, 10:48 a.m.
In the late summer of 1970, Richard Nixon faced a situation that he and most other observers compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Intelligence reports and U-2 spy plane photographs indicated that the Soviet navy was not only servicing nuclear submarines at the small Cuban port of Cienfuegos but expanding the port there. Any such installation was unacceptable according to U.S. policy. In response, Nixon plied a course that he described as "strong but quiet diplomacy," although it was soon racked by leaks that made the news anything but quiet. Nixon chose not to comment on the reports of Soviet activities in the press, leaving them to circulate as unconfirmed rumors. He then used the press reports to spur his strategy, directing his security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to privately inform Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the president would allow Moscow to withdraw the plans for Cienfuegos before he turned the situation into a public confrontation — and a detrimental one — like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within weeks, construction of the port stopped.
Nixon and Kissinger congratulated themselves on handling a dangerous situation with cunning, but in mid-February 1971 they had to measure yet another response, when the Soviets visited Cienfuegos again.
* * *
KISSINGER: The Russians now have put a tender back —
NIXON: Yeah, I saw that.
KISSINGER: — in Cienfuegos and a nuclear submarine next to it.
KISSINGER: And that really is a kick in the teeth in the light of what you said on your —
KISSINGER: — television program. Of course, it was produced by all these leaked stories that came out early in January saying that no one — well, that's not the story now.
NIXON: The Soviet Union [unclear] that was exactly what they did.
KISSINGER: That's right. But I then told —
NIXON: Isn't that what the understanding was?
KISSINGER: That is the understanding. But I told Ehrlichman early in January. There were two stories in the New York Times saying State didn't think — that State thought we exaggerated it and there was no problem. I told him — I said they'd be back there in six weeks and here they are. I think I ought to tell Dobrynin that until this damn nuclear submarine leaves I can't continue talking to him.
NIXON: Yeah. Well, now do you consider [unclear]? Do you consider that a violation of the understanding?
KISSINGER: I would think you should say something very enigmatic: "The Soviets know the understanding and the consequences."
NIXON: Yeah, I saw that. All right. You could say that. But as a matter of fact, they —
KISSINGER: This comes very close —
NIXON: They better not — it's servicing a nuclear submarine.
KISSINGER: Well, it says that when they have a nuclear submarine next to a tender —
KISSINGER: It's also — if we then say this is a servicing unit — if they can establish that, then —
NIXON: Yeah. Okay.
KISSINGER: Mr. President, they're really putting it to us. If they put a submarine into Havana and a tender into Cienfuegos, it would be rough but we could close our eyes. But I think on this one, I hate to run any risks on the thing that's going on now, but our experience with them is whenever we've played it hard — if they really want that summit and that agreement, particularly now that we're giving them their goodies on Berlin —
NIXON: Well, we have to do it because we said so, Henry.
KISSINGER: So —
NIXON: Don't you understand?
KISSINGER: Mr. President, what is —
NIXON: What are [unclear]?
KISSINGER: That's what they — sort of, yes. They're probably going to make the distinction between port visits and servicing. But — and it's all right if they have a port visit without the tender and the tender next to the —
NIXON: Well, when do we find out? You have to make the distinction if it's real. This is not a — this is what kind of a submarine?
KISSINGER: It's a nuclear-powered submarine.
NIXON: I know. With missiles?
KISSINGER: I don't know if it's an attack submarine.
NIXON: Yeah. But we consider that — oh, I know what we said: "nuclear submarine free."
KISSINGER: That's right.
NIXON: You didn't say anything about the other. Remember, I had to raise the question.
KISSINGER: That's right.
NIXON: As you'll recall, all the others said no, right?
KISSINGER: Well, because the British, the navy, everybody felt that that distinction —
NIXON: Is meaningless?
KISSINGER: — is practically meaningless. No, it's one of their games. They are just a bunch of thugs.
NIXON: They just are. And then — what else? Well, play it tough with the Soviet, too.
KISSINGER: And —
NIXON: [unclear] Yeah, I saw that and I said, "Well, here we go again." What a jerk.
KISSINGER: I'll just tell him until that submarine leaves Cienfuegos I won't continue my conversations with him. I think it will leave.
NIXON: Just tell him he started this thing.
KISSINGER: Right. I think it's the only thing he respects. I've got the whole thing set but I think if we let them put it to us and continue talking as if nothing were happening —
NIXON: I know. [unclear]
KISSINGER: You have publicly said "servicing in or from Cuban ports."
Afterword: The Soviet visit did not develop into further activity in Cienfuegos.
Lack of trust in the SALT negotiations
February 18, 1971, 9:56 a.m.
By early 1971, President Nixon was growing impatient with the lack of progress in the negotiations over the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) talks between the United States and the Soviet Union.
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon had promised to make SALT a top priority. Starting in his first year in office, the talks received continual attention as a proving ground for his international views and abilities, yet he was frustrated by the slow, detail-oriented process. The negotiations, staged in Helsinki and Vienna, soon formalized into semiweekly conferences between teams of up to a dozen diplomats. Overall, the personnel on each side numbered about one hundred. The American delegation was headed by lawyer Gerard Smith, who was also then serving as director of a federal agency called the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). During SALT, Smith later wrote, "White House suspicion of ACDA officials was often apparent." ACDA officials, however, should have been more suspicious in return, as Nixon and Kissinger began negotiating arms control directly with Moscow through secret memos, without telling the members of the SALT team.
* * *
KISSINGER: Well, what these guys want, they are afraid we — that this section is holding them to your position and they want a free hand to negotiate an ABM-only agreement.
NIXON: Who? Who's "they"?
KISSINGER: The ACDA people. And today they have — they leaked a column to Kraft, which I'm afraid is going to blow up my negotiation with Dobrynin because they put in there that — they put the whole debate on the arms control section, which I thought was entirely editorial. I didn't take it seriously, in there. And they said, it's, the reason is that I want to hold them to an option which they want to change. And, in effect, they said Rogers, which isn't true, and Smith, but we've got to think it through. I don't think Rogers has studied the problem with our position, but Rogers and Smith want to give them — have an ABM-only agreement. Now here, the Russians have already accepted your proposal. And now, they get this column. I would bet they are going to back off now, to see whether they can't get more.
NIXON: [unclear] the Russians very sanguine about what else but the [unclear].
KISSINGER: But it's one of the most irresponsible things that I've seen —
NIXON: [unclear] been through it with the Senate.
KISSINGER: And now, I couldn't really give a damn about that section, but they've now turned it into a damn extra distraction. On the negotiating position, which I didn't even realize it, Kraft has more detail in his column in three paragraphs than we have in ten pages. But I'm going to still try to because I don't want a huge fight on the report. But this —
NIXON: It's an act of spite.
KISSINGER: I thought, frankly, Mr. President, it was an issue of pure vanity. That they wanted to get credit, and they didn't want you to get credit.
NIXON: Yeah. But you think [unclear].
KISSINGER: That's right. [unclear] What is so revolting to me is that last August, when we could have had an ABM-only agreement, and when it could have helped you at the elections, they fought it, saying it was an election stunt.
NIXON: Hmm. Yeah. That I did what?
KISSINGER: Last August, we could have had an ABM-only agreement. The Russians offered it, and I checked with Smith. He said, "No, it would be an election stunt."
NIXON: Huh. Whose side is he on?
KISSINGER: That's what I'm beginning to wonder. I've got the correspondence —
NIXON: I'd just get Smith out of there if we can. I think we should send him to Vienna in the next few days. But, on this I want him out. And, he —
KISSINGER: No, what he wants is a completely free hand, so that he gets the credit for whatever is achieved. We've got the Soviet agreement to your secret memo, and —
[STAFF member interrupts.]
NIXON: All right.
KISSINGER: But I'll just get out.
"We can lose an election, but we're not going to lose this war."
February 18, 1971, 6:16 p.m.
As of mid-February in 1971, 332,900 American troops were in Southeast Asia, down from a high of 536,100 at the end of 1968, the year Nixon was elected. The Americans were fighting to defend South Vietnam against the intention of the North Vietnamese to unify the two nations into a single Communist state. North Vietnam was supported in varying degrees by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, yet the war was more than a proxy battle between superpowers.
As Nixon and Kissinger recognized, it was the resolve of the North Vietnamese and their loyalists in the South, the Viet Cong, that made victory elusive. Yet some scholars argue that Nixon and Kissinger's strategy in Vietnam was never more than securing a "decent interval" between American withdrawal and Communist takeover, a point that other scholars dispute, as have Nixon and Kissinger.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Nixon Tapes 1971–1972"
Copyright © 2014 Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Abbreviations and Terms,
The Start of Taping to the China Announcement,
The Collapse of the Gold Standard to the India-Pakistan War,
Summit Planning and Escalation in Vietnam,
The Road to Reelection and the End of the War,
Timeline of Key Events,
Index of Subjects,
Index of Names,
Coming Soon from Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter,
About the Editors,