The Consortium

The Tapes: Nixon's Long, Dark Shadow

By Robert Parry

Perhaps more than any U.S. politician, Richard Nixon influenced the course and tone of the Cold War, from the earliest stirring of the McCarthy era through the divisive war in Vietnam to Watergate and, less visibly, through the two decades afterwards as a secret adviser to presidents. Certainly, few leaders have cast as long and as dark a shadow on his times, as did Richard Nixon.

Despite a 20-year campaign to rehabilitate Nixon's image, newly published tape-recordings from Nixon's White House years have left little doubt about the cynical and criminal nature of his administration. The tape transcripts, published in Stanley I. Kutler's new book, Abuse of Power, cover more than 200 hours of Nixon's Oval Office discussions about Watergate and other political crimes.

Most mainstream press accounts have expressed shock about the contents, but have focused on Nixon's psychological state: why he didn't destroy the tapes [The Washington Post, Oct. 30, 1997] and how paranoid the president was about enemies who were "after me" [The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1997].

But all agree that the tape recordings destroyed any doubt about Nixon's guilt in both setting up the criminal "Plumbers" operation and in obstructing justice after five burglars from that operation were arrested on June 17, 1972, inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

On the tapes, Nixon is caught commissioning the Plumbers as retaliation for the 1971 publication of the secret Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War. He also discusses hush money for the Watergate burglars, thanks a Greek-American businessman for secret cash, agrees to keep a friendly U.S. ambassador in Athens, monitors a White House political slush fund, and oversees day-to-day cover-up strategies.

But the tapes offer insights, as well, into two controversial gambits from Nixon's earlier political life, events that were the past to Nixon's Watergate prologue: the Alger Hiss case in 1948 and a Republican scheme to derail Vietnam peace talks in 1968. Both events contributed to Nixon's pugnacious political style that finally came a cropper in the Watergate scandal. But neither has received much attention amid the head-shaking over Kutler's transcripts.

Sandbagging Hiss

Nixon flashed back to the Hiss case on July 1, 1971, while venting anger over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a lecture to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon criticized Attorney General John Mitchell for worrying about what "is technically correct" in punishing those involved. Nixon wanted a more ruthless offensive which would include counter-leaks to discredit former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg and others connected to the publication. Nixon saw information the way others see weapons.

"Thank God I leaked to the press [during the Hiss controversy]," Nixon declared. "[In the Pentagon Papers release,] we're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No. Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that makes somebody else [responsible]."

Nixon then reminisced about how he used unchecked documents -- the so-called Pumpkin Papers -- to stampede a federal grand jury in New York into indicting Hiss, a former State Department official from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal years. At the time, in fall 1948, the Cold War was in its infancy, the McCarthy era of anti-communist black lists was just beginning and Nixon's young political career hung in the balance.

As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Nixon had championed charges by an ex-communist named Whitaker Chambers that Hiss had been a secret Communist Party member. Hiss had denied the charge under oath, and Chambers's shifting accounts had put Nixon's ally in hot water.

Indeed, a federal grand jury in New York appeared headed toward a perjury indictment of Chambers. Hiss was on the verge of exoneration. Nixon faced a political calamity that could have driven the young congressman from the national stage.

Then, in November 1948, reversing prior assertions that he had never received classified papers from Hiss, Chambers began claiming that he had recovered secret State Department documents which Hiss had allegedly given Chambers as part of a spy ring.

On Dec. 2, Chambers led HUAC investigators to a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm in Maryland where he had stashed several rolls of microfilm. Nixon, who was on a Caribbean vacation, dramatically returned to Washington to star in committee hearings, which included public appeals to the grand jury to indict Hiss, not Chambers.

With the grand jury's term scheduled to expire and without time for forensics on the newly discovered documents, the grand jury voted narrowly to do as Nixon proposed. Hiss was indicted for perjury and Chambers was spared. Nixon's career skyrocketed.

No Gentlemanly Gloves

Twenty-three years later, Nixon referred to that crisis in explaining to Haldeman and Kissinger how one played to win. "If I were called before a grand jury in New York [in 1948] and told to give up the fucking papers to the grand jury, I [would have] refused," Nixon declared in 1971.

"I said I will not give up [Chambers's] papers to the Department of Justice because they're out to clear Hiss. I played it in the press like a mask. I leaked out the papers. I leaked everything, I mean, everything that I could. I leaked out the testimony. I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury.

"And then when the grand jury got there, the Justice Department trying desperately to clear him and couldn't do it. The grand jury indicted him. ... Now, why would I do that? I did that because I knew I was fighting people who had power. ... Now, how do you fight this [Ellsberg case]? You can't fight this with gentlemanly gloves. ... We'll kill these sons of bitches."

Nixon then referred to an obscure White House official named Cooke who had given Ellsberg some papers when Ellsberg worked at the Rand Corp. "I want to get him [Cooke] killed," Nixon said. "Let him get in the papers and deny it. ... Get a story out and get one to a reporter who will use it. Give them the facts and we will kill him in the press. Isn't that clear? And I play it gloves off. Now, Goddammit, get going on it."

One of Nixon's anti-Semitic schemes was to rev up HUAC's successor, a House subcommittee on internal security and feed it some Jewish suspect. "Don't you see what a marvelous opportunity for the committee," Nixon said on July 2, 1971. "They can really take this and go. And make speeches about the spy ring. ... But you know what's going to charge up an audience. Jesus Christ, they'll be hanging from the rafters ... Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you."

Bumbling Into Watergate

In the months that followed, Nixon's men did "play it gloves off." Under Nixon's direct supervision, a Plumbers unit was recruited to dig up dirt on Ellsberg and others. White House burglars broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Then, expanding the operation, Nixon's intelligence team began scouring for intelligence about leading Democrats, with bugs placed on phones at DNC headquarters at the Watergate.

The operation blew up on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five White House burglars inside the DNC offices. As the tapes make clear, Nixon immediately took charge of the cover-up: issuing orders, brainstorming P.R. strategies and trying to blackmail Democrats with threats of embarrassing disclosures.

One of Nixon's recurring threats was to reveal that President Johnson supposedly had ordered the bugging of the Nixon campaign in 1968. The threat was dropped only after Nixon's subordinates concluded that Nixon did not have his facts straight and that the disclosure could be a two-edged sword.

The 1968 bugging issue revolved around a Republican initiative to undermine Johnson's Paris peace talks that could have ended the Vietnam War and brought home 500,000 American soldiers then fighting in Indochina. The Nixon-Agnew campaign, however, feared that this "October Surprise" would catapult Vice President Humphrey to victory and again deny Nixon the White House.

According to Seymour Hersh's 1983 book, The Price of Power, Kissinger learned of Johnson's peace plans and warned the Nixon-Agnew campaign. "It is certain," Hersh wrote, "that the Nixon campaign, alerted by Kissinger to the impending success of the peace talks, was able to get a series of messages to the Thieu government making it clear that a Nixon presidency would have different views on the peace negotiations."

The chief emissary was Anna Chennault, an anti-communist Chinese leader who was working with the Nixon-Agnew campaign. Hersh quoted one former Johnson Cabinet official as stating that the U.S. intelligence "agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President [Nguyen van] Thieu in Saigon. ... The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress."

In her autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: "I'm speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It's very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to them."

NPR's Daniel Schorr added fresh details in The Washington Post's Outlook section [May 28, 1995]. Schorr cited decoded cables which U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.

On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that "many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm." On Oct. 27, he wrote, "The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. ... I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage."

On Nov. 2, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks, killing Johnson's last hope for a settlement of the war. A late Humphrey surge fell short and Nixon won a narrow election victory.

In The Price of Power, Hersh quoted Chennault as saying that in 1969, Mitchell and Nixon urged her to keep quiet about her mission, which could have implicated them in an act close to treason. As the war dragged on for another four years, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died, as did hundreds of thousands of Indochinese.


But in 1972, with Nixon obsessed with justifying the Watergate bugging, he referred back to the peace talk gambit. He claimed that he was told by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had ordered the bugging of a Nixon campaign plane to ascertain who was undermining the Paris peace talks.

On July 1, 1972, White House aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon's musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged Chennault's telephones in 1968. Nixon pounced on Colson's remark, indicating that he was aware that the alleged wiretaps targeted the GOP sabotage of the Paris peace talks.

"Oh," Nixon responded, "in '68, they bugged our phones too."

Colson: "And that this was ordered by Johnson."

Nixon: "That's right"

Colson: "And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you'd have the ..."

Nixon: "Yes. For example, why didn't we bug McGovern, because after all he's affecting the peace negotiations?"

Colson: "Sure."

Nixon: "That would be exactly the same thing."

Nixon's complaint about Johnson bugging "our phones" in 1968 became a refrain as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Nixon wanted to use that information to pressure Johnson and Humphrey into twisting Democratic arms so the Watergate investigations would be stopped.

On Jan. 8, 1973, Nixon urged Haldeman to plant a story about the 1968 bugging in the Washington Star. "You don't really have to have hard evidence, Bob," Nixon told Haldeman. "You're not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now."

Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973, which contains his book's only deletion for national security.

"I talked to Mitchell on the phone," Haldeman wrote, "and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. ... A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material -- national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done. ... DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson. ... As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault]."

Ten days later, on Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman apparently shelved the 1968 bugging ruse as a non-starter. After 18 more months of writhing and wriggling, Nixon was forced by the courts to relinquish a few tapes containing damning evidence against him -- and he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

Keeping a Hand In

In disgrace, Nixon retreated to his estate at San Clemente, where he began a long campaign to rebuild his reputation and gain recognition as a respected elder statesman. But Nixon never did stop scheming, nor did his allies.

As Nixon battled to keep the rest of his White House tapes secret, his allies accused the "liberal press" and other enemies of pulling off a dirty trick with Watergate. Conservatives in the CIA bristled against other Watergate-inspired investigations in the mid-1970s which uncovered CIA domestic spying and more criminal activities.

By the late 1970s, conservatives were mounting a determined counter-offensive, with millions of dollars pouring in from conservative U.S. foundations and right-wing organizations abroad. The right argued that the Soviet Union was rapidly expanding its power, while the United States was in decline. The holding of 52 American hostages in Iran in 1979-80 was a case in point.

In spring 1980, with another presidential campaign in full swing, Nixon also was active again. He was in touch with ex-CIA officers who were plotting an independent strategy for dealing with the Iran crisis. One of those ex-officers, Myles Copeland, told me that Nixon and Kissinger received copies of a plan drafted by these officers, including legendary CIA spies Kermit and Archibald Roosevelt.

"Now I'm not at liberty to say what reaction, if any, ex-President Nixon took, but he certainly had a copy of this," Copeland said in a videotaped interview in 1990. "We [also] sent one to Henry Kissinger. ... So we had these informal relationships where the little closed circle of people who were a), looking forward to a Republican president within a short while, and b), who were absolutely trustworthy and who understood all these inner workings of the international game board." [See Trick or Treason.]

By summer 1980, upset over President Carter's failed Iranian rescue operation, Nixon reportedly was itching for a more direct role. According to a 1989 article in the London Sunday Telegraph, Nixon met in late July 1980 in England with Alan Bristow, a helicopter specialist with close ties to the British Special Air Services, SAS, a clandestine military arm of British intelligence.

Sunday Telegraph reporter Simon O'Dwyer-Russell had interviewed Bristow who described Nixon's detailed interest in a possible second rescue attempt. When I contacted O'Dwyer-Russell, he added that Bristow said an angry Nixon paced the floor and fumed about Carter's ineptness.

When I asked Copeland about this possible second rescue, he said Nixon concluded that there was no need for such an operation because the hostages would be released after the November election. "Nixon ... knew that all we had to do was wait until the election came, and they were going to get them out," Copeland said. "The intelligence community certainly had some understanding with somebody in Iran in authority. ... We had word [from Iran] that 'don't worry. As long as Carter wouldn't get credit for getting these people out, as soon as Reagan came in, the Iranians would be happy enough to wash their hands of this'."

Carter did fail to win freedom for the hostages who were released immediately after Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981. However, precisely what happened with the so-called 1980 October Surprise story would never be told. By the late 1980s, when those allegations surfaced, conservatives had built a powerful political/media machine that could shut down any more Watergate-style inquiries.

The Clinton Olive Branch

Indeed, this conservative machine outlasted the Reagan-Bush era and turned offensive once President Clinton took office. Ironically, in early 1993, Clinton extended an olive branch to the godfather of the Republican dirty tricks machine, Richard Nixon. Clinton invited the aging Nixon to a public meeting at the White House, an honor that neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush had extended.

"Clinton added impetus not only to the reexamination of Nixon's career but to his relevance as a historical dramatist," wrote a Nixon aide named Monica Crowley who chronicled the last years of Nixon's life in a 1996 book, Nixon Off the Record. "He [Nixon] wielded the most influence when he advised his successors, and of those successors, he advised Bill Clinton the most extensively."

Still, Nixon remained a Republican partisan. Even as Clinton was welcoming Nixon into the White House, Nixon was scheming with Sen. Bob Dole and others on how to destroy the Democratic president. Nixon hoped that the Whitewater controversy could bring down Clinton to balance the scales for Watergate.

On April 13, 1994, four days before the stroke that would kill him, Nixon told Crowley, "Our people must not be afraid to grab this thing and shake all of the evidence loose. Watergate was wrong; Whitewater is wrong. I paid the price; Clinton should pay the price. Our people shouldn't let this issue go down. They mustn't let it sink."

Two weeks later at Nixon's funeral, Clinton praised the ex-president and glossed over the crimes that had forced Nixon from office. "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close," Clinton stated.

Perhaps, with the release of the new Watergate tapes and a clearer view of Nixon's corrosive political operations, that fuller assessment now might finally begin.

Nixonisms: From Alger Hiss to Janet Reno

In recent years, several books have recounted intimate and often bizarre conversations with Richard Nixon either from audio tapes or contemporaneous notes. Except for the first quote from Whitaker Chambers's autobiography, the following Nixonisms were culled from The Haldeman Diaries by Nixon's White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman; Stanley I. Kutler's Abuse of Power; and Nixon Off the Record by Monica Crowley.

In the 1940s, Whitaker Chambers fondly recalled Nixon's visits to Chambers's Maryland farm: "I have a vivid picture of him, in the blackest hours of the Hiss case, standing by the barn and saying in his quietly savage way (he is the kindest of men): 'If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.'"

March 28, 1969, "P [for president] had me in quite a while ... wanting to take stronger action on obscenity. ... Decided he'd go to a play in New York where they take off clothes and get up and walk out, to dramatize his feeling." [Haldeman]

Nov. 14, 1969, during candle-light anti-Vietnam War march: "P came in about 9:00 [p.m.], stayed until 11:00. Interested in whole process. Had helpful ideas like using helicopters to blow their candles out." [Haldeman]

July 25, 1970, about Nixon's anger at NBC anchorman Chet Huntley, "important to destroy him for effect on all other commentators." [Haldeman]

Sept. 12, 1970, "Has several plots he wants hatched. One to infiltrate the John Gardner 'Common Cause' deal and needle them and try to push them to left. ... Next, a front that sounds like SDS to support the Democratic candidates and praise their liberal records, etc, publicize their 'bad' quotes in guise of praise. Give the senators a 'radiclib' rating. [Haldeman]

Oct. 29, 1970, discussing a demonstration outside a Nixon speech in Chicago: "We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in outside, and they sure did. Before getting in car, P stood up and gave the V signs, which made them mad." [Haldeman]

June 23, 1971, "Now that we have our man in the IRS, he wants to pull the Clark Clifford file and also all the top supporters of the doves, the full list with a full field audit, and see what we can make of it on analysis." [Haldeman]

Sept. 13, 1971, upset that the IRS had questioned evangelist Billy Graham, Nixon tells Haldeman: "Please, get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors to the Democrats. ... Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?" [Kutler]

Jan. 28, 1972, "He's decided to take the hard line against integration, and wanted me to get the line out on Vietnam that the critics are now 'consciously aiding and abetting the enemy'." [Haldeman]

Sept. 7, 1972, explaining that he wants a Secret Service detail to tail Sen. Edward Kennedy under the guise of protecting him, Nixon asks for "one [large detail] that can cover him round the clock, every place he goes. ... I want it to be damn clear that he requested it, he requested it, because of threats, that sonofabitch, I want to make sure that he is followed." [Kutler]

Oct. 16, 1972, four months after the Watergate break-in, Nixon tells his staff: "We're running a high-road campaign. ... And we're up against the dirtiest, libelous, most libelous, slanderous attack on the President in the history of American politics." [Kutler]

Oct. 25, 1972, "We're going to screw them [The Washington Post] another way. They don't really realize how rough I can play. I've been such a nice guy around here a lot of times, and I always play [unintelligible] on a hard-hitting basis. But when I start, I will kill them. There's no question about it. They should give some thought to taking on the guy that went into Cambodia and Laos, ran the Cambodian bombing campaign." [Kutler]

April 22, 1973, when Haldeman was facing Watergate pressure, Nixon advised: "Just remember you're doing the right thing. That's what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi." [Haldeman]

Feb. 20, 1992, commenting on secret meetings with Republican leaders in the 18 years since his resignation: "I'm tired of being taken for granted. They all come to me on the sly when they are in big trouble -- well, no more. No more going in the back door of the White House -- middle of the night -- under the cloak-of-darkness crap. Either they want me or they don't." [Crowley]

Jan. 29, 1993, arguing that Bob Dole "is the last great hope for the party in this century," Nixon adds, "But taking the long view, ... this party has lost it. We need to appeal to young people, or we are going to end up being the party of the crazies." [Crowley]

March 11, 1993, describing Clinton after their White House get-together, "Clinton is very earthy. He cursed -- 'asshole,' 'son of a bitch,' 'bastard' -- you know. He's a very straightforward conversationalist." [Crowley]

Jan. 4, 1994, Nixon's view of Attorney General Janet Reno: "a partisan witch." [Crowley]

Copyright (c) 1997

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