While the world prepares to mark the fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on August 8-9, 1974 – the president announced his decision in a primetime Oval Office address on the evening of August 8, and the resignation took effect at noon Eastern Time the following afternoon, while Nixon was riding Air Force One to California – little attention was paid to the fortieth anniversary of the event that made the resignation inevitable.
That occurred on July 27, 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon had to turn over to federal investigators the secret tapes of his meetings with aides on Watergate that the special prosecutors in the case had subpoenaed. In so ruling, the Court acknowledged that the doctrine of executive privilege exists, but held it did not take precedence, as Nixon was asserting it should, over federal investigators’ right to access evidence vital to a pending criminal investigation.
After that ruling, Nixon was forced to turn over what was known as the “smoking gun” of his tape collection, the conversations he had with White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972 – a mere six days after burglars with ties to Nixon’s re-election campaign and the Central Intelligence Agency were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. The smoking gun tape appeared to show that the president had willingly joined in a criminal conspiracy to enlist the CIA to block the FBI’s nascent Watergate investigation; three days after the tape’s contents surfaced, the president announced his intention to resign.
All of that makes Richard Nixon the last public figure in American life who could be forgiven for imagining that all embarrassing evidence won’t somehow become public.
Legal wrangles tied up most of the tapes over the ensuing three decades. But after the former president died in 1994, his estate worked out agreements with the National Archives that led to the slow declassification, over time, of almost all of the 3,700 hours of recordings Nixon made (another 800 hours remain sealed due to national security or privacy considerations). With the dawn of the Internet era came a privately-operated website entitled nixontapes.org, created by Luke A. Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A & M University, and his collaborator, a PhD student at the time named Rick Moss. They downloaded virtually all of the available audio – in its varying degrees of quality and intelligibility – so American citizens could hear the tapes for themselves.
Now comes a book, nearly 800 pages in length, that Nichter has co-edited with acclaimed historian Douglas Brinkley, entitled The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Unlike most other volumes of Nixon tape transcripts, this new reference work focuses not at all on Watergate, but mostly on the president working with national security adviser Henry Kissinger on the watershed foreign policy initiatives of the first Nixon term: the winding down of U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, the diplomatic opening to China, the nuclear arms accord with the Soviet Union known as SALT I.
“It’s your chance to be a fly in the Oval Office, to eavesdrop on Richard Nixon,” Nichter said in a recent visit to The Foxhole. “This is Nixon at his best and Nixon at his worst. I think Nixon doesn’t have to be all good or all bad. I think we give him credit where he’s due, and I think we fault where we hear he is profane or anti-Semitic or otherwise [objectionable] on the tapes….He’s still controversial today.”
Click here to watch the full episode of The Foxhole with guest Luke A. Nichter.