The break-in at Watergate and the cover-up that followed brought about the resignation of Richard Nixon, creating a political shockwave that reverberates to this day. But Ken Hughes's unparalleled investigation of secret presidential tapes has allowed him to unearth a pattern of actions by Nixon going back long before 1972, to the final months of the Johnson administration. Hughes identifies a clear narrative line that begins during the 1968 campaign, when Nixon, concerned about the impact on his presidential bid of the Paris peace talks with the Vietnamese, secretly undermined the negotiations through a Republican fundraiser named Anna Chennault, and the story goes far beyond what we think we know about Watergate.
Between 1940 and 1973, presidents of the United States secretly recorded thousands of their meetings and conversations in the White House. Though some recorded a lot and others just a little, they all created a unique and irreplaceable source for understanding not only their presidencies and times but also the office of the president itself and, indeed, the essential process of high-level decision making.
These recordings of course do not displace more traditional sources of historical knowledge such as official documents, private diaries and letters, memoirs, and contemporaneous journalism. Rather, they augment these sources much as photographs, films, and recordings augment printed records of presidents’ public appearances. But they also do much more than that.
Because the recordings capture an entire meeting or conversation, not just highlights caught by a minute taker or recalled afterward in a memorandum or memoir, they can have two distinctive qualities. First, they can catch the whole complex of considerations that weigh on a president’s mind on a particular day. Most of those present at an individual meeting with the president know chiefly the subject of that meeting; even key staff advisers have compartmentalized responsibilities. However, the tapes or transcripts of successive meetings or conversations reveal the interlocked concerns of which only the president is aware. They can provide hard evidence, not just bases for inference, about presidential motivations.
On February 17, 1966, during a telephone conversation about how to prevent Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) from criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam, Sen. Russell B. Long (D-Louisiana) exclaimed to President Lyndon B. Johnson that he wished they were recording their conversation so that Long could then listen to it and know exactly how to challenge Fulbright in the Senate. Laughing at Johnson’s way with words and at his colorful strategy for thwarting Fulbright’s aims, Long later repeated his wish that LBJ “install a tape recorder on his end.”
Fortunately for history, Johnson had installed and used such a device, as had his four immediate predecessors in the Oval Office. So, too, famously, did his immediate successor. The 5,000 hours of tape that those six presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon, recorded during their time in the White House comprise some of the most revealing moments in modern American political history, and offer a unique window into the making of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. They also provide snapshots of turbulent moments in the life of the nation and the lives of those individuals charged with addressing its challenges—from Medicare to My Lai, from Selma to SALT, from from Watts to Watergate, and much of the history in between.