The Presidential Recordings of Richard M. Nixon

All of the transcriptions from the Nixon administration in the Presidential Recordings Digital Edition are born-digital documents created by the editors and researchers of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. Currently, the published transcripts are organized into six different series: two sets of conversations featured in books by Ken Hughes of the Miller Center; two thematic collections covering Richard Nixon’s first week of taping in office and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1971; a group of conversations featured in Assistant Professor Nicole Hemmer’s July 2016 Atlantic online essay “Why the Vice Presidency Matters,” illustrating the Nixon–Agnew relationship; and a collection of telephone conversations spanning 1971.

Nixon’s Telephone Tapes: 1971

In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon set the stage for his most famous successes, though he also sowed the seeds of his own self-destruction. In foreign affairs, high-level talks with Beijing and Moscow allowed Nixon to defrost the Cold War and helped to facilitate America’s exit from the hot war in Vietnam. In domestic affairs, Nixon launched his New Economic Policy and nominated two justices to the Supreme Court. The year also included wrangling over Taiwan and war between India and Pakistan, as well as the political challenges of addressing national childcare and civil rights. Publication of the Pentagon Papers that June further coarsened the President's relationship with the media, leading Nixon to establish the Special Investigations Unit (later known as “the Plumbers”) that launched him on the road to Watergate and, eventually, to resignation. The tapes in this collection document the highs and lows of a tumultuous year.

Chasing Shadows

The break-in at the Watergate complex and the cover-up that followed brought about the resignation of Richard Nixon, creating a political shockwave that reverberates to this day. But the pattern of actions leading to Watergate stretches back to the final months of the Johnson administration, when the Nixon campaign, concerned about the impact of the Paris peace talks with the Vietnamese, secretly undermined the negotiations through a Republican fundraiser named Anna Chennault. Three years after the election, in an atmosphere of paranoia brought on by the explosive appearance of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon feared that his treasonous—and politically damaging—manipulation of the Vietnam talks would be exposed. This collection of transcripts, which provides the foundation for Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), reveals how Nixon’s fears led to the creation of the Secret Investigations Unit—the “White House Plumbers”—and the initiation of illegal covert operations guided by the Oval Office.

Fatal Politics

While publicly Nixon promised to keep American troops in Vietnam only until the South Vietnamese could take their place, in private Nixon agreed with his top military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers that Saigon could never survive without American boots on the ground. Nixon thus negotiated a “decent interval” deal with the Communists to put a face-saving year or two between his final withdrawal and Saigon’s collapse. This collection offers unprecedented insight into Nixon’s endgame for the American war in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, and serves as a key source base for Ken Hughes’s Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015).

Nixon’s First Week of Taping

On 16 February 1971, President Richard M. Nixon began secretly recording conversations in the Oval Office. The First Week collection highlights the most revealing passages from the start of what would grow into the largest collection of secret tapes recorded by any president. Although these excerpts come from a period spanning only seven days, they foreshadow some of Nixon’s greatest achievements and worst abuses of government power. We hear Nixon in a moment of optimism (soon dashed) about the Vietnam War, a moment of uncertainty (soon resolved) about Soviet intentions regarding the nuclear weapons that within a year would be reined in by Nixon’s history-making arms control agreement, and a moment of fear (soon to spin out of control) that former National Security Council aides would leak his secrets. In this brief period we hear Nixon deal with a multitude of issues that cross a president’s desk, including unemployment, inflation, domestic terrorism, racial and sectional politics, and more.

Nixon and Arms Control

On 20 May 1971, in a nationally televised statement, President Richard M. Nixon announced that the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved a major breakthrough in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) concerning the control of nuclear weapons. This collection of excerpts from the White House recordings, spanning 16 February through the end of May 1971, documents the behind-the-scenes efforts that led to this dramatic announcement. In these recordings, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger informs Nixon of his back-channel negotiations with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, which made the agreement possible. Nixon and Kissinger, along with White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, also search delicately for ways to deal with those who were deliberately excluded from the secret negotiations and who might well object to some of their terms—above all, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, and SALT chief negotiator Gerard C. Smith, as well as conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley Jr., and key congressional figures, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield [D–Montana]. These recordings offer a portrait-in-miniature of how the White House shaped national security policy during a turbulent period at home and abroad.

“Why the Vice Presidency Matters”: Nixon and Spiro Agnew

Although Vice President Spiro T. Agnew had helped the Republican ticket sound the winning message of law-and-order during the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign, his value to the administration had waned by the time President Richard M. Nixon began taping his White House conversations in February 1971. Agnew’s managerial and administrative failings, along with his dubious judgment, were frustrating the President, who now considered removing Agnew from the Republican ticket in 1972. But Nixon still needed Agnew to be his emissary to conservatives, who were themselves dubious of Nixon’s opening to Communist China, arms control talks with the Soviet Union, and the coming American withdrawal from Vietnam. This collection of transcripts illuminates the Nixon-Agnew relationship and highlights the evolution of the vice presidency itself, as the office began to assume greater responsibilities within the executive branch.