Richard Nixon and Alexander M. Haig Jr. on 13 June 1971


Transcript

Edited by Ken Hughes, with Patrick J. Garrity, Erin R. Mahan, and Kieran K. Matthews

The leak of the Pentagon Papers, a top secret Defense Department history of America’s Vietnam War, did not threaten President Nixon directly. The study, written before he took office, covered none of his administration’s secrets. When the New York Times began running a series of Pentagon Papers articles on 13 June 1971, Nixon’s initial response was relatively measured. That soon changed.

In this conversation, the President asks Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig Jr. for information on who leaked the papers.[note 1] A transcript of this conversation appears in John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, eds., Inside the Pentagon Papers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 90–91. Haig speculates that it was Johnson administration defense secretary Clark M. Clifford and two of Clifford’s top advisers from the Pentagon’s office of International Security Affairs (ISA), Morton H. Halperin and Leslie H. Gelb.

These names pushed Nixon’s most sensitive buttons. He feared that Halperin, who briefly served as an aide to National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger in Nixon’s own White House, might leak classified information about the secret bombing of Cambodia. (After a story appeared in the Times about some early bombing missions in 1969, Nixon had the FBI place a wiretap on Halperin’s home phone. Although it lasted for 21 months, the wiretap picked up no indication that Halperin had leaked classified information.) Furthermore, Nixon had been told (inaccurately) that Clifford, Gelb, and another veteran of ISA, Paul C. Warnke, had a classified Pentagon report on all the events leading up to the 1968 bombing halt. Such a report would have included the intelligence picked up by the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation on Republican interference with President Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to get Vietnam peace talks started in return for his agreement to stop bombing North Vietnam. The President soon convinced himself that Warnke, Halperin, and Gelb were part of a conspiracy of Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers who had leaked the Pentagon Papers and planned to leak Nixon’s own secrets later.

In the weeks to come, President Nixon took the fateful step of creating the Special Investigations Unit (better known as “the Plumbers”) for the illegal purpose of breaking into the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank where Halperin and Gelb worked, to steal the bombing halt report. Another equally illegal purpose of the unit was to destroy the “conspiracy” in the press, using information obtained through the grand jury investigation of the Pentagon Papers leak and other federal investigative efforts. Two of the men recruited as “Plumbers,” former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, ultimately were arrested for their roles in planning the Watergate break-in, forcing Nixon to decide whether to authorize a cover-up or risk allowing the FBI investigation of Watergate to reveal the illegal presidential orders that led to the hiring of Hunt and Liddy in the first place.[note 2] Ken Hughes, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

President Nixon

Hello.

White House Operator

General [Alexander M.] Haig [Jr.], sir.[note 3] Alexander M. Haig Jr. was military assistant to the president from January 1969 to June 1970; U.S. deputy national security adviser from June 1970 to January 1973; Army vice chief of staff from January to May 1973; and White House chief of staff from May 1973 to August 1974. Ready.

President Nixon

Hello.

Alexander M. Haig Jr.

Yes, sir.

President Nixon

Hi, Al. How—what about the [Vietnam] casualties last week? You got the figure yet?

Haig

No, sir, but I think it’s going to be quite low.

President Nixon

Mm-hmm. Mm—

Haig

It should be as [unclear]

President Nixon

Should be.

Haig

—as last week or better.

President Nixon

Yeah, because it should be less than 20, I would think, yeah.

Haig

So it’d be very—

President Nixon

They—when do you get that? Do you—will you know?

Haig

We don’t get it officially till Monday afternoon [President Nixon acknowledges], but we can get a reading on it.

President Nixon

Right. Well, Monday afternoon officially? Well, let’s wait till then. Fine. OK. Nothing else of interest in the world today?

Haig

Yes, sir, very significant. This goddamn New York Times exposé of the most highly classified documents of the [Vietnam] war.

President Nixon

Oh, that. I see.

Haig

That—

President Nixon

I didn’t read the story. But you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?

Haig

Sir, the whole study that was done for [Robert S.] McNamara and then carried on after McNamara left by [Clark M.] Clifford and the peaceniks over there.[note 4] Robert S. McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Company from November 1960 to January 1961; U.S. secretary of defense from January 1961 to February 1968; and president of the World Bank from April 1968 to July 1981. Clark M. Clifford was a Washington lawyer; an adviser to presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson; a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1961 to 1968; chair of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from April 1963 to February 1968; and U.S. secretary of defense from February 1968 to January 1969. This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen.

President Nixon

Well, what’s being done about it, then? I mean, I didn’t—

Haig

I called—

President Nixon

Did we know this was coming out?

Haig

No, we did not, sir.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Haig

There are just a few copies of this—

President Nixon

Well, what about the—

Haig

—12-volume report.

President Nixon

Well, what about the—let me ask you this, though: what about the—what about [Melvin R.] Laird?[note 5] Melvin R. Laird was U.S. secretary of defense from January 1969 to January 1973, and U.S. domestic affairs adviser from May 1973 to January 1974. What’s he going to do about it? Is—

Haig

Well, I talked with him [unclear]

President Nixon

Now, I’d just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean, whoever—whatever department it came out of, I’d fire the top guy.

Haig

Yes, sir. Well, I’m sure it came from Defense, and I’m sure it was stolen at the time of the turnover of the administration.

President Nixon

Oh, it’s two years old, then.

Haig

I’m sure it is, and they’ve been holding it for a juicy time, and I think they’ve thrown it out to affect Hatfield–McGovern; that’s my own estimate.[note 6] The Senate was soon to vote on a proposal by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield [R–Oregon] and Sen. George S. McGovern [D–South Dakota] that would have required the President to bring the troops home from Vietnam by the end of the 1971. But it’s something that—it’s a mixed bag. It’s a tough attack on [John F.] Kennedy.[note 7] John F. Kennedy was president of the United States from January 1961 to November 1963. It shows that the genesis of the war really occurred [President Nixon acknowledges] during the ’61 period.

President Nixon

Yeah, that’s Clifford. [chuckling] Yeah, I see.

Haig

And it’s brutal on President [Lyndon] Johnson.[note 8] Lyndon Johnson was vice president of the United States from January 1961 to November 1963, and president of the United States from November 1963 to January 1969. They’re going to end up in a massive gut fight in the Democratic Party on this thing.

President Nixon

Are they?

Haig

It’s a—there’s some very—

President Nixon

But also, massive against the war.

Haig

Against the war.

President Nixon

But it’s a Pentagon study, huh?

The recording cut off at an unknown time before 12:42 p.m.
A "telcon," or memorandum of the telephone conversation prepared separately by NSC staff, exists for the remainder of this conversation. The following passage comes from this telcon, with minor corrections to spelling and punctuation.[note 11] "The President–General Haig," 13 June 1971, 12:20 p.m., “Haig Telcons—1971 [2 of 2]" folder, National Security Council Files, Box 998, Alexander M. Haig Chronological File, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives and Records Administration.
Haig

Done by McNamara. When I came back from Vietnam, he asked me to do the military portion, and I refused because I knew what it was going to be.

President Nixon

Who in the Pentagon? I will fire the SOBs.

Haig

They are all gone now. Clifford, [Morton H.] Halperin, [Leslie H.] Gelb.[note 12] Morton H. Halperin was a special assistant to Henry A. Kissinger during the presidential transition period from November 1968 to January 1969; a member of the National Security Council staff from January 1969 to September 1969; and an NSC consultant from September 1969 to May 1970. Leslie H. Gelb was director of policy planning and arms control for international security affairs in the U.S. Department of Defense from 1967 to 1969.

President Nixon

How did they get the classified material out?

Haig

I don’t know. It has 4,000 highly classified documents from the [Dwight D.] Eisenhower days on through the end of the Johnson administration.[note 13] Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States from January 1953 to January 1961.

President Nixon

They won’t affect Hatfield–McGovern, this sort of thing. I would like to know if there are any other people of this type around.

Haig

I would suppose not at this point, but you can’t be sure. Everybody is attacked in this thing. [Henry Cabot] Lodge [Jr.] is brutally attacked.[note 14] Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1960; U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from August 1963 to June 1964 and August 1965 to April 1967; and U.S. ambassador to West Germany from May 1968 to January 1969.

President Nixon

What do they say about the [Ngô Đinh] Diệm thing?[note 15] Nixon was referring to the 1963 overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngô Đinh Diệm.

Haig

They haven’t touched on it yet, but I am sure they have it.

President Nixon

That attacks Kennedy hard. They won’t put that out, huh?

Haig

It’s the most incredible thing. All of the White House papers, [Walt W.] Rostow papers, communications with ambassadors, JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] studies.[note 16] Walt W. Rostow was an MIT economist; counselor of the State Department and chair of the Policy Planning Council from 1961 to 1966; and a national security adviser in the Johnson administration.

President Nixon

We have been more careful, haven’t we? We have kept a lot from State, I know, and enough from Defense.

Haig

Your White House papers are in very good shape.

President Nixon

That’s why we don’t tell them anything.

Haig

Actually, we are clean. Let them tear themselves apart. I told [Ronald L.] Ron Ziegler to keep out of that.[note 17] Ronald L. Ziegler was White House press secretary from January 1969 to August 1974. It will keep Vietnam in the headlines for weeks. They are going to run a series on it.

President Nixon

Are they?

Haig

Yes, they are. It was really a sabotage act to McNamara. He wanted to have all the documents pulled together and minimize the analysis. As soon as he left, the peaceniks in the Pentagon got started.

President Nixon

Mainly nonmilitary people?

Haig

Yes, but there was a military guy in the study. They tried to show covert escalation without congressional liaison. Nothing has been said about what the enemy has been doing in the meantime.

President Nixon

They only carry it up to the time we came in.

Haig

Yes, sir. Nothing of ours. I told Ron he should take the position you inherited this thing and you have been trying to wind it down.

President Nixon

Yes, and to accomplish our goal. Let’s say, "Apparently this is a fight within the Democratic Party and we are not going to get into it."

Haig

I have people coming in to analyze the report now.

President Nixon

Do you think the Times has it all?

Haig

I think they have.

President Nixon

Can we allow this sort of thing?

Haig

No. I think this is most serious.

President Nixon

Let’s cut off the Times ourselves for doing this thing. Don’t you think so?

Haig

Yes, sir.

President Nixon

Where is Henry [A. Kissinger]?[note 18] Henry A. Kissinger was U.S. national security adviser from January 1969 to November 1975, and U.S. secretary of state from September 1973 to January 1977. Has he gone to the West Coast?

Haig

Yes, he will call as soon as he gets there.

President Nixon

That’s all right. I don’t need to . . . when will he get back?

Haig

He will be back tomorrow.

President Nixon

I think we ought to be awful rough on the New York Times in terms of future leaks. They can’t be trusted. OK, fine, Al.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and Alexander M. Haig Jr. on 13 June 1971,” Conversation 005-050, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002135