Richard Nixon, Henry A. Kissinger, and John N. Mitchell on 14 June 1971


Transcript

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

David Rudenstine’s 1996 study of the Pentagon Papers case, The Day the Presses Stopped, devoted two chapters to sifting through the then-available evidence for the reason that President Nixon launched the first “prior restraint” action in U.S. history to block publication of newspaper articles on national security grounds. Based on memoirs, interviews, and the copious daily notes taken by White House chief of staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman, Rudenstine rejected the argument that Nixon took this unprecedented step because “he viewed the press as the enemy and hated it.” Rudenstine concluded that “all the evidence reviewed in these pages suggests that it is a misconception to interpret the Nixon administration’s decision to sue the New York Times as one more action intended—either entirely or mainly—to strike yet another blow against the press.” Yet in this conversation with Attorney General John N. Mitchell, held minutes after the President first learned that the Justice Department was even considering issuing a warning to the Times claiming that the newspaper had broken the law, the only reason Nixon states for endorsing that action is to take action against “our enemies”—namely, the Times.

Rudenstine drew on the memoirs of Haldeman, Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D. Ehrlichman, and White House special counsel Charles W. Colson, all of whom laid some of the blame for Nixon’s reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers on Kissinger. The most famous or notorious Kissinger quote about the leak—“It shows you’re a weakling, Mr. President”—is not to be found on tape, but in Haldeman’s memoir. It is worth noting that all three memoirists went to prison in the Watergate scandal, leaving Kissinger as the only member of Nixon’s inner circle who did not end up behind bars. Resentment may have colored their memories.

Rudenstine concluded that the chief motivation for Nixon’s decision was a 13-minute phone call Nixon and Kissinger had on 13 June 1971, the day the Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers. At the time, the tape of the conversation remained classified. Since then, however, the federal government has released it. At no point during the conversation did Kissinger urge Nixon to take any action against the Times (as opposed to those who leaked the classified history of the Vietnam War to the newspaper). In fact, Kissinger referred to the leak as a “goldmine” since the study showed how previous, Democratic administrations led America into the Vietnam War and mismanaged it. Even when Nixon invited Kissinger to take part in the telephone call, the adviser offered no opinion about taking legal action against the Times.[note 1] See Conversation 005-059. David Rudenstine, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 66–93; H. R. Haldeman and Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Dell, 1978), 154.

The President relied on the word of his Attorney General that the government had taken such actions against newspapers in the past. Unfortunately, Mitchell was wrong. No administration had ever sought or obtained an injunction to block publication of a newspaper article on national security grounds.

A transcript of this conversation appears in John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, eds., Inside the Pentagon Papers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 105–7.
President Nixon

Hello?

John N. Mitchell

Mr. President?

White House Operator

The Attorney [General]

President Nixon

What is your advice on that [New York] Times thing, John? You would like to do it?

Mitchell

I would believe so, Mr. President. Otherwise, we will look a little foolish in not [President Nixon acknowledges] following through on our legal obligations and—

President Nixon

Has this ever been done before?

Mitchell

A publication like this, or—

President Nixon

No, no, no. Have you—has the government ever done this to a paper before?

Mitchell

Oh, yes, advising them of their . . .

President Nixon

Oh.

Mitchell

Yes, we've done this before.

President Nixon

Have we? All right.

Mitchell

Yes, sir. I would think that—

President Nixon

How do you go about it? You do it sort of low-key?

Mitchell

Low-key. You call them and then send a telegram to confirm it.

President Nixon

Mm-hmm. And say that we're just—we're examining the situation, and we just simply are putting you on notice.

Mitchell

Well, we're putting them on notice that they're violating a statute because [President Nixon acknowledges throughout] we have a communication from [Melvin R.] Mel Laird as to the nature of the documents and they fall within a statute.[note 3] 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. Now, I don't know whether you’ve even noticed it, but this thing was . . . Mel was working—

President Nixon

Henry [A. Kissinger] is on the other—I just—he just walked in.[note 4] 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. I'll put him on the other line. Go ahead.

Mitchell

Mel had a pretty good go up there before the committee today on it. And it's all over town, and all over everything, and I think we'd look a little silly if we just didn't take this low-key action of [President Nixon attempts to interject] advising them about the publication.

President Nixon

Did Mel take a fairly hard line on it?

Mitchell

Yes, he [chuckles] gave a legal opinion that it was a violation of the law, which—[note 5] In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Laird said the leak “violated the security regulations of our government.” Max Frankel, “Court Step Likely; Return of Documents Asked in Telegram to Publisher,” New York Times, 15 June 1971.

President Nixon

Well.

Mitchell

—of course, puts us [unclear] [President Nixon acknowledges] where we have to get to [unclear]

President Nixon

Well, look, look, as far as the Times is concerned, hell, they're our enemies. I think we just ought to do it. And anyway, Henry, tell him what you just heard from [Walt W.] Rostow.[note 6] 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.

Henry A. Kissinger

Well, Rostow called on behalf of [Lyndon] Johnson.[note 7] 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. [President Nixon snorts.] And he said that it is Johnson's strong view that this is an attack on the whole integrity of government. That if you—that if whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can't have orderly government anymore.

Mitchell

Well—

Kissinger

And he said if the President defends the integrity, any action we take he will back publicly.

Mitchell

Well, I think that we should take this, [clears throat] do some undercover investigation and then open it up after your McGovern-Hatfield.[note 8] Mitchell was referring to an upcoming Senate vote on a timetable for troop withdrawal from Vietnam.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Mitchell

We've got some information we've developed as to where these copies are and who they're likely to have leaked them. And the prime suspect, according to your friend Rostow, you're quoting, is a gentleman by the name of [Daniel] Ellsberg [President Nixon acknowledges] who is a left-winger that's now at the RAND Corporation, who also has a set of these documents.[note 9] Daniel Ellsberg was the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Kissinger

Yeah.

Mitchell

So . . .

President Nixon

Subpoena them. Christ, get them.

Mitchell

So, I would think that we should advise the Times. We will start our covert check and after McGovern–Hatfield, just open it up.

President Nixon

Right. Go ahead.

Mitchell

Does that—does that agree with you?

President Nixon

Yep.

Mitchell

All right, sir, will do.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Kissinger

Right, Mr. [President] . . .

Cite as

“Richard Nixon, Henry A. Kissinger, and John N. Mitchell on 14 June 1971,” Conversation 005-070, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002139