Richard Nixon and John N. Mitchell on 15 June 1971


Transcript

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

One of President Nixon’s own appointees was the first judge to hear the Pentagon Papers case. It was, in fact, Judge Murray J. Gurfein’s first case following his appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. As this conversation indicates, the President and Attorney General John N. Mitchell were optimistic about the reception their case would receive from a man they put on the bench. But the administration ultimately failed to convince Judge Gurfein that the publication of a classified Defense Department history of America’s Vietnam War posed a threat to national security. He rejected President Nixon’s unprecedented attempt to obtain a court order blocking publication, writing in his opinion: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”[note 1] Richard Dougherty, “Judge Refuses to Silence N.Y. Times,” Los Angeles Times, 20 June 1971.

At the start of the conversation, the President asks Mitchell about a forthcoming statement by Secretary of State William P. Rogers denouncing the leak.

A transcript of this conversation appears in John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, eds., Inside the Pentagon Papers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 111–13.
President Nixon

Yeah.

White House Operator

The Attorney General.

John N. Mitchell

Yes, Mr. President.

President Nixon

I wondered if you had any success with [William P.] Rogers.[note 3] William P. Rogers was U.S. secretary of state from January 1969 to September 1973.

Mitchell

Yes, he's agreeable to do it. We’ve [President Nixon acknowledges] got people from Defense, Justice, and his counsel over there, Stevenson, working on it.[note 4] Mitchell mistakes the name of Richard F. Pederson, counselor of the State Department.

President Nixon

Good. Good.

Mitchell

And he understood the point and was perfectly happy to do it.

President Nixon

And he'll get out a sort of a general statement of some sort, yeah?

Mitchell

Yes, sir. It will not be limited [President Nixon acknowledges] solely to the foreign affairs interest.

President Nixon

I think what is very important in this is to find a way to get some strong lang[uage]—like "a massive breach of security," things of that sort, so that we can get something in the public mind. We're not just interested in making the technical case for the lawyers.

Mitchell

Exactly.

President Nixon

Something where they can see what is really involved here . . . this “irresponsible”—you know, use some really high-flown [chuckles] adjectives. That's what I’d hope you can get some people to work on that.

Mitchell

We will, and, of course, Bill [Rogers] has the understanding that it'll be sent over to the White House to be looked at before it goes out.

President Nixon

Right.

Mitchell

So your phrase-coiners and word-makers—

President Nixon

Yeah, yeah.

Mitchell

—can get a crack at it.

President Nixon

Well, I'll tell you, John, it's one of those fights where you don't know whether you—you don't know how it's going to affect you, but boy, it's one we had to make, and by God, it's one I enjoy. These bastards have gone too far this time, don't you think?

Mitchell

It is certainly my opinion. You had to do it. And the important thing is to work at it, like you've suggested, to try and structure it so that the import of it and the nature of it gets through to the public.

President Nixon

Right.

Mitchell

And I believe that the press is going to be reasonably fair on this. I don't mean the [New York] Times and the [Washington] Post, but I mean the rest of the press.

President Nixon

Hmm.

Mitchell

Because I think—

President Nixon

[Unclear] know.

Mitchell

I think they'll understand how far they have gone.

President Nixon

Yeah. Well, my God. They're going to understand, if there's no paper in the country that's for us, we're going to fight it. [chuckling] OK. Thanks, John.

Mitchell

We've got a good judge on it, Murray [I.] Gurfein, who was—[note 5] Murray I. Gurfein was a judge on the U.S. district court for the southern district of New York from 1971 to 1974, whose first case dealt with the release of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration's attempt to block it.

President Nixon

Oh! Yeah.

Mitchell

[Thomas E.] Tom Dewey's counsel up there.[note 6] Thomas E. Dewey was a Wall Street lawyer; New York district attorney from January 1938 to December 1941; governor of New York from January 1943 to December 1954; and Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948. Gurfein had been assistant to District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey before Dewey became governor of New York and a two-time Republican presidential nominee.

President Nixon

I know him well. Smart as hell.

Mitchell

Yeah, and he's new and he's appreciative, so . . .

President Nixon

[Laughs.] Good.

Mitchell

We ought to work out.

President Nixon

Good.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and John N. Mitchell on 15 June 1971,” Conversation 005-086, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002142