As 1972 began, Richard M. Nixon was on the verge of scaling the highest peaks and descending into the lowest valleys of his presidency. The previous year had been one of preparation: For a summit in Beijing that would reverse two decades of diplomatic estrangement between the United States and the world’s most populous country. For the signing of a nuclear arms control agreement in Moscow during a second summit. For a “decent interval” agreement to delay Communist victory in Vietnam until a year or two after Nixon completed his election-timed withdrawal from what had become America’s longest war. And above all, for a reelection victory that would consolidate his realignment of American presidential politics from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic New Deal coalition to Nixon’s own New Republican Majority.
In the period covered by this collection, January through March of 1972, Nixon was rife with plans. His first conversation of the new year was a tour of the horizon with National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger. Their discussion reflected their concern for grand strategy rather than for the human toll their plans might take. For instance, whereas current memory of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence is colored by Pakistan’s genocidal attempts to suppress it, at the time Nixon and Kissinger viewed the situation largely through the lens of their ambitions for triangular diplomacy with Soviet Russia and Communist China. They favored Pakistan, whose dictator Yahya Khan had facilitated their secret communications with Beijing, and disfavored India, which had recently signed a peace and friendship treaty with the Soviet Union while backing Bangladeshi independence. Nixon dismissed Archer Blood, the American general consul who had warned of Pakistani atrocities in what would become the Bangladeshi capital of Dakha, as an “all-out Indian lover” (Conversation 017-125).
America’s Vietnam War
On 25 January 1972, President Nixon revealed in a nationally televised speech that Henry Kissinger had been holding secret talks with the North Vietnamese. The speech highlighted the most politically appealing aspects of Nixon’s secret settlement proposals and obscured the ones that would have provoked public outrage. Nixon emphasized the complete withdrawal of American and allied forces, the release of all prisoners of war (POWs), a new election in South Vietnam preceded by the resignation of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, and a cease-fire throughout North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.1
The President did not mention that he was proposing a cease-fire-in-place that would leave North Vietnamese troops occupying and governing South Vietnamese territory. Nor did he mention what Kissinger had told Chinese premiere Zhou Enlai at their first meeting: “If the [South Vietnamese] government is as unpopular as you seem to think, then the quicker our forces are withdrawn, the quicker it will be overthrown. And if it is overthrown after we withdraw, we will not intervene.” When Zhou asked about the cease-fire proposal, Kissinger said, “We can put on a time limit, say 18 months or some period.”2 This was the “decent interval”—a period of a year or two between Nixon’s final withdrawal and South Vietnam’s final defeat.
Nixon’s speech went over well (Conversation 019-067). It drew praise from the highest-ranking Democrat in the land, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. “Mike” Mansfield [D–Montana]. As Secretary of State William P. Rogers told the President, Mansfield praised the speech as a “great step forward . . . I don't think you can go any farther than you've gone” (Conversation 019-077).
Few Democrats realized that President Nixon had decided to time his withdrawal from Vietnam to the 1972 U.S. presidential election. He had done so because the only way he could ensure that Saigon would not fall before Election Day was to keep American soldiers in South Vietnam through all four years of his first term. One Democratic senator—Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts, the youngest brother of the slain president—challenged him on it. "We know that thousands of soldiers of North and South Vietnam, and tens of thousands of innocent men and women and children will die in Indochina in 1972, for the simple reason that President Nixon will not allow the Saigon government to falter until he is secure at home for another term of office,” Kennedy said. Most other Democrats, however, did not pick up on the charge, and some actually criticized Kennedy for making it. President Nixon and his top political operative, Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, laughed about it, though no evidence exists that Colson knew the President had prolonged the war for political reasons (Conversation 019-004). President Nixon was pleased to have divided his political opposition (Conversation 019-142).
The White House telephone tapes did not capture any of President Nixon’s conversations in China with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. But Nixon did record some of his attempts to sell the trip to his own base of support on the political right. Key to this was the Republican governor of California, Ronald W. Reagan, a conservative political figure with growing national popularity. Nixon counted on Reagan to reassure the political right that his opening to Communist China was not a prelude to selling out Taiwan, where Chinese nationalists had retreated to after their defeat in the Communist revolution years earlier. The President also dispatched Reagan to Asia to reiterate that Taiwan had Nixon’s continued support. Although other conservative leaders such as columnist William F. Buckley Jr. and his brother Senator James L. “Jim” Buckley [C–New York] criticized Nixon’s opening to China, Reagan steadfastly professed his faith in the President (Conversation 020-106).
The least controversial part of the diplomatic opening was China’s gift to America: two giant pandas, one male and one female. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling did not depart China with Nixon and his entourage but instead arrived in the nation’s capital in April. As the President explained to a reporter for the Washington Star, the delay allowed the pandas time to learn how to mate (Conversation 021-050).
President Nixon saw “The Troubles,” the escalating violence between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, as a potential source of political trouble for him, so he decided largely to stay out of it. On 30 January 1972, British soldiers opened fire on protestors in Derry, Northern Ireland, injuring or killing over two dozen civilians. Two days later, demonstrators set fire to the British embassy in Dublin. Nixon feared that anything he might say could alienate Irish American voters or the British (020-037). Privately, he opined that “the Irish, are pretty goddamn bad here. They're the Kennedy type, you know, raising hell, blowing up the place, burning down the embassy, and all that” (020-041).
One of the biggest domestic policy issues of the Nixon reelection campaign was busing. The President called for “an immediate halt to all new busing orders by Federal courts” in a nationally televised address. The courts had ordered busing as a remedy to decades of separate-but-unequal education that discriminated in favor of white and against black schoolchildren. Nixon’s proposed busing moratorium drew criticism on constitutional grounds as an instance of executive interference with the independence of the judicial branch (Conversation 022-044).
Another major domestic policy issue in early 1972 was welfare. Nixon was the first president to propose a guaranteed income for Americans as part of welfare reform. The Family Assistance Program (FAP) was intended as a conservative alternative to welfare. Instead of giving low-income people assistance that they could only spend on food, medical care, or children’s care, FAP would give them unrestricted money that they could decide how to spend. The proposal drew fire from the left (as inadequate) and the right (as extravagant). President Nixon privately concluded it was too costly. But the guaranteed income still had its champions. One of them, Senator Abraham A. “Abe” Ribicoff [D–Connecticut], urged President Nixon to test the idea in a small-scale pilot program to see if it did the job better than welfare (Conversation 020-003).
Appointments and Staffing
Staffing the executive branch is one of the least glamorous but most consequential of presidential responsibilities. Nixon recognized its importance and sought to expand his influence over the federal bureaucracy—which he viewed conspiratorially as hostile, Democrat-held territory—with strategic appointments of select loyalists. At the same time, he anticipated resistance not only from career staff but from his own Cabinet appointees, who preferred to rule their own roosts.
President Nixon strategized about how to persuade Secretary of Defense Melvin R. “Mel” Laird to accept a Nixon loyalist, David Kenneth Rush, as deputy secretary of defense. The President knew that Laird liked to take popular credit for troop withdrawals from Vietnam, so he offered Laird the opportunity to brief the press on an upcoming withdrawal as a way to soften up the Secretary for the Rush appointment (Conversations 018-017 and 018-047).
The rivalry within his own national security team presented a recurring personnel problem that required the President’s periodic attention. Ironically, the adviser who typically came out on top of the internal struggles, Henry Kissinger, was also the one who required the highest level of maintenance by Nixon and White House chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman (Conversation 018-057). Kissinger rode so high in press coverage and public esteem during the season of summitry that Secretary of State William P. “Bill” Rogers was visibly diminished—another problem that the President had to handle personally (Conversation 021-015).
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan urged the President to consider appointing two men whom Reagan would later place in his own Cabinet—future Attorney General William French Smith and future Secretary of Defense Caspar W. “Cap” Weinberger. At this time, Reagan pitched both as possible replacements for Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who would step down to chair the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (019-101). Nixon passed on both.
President Nixon viewed his trip to China as a hard-earned opportunity not only to make history but to reap a public relations bonanza. He took a detailed and personal interest in the selection of journalists to accompany him to Beijing (Conversation 018-054).
Like other presidents, Nixon decried unauthorized leaks while at the same time orchestrating leaks of information he found helpful. Leaking the President’s annual budget has become an annual ritual—leaks being one of the few ways to make budget documents intriguing—and Nixon personally orchestrated the leak of his budget at the start of his reelection year (Conversation 018-104).
The White House tapes tell listeners little about Richard Nixon’s family life for a perfectly good reason: the law that declared the tapes public property made an exception for a president’s private, family life. As a result, when Nixon speaks with his family on the tapes, they talk about matters of state, government, and politics. From the conversations that have been made public, Nixon clearly viewed his wife and two daughters as valuable political assets as well as supportive family members.
The White House billed First Lady Pat Nixon’s trip to Africa as the first time a first lady had officially represented an American president abroad. She had attended the inauguration of President William R. Tolbert Jr. of Liberia and done a goodwill tour of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. She agreed to a post-trip interview with Barbara J. Walters for the Today show but was surprised to be asked questions about controversial subjects such as Vietnam and abortion. Afterward, President Nixon told White House press secretary Ronald L. “Ron” Ziegler that “nothing is to be done for any of these specials on television without total clearance for the White House and editorial control” (Conversation 018-072).
The President’s daughters seemed more at home in the fray. In one call, Julie Nixon Eisenhower asked her father for more staff to schedule events for her and her sister (Conversation 018-035). In a similar fashion, after unveiling Norman Rockwell’s painting of President Nixon at the National Portrait Gallery and reporting on its glowing reception, Tricia Nixon Cox suggested a subtle way to dig at her father’s Ivy League critics: lending two cloisonné vases the Nixons had brought back from China to a museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Very subtle,” the President said. “Do it, do it” (Conversation 021-029).
These 30 conversations, comprising roughly three hours of material, reflect the breadth of President Nixon’s ambitions and the depth of his attention to detail. They show him at the top of his game and close to achieving his greatest successes. Early 1972 was a time when all his meticulous planning and determined efforts were about to pay off better than he could have expected. Nixon hardly could have imagined, then, that as he stood on the verge of ascending the heights of his presidency he also stood on the brink of self-destruction.
“Address to the Nation Making Public a Plan for Peace in Vietnam,” 25 January 1972, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1972 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1974).
“Memorandum of Conversation,” 9 July 1971, 4:35–11:20 p.m., attached to Lord to Kissinger, “Memcon of Your Conversations with Chou En-lai,” 29 July 1971, National Security Council Files Box 1033, Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.