Richard Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan on 26 October 1971


Transcript

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

The balance of high affairs of state with mundane matters of domestic politics is illustrated in this conversation between President Nixon and California governor Ronald W. Reagan. Reagan, a popular and rising leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, had just returned from a 14-day visit to Asia and the Pacific as a special representative of the President. Reagan’s stops included South Vietnam and Taiwan (the Republic of China, or Nationalist China). Reagan was tired—and furious at the news that the United Nations General Assembly had just voted to expel Taiwan and to seat instead the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Reagan and most conservatives had long been deeply sympathetic to the Nationalist Chinese, hostile to Red China, and suspicious of the United Nations. Reagan urged Nixon to retaliate by changing the status of the United States in the U.N. from a full member to effectively an observer, and by refusing to participate in future votes or to respect its resolutions.

For his part, Nixon could not dismiss Reagan’s ideas outright. He needed to secure his conservative base for coming congressional votes and particularly for the presidential campaign of 1972. (Just prior to leaving for Asia, Reagan had pledged his support for Nixon’s reelection, but his degree of enthusiasm, and that of his supporters, could not be taken for granted by the President.) At the same time, Nixon did not want to jeopardize the emerging diplomatic opening to the PRC, which involved finessing the issue of the sovereignty of Taiwan without alienating regional U.S. allies like South Korea and South Vietnam. Nixon’s efforts to be seen as a statesman, and to defuse liberal accusations of warmongering, would hardly be advanced by abandoning the United Nations. Nixon thus temporized with Reagan and later asked Secretary of State William P. Rogers to speak with the California governor to calm the waters further.[note 1] See Conversation 013-012, 26 October 1971, 1:41–1:47 p.m., White House Telephone.

Editor’s note: In 2019, thanks to the efforts of Timothy J. Naftali, former chair of the Presidential Recordings Program and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, the National Archives and Records Administration restored previously excised portions of this tape, including a six-second segment formerly withheld as “private.” As Naftali wrote in The Atlantic , that segment included racist comments by then California governor Ronald Reagan.
President Nixon

Hello?

White House Operator

Governor [Ronald W.] Reagan, Mr. President.[note 2] Ronald W. Reagan was the Republican governor of California from January 1967 to January 1975.

President Nixon

Hello?

White House Operator

There you are.

President Nixon

Hello?

Ronald W. Reagan

Mr. President?

President Nixon

Hope I didn’t get you out of bed.

Reagan

No, I’m [laughs]

President Nixon

It’s eight—

Reagan

I’m up, although I’m still trying to sleep on Oriental time, and it’s not working very well.

President Nixon

—8:15, yeah. I—you know, you called last night, and I’d gone to bed and [laughs] so I said I [Reagan acknowledges] . . . that’s all right.

Reagan

We took a chance, and we—

President Nixon

No, no, that’s all right. I’m usually up till around then, but I . . . I must have gone off. Well, that was a bad vote, wasn’t it?[note 3] Nixon was referring to the vote in the United Nations to expel Taiwan (Republic of China) and to seat the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its place, both in the General Assembly and as a permanent member of the Security Council. The United States had opposed Taiwan’s expulsion and had lobbied other nations to do the same.

Reagan

Well, I want to tell you, we—

President Nixon

We worked our tails off, I must say. I think—

Reagan

I know. I was just sick.

President Nixon

Fifty-four to 59.[note 4] The actual tally in the General Assembly in favor of the resolution to expel Taiwan and seat the PRC was 76 in favor and 35 opposed, with 17 abstentions. Nixon is referring to an earlier vote on a U.S. procedural motion that the resolution be considered as an “Important Question,” which required that a resolution must pass by a two-thirds rather than a simple majority. That motion was defeated 59–55, with 17 nations abstaining. I’m telling you, I just finished a meeting with [Spiro T.] Ted Agnew.[note 5] Spiro T. Agnew was vice president of the United States from January 1969 to October 1973. He’s back from [unclear] and from Greece and Turkey, and both of whom we got, incidentally. We didn’t get Iran, though, damn it. You know, you figure there’s the Shah, we’ve done all the things for him, but . . .

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

And these African countries, they’re the ones that, I must say, were disappointing.

Reagan

Well, Mr. President, the reason I called was . . . I know it is not easy to give a suggestion or advice to the president of the United States, but I just feel that . . . I feel so strongly that we can’t . . . and with—in view of ’72, we can’t just sit and take this and continue as if nothing had happened. And I had a suggestion [President Nixon acknowledges] for an action, that I’d like to be so presumptuous as to suggest. My every instinct says, get the hell out of that [President Nixon laughs and acknowledges] kangaroo court and let it sink. But I know that’s very—that would be extremely difficult and not the thing to do. But it has occurred to me that the United States—I just—the people I just know are—first of all, they don’t like the U.N. to begin with.

President Nixon

That’s right.

Reagan

And it seemed to me that if you brought Mr. [George H. W.] Bush back to Washington to let them sweat for about 24 hours as to what you were thinking of, and then if you went on television to the people of the United States and said that Mr. Bush was going back to the U.N. to participate in debate and discussions, to present our views, and so forth, but he would not participate in any votes.[note 6] George H. W. Bush was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from February 1971 to January 1973. That the United States would not vote, and would not be bound by the votes of the U.N., because it is a debating society—you don’t have to say that, but it is [President Nixon acknowledges] a debating society—and so we’d be there, our presence would be there, but we would just not participate in their votes. I think it would put those bums in the perspective they belong.

President Nixon

[laughing] It sure would. Yeah.

Reagan

I think it would make a hell of a campaign issue.

President Nixon

Hmm.

Reagan

Because I am positive that the people of the United States are thoroughly disgusted, and I think that this would put any candidate from the other side—the constant question would come to him in any such campaign [President Nixon acknowledges], “What would you do now?” And if he was stupid enough to open his mouth and say, “Oh, hell, you know, we’d go right back to operating as usual,” I think he’d be hung out to dry.

President Nixon

Hmm. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Well, we’ve been trying to think here about what reaction would be. The . . . I must say that the congressional action may be very interesting on the appropriations side.[note 7] Conservatives in both parties, but especially Republicans, had long sought to reduce U.S. funding of the United Nations, which through dues and other contributions amounted to between one-quarter and one-third of the overall U.N. budget.

Reagan

Well, you see, Mr. President, then if they did what they threatened to do, they would simply be confirming your action. [President Nixon acknowledges throughout.] They’d be making the budget meet that new position of the United States in the U.N. reducing our importance. The other way, if we do nothing and they take that action, it’s a rebuff.

President Nixon

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. . . . Yeah. . . . Well, let me give some thought to the whole thing. I’m—it’s a tough one as you’re well aware, it’s a—we got some fish to fry on India–Pakistan; we’re trying to avoid a war there, and the U.N. may have to play some damn role there. The—[laughs] because we don’t want to get involved—

Reagan

No.

President Nixon

—let me say, in that miserable place. It’s a . . . but . . . we will—let me give some thought to this whole thing. As you know, I have been thinking about it, and I’ve talked this morning with two or three people about it, . . . what the legal problems are, and so forth.

Reagan

Well, I just [President Nixon acknowledges] felt I had to make this suggestion.

President Nixon

I know, I know, I appreciate it.

Reagan

[Unclear] last night and the night after that announcement came on, one commentator called me.

President Nixon

Yeah?

Reagan

He told me that the—and I told him, I said, “Well, I just think it confirms the moral bankruptcy of the organization, [President Nixon laughs] the U.N.” [President Nixon acknowledges throughout.] And he told me the phone was ringing off the wall. And he said, with people that are just enraged. Now, here’s the last of the Big Four.[note 8] Reagan is referring to Chiang Kai-shek, the president of Taiwan (Republic of China). Chiang was the leader of the Nationalist Government in mainland China during World War II before being driven into exile by the Communists. Most contemporaries and historians refer to a Big Three of Allied wartime leaders—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. Reagan’s inclusion of Chiang in a “Big Four” illustrated the importance that he and other conservatives placed on the Nationalists and on their opposition to the Communists. Here’s a . . . the old boy, we had a wonderful audience with him while we were there.

President Nixon

Yeah, yeah.

Reagan

[Unclear] an hour.

President Nixon

What a remarkable man.

Reagan

Yes, and—

President Nixon

You must have really enjoyed—he’s such an amazing man.

Reagan

Yes, he is.

President Nixon

He’s darn near—how old is he now? Eighty . . . ?[note 9] Chiang was then 83 years old. He died in 1975.

Reagan

He’s in his eighties.

President Nixon

I know, but you’d never know it.

Reagan

No, no, sharp as a tack. [President Nixon acknowledges.] And he—and with the Madame translating.[note 10] Madame Chiang Kai-shek—Soong May-ling—was educated in the United States. She developed close ties with many leading American journalists and political figures and lobbied heavily for U.S. support for her husband and the Nationalist cause.

President Nixon

You’re—as you are quite aware, of course, this has nothing to do—this action does not affect at all our Defense Treaty and all that.[note 11] The Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Taiwan (Republic of China) was signed by the Eisenhower administration in 1954 and entered into force in 1955. It was designed essentially to deter an attack by the PRC against Taiwan. It was terminated by the United States in 1980, after the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the PRC. The Taiwan Relations Act, enacted by Congress as a substitute, does not commit the United States to undertake direct military support of Taiwan in the case of invasion.

Reagan

No, I—

President Nixon

I mean, we’re—and he knows that. He also knows what we did. As a matter of fact, I made telephone calls to the [laughs]—to four capitals on this thing myself.[note 12] Nixon spoke directly with Prime Minister Emilio Colombo of Italy (Conversation 012-088, 22 October 1971, 5:40–5:59 p.m., White House Telephone); President Luis Echeverría Álvarez of Mexico (Conversation 012-103, 23 October 1971, 11:19–11:31 a.m.., White House Telephone); and King Hassan II of Morocco (Conversation 12-106, 23 October 1971, 11:59 a.m.–12:08 p.m., White House Telephone). Nixon also spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, John Davis Lodge, to give him talking points to use in a subsequent meeting with President Alejandro Agustín Lanusse (Conversation 012-081, 22 October 1971, 3:05–3:09 p.m., White House Telephone).

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

Got two of them, and two to abstain. I should—they should have gotten the other two, but that’s about all.

Reagan

Well, I was putting in [President Nixon acknowledges] pitches along the way. And last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did—[note 13] When it became clear that the resolution would pass, many delegates from Communist and other nations cheered, pounded each other on the back, and danced in the aisles.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Reagan

—to see those . . . those monkeys from those African countries [President Nixon laughs]—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.[note 14] President Nixon’s laugh may obscure a portion of Reagan’s remark.

President Nixon

[Laughs loudly.] Well, and then they—the tail wags the dog there, doesn’t it?

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

The tail wags the dog. [Reagan acknowledges.] Yeah.

Reagan

I . . . I—please give some thought to this. I think [President Nixon acknowledges throughout] it would be very dramatic, and I think if the United States just continues business as usual in the U.N. with this, I think . . . I just think our people are going to be terribly disappointed, and I think here’s a chance for Uncle Sam to just slap their wrists. We’re there, we can express our views in debate, but it’s just not important enough for us to vote on any issues. It’s bound to—[unclear] naturally, if we do that, we’re not bound by the votes.

President Nixon

Yeah, I get it. Mm-hmm.

Reagan

Well, I just—

President Nixon

Well, I—

Reagan

—I couldn’t sleep all [President Nixon acknowledges] last night. I had to—

President Nixon

Yeah, well, I’m telling you, I had a [laughs]—it was a hard night here. A hard night here. We were on the phone right up to the last minute.

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

Yeah. Well, let me . . . let me give some thought to the thing, and I’ll keep you posted on the—on what our strategy is. You know, we can do some things that are quite effective in many areas here. Incidentally, we’re cert—we’re going to remember every—all of our friends that stood with us on this. Incidentally, among them—among whom were the Japanese.

Reagan

Yes.

President Nixon

They were great.

Reagan

Oh, I know.

President Nixon

The Japanese were great, the—

Reagan

They were great when I was there.

President Nixon

And—

Reagan

I was asked a question in Japan [President Nixon acknowledges throughout] by the press, and I—“What if this went wrong?” And I said, “Well”—that was where I first used the expression, I said, “I would consider it an act of immoral political expediency by the United Nations.”

President Nixon

Yeah. Moral bankruptcy’s a good term. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And a hell of a precedent, you know, if you can throw out a nation by simple majority, next they might throw out Portugal or South Africa.

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

Hmm. [Slight chuckle.] Or Ghana, who knows?

Reagan

That’s why I think they need a jolt.

President Nixon

Well, let me get at it and—when are you—when did you get back?

Reagan

We got back Saturday morning.

President Nixon

Saturday morning. But you had a good trip?

Reagan

Oh, yes.

President Nixon

Yeah, I got reports on it and—

Reagan

Very good, and I’m—

President Nixon

And it’s—

Reagan

—look forward to telling you. It was a—

President Nixon

—an exciting part of the world. Yeah.

Reagan

Yes.

President Nixon

Yeah. Vietnam and everything.

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

And it’s going well there, isn’t it?

Reagan

It seemed to be, yes.

President Nixon

Yeah. The casualties this week were six, so there—we got it [slight chuckle] wound down.

Reagan

Yeah. Well . . . well, I shall leave you to your troubles. I know the press is going to be waiting for me. I’m going to . . . I know I’ll have to answer, and I’m going to continue along the same tone that [President Nixon acknowledges] as far as I’m concerned, the . . .

President Nixon

Well, you might indicate that the—for example, that you feel that this greatly weakens the support for the United Nations in the United States. That the . . . that it’ll have repercussions in the Congress and, you know, that sort of thing is—will reverberate around.[note 15] In Sacramento, Reagan was quoted by the press as calling the United Nations “a ridiculous debating society” and proposing that the United States should boycott all future U.N. votes. White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler told the media that, in the President’s view, the celebratory actions of such delegates might lead to a deterioration of public and congressional support for both the United Nations and the foreign aid program. Ziegler stressed, however, that the President supported the United Nations and wanted it to succeed. Carroll Kilpatrick, “Hill Debate on Support Intensifies; President Decries U.N. Show of Glee,” Washington Post, 28 October 1971.

Reagan

Yeah. As a matter of fact, I, before I left—I don’t know what the hell is United Nations Week or when it is. I signed that proclamation—[note 16] United Nations Day is 24 October, the anniversary of the entry into force of the U.N. Charter in 1945. The President and some state governors traditionally sign ceremonial proclamations marking the day.

President Nixon

Did you?

Reagan

—for U.N. Week and I’m going to go over and if it still isn’t over, if it—if we haven’t had it yet—

President Nixon

Revoke it?

Reagan

—I’m going to withdraw the proclamation.

President Nixon

[laughing heartily] OK. Yeah. I bet you—I don’t know whether—I probably signed it, too, but I didn’t go to anything, I can assure you.

Reagan

Oh, I didn’t [slight chuckle], either.

President Nixon

Well, there are all sorts of dinners, you know.

Reagan

Yeah. Oh, out here [Earl] Warren made a speech at one the other night.[note 17] Earl Warren was attorney general of California from 1938 to 1944; Republican governor of California from January 1945 to October 1953; Republican nominee for vice president in 1948; and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from October 1953 to June 1969. In a speech at an event sponsored by the United Nations Association in Southern California, Warren criticized those in Congress who proposed to cut the U.S. contribution to the U.N. if the resolution to expel Taiwan succeeded. Warren was chairman of the association, a private organization that seeks to build public support for a constructive U.S. role in the U.N. Carl Greenberg, “Warren Criticizes Capitol Threat to Reduce Aid to U.N.,” Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1971.

President Nixon

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Reagan

It was a load of crap. [President Nixon acknowledges throughout.] The old man—I wish to hell he [unclear]

President Nixon

Oh, incidentally, I want—I think you should know, on another subject, that we’ve got two terrific nominees for the Supreme Court. They’re tough, strong, conservative, and they are just squealing like hell. This—well, you know, we, as you know, we ran Mildred [L.] Lillie by you and [chuckles] we have in mind [William French] Smith for another one.[note 18] Mildred L. Lillie was a judge for California’s Second District Court of Appeals from 1958 to 2002, and a U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee in 1971. William French Smith was an attorney and an adviser to Governor Ronald W. Reagan [R–California]. But these two, you can bank on. Our liberal friends—[Lewis F.] Powell [Jr.] of Virginia is just a great fellow and [William H.] Rehnquist is probably the—is probably as strong a young guy—well, he’s not too damn young, he’s 47—but probably he’ll be the strongest man on the Court.[note 19] Lewis F. Powell Jr. was a lawyer; president of the American Bar Association (ABA) from 1964 to 1965; and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from January 1972 to June 1987. William H. Rehnquist was a jurist and lawyer; an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from January 1972 to September 1986; and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from September 1986 to September 2005.

Reagan

Oh, good. My heart was, of course, set on Smith.[note 20] Smith was part of Governor Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” and later served as President Reagan’s attorney general. I [President Nixon acknowledges]—out here. He’s a hell of a guy.

President Nixon

Well, let me say, he’s at the right age and he is right up there on consideration. Our problem was that we had to take one southerner. It was Powell. And I couldn’t take two corporation lawyers.

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

You see the problem?

Reagan

Yeah.

President Nixon

He’s a corporation lawyer and the other is. But Smith, you know, has got a terrific record: chairman of the [California] Board of Regents, and so forth. And as [John N.] Mitchell will tell you, he was right in it and one of those other guys . . . what the heck?[note 21] John N. Mitchell was U.S. attorney general from January 1969 to February 1972; director of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign; and chair of the Nixon reelection campaign from March to July 1972. They can’t live forever.

Reagan

[laughing] No.

President Nixon

[laughing] Who knows?

Reagan

[laughing] No.

President Nixon

Let’s hope the good guys live longer.

Reagan

Yes.

President Nixon

Well, give my best to Nancy [D. Reagan], and I’ll be back in touch with you about this.[note 22] Nancy D. Reagan (née Anne Frances Robbins) was the wife of Ronald W. Reagan since March 1952, and the first lady of California from January 1967 to January 1975.

Reagan

All right.

President Nixon

OK.

Reagan

OK.

President Nixon

Fine.

Reagan

Bye.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan on 26 October 1971,” Conversation 013-008, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002192