It is Dec. 28, 1972, and President Richard Nixon and national-security adviser Henry Kissinger are over the moon. B52s have just visited upon North Vietnam the heaviest American bombing raids since World War II—something, Nixon exults, that "pricked the boil, didn't it?" But what thrills him most is how exquisitely the raids were timed—just before the next week's newsmagazine deadlines: "They'll open up for this, don't worry," he says confidently. They did.
The conversation can be heard among the nearly 200 hours of Nixon tapes released last week by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. These occasional public unveilings are always sexy, but somewhat misleading. For 364 days a year archivists toil anonymously, transcribing hundreds of hours of often banal, taped conversations. Then they pick out a few titillating excerpts to nab a headline in the next day's newspapers. (Richard Nixon would understand the impulse.)
Among the new excerpts: Nixon and political deputy Charles Colson compare George McGovern's sanctimonious statements after losing the 1972 election to Hitler's comment that "the German people don't deserve me." In another, Colson briefs the president on the success of his efforts to sabotage the business interests of The Washington Post, the better to neutralize the sting of the paper's Watergate revelations. In a third, two old prudes—Nixon and Chief Justice Warren Burger—lament the fact that the previous Supreme Court had justified certain sexually explicit imagery because of its "redeeming social purpose."
Fun stuff. But the real work of historians begins only now, when researchers embark on the slow, patient task of assessing the new data and integrating it into current debates about everything from American intentions in the Middle East to the way presidents seek to guide (and sometimes manipulate) public opinion. For instance, Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Shapiro of Columbia University picked through hours of discussions to find the needle-in-a-haystack moments when Nixon aides discussed how to intimidate the Gallup and Harris polling organizations. They then cross-referenced what the aides had said with the pollsters' original, raw data; the organizations' internal documents; and polling reports published in newspapers. Only then could they conclusively establish that Harris and Gallup had in fact adjusted the wording of questions, timing and which data to report based on the White House prodding.
Diplomatic historians will be especially keen to mine this new data because it sheds light on the sordid manner in which Nixon wound up the Vietnam War. The conversation above yields tantalizing new clues about Nixon and Kissinger's "decent interval" strategy in particular. In moments of candor both men admitted that Saigon would inevitably fall to the communists within a couple of years. Yet they were determined to stave off the collapse for a "decent interval"—the real purpose, as Nixon well knew, of the Christmas bombings. The two men told another story to the American people, our allies in the Saigon government and perhaps even themselves. In the new tapes, Nixon justifies his decision to use the most fearsome bomber in the fleet by saying that one final, swift, savage blow might force communist negotiators to give up their claim to non-communist South Vietnam. The only person he's trying to convince is himself.
Beyond the tapes, too, there are riches buried within the approximately 90,000 pages of documents also released by the National Archives last week. In one, the White House ombudsman—a legendary investigative reporter hired by Nixon with the promise that he would have a free hand to weed out executive-branch waste and corruption—reports in April 1970 on his "investigations of matters brought to my attention by the President and a wide range of other White House sources." The subject? The business dealings of Nixon's top five potential Democratic re-election challengers. (Ombudsman Clark Mollenhoff quit soon after in disgust; only now do we learn exactly why.) Also among the documents are handwritten Nixon orders to investigate tax returns and declassify sensitive CIA documents in order to embarrass previous Democratic administrations.
Another document even reopens one of the mysteries that helped determine the outcome of a presidential election: the revelation that George McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had been in and out of mental hospitals. The matter was long thought to have been settled; historians believed the information had reached McGovern's campaign via a concerned Democrat. But two days before that news became public, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan had typed a note to Chuck Colson, recommending that he "get this material investigated fully—and then gotten out of here." In longhand, along the bottom of the memo, Colson scrawled a cryptic one-line response: "I've already taken care of it."