July 31

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” He is working on a history of spin.

Forty summers ago, the Supreme Court forced President Richard M. Nixon to surrender several key tape recordings that he had secretly made of his conversations, which proved incontrovertibly that he had directed an illegal cover-up of the June 1972 Watergate burglary and other crimes. Nixon resigned two weeks later.

Americans quickly got to see transcripts of some of the most incriminating tapes, including those on which Nixon ordered aides to have the CIA lie to the FBI in order to thwart the Watergate investigation (June 23, 1972) and others on which he blithely volunteered to raise $1 million to keep the burglars from spilling the beans (March 21, 1973). But it wasn’t until 1996, after a lawsuit by professor Stanley Kutler of the University of Wisconsin and the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, that the government began releasing the rest of the 3,700 hours of tapes that weren’t deemed Nixon’s private property. Kutler’s landmark 1997 book, “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes,” reprinted transcripts of many of these additional Watergate tapes.

Many — but not all.

Since Kutler’s book appeared, many more tapes (including new Watergate tapes) have been made public, and several scholars have been busily making their own transcriptions. They have now published the first fruits of their labor.


”Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate” by Ken Hughes. (Univ. of Virginia Press)

One of these scholars is Ken Hughes, who has worked on the Nixon tapes since 2000 as part of the ambitious Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. His “Chasing Shadows,” the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations, shows just how early Nixon’s dirty tricks began and just how deeply he was involved.

A second tape hound is Luke A. Nichter, a history professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, who has posted digital copies of the Nixon recordings on his Web site. With the well-known Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, he has brought forth “The Nixon Tapes,” a hefty collection of non-Watergate tape transcripts focused mainly on foreign policy. (A third transcriber is Nixon’s former White House counsel John W. Dean, whose new tome, “The Nixon Defense,” is also reviewed in today’s Washington Post.)

Taut and laden with touches of humor, “Chasing Shadows” mainly seeks to highlight the importance of the Chennault Affair to Nixon’s undoing. What was the Chennault Affair? Late in the 1968 presidential campaign, President Johnson, having forsworn another term, was ready to halt the bombing of North Vietnam to try to revive peace negotiations. Nixon, the Republican nominee, considered the decision a ploy to help Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, who was trailing in the polls. So Nixon had his law partner (and later attorney general) John N. Mitchell speak to Anna Chennault, a 43-year-old Chinese-born Republican activist, who in turn spoke to Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador, who in turn told South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to reject LBJ’s initiative, promising a better deal once Nixon was elected. This skulduggery arguably violated the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from freelancing in foreign policy.

In implicating Nixon in this episode, Hughes adduces a great deal of strong evidence, including from LBJ’s own White House tapes (yes, he made them, too — though not nearly as many as Nixon). Roughly the first third of “Chasing Shadows” meticulously maps out the twists and turns in the bombing-halt negotiations, creating a delicious portrait of pervasive suspicion among Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey and their aides. Hughes establishes that as soon as Nixon came into office, he knew he had a big secret to hide.

Hughes then shows how this secret contributed to Watergate. Told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in late 1968 that the bureau had bugged his campaign plane (a falsehood, Hughes says), Nixon decided he needed his own dirt on LBJ. After taking office, he assigned H.R. Haldeman, his top aide, to gather intelligence from across the government to show that LBJ had acted to help Humphrey. Haldeman delegated the task to a young flunky named Tom Charles Huston.

Watergate buffs know Huston as the author of a breathtakingly illegal scheme to centralize secret intelligence-gathering in the White House — a plan Nixon approved but the turf-conscious Hoover killed. One virtue of “Chasing Shadows” is that it fleshes out our knowledge of Huston, who has largely kept out of sight since Watergate. (A pair of oral-history interviews Huston gave to the Nixon Presidential Library were released this year, corroborating Hughes’s account.) In March 1970, Huston told Haldeman that a former Defense Department staffer named Les Gelb — now a leading foreign policy wise man — had written some sort of report on the bombing halt and had taken it to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Huston’s information, though incorrect in fundamental aspects, led Nixon to repeatedly order his aides to break into Brookings to get the documents. Over the years, some pundits have wondered if Nixon’s instructions to raid Brookings were just passing outbursts, because they weren’t carried out, but Hughes’s evidence from the tapes confirms that the president was deadly serious. Whether or not Nixon knew in advance of the 1972 Watergate burglary, we know that he was perfectly willing and able to authorize “thievery,” as he calls it on one tape, for self-interested, political and vindictive purposes.

Hughes points out that there wasn’t actually a discrete report on the October 1968 bombing halt and suggests that the document Huston heard about was actually the Pentagon Papers — the Defense Department’s internal history of the Vietnam War, which dealt with a limited bombing halt in March 1968 and which Gelb indeed helped write. (In his oral history, released after Hughes finished his book, Huston confirms this hypothesis.) Once the New York Times began publishing excerpts from that study, in 1971, Nixon became enraged anew. Convinced that Gelb was part of a conspiracy against him, he again ordered Brookings to be plundered.

Revealing as “Chasing Shadows” is, Hughes sometimes seems to imply that the bombing-halt business is the Rosebud of Watergate — a hidden origin that explains it all. This strikes me as unfortunate, insofar as it suggests too tidy a picture of the Nixon White House’s lawlessness, which was chaotic and multifarious. Nixon had loads of illegal activities he wished to conceal, including illegal campaign contributions, abuses of the IRS, and wiretaps that he and Henry Kissinger placed on journalists and White House staffers. The “White House horrors,” as Mitchell called them, were so voluminous that, even without the Chennault Affair, Nixon would certainly have found himself launching a cover-up after the Watergate arrests in June 1972.

For all the weight he places on the Chennault Affair, Hughes recognizes the breadth of Nixon’s crimes. He powerfully rebuts the wrongheaded cliche that the president’s cover-up was worse than his crimes. “If Nixon had allowed the FBI to fully investigate their crimes,” he writes, “they would have led back to his own. . . . The notion that Nixon could have simply cut loose the guilty parties in the Watergate break-in and walked away scot-free himself is mistaken.”

Where Hughes’s account weaves tape excerpts into a brisk story, while leaving the reader sometimes wishing for more of the extended excerpts Hughes has transcribed, “The Nixon Tapes” gives us pages upon pages of conversations, sometimes creating a wish for more paraphrasing or annotation. Still, the book will be an important reference for those without the time to listen to the tapes firsthand (and listening to the often-inaudible tapes is an excruciatingly time-consuming task). It will also provide hours of diverting browsing for hard-core Nixon buffs.

Yet because the book ranges so widely, the general reader, and even most historians, will be hard-pressed to judge whether these transcripts significantly enrich or alter our knowledge of the Vietnam negotiations, the opening to China or the many other policy matters touched on herein. Only as scholars begin to use the book in their narrowly targeted research will they be able to evaluate precisely what these conversations add to the written documentary record.

A first pass suggests that they will at least reinforce some of our understandings of Nixon: the sycophancy he inspired from his aides, notably Kissinger; his abiding concern with public opinion and public image, even when dealing with the loftiest international matters; his unconcern with domestic policy and his desire to make his mark on the world stage. There is also more of the anti-Semitism, racism, and all-around resentment and hate that we’ve come to expect from the Nixon tapes.

Nichter and Brinkley reject self-serving claims by Nixon’s underlings that the tapes, in Kissinger’s words, are “irrelevant for the most part as the basis for the President’s actions.” It’s easy to see why Kissinger — who comes off badly in many exchanges — would want historians to ignore them. But the small group of dedicated historians who have worked extensively in the tapes have concluded differently. With the tapes now public, and with many transcripts now published, it’s time for many more scholars to dig in and see what more there is to be learned about Richard Nixon.

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.” He is working on a history of spin.

Read more from Outlook:

Bob Woodward reviews ‘The Nixon Defense’ by John W. Dean

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CHASING SHADOWS

The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair,
and the Origins of Watergate

By Ken Hughes

Univ. of Virginia. 228 pp. $24.95

THE NIXON TAPES: 1971-1972

Edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley
and Luke A. Nichter

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 758 pp. $35