A transcript of a 1971 White House tape has Richard Nixon backing a suggestion to muster "thugs" from the Teamsters union to beat up antiwar demonstrators, it was reported yesterday.
The conversation between the president and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, took place during the "May Day" wave of demonstrations in Washington against the war in Vietnam, according to an account in The New York Times.
Excerpts of the May 5, 1971, tape published in the Times begin with a discussion of an impending protest march on the Capitol in support of a People's Peace Treaty.
After talking about prospects for counter-demonstrations, Nixon professed a determination to "stay firm and get credit for it...setting an example" for other cities and college campuses.
"Let 'em look here," the president was quoted as saying. "These people try something, bust 'em."
Eventually, Haldeman broached a suggestion he said he had already made to White House aide Charles W. Colson about enlisting the help of the Teamsters and their "thugs."
Nixon picked up on the idea immediately. "They, they've got guys who'll go in and knock their heads off," he told Haldeman.
"Sure," Haldeman responded. "Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that's what they really do . . . it's the regular strike-busters types and all that . . . and they're gonna beat the obscenity out of some of these people. And, uh, and hope they really hurt 'em . . . I mean go in . . . and smash some noses."
There is no indication that the suggestion was ever acted on, but police arrested some 1,200 protesters on the east side of the Capitol that afternoon in a crackdown that triggered years of litigation. The lawsuits, in turn, led to a subpoena for the transcripts of all presidential conversations concerning the May Day demonstrations.
National Archives spokesman Ben Ruhe said yesterday that some 750 pages were compiled in the spring of 1979, and delivered to U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant on July 5, 1979, but the contents are still supposed to be secret. Efforts by a team of American Civil Liberties Union lawyers headed by Warren K. Kaplan to obtain the conversations are still being opposed by Nixon's lawyers.
A transcript of the same May 5, 1971, meeting was also prepared by Watergate special prosecutors during their investigations, but this is locked up at the Archives as the result of another lawsuit by Nixon.
The Times said the 26-page transcript it obtained came from the collection prepared for Judge Bryant. The arrests of the demonstrators have been ruled illegal, but some ancillary litigation, including disposition of the transcripts, has yet to be settled.
In addition to the talk about Teamsters "thugs," the transcript has the president and his chief of staff discussing and chuckling over various political dirty tricks, such as sending a crate of oranges to a group of protesting Vietnam veterans in the name of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) and enlisting "a guy...none of us knows except Dwight."
"Dwight" was White House appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, and the "guy" Haldeman referred to might have been political saboteur Donald Segretti. Haldeman's description, however, suggests a different image for Segretti--who actually looked like a high school student:
". . . this guy's a real conspirator type . . . thug-type guy . . . the kinda guy can get out and tear things up."
Eventually the conversation turned to the Chicago Seven, the antiwar protestors who had been convicted for conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "Aren't the Chicago Seven all Jews?" Nixon asked.
Haldeman didn't think so.
"About half of these are Jews," the president concluded after a little more discussion, according to the transcript.