“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan said.
Nixon replied with a big laugh.
“Well and then they — the tail wags the dog, doesn’t it? The tail wags the dog,” Nixon said.
The conversation between Reagan and Nixon was published in The Atlantic. Tim Naftali, a history professor at NYU and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, worked to get the tape released and wrote the subsequent article for The Atlantic.
The National Archives withheld the racist comments in the recording’s first release in 2000, which Naftali says was apparently in protection of Reagan’s privacy. But after Reagan’s death in 2004, and amid continued review process by the National Archives, Naftali was successful in getting the full conversation released.
“It was worse than I expected,” Naftali told The Washington Post, referring to the audio on the tape. “It was the combination of the slur by Reagan and then Nixon’s repeating it, not once but twice in later conversations. This was not just revealing about what Ronald Reagan thought about Africans in 1971, and arguably later, it was also a reminder of how Nixon could hold racist views but not think of himself as a racist.”
After the call with Reagan, Nixon phoned Secretary of State William Rogers and then employed the same language Reagan used as he described the frustrations over the U.N. decision.
“As you can imagine, there’s strong feeling that we just shouldn’t, as [Reagan] said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these — these, uh, these cannibals on television last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes, and here the United States is going to submit its fate to that,’ and so forth and so on,” Nixon said in the recorded phone call.
In a second conversation with Rogers on the same day, Nixon spoke about Reagan’s disgust once again. He was recorded saying Reagan “practically got sick at his stomach,” and that the California governor said “this bunch of people who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kicking the United States in the teeth,” characterizing Reagan’s feelings about what had happened, according to Naftali.
But Nixon had also been unhappy about what transpired at the U.N. that October. Even before his phone call with Reagan, he had already requested cancellations of future meetings with African leaders whose votes had differed from that of the United States, according to Naftali.
At the time, Nixon’s State Department said British and French dealings were to blame for the decision to cancel the meetings.
“Don’t even submit to me the problem that it’s difficult to turn it off since we have already accepted it,” Nixon was recorded telling then-deputy national security adviser Alexander M. Haig. “Just turn it off, on the ground that I will be out of town.”
Reagan biographers and historians are still reconciling the newly revealed audio with the president’s personal record. As Naftali noted in The Atlantic, Nixon’s racist views have been well documented, but Reagan’s personal diaries are free of any similar rhetoric. Some of Reagan’s most divisive policies — like embracing the apartheid government of South Africa and popularizing the trope of the “welfare queen” — may take on a different light now.
“I leave it to Reagan scholars to take this and then connect it to comments about welfare queens and what this may or may not say about Reagan’s general view of race,” Naftali said.
One such scholar described the new audio as “shocking.”
“I’m kind of taken aback. This is stunning,” said Bob Spitz, author of “Reagan: An American Journey.” Spitz gained access to Reagan’s personal archives for the work and said he found no hint that the president would hold the kinds of views he conveyed to Nixon.
“In all of my very careful research into his private papers, I never found an instance where I felt that Reagan was racist,” he said. “Generally when someone says, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’ I’m instantly skeptical, but in this case after all my work I found myself kind of nodding my head. So this is shocking.”
But many African Americans have long regarded Reagan as an exploiter of racism for political gain. He kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered in 1964.
As Bob Herbert wrote a decade ago in the New York Times, Reagan appeared "in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: ‘We want Reagan! We want Reagan!’ "
Reagan told the crowd, “I believe in states’ rights,” signalling his views on racial justice. “Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery," Herbert wrote, “but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”
He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.
Naftali said the new Reagan audio should spark new conversations about presidential views on race and how it impacts real world policy. He said he hopes his research encourages others to plumb the voluminous records available on all presidents.
“Understanding how our presidents think about race is not a matter of character assassination, it’s about understanding what drives their decision making,” he said. “It’s not partisan gamesmanship, it’s about how these people with the power we gave them as result of an election have used it. If their minds are poisoned by prejudice, we need to know.”