SANTA ANA, Calif. — Newly declassified segments from the diary of President Richard M. Nixon’s chief of staff provide a detailed, subtle portrait of the disgraced president as H.R. Haldeman recounts both high-stakes diplomacy and unscripted daily life that would never make a White House memo or official document.
More than 40 years after Haldeman made his last audio diary recording, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda on Thursday released 285 segments from entries spanning from 1970 to 1973. At the time, Nixon was engaged in delicate diplomacy that would lead to treaties to limit nuclear weapons and a reopening of China to the world.
The segments include a reference to top-secret intelligence briefings the Nixon administration provided to China, and they reveal Nixon’s private musings as he wrangled with the Soviet Union over limiting nuclear weapons.
Mixed in among the accounts of top-level diplomacy, however, are revealing nuggets of daily life: Haldeman surprising Nixon as he smoked a Russian cigarette after long negotiations with Soviet leaders, for example, and Nixon’s team struggling to stay sober at a Chinese banquet as they felt obligated to drink toast after toast with top Communist officials.
This combination makes the diaries unique and reveals almost as much about Nixon as it does about Haldeman, said Luke Nichter, a Nixon expert and history professor at Texas A&M University.
“It adds to this tapestry that we have on Nixon that we don’t have on anyone else,” he said. “These are not the White House talking points. This is what was really going on.”
Much of Haldeman’s account of Nixon’s February 1972 trip to China was made public earlier. But the declassified segments show the tension that was building between national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers as they tried to draft a communique about Taiwan that would satisfy China and conservatives back home. Kissinger set the stage for Nixon’s groundbreaking China trip with secret diplomatic meetings, while Rogers essentially was cut out.
As talks on Taiwan drew to a close, Rogers insisted on presenting changes to the communique that almost derailed the process, the declassified entries show.
“Henry said that we now have a massive problem, because he took Rogers’s alterations in and the PRC really blew up,” Haldeman said on Feb. 26, 1972. “So, poor Henry’s had to struggle with that situation now. He sounded pretty tired, but said he was going to work it out somehow.”
Later, Haldeman alludes to a top-secret intelligence briefing to a top Chinese defense marshal concerning the threat to China from Soviet military forces along the Chinese-Soviet border. The disclosures were part of Nixon’s strategy of playing one communist country against the other to American advantage, but those intelligence briefings remained secret for decades until memos were declassified in 2003 after years of legal challenges.
In his diary, Haldeman mentions them almost in passing before moving on to a description of his visit to the Forbidden City.
The Chinese defense official “at dinner last night expressed enormous gratitude for the briefing we gave him on intelligence and so on, and that he had reported that to Chairman Mao, who was also very impressed,” Haldeman said in the Feb. 25, 1972, entry. “He said no one had ever dealt with them in such a straightforward fashion before and that they deeply appreciated it.”
Reading about such a high-stakes diplomatic move through Haldeman’s eyes is exciting for historians, Nichter said.
“We were sharing more with [the Chinese] than we were sharing, not only with our allies in the region, but also with Europe and our other allies around the world — and that’s shocking,” he said.
“This is what historians have long said, and Kissinger wouldn’t talk about it.”
The declassified recordings also include an entry from a Cabinet meeting Nixon held the day the U.S. and the Soviet Union announced a breakthrough in talks to limit nuclear armaments in 1971 and material on the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam talks, and diplomatic negotiations with India, Pakistan and Israel.
Haldeman, who died in 1993, kept a diary from 1969 to 1973 but switched from written to audio recordings in 1970.
Eleven segments remain classified.