Nixon's Tapes Reveal His Reservations and Motivations

New tapes give insight into Nixon and Kissinger's planning of the Vietnam War.

December 2, 2008, 5:34 PM

Dec. 2, 2008— -- Just as the new movie "Frost/Nixon" opens around the country this week with a possibly Oscar-nominated portrayal of President Richard Nixon, we get to hear Nixon himself and read his actual words.

Nearly 200 hours of tapes and 90,000 pages of text released today by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and the National Archives offer a glimpse into Nixon's views on the Vietnam War and his colleagues.

The tapes, which include more than 1,300 conversations, were recorded between November and December 1972, after Nixon was re-elected president and months after the first few arrests were made in the Watergate scandal. The collection of texts is from November 1968 -- when Nixon was elected the 37th president of the United States -- to January 1969.

The records reveal discussions that took place between Nixon and Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War and how and why they decided to escalate the already-unpopular conflict.

In conversations taped on Dec. 12, 1972, just weeks before the Christmas Day 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, Nixon was told by his Deputy Asst. for National Security Affairs, Alexander Haig, that Vice President Spiro Agnew disagreed with Kissinger, then serving as national security advisor, about some diplomatic and political strategy regarding Vietnam.

Nixon said he thought Agnew "was on board," but that he "is a goddamned fool" who "doesn't know a goddamned thing. He bores the hell out of me. Christ ... I'll have to have him come in here."

In a later conversation, Nixon discussed the upcoming, and unannounced bombing with Kissinger.

Nixon expressed irritation with Agnew for not getting on board with some of the administration's Vietnam policies.

He asked Kissinger who else could be president at such a tough time.

As for Agnew, Kissinger said, "He can't be president. No. Absolutely not."

Nixon asked, "Some of the others?"

Both concurred that John Connally, Nixon's former treasury secretary, and Ronald Reagan would be strong candidates.

Kissinger added, "I actually think (Nelson) Rockefeller would be the best except for his age."

Kissinger had worked for Rockefeller as an advisor before joining the Nixon administration.

Less than a year later, Kissinger would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam for his contribution in ending the war.

In the conversation with Kissinger, filled with long pauses, Nixon expressed fears that Congress would cut off funds for the Vietnam War.

Nixon: "We may be faced with that. So what do we do then, Henry?"

Kissinger: "Blame the Democrats."

Kissinger went on to call the North Vietnamese Communists "filthy bastards." He said the North Vietnamese told the Russians they think Nixon will cave in and reach a settlement before his second inauguration the following month.

Kissinger added the North Vietnamese may be ready for a quick deal when they realize he is not caving in.

Nixon: "We can't gamble on that."

Kissinger: "It is a gamble which, if we lose, we will really be paralyzed."

Both men sometimes avoided the word "bombing." Instead, they talked of "the action."

As Nixon said, "Let's look at the action. We can't have any doubts about it."

Kissinger and Nixon decided that the only solution was to start a massive bombing campaign and to mine North Vietnam's main seaport the following Monday, Dec. 18.

Both men realized that what they decided would result in more anti-war demonstrations and that the bombing and mining may not work.

The bombing was to include Hanoi and result in worldwide criticism of the United States as well as renewed anti-war protests at home.

In a Dec. 9, 1972, conversation, Nixon told his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, that the purpose of the presidency is "to do good things every day."

As examples, he told Julie he called billionaire J. Paul Getty and conservative economist Milton Friedman to wish them well as they recuperated from surgery.

The day after Christmas 1972, Nixon spoke to his chief counsel Charles Colson about former ABC News diplomatic correspondent John Scali, whom he had chosen as ambassador to the United Nations to replace George H.W. Bush.

Nixon said Kissinger fought the appointment "tooth and nail" because he had an obsessive belief that Scali leaked information about him.

But Nixon liked Scali, who he said was tough, unlike Bush, who he dubbed as a "sweet guy, but not a tough guy."

Despite his well-known aversion to journalists, Nixon thought Scali would do "a hell of a job" as a U.N. ambassador.

Nixon added that Kissinger was "paranoid" about leaking, but that he was the one who does the leaking.

Scali was initially suggested by Colson himself, after Nixon had indicated he wanted an Italian in the Cabinet.

Scali was not Italian, but Nixon said, "he'll take orders."

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