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New Insights Into A Pivotal Year In Nixon's Presidency

President Richard Nixon began 1973 on a high note, having been re-elected with 60 percent of the popular vote and reaching a settlement to end the war in Vietnam. But the Watergate scandal would soon engulf his presidency, leading to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The scandal would also bring to light Nixon’s practice of secretly taping White House conversations.

On Tuesday, the second volume of annotated transcripts of those tapes is being published, edited by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter. Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with Douglas about “The Nixon Tapes: 1973.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Nixon Tapes: 1973′

By Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter

Cover of

JANUARY–FEBRUARY

Bombing for peace

January 1, 1973, 9:40 a.m.

Richard Nixon and Charles Colson

Oval Office

“I saw him ageing right before my eyes,” Charles Colson, special counsel to the president, wrote of Richard Nixon as he appeared at the end of 1972. The year had promised in November to end on a high note for the White House. Not only had Nixon won reelection by a historic margin, but Henry Kissinger, national security advisor, had managed to negotiate a preliminary accord in the Vietnam War peace talks in Paris. At the time, Kissinger leaked news of the breakthrough to Max Frankel, senior editor at the New York Times, much to Nixon’s dismay. When the accord fell apart a month later, Nixon felt the added pressure of public opinion to force the enemy to return to the talks, and he ordered massive bombing of North Vietnam to begin on December 18. Critics feared that the war had begun all over again, but when the North Vietnamese capitulated at the very end of the month, Nixon had the satisfaction of ending the so-called December bombing. Still exhausted from the pressure of the previous weeks, the president was in his office on New Year’s morning, discussing with Colson the imminent departure of one of his more potent aides, Alexander Haig, soon to be named army vice chief of staff.

NIXON: Well, all in all, the New Year starts though—you know I was just thinking through the years—not that we wanted to go through the agony of these last—I mean, it was not easy, the Christmas bombing, so forth and so on. But in a way, perhaps it was a good thing. You know what I mean? To the benefit of everything.

COLSON: I think on this one, Mr. President, I watched the toll that it took on you, and it was tough.

NIXON: Oh, I am fine.

COLSON: No, I can tell. I can tell looking at your face, when the strain was as great as it was, but in the end, if Henry [Kissinger] works out the settlement now, it will clearly be your settlement. And it was not headed that way. It was just as well that we have had this little bit of slip. There has been a difference between the two. And, it was too much—Henry was getting too much—public—

NIXON: Yeah. There is another thing too that is happening. That happens, looking at it from another standpoint. The end of the war is on any basis now, that is halfway reasonable, our credibility in the world is enormously increased by this.

COLSON: Yes.

NIXON: They can squeal all they want, but boy, I’ll tell you, when they squeal it just gives you a hell of a lot more respect among others.

COLSON: That’s right.

NIXON: So we’ve done that. We haven’t backed into it. We haven’t been political about it. They realize they are dealing with a tough man, a strong man.

COLSON: When they accept that it goes a long way.

NIXON: Here is this country, it allowed the Left, the McGovernites, to force them instead of sort of sucking back, to get out on a limb again. And I think you can saw it off.

COLSON: I do, too.

NIXON: [unclear] intend to saw it off.

COLSON: I think there are some more other advantages. One, if the South Vietnamese squawk they will have less credibility now.

NIXON: That’s right.

COLSON: Because everybody knows we did everything humanly possible and really put the North Vietnamese to the wall. And secondly, I think you have taken a hell of a toll on the North Vietnamese. [unclear] NBC, it was very interesting. I watched the network news last night and it is obvious what they had intended to do to us this weekend—

NIXON: Mm-hmm.

COLSON:—was just murder—

NIXON: [unclear] on the bombing. Sure.

COLSON:—and they had seven or eight minutes of Hanoi prisoner film footage, taken by a Japanese film company and distributed by the North Vietnamese—I mean propaganda film.

NIXON: Sure.

COLSON: But Jesus—

NIXON: And they ran it?

COLSON: Just leveled Hanoi. That was pretty devastating itself. They were showing civilian coffins.

NIXON: [unclear]?

COLSON: No, sir.

NIXON: You don’t?

COLSON: No, not now that it is over. I think—

NIXON: [unclear]?

COLSON: I think they were just building up to it. I think the bastards were building up a nice crescendo to the return of the Congress and they would have—

NIXON: [unclear]

COLSON: No, no. I think there was a beautifully orchestrated buildup coming, that New York Times piece yesterday, both NBC and CBS were playing it the same day.

NIXON: [unclear] maybe they were frustrated and upset by what happened. Don’t you think so?

COLSON: I think you pulled the rug out from under them, totally. I think when they—I don’t think they expected it. [unclear] take them by surprise.

NIXON: I think they expected a [bombing] pause, but they didn’t expect—Haig expected they would stop. They didn’t expect the North Vietnamese frankly to capitulate.

A call from the chief justice

January 2, 1973, 8:56 a.m.

Richard Nixon and Warren Burger

White House Telephone

Warren Burger, Nixon’s surprise choice as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1969, was in many ways a kindred spirit. Both men were born to families that struggled to remain in the middle class, Burger in Minnesota and Nixon in Southern California. Neither was the product of the Ivy League schooling that produced many presidents of their era and nearly all Supreme Court justices. Prospering even without personal popularity, both Nixon and Burger, conservative, highly ambitious Republicans, arrived in Washington during the World War II era, As 1973 began, Burger was considering one of the cases that would mark his court, Miller v. California, which simultaneously considered the definition and legality of pornography.

NIXON: Hello?

BURGER: Good morning, Mr. President.

NIXON: Well, I understood you called yesterday on the New Year and I should have called you.

BURGER: Well, not at all. Did we—I just wanted to—

NIXON: How are you feeling?

BURGER: Oh, just fine.

NIXON: Yeah.

BURGER: You certainly look fit.

NIXON: Yeah, well, we got the—my gosh, did you go to the game by chance?

BURGER: No, no. I have been to the—

NIXON: I never go to those games. Because, I tell you why I don’t is that whenever they are sellouts—I went to one, Oklahoma and—I mean, Texas and Arkansas about three years ago—and the problem was that it really causes such commotion because over a hundred people have to go when I go. Sixty press and forty Secret Service, well, that just takes a hundred seats away from people that just die—

BURGER: That takes some of the fun out of it.

NIXON:—and if you could see it on television. I went up to Camp David and I just saw it up there. I was working up there anyway.

BURGER: With the instant replay it is much better.

NIXON: It is the only way to see a game. Of course there is something to the excitement of the hearing the audience.

BURGER: Well, I haven’t gone to one for years. I spent yesterday just the way you did. I was down here at nine o’clock and worked all day.

NIXON: That’s right.

BURGER: …

Excerpted from the book THE NIXON TAPES: 1973 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Copyright 2015 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Guest

  • Douglas Brinkley, co-editor of “The Nixon Tapes: 1973,” professor of history at Rice University, a fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He tweets @ProfDBrinkley.

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