Transcript: Luke Nichter on the Early 1971 Tapes and Vietnam
Luke Nichter is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas and the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon Tapes.
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the Nixon Now podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation or at nixonfoundation.org. Today we’re talking about the Nixon tapes again, with specific focus on President Nixon’s conversations with national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, in 1971. Our guest again is Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M, Central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert of the Nixon White House tapes, and founder of nixontapes.org. Luke, welcome back
Luke Nichter: Thanks Jonathan. Glad to be back.
Jonathan Movroydis: President Nixon says in his memoirs that he installed the taping system as a way to record history accurately, and he mentions that this installation occurred around the time of the Lam Son 719 Operation to combat communist infiltration in Laos, nearby Vietnam. He felt that much of the press coverage was wrong about the Vietnam War and decided to give another major speech about Vietnam on April 7th 1971, two months after the installation of the taping system. It covered the Laos operation and the way forward for American policy in Indochina. You’ve listened to a lot of these tapes. How do you feel in general? Do they reflect Vietnam War Policy?
Luke Nichter: Well, when you have over 3,000 hours of tapes, it’s complicated. When you’re talking about 1971, in particular, many of Nixon’s sort of premier foreign policy initiatives had not taken off yet. The seeds had been planted during the first two years of the presidency, ’69, ’70, with respect to China or Soviet Union or here with Vietnam, but to me the tapes provide a different vantage point on the war than any other document that you could study on the war. The tapes, because they feature people talking, the tapes are more human, they’re more emotional, and sometimes that emotion is raw, very raw, and sometimes the conversations occur in real time as Kissinger reports something to Nixon that just occurred in Vietnam, or something that was said. So to me tapes, for a number of reasons, are kind of a almost a three-dimensional rendering of the subject in real time with real human beings, and I think probably like any president during any war, not just Nixon during Vietnam, you know, during 1971, they show the ups and downs of the war. I mean, you get the raw emotion and reaction when things are going well, you get it when things are not going well, and so tapes show a human complexity that I would argue you can’t get in any other record about the war.
Jonathan Movroydis: In the introduction I mentioned the Lam Son 719 Operation. What was this and what specifically was Nixon trying to accomplish in Laos?
Luke Nichter: Well, this is a long subject, a complicated subject, that goes back to probably, at least, the 1962 agreement with Laos that was a negotiated by Averell Harriman during the Kennedy administration. Nixon was criticized beginning in ’69, but in ’70 when it was discovered, for example, expanding the war to Laos and Cambodia, and I think there is some truth to those critics. However, the critics of Nixon have to recognize that that the North Vietnamese also expanded the war going back to the ’62 Laos Agreement, after which they did not hold up their end to the agreement and they infiltrated Laos and Cambodian territory. And so Nixon was aware of this, President Johnson was aware of this. Kennedy knew in ’63 that the North Vietnamese were not holding up their end of the agreement, so I think a successive series of these presidents was aware that the North Vietnamese were using Cambodian and Laos territory.
You know, Vietnam is a long, narrow, skinny country that’s as narrow as sometimes as only 40 miles across to the sea, and so the so-called Ho Chi Minh trails the North Vietnamese were using as their supply route ran all the way down Laos and Cambodia to resupply North Vietnamese fighters almost all the way down to Saigon in South Vietnam. And so, I think, beginning in ’69, ’70 and ’71, Nixon wanted to do something about that. He wanted to root them out. He wanted to bomb their so-called sanctuaries. He ultimately wanted to eliminate the ability of the North Vietnamese to resupply their fighters in South Vietnam, and Lam Son 719 was part of this.
Jonathan Movroydis: At this point in early 1971 when these tapes were installed, where were we generally in the Vietnam War? Was there significant progress made? Were we at sort of a standstill? What were both the military and political standpoints in terms of the negotiations. Where were we during this period of time?
Luke Nichter: It’s a good question. I encourage people who do dive into the tapes, whether it be my students or the public or the media, try to pretend that you’re in 1971 listening to these, not in the present day. Because in the present day you look back and you say, “What’s the big deal? Nixon was reelected in 1972 with a 49-state landslide. Wasn’t his reelection obvious?” I mean, it’s sort of the way the history was written up after the fact, but in early ’71, it was a very different situation in the White House. As I said before, really none of Nixon’s major foreign policy initiatives had taken off. Some seeds had been planted. Some initiatives and efforts had been stalled. Some ideas that had been tried didn’t work and they were looking for new ideas, and that’s both Vietnam also China and the Soviet Union.
Seventy-one, I think, and fortuitously for our listeners today because this is when taping begun, is when a lot of these ideas start to move forward. The spring, summer, and fall ’71, on all of these fronts Nixon’s beginning to gain a little more traction. But in ’71, he’s not only not going to be re-elected by a landslide, which is what we know occurred 18 months later, he expected he wouldn’t be reelected at all. And, in fact, he even had doubts that he should even run for reelection, which of course I think is, you know, it doesn’t take a complete cynic to say, “Well, that’s silly. Of course presidents run for reelection,” but just the previous election in 1968, we had a powerful sitting incumbent president, President Johnson, who did the same thing by deciding not to run for reelection.
So I think just a couple of yeas later, Nixon had something similar in his mind that one presidency had already been lost to Vietnam, Johnson’s, the possibility that a second presidency, his own, was jeopardized by Vietnam. So I think, thinking in ’71 terms, which I think is the right way to look at these tapes and try to pretend you don’t know what comes afterward, even though it’s not completely possible to do that, I think Nixon is really dealing with a lot of struggles but he’s starting to make a little traction and moving forward on a range of his initiatives.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned his reelection. This is after the 1970 midterms. Where was specifically public support for the war at this period of time?
Luke Nichter: Well, public support for the war, actually positive support for the war, was basically diminished by, I would say, during the end of Johnson’s term ’67, early ’68 for sure by a Tet in early ’68. And then by ’68 going forward, you not only have a lack of broad support for the war, but actual active opposition for the war, as of ’68 has moved from the fringes, where it had been, to the mainstream. I mean moved from church leaders and true die-hard pacifists to kind of the mainstream of American public opinion. And in ’68 the war itself becomes the major issue in foreign policy during the campaign and its domestic counterpart, law and order, and managing public opinion at home is the other half of the ’68 election.
So by ’70, ’71, Nixon is seeing his largest anti-war protests on the mall in Washington DC. You have the White House at this point has been ringed with buses to prevent the possibility that protestors would breach the White House fence. You have the 101st Airborne Division and other, you know, not National Guard but actual military in the basement of the Treasury building and in case they’re needed for deployment right around the White House campus. So I think President Nixon has really been seared by a couple of his presidency when, I think, he hoped for a speedy exit from Vietnam that did not come. He was committed now to a longer road to peace and getting the nation out of the war and winding it down in a way that he felt would preserve as much face for United States, for his administration, and also for our ally South Vietnam, and for our other anticommunist allies in the region in Southeast Asia. So I think he had been seared. He’d been though a fire for those first two years and I think he was a little more settled. I think his policy going forward in ’71 he finally was starting to get legs under that policy and he was beginning to move forward.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to that tape from April 6 1971 about the before-mentioned President Nixon’s April 7th speech which was upcoming. This is President Nixon and his national security advisor, Dr. Kissinger, discussing a draft of the speech and the way to communicate the war to the general public.
Dr. Kissinger: They want to take of the immediate pressure. This is their overriding concern.
President Nixon: Mm-hmm. Well, the immediate pressure isn’t all that heavy.
Dr. Kissinger: And that I don’t believe can be done.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: I mean it can’t be done their way because once you accept the Senator McGovern, you are fighting on his ground and it wouldn’t be in character.
President Nixon: Oh, that’s right.
Dr. Kissinger: That is one thing, Mr. President. There are two sentences we ought to add.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: But because there’s the cynical comment that doves are now making, especially McGovern, that we are substituting Asians for American causalities and increasing the bombing. And we can do it in two sentences. One, where you speak about reduction in American data, you can say South Vietnamese casualties have also dropped by, I think, 50 %. I’ll get to the exact…
President Nixon: Right. Then why don’t we say that our…and then put in, “And we’ve reduced our bombing by so much”?
Dr. Kissinger: And the bombing within South Vietnam has been reduced by 90%, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Yeah, and yes well rather than getting into too many figures, just say that we’ve reduced our bombing by 30%, or something like that. You know what I mean, just get it. Whatever the figure is for Southeast Asia, I don’t have to get into separating South Vietnam from Laos.
Dr. Kissinger: The significance of the 90% is that in the populated areas our bombing has decreased by 90%. We’re now bombing in the unpopulated areas.
President Nixon: Mm-hmm, I know that but I don’t have time to explain that.
Dr. Kissinger: I’ll get to the right…
President Nixon: All we need is just get some figure that makes the point we’ve…that is we could at least try to get that across.
Dr. Kissinger: So two sentences is what I would recommend the most.
President Nixon: Yes, and also the South Vietnamese casualties are down.
Dr. Kissinger: That Vietnamese causalities. I’m getting the exact…
President Nixon: Even with Laos?
Dr. Kissinger: Even with Laos, yeah.
President Nixon: You can say that even with the heavy casualties they took Laos.
Dr. Kissinger: Mm-hmm.
President Nixon: Oh, curse these goddamn dove things, Henry. It’s just one thing. They eat you alive. They take one thing and then they go after another and hell I’ve determined to just see it through and to hell with them. And if it fails, it fails and…
Dr. Kissinger: Well, it’s a heroic gesture Mr. President.
President Nixon: Oh, hell. Do it or not, the point is that there’s no other course for the country. These people, I mean, that’s where our domestic side while I’m interested in their views, why, they’re irrelevant. They don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.
Dr. Kissinger: That’s true.
President Nixon: I mean, on the other hand too, I must say that they are so terribly obsessed with listening to television, reading all of our critics, “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” and of course I must say they all…this probably disturbs them. But they read all that and they say, “Well, now just a minute, is this true? I mean have we overstated anything? Haven’t we really kept our promises? You see that’s the point that I constantly get back to the fact that I don’t think our own people know enough how to defend us.
Dr. Kissinger: That’s right. They’re astonished by some of these things or what we’ve accomplished. I mean we’ve kept our promises. We will have taken out several hundreds of …
Jonathan Movroydis: In this taping, Nixon seemingly in his own internal communications is ardent in his belief that the Vietnam War Policy is succeeding and frustrated at how it’s playing out in domestic politics. And Nixon and Kissinger are worried that they have a credibility problem, but they believe that their foreign policy is solid, and they don’t want to appeal to the dovish faction in American polities. What do you think, Luke, these early tapes reveal especially how the Vietnam War was communicated by the administration to the general public?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think one of the things that the tape reveals is just how many times the complexity of the Vietnam War involves details that Nixon himself struggles to keep up with. In terms of …I mean, he’ll get a briefing from say someone in the military and he’ll get a number of targets, a number of sorties, payloads, and it’s really granular, you know, the kind of details he gets. I think what this conversation shows us is that when Nixon prepared to speak to the American people, he gave 14 addresses to the American people during his presidency on Vietnam, and I think what he wanted to focus on is, “Give me a simple message. Give me a few points that can have a chance of getting through to the American people.” And I think this speech comes at a time when he and Kissinger are trying to really jumpstart the Vietnam negotiations in Paris and ultimately wind down American involvement in the war, and so they’re doing a number of things kind of publicly and privately.
You know publicly this speech was a tool. It was a tool to reassure the American people that we were getting one more step closer to ending the war and that we were just about reaching the halfway point in terms of the number of troops that had been brought home, and that another 100,000 would be brought home by the end of the year, 1971. Nixon wanted to emphasize to people that in a chaotic disorderly world that there was order in terms of our Vietnam policy and that our troops were on their way home. Also by the end of…the same time privately what you heard going on in the tapes in April and May is Kissinger is getting ready to go over to Paris again for another session. He leaves for Paris on May 31st with a new Seven Point Program that would move the U.S. one step closer to ending the war, and so it’s the constant. It’s the public, it’s the private, it’s the reassuring of public opinion while also having the right messages for the Chinese or the Soviets or the North Vietnamese who are just as capable as we are of understanding a televised speech or reading about it in “The New York Times” or “The Washington Post” the next day, so it’s really…you see the complexity of the public relations of the war both for at home, abroad, for allies, and adversaries.
Jonathan Movroydis: And to the point of that complexity, Richard Nixon’s broader foreign policy as Vietnam fits into it was very complex to communicate to the general public, whether that be The China Initiative, what we were going to do in Russia. Can you tough a little bit upon that, what the complexities of communicating how Vietnam fit into that broader strategy?
Luke Nichter: Well, this is a subject that we’re still learning a lot about. Records are still being released and, of course, on the Chinese side there’s basically no records available, and on the Russian side there are very few records available, and on the American side records are still being released at the national archives at the Nixon library. But I think it’s ’71 when the idea is germinating, which would then mature and become what we know today as this triangular diplomacy. So this triangular diplomacy, in one end of the triangle is the United States, on another end of the triangle is China, on the other end of the triangle, a third end, is the Soviet Union, and the idea is that we’re going to reduce our commitments to Southeast Asia but not enough to make our allies concerned, not quickly enough that we’re sort of being accused of so-called cutting and running, and the concern of turning isolationists around the world. You know that gets back to the Nixon doctrine, “We’re going to maintain our core commitments. We’re going to take on fewer commitments on our periphery.”
So there’s some reassurance to allies and so many of those anticommunist leaders in Southeast Asia, but at the same time while we’re reducing and also altering our footprint in that part of the world, we’re gonna try to do so in a way that improves relations with our long-term adversaries in China and the Soviet Union. And so Vietnam is not something that happens in isolation. It has a tether to what’s going on with Soviet Union, with China, with our other allies around the world, and there’s a need to brief our allies in Europe who are our closest allies like West Germany, France, and Britain, so it’s very complicated. It’s a pithy thing to say but I think it’s very true that it’s very easy to get into a war. Wars happen suddenly and they happen often according to seemingly very simple priorities and variables, but it’s much more complicated to get out of a war especially when you’ve been in one as long as the U.S. has been, not even mentioning going all the way back to World War II and the support of China and the support of anticommunists and the French. So I think the tapes really show the complexity of all this in a way that looking at a piece of paper at the library research room or at another archive is not immediately apparent.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the next tape following …this is following the April 7th speech. This is in the evening following that White House address.
White House Operator: Dr. Kissinger?
President Nixon: Yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: Mr. President?
President Nixon: Yeah, hi Henry.
Dr. Kissinger: This was the best speech you’ve delivered since you’ve been in office.
President Nixon: Well, I don’t know. I think November 3rd was better, but we will never have a moment… We’ll never have a moment like that again.
Dr. Kissinger: But the November 3rd speech was not well-delivered, Mr. President, if you remember. It was a powerful speech. This one was really movingly delivered. And I don’t know whether you saw the commentary after it.
President Nixon: Of course I didn’t look at the commentary. I don’t care what the bastards say.
Dr. Kissinger: Well, but this is so amazing, John. First of all, no one was flyspecking it. John [inaudible 00:21:56] was that it was very favorable. Everyone is seeing a strong man sticking to his guns, carrying out his policies, not being driven off . Dan Rather, very positive, Marvin Kyle [sp], very positive. The only guy who was flyspecking it a little bit is the Pentagon correspondent who had been…
President Nixon: How about Howard Smith. How’d he do? He wasn’t on.
Dr. Kissinger: At least I didn’t see him.
President Nixon: I’ll tell you one thing, this little speech was a work of art. I mean, I know a little something about speech-writing. By the time we get it done and that little conclusion, I think that was done and there isn’t…and it was no act because no actor could do it…
Jonathan Movroydis: As you hear form that tape, Kissinger strikes an encouraging tone to the President about the press coverage following the address. President Nixon claims that he doesn’t analyze the press coverage, but he does entertain Kissinger’s thoughts on it. How much do these tapes reflect the administration’s relationship with the press, especially during the Vietnam War?
Luke Nichter: This is actually a good tape to address that question because I think there’s a light-hearted way to address the tape and then there’s, I think, the more serious way. In a lighter-hearted way it’s kind of funny to hear the president say that he doesn’t pay attention to the press or the commentary, and, you know, I think at a certain point all presidents say that. I think all presidents say, “Well, I don’t read the news,” or, “I turn the television off. I don’t pay attention to what they say.” When I think…even though President Nixon says this, at the same time he said, “Oh, Howard K. Smith, what did he say?” So he’s both saying that, but he also clearly still kind of wants to keep a finger up in the wind, so to speak, and wants to know which direction the public opinion is blowing and forming and evolving. So I think his public position is, “Of course I don’t pay attention,” but presidents receive a daily news summary everyday that gives them a wrap-up of yesterday, and it gives them news overnight and what the leading stories are for the day.
So I think that’s the more light-hearted way, and in a more serious way, a lot’s been said about Nixon’s relations with the press. He was not a popular figure with the press going back to the Alger Hiss days and his time in congress. My own take on Nixon and the press is it’s been kind of oversimplified by a lot of commentators. It’s been so easy for many just to say, “Well, Nixon had terrible relations with the press. He hated them. They hated him,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. I mean Nixon is really the beginning of a generation that started with Kennedy that knew how to use the press and manipulate the press and, I think, as a result had more contentious relations with the press. I mean don’t forget President Nixon became famous in the media during his trial when he gave the Checkers speech in 1952 that was the most popularly watched, the most viewed political program ever at that point in television, eclipsed only by what, his appearance with Kennedy in 1960 for the presidential debates.
We heard a reference from the conversations to November 3rd. Well, that was November 3rd 1969 and that evening’s televised address that Nixon gave that became known as the Silent Majority speech, probably the most famous and most important speech of Nixon’s entire presidency and one of the most important speeches of any recent president, so it’s complicated. I mean, Nixon utilized the press. He wasn’t quite from a generation that could break away from reading a text the way that more modern politicians can but this is someone who had benefited, I think, form press coverage as much as had been beaten up from it along the way, so I think Nixon’s relationship with the press is complicated. On a subject like Vietnam, it’s hard to score a lot of points with the press. It’s a negative subject. He inherited this terrible policy. It wasn’t a thing that you could spin very easily into positive news. So it seems like a way to dodge answering the question but when it comes to Nixon and the press, it’s complicated.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today was Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. Our topic was The Nixon White House Taping System in the early part of 1971 during the Vietnam War. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.
Luke Nichter: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes in Stitcher and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.