On April 27, 1971, the White House operator connected a call from President Richard Nixon to his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger didn’t know it at the time, but Nixon had his now-famous Oval Office tape machine running. The two men were exhilarated because there had been a breakthrough, a secret message from the People’s Republic of China. Premier Zhou Enlai had sent an invitation, through a Pakistani channel, for a Nixon emissary to come to China and arrange what would become Nixon’s historic trip to China, 30 years ago this month.
A recently released transcript (click here to read it) shows that it was a bracingly cold-blooded conversation. The Chinese message had mentioned Kissinger as the possible emissary, and Kissinger did eventually get the assignment. But on this day, Nixon wanted to torture Kissinger with the possibility that he’d name someone else. He mentioned the U.S. representative at the Paris talks on Vietnam, Ambassador David K.E. Bruce, but then asked, “How about Nelson?” meaning Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger’s longtime patron. At first, Kissinger said no (“he wouldn’t be disciplined enough”), but when Nixon kept raising other possibilities, Kissinger came back to Rockefeller (“I could keep him under control”). Nixon also suggested Kissinger’s military assistant, then-Col. Alexander Haig, because “he’s really tough.” This carried the wounding implication that Kissinger was not. Kissinger sucked it up, and Nixon tossed him a bone (“Henry, it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t stuck to your guns”).
There was a weird little interlude involving former New York Gov. and two-time Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, who had passed away earlier that year:
Nixon: If Dewey were alive, he could do it.
Kissinger: Nelson would be better.
Nixon: But Dewey isn’t alive.
And there were two cutting little interludes involving George Bush the Elder, then ambassador to the United Nations:
Nixon: How about Bush?
Kissinger: Absolutely not, he is too soft and not sophisticated enough.
Nixon: I thought of that myself.
Kissinger: Bush would be too weak.
Nixon: I thought so too but I was trying to think of somebody with a title.
The most remarkable thing about the transcript of this April 1971 phone call, however, isn’t its engrossing content, but its surprising provenance. I’ve encouraged you to assume that it came from Nixon’s White House tapes. But when a declassified audiotape of this call was released last year by the National Archives and Records Administration, the best bits were censored on privacy grounds. Where did the unexpurgated transcript come from? Henry Kissinger, who was keeping his own records of conversations with Nixon and others.
That Kissinger was bugging Nixon at the same time that Nixon was bugging (and, on occasion, tormenting) Kissinger provides further evidence, if any were needed, that the twin themes of the Nixon White House were paranoia and betrayal. Kissinger routinely arranged with his secretaries to eavesdrop and type an almost verbatim transcript of every phone call. Until this week, only a few dozen of the 20,000 pages of Kissinger’s White House telephone conversations (“telcons”) could be found in the archival files of the Nixon administration. The rest were locked up in Kissinger’s personal collections housed at the Library of Congress, which is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Only the government could sue to make the files public, and until last summer, it never did. A legal brief written pro bono by Lee Rubin and Craig Isenberg at Mayer, Brown & Platt (on behalf of the National Security Archive) finally persuaded the legal adviser in George W. Bush’s State Department, William H. Taft IV, to ask Kissinger to give the telcons back. Kissinger could hardly say no to a Republican administration. In August, Kissinger handed over the telcons from his years at the State Department, and last week Kissinger added a full set of the telcons from his White House years, starting in 1969.
On Feb. 28, the next batch of Nixon tapes will come out, covering January through June 1972—the period of Nixon’s greatest glory (the trip to China in February) and greatest infamy (the Watergate burglary in June). No doubt some portions will be garbled, while others may be withheld for one reason or another. But thanks to the Nixon-Kissinger Mutual Wiretap Society, we’ll get a second chance to fill in some gaps by checking Nixon’s tapes against Kissinger’s telcon transcripts, most of which are expected to be reviewed and declassified by the end of this year.