TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tens of thousands of files from the Nixon White House, National Security Council, CIA, FBI, State Department and Pentagon were declassified between 2007 and 2014. Hundreds of hours of Nixon's tapes were made public in 2013 and '14. Together, they answer a lot of questions about President Nixon's White House, like why did he wiretap his own aides and diplomats? Why did he escalate the war in Vietnam? Why did he open relations with China? Why did he lie about his war plans to his secretary of defense and secretary of state? What were the Watergate burglars searching for? Why did Nixon tape conversations that included incriminating evidence? After pouring through these documents, my guest Tim Weiner provides answers to these and other questions in his book "One Man Against The World: The Tragedy Of Richard Nixon." Weiner also wrote about Nixon in his previous books "Enemies: A History Of The FBI" and "Legacy Of Ashes: A History Of The CIA," which won a National Book Award.
Tim Weiner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Nixon's deceit about the war in Vietnam begins before he's even elected. He tried to discourage South Vietnam from agreeing to a peace deal before the election 'cause Nixon - well, what did Nixon tell South Vietnam about that? This is when he was running against Hubert Humphrey.
TIM WEINER: In the summer and fall of 1968, Richard Nixon, working through his campaign manager and future attorney general, John Mitchell, and a mystery woman, whose real name was Anna Chennault but who was known to one and all as the Dragon Lady and had a suite in the Watergate Hotel complex, went to the ambassador of South Vietnam and said tell your boss the President of South Vietnam and said, tell your boss, the president of South Vietnam, President Thieu, don't cut a deal with the Democrats. We are going to win, and we will cut you a better deal. We will make sure that you, President Thieu, survive. There will be no coalition government. Do not agree to a peace deal. Wait for us. And, in fact, Nixon got word through to President Thieu through these intermediaries. President Johnson knew this because the FBI and the National Security Agency, respectively, had bugged the embassy of South Vietnam in Washington and the presidential palace in Saigon, and they knew about these backchannel communications. And when Johnson found out on the eve of the 1968 election, which his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was running against Richard Nixon, whom he had hated ever since they were both in the Senate in the early 1950s, he went ballistic.
Here was the problem - the evidence that was gathered that Nixon was sabotaging the peace talks had all been gathered through the surveillance powers of the NSA and the FBI. You couldn't reveal it. On the other hand, what Nixon and his accomplices were doing was a violation of law called the Logan Act. You can't be a private citizen doing diplomatic negotiations with another country. And Johnson and his men gathered and said, what are we going to do about this? And they couldn't reveal the evidence. It was too secret. But Johnson knew, and he called Nixon - and he called him and he said, you better not do this. And Nixon said, I would never do that. But he did.
GROSS: Did Nixon actually scuttle a plan - a peace plan that might have succeeded? Was there the real possibility of peace?
WEINER: I'm going to quote Phil Habib, who was a senior State Department official at the Paris peace talks and who continued to serve loyally under Richard Nixon. Quote, "The deal was cooked, and then something happened. Somebody got to Thieu, President Thieu, of South Vietnam. Somebody got to Thieu on behalf of Nixon and said, don't agree, don't come to Paris." And Habib said, "I'm convinced that if Humphrey had won the election, the war would've been over much sooner." And, in fact, the peace deal that Nixon finally cut was no better than the one that could've been cut in October 1968.
GROSS: There were so many lives lost in the interim.
WEINER: There were roughly 25,000 American soldiers killed in the interim. There were at least 10 times that number - probably many more - soldiers and civilians in Vietnam and uncounted hundreds of thousands in Laos and Cambodia. The war went on and went on. And in the end, America lost.
GROSS: Nixon ended up escalating the war in Vietnam in secret ways. He wanted to bomb the "bejesus" out of North Vietnam. I'm quoting his word, "bejesus." And every time that he failed to win the war by escalating the bombing, he just escalated it more. There was a point where he took control over part of the air war - bombing North Vietnam. He took it out of the hands of the Air Force and put it under a naval commander that he chose to be in charge. Why did he do that? What did you learn about what happened behind the scenes?
WEINER: Nixon came to office in 1968 thinking that he could end the war in Vietnam in six months - then 12 months - then two years had gone by. And the war went on and on and on, and the North Vietnamese kept coming and coming and coming. And Nixon finally despaired of winning the war through conventional means. As he tried to withdraw American soldiers, he increased the use of American air power and particularly B-52 bombers. We dropped more bombs in Southeast Asia than all the Allies dropped on all the Nazis and all the Axis Powers during World War II. And they kept coming. And Nixon finally said that he would have to destroy the capitals of the enemy, the military sanctuaries, the elusive and, in fact, nonexistent bamboo Pentagon that they thought existed in Cambodia and the capital of North Vietnam itself, Hanoi, to break the will of the enemy, and he failed.
GROSS: When Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, what did he hope to accomplish?
WEINER: It was the belief of some in the military - and it was certainly Nixon's belief - that there was a secret bamboo Pentagon in Cambodia that controlled the movement of communist troops in Southeast Asia. And if you could just hit this bamboo Pentagon, you could destroy the enemy's command-and-control capacity. Well, in fact, as the NSA and various National Security Council officials who actually knew what was going with the enemy, tried to explain time and time again to the president, there was no bamboo Pentagon. It was a small, mobile intelligence unit of generals and commanders and was a series of radio transmitters. So for years, the United States bombed Cambodia, blowing holes in the jungle, killing uncounted numbers of civilians and destroying much of eastern Cambodia - a neutral nation - in pursuit of the elusive enemy. And finally, Nixon had had enough and decided to invade Cambodia in the spring of 1970.
GROSS: His secretary of state and his secretary of defense were told no arguments or dissent on the invasion of Cambodia would be tolerated. Did they oppose it?
WEINER: They thought it was unwise, to say the least. And the consequences of expanding the war into a neutral nation, they felt the domestic reaction would be dreadful. When Nixon...
GROSS: Oh, they were so right because the invasion of Cambodia did lead to a lot of student protests, including on the Kent State campus in Ohio where the National Guard was called in, and they shot and killed four students and wounded several others.
WEINER: These are some of the most terrible days of the Nixon presidency. The president is sleepless. He is insomniac. He has reached a point of no return. He has overridden the objections of his secretary of state and his secretary of defense. And he gives a speech to the American people on April 30, 1970, announcing the invasion of Cambodia. And he says, this is not an invasion of Cambodia - a classic Nixon contradiction. And he said, if when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions across the world. His secretary of state, Bill Rogers, who had known Nixon for 20 years and, in fact, had helped him through the first great crisis of his political career in the early 1950s, the Checkers speech. His secretary of state was in his hideaway office. And as Nixon concluded his remarks about the United States appearing as a pitiful, helpless giant, Rogers snapped off the TV set and he said, the kids are going to wretch. And four days later came Kent State.
GROSS: You write that you learned that President Nixon falsified records to cover up what he was doing in Cambodia. Tell us about that.
WEINER: The - what was secret about the secret bombing of Cambodia was that the military records of the bombing were falsified, which is a violation of the rules of war in the American Military Code of Justice. The pilots who took off knew that they were hitting Cambodia. The crewmen didn't. The pilots were vectored. The filed plan was to hit a certain target - enemy target in northern South Vietnam or southern North Vietnam. The actual target was inside Cambodia. The pilots were vectored into their targets through a signal from the United States Embassy in Laos or Thailand. We didn't have a functioning embassy in Cambodia at the time. And so there would be two sets of flight plans filed - one true and one false. And this was not revealed until 1973.
GROSS: Nixon relied a lot on deceit, particularly in how he waged the war in Vietnam. Vietnam is actually very connected to why he opened up relations between the U.S. and China. Would you describe what you learned about that connection?
WEINER: It was a great strategy if it had worked. And it was Nixon's strategy. Nixon went to China, and in fact, he was pushing on an open door because the Chinese had decided by the end of 1969 to, as they put it, quote, "play the American card" and invite Nixon. Nixon went to China, and Nixon went to Russia not in the interest of building a generation of peace throughout the world, as he so often said, but in an effort to try and convince the two great communist powers of the world to help him settle the war in Vietnam. In this, he failed.
GROSS: Why did he think that he could convince China to help him settle the war?
WEINER: The Chinese were not particularly in love with the Vietnamese. They had fought many wars over the centuries. The hope was that the great communist powers of the day, Moscow and Beijing, would put pressure on Hanoi and North Vietnam to come to a settlement that Nixon could, through his great gift of blarney, which he had, which was - we can define as the genius to tell convincing lies - thought that he could charm and cajole and perhaps pressure people like Chairman Mao and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to help him out of Vietnam. That was the hope. That was the plan as it evolved. Sadly, it didn't work.
GROSS: Nixon threatened to use nuclear weapons if necessary. And before Kissinger went to the Soviet Union, Nixon told him - and I'm quoting here - "I'll destroy the goddamn country, believe me. I mean it if necessary. And let me say even the nuclear weapon - we will bomb the living bejesus out of North Vietnam. And then if anybody interferes, we will threaten the nuclear weapon." So was he telling Kissinger to tell the Soviets that, hey, unless you help us, we're going to use a nuclear weapon in Vietnam? Is that what he was saying?
WEINER: This was Nixon at his psychological worst, trying to convince the enemy that he was capable of starting World War III and of using the nuclear weapon to achieve his political and diplomatic and military goals. And he used all kinds of signals, including exercising what's called the DEFCON, which is the military alert level, to sending emissaries to Moscow who would tell KGB hoods at various meetings that the president was, in fact, a madman who was capable of anything, including nuclear weapons to achieve his goals. Through diplomatic signals, through personal diplomacy and through military exercises, Nixon tried to keep his opponents across the world off-guard and in fear that he was capable of using nuclear weapons to achieve his goals.
GROSS: Was this an effective strategy?
WEINER: It was not. The madman gambit, as it came to be known - no one believed that Richard Nixon was going to nuke Moscow or Beijing or Hanoi. But Nixon seriously contemplated it. He really, seriously contemplated it more than once.
GROSS: You report that Nixon basically sold ambassadorships. So somebody who wanted to be ambassador basically had to give at least $250,000. That was the minimum that Nixon had set. How did that work? Like, who got the money, and how was the ambassador - the would-be ambassador told that this is what they needed to do?
WEINER: Well, Nixon didn't invent this practice. But it morphed into a truly corrupt and truly dangerous system during his time, where truly unqualified people bought diplomatic posts as if they were tuxedos. And they went to places all over the world and embarrassed the United States. We sent a racist playboy to Jamaica who made racist jokes and was finally expelled from the country and declared persona non grata. We sent a wheeler-dealer, who had made his small personal fortune making what were called blue movies in the 1950s, to Nicaragua where he became fast friends with the dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza. Somoza so loved this fellow, Turner Shelton, that he put his face on the 20 cordoba bill, the Nicaraguan currency. But these were corrupt relationships. And again, this was part of why Nixon wanted total control of the State Department, not merely so he could control diplomacy but so his personal lawyer and political bagman, Herb Kalmbach, could collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from each of these people and put them into a slush fund, which was then used for various political operations beginning in 1970 to elect pro-Nixon candidates to Congress and to finance various dirty tricks that morphed into the dirtiest trick of all, which was breaking into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in 1972.
GROSS: So what did you learn that you didn't already know about what Nixon wanted to accomplish with the Watergate break-ins?
WEINER: It's always been mystery, and I think that mystery is now revealed with the release of these last tapes and with the release of the diaries - daily diaries of his faithful chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who's known as Bob. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee was a Kennedy man, a political wheeler-dealer in his own right, named Larry O'Brien. And they had considerable political dirt on Larry O'Brien, including the fact that he was on a secret retainer from the increasingly lunatic billionaire, Hollywood producer, Las Vegas casino owner and hotel magnate Howard Hughes. They had that dirt on O'Brien, but they wanted to know what dirt O'Brien had on Nixon. And that's why they went into the DNC headquarters - to try and raid and bug. They wanted to do political counterintelligence espionage. Their next target - the Watergate burglars - if they hadn't been arrested that night - was the campaign headquarters of George McGovern, who became the Democratic nominee in 1972 much to Richard Nixon's delight.
GROSS: Tell us something that you think is especially revelatory that you learned from recently released tapes or documents about Nixon's domestic spying.
WEINER: It was almost entirely based on political - domestic political opposition to the war in Vietnam. It was another front in the Vietnam War - the domestic front. The goal was to make sure, through political espionage and sabotage, one, that Nixon knew everything that his political opponents were up to; and two, that they could ensure that the weakest possible Democratic candidate was nominated in 1972. And in this they succeeded. They had spies trailing Teddy Kennedy - Senator Teddy Kennedy. They had spies trailing and sabotaging the campaign of Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, who was the front-runner at one point. And they were absolutely delighted when George McGovern, who was the farthest to the left of the senators who could have won the nomination, did in fact win. It was all to guarantee Nixon's re-election by a landslide. In 1972, he won by 18 million votes - greatest margin numerically in American political history.
GROSS: There's always been the question, why did Nixon record meetings in which he planned secret, illegal operations? Is your answer to that question more informed now that you've had access to all these previously secret documents?
WEINER: Both as to why he did it and why he didn't destroy the tapes - he did it because he planned to write a post-presidential memoir that would make him millions of dollars and that he and only he would have access to the tapes. And, in fact, for 20 years, only he had access to all but a handful of these tapes. He also planned to use them as a defense against the inevitable memoirs of Henry Kissinger. No one writes a memoir in which he comes out looking like a fool or anything less than a wise man. And he thought it would be a unique resource that would be worth millions. Now, why didn't he destroy the tapes? Because he wrote himself a memo soon after their existence was revealed at the Watergate hearings - should've destroyed the tapes. He could have, and he probably could've gotten away with it because there were only nine tapes under subpoena at that time. But the problem is, as all his presidential counselors and lawyers agreed, who was going to strike the match? It would have to be the president himself, and he probably could've gotten away with it, although there would've been a hell of a constitutional cataclysm. But who was going to strike the match? And one of them jokingly said King Timahoe, who was the president's not very faithful Irish setter.
GROSS: (Laughter) Toward the end of Nixon's presidency he was drinking a lot and his aide...
WEINER: Not just toward the end.
GROSS: OK (laughter) and his aides knew it. Give us an example of a time when his drinking could've ended in catastrophe.
WEINER: It was October, 1973. The president has just ordered the resignation of the attorney general, the assistant attorney general and the Watergate special prosecutor who is pursuing him - the event known as the Saturday Night Massacre. There's a raging war in the Middle East between the Syrians and the Egyptians on the one side and the Israelis on the other, known as the Yom Kippur War. It escalates. The Israelis aren't winning. The Soviets want to interpose together with the United States - U.S. and Soviet forces in the Middle East to stop the war. And then they say if you won't do it, we will go in there alone. And the United States discovers that the Soviets are shipping nuclear warheads to Egypt. And Nixon, as had been his habit, drank too much, was terribly deprived of sleep; he was a ravaging insomniac. And he went days on end, drinking himself to sleep during these days of crisis. There's a meeting in the White House Situation Room - so October 24, 1973. Henry Kissinger is there; Admiral Tom Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are there, the secretary of defense, the head of the CIA. The president was not there, and they say to one another, what are we going to do here? The Soviets think we have no functioning president. And in the absence of a functioning president, these five men - unelected - led by Henry Kissinger, decide to raise the global nuclear alert level to one step short of imminent nuclear war, alert the 82nd Airborne Division and recall 75 B-52 nuclear bombers to make it look like we are ready to go to World War III. But at the end of this meeting, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Moorer, writes if the Soviets put 10,000 troops into Egypt, what do we do? And the answer is we might have done nothing because we did not have a functioning president. The president was drunk. The president was in the family residence at the White House, had drunk himself to sleep and was by all evidence not in his right mind at that moment. He had said that day to Henry Kissinger that his enemies, and I quote, "they want to kill the president. I may physically die." And there are real threats, along with these roiling fears, because that same day - October 24 - the House, for the first time since 1868, has opened formal proceedings to impeach the president of the states.
GROSS: And during this period during the Yom Kippur War, the prime minister of England wants to speak with President Nixon and Kissinger has to say to one of his aides - can we put that off because the president's loaded? He's drunk.
WEINER: That was two weeks earlier. Nixon spent many a night dealing with the twin demons of insomnia and alcohol, and he went days on end without sleep or with an hour or two of sleep. You can hear on the tapes Nixon unburdening himself to the few people he has confidence in, like General Al Haig, who is now the White House Chief of Staff. This is after midnight in the wee hours of May 25, 1973. Nixon's on tape. He's exhausted, drunk and he says to Haig - this is 15 months before he resigned - wouldn't it be better for the country, you know, just to check out? I've got to be at my best and that means fighting this damn battle, fighting it all out, and I can't fight the damn battle. The goddamn thing has gotten to me, and if you can't do the goddamn job, you better put somebody in there who can. But no one could, and Nixon had to fight the damn battle by himself.
GROSS: Is he talking about the battle with the American public or the battle with alcohol?
WEINER: He's talking about his battle to preserve his presidency against the increasing evidence that a gigantic criminal conspiracy had enveloped the White House. And not only a cover-up of the White House horrors on not just the Watergate break-in, but many other break-ins, many other buggings, many other crimes, but a cover up of the cover-up. He knows he's looking at impeachment, and he knows he may be looking at criminal indictment if he doesn't get a pardon from whoever becomes vice president because he knows at this point that his vice president, Spiro Agnew, is himself going to be indicted for bribery and corruption. There was no vice president. There was no one to succeed him.
GROSS: Because Vice President Agnew had been indicted on corruption charges for taking bribes.
WEINER: Vice President Agnew wasn't indicted. He pleaded no contest to a tax evasion charge on not paying taxes on the bribes. But there was a time where there was no vice president. The speaker of the House, who is constitutionally next in line, was an alcoholic himself. The next in line is the president pro tempore of the Senate, who was James Eastland, a doddering plantation Mississippi racist, to put it bluntly. And the next in line is Henry Kissinger, who is German and thus constitutionally disqualified. So Nixon has to fight the damn battle by himself.
GROSS: When people talk about the illegal acts that Nixon committed - the break-ins, the wiretapping, the secret aspects of the war in Vietnam - they say but on the other hand he opened relations with China. We've talked about that. And we've talked about the secret reason he had for doing that. And then they also offer the fact that he signed the Environmental Protection Act, which was, you know, a breakthrough in environmental protection. And you quote him from one of the secret documents as saying the environment is not an issue that's worth a damn to us. We're catering to the left in all of this and we shouldn't be. They're the ones that care about the environment. They're trying to use the environmental issue as a means of destroying the system.
WEINER: He had to sign the Environmental Protection Act because Congress had passed it, and they probably would've overridden his veto. He had to obey the Supreme Court in terms of school busing for desegregation. He would've had to fight a long line of Supreme Court decisions going back to Brown versus Board of Education in 1957 to stop the desegregation of the United States. Even though he himself said he wanted to, quote, "bring us together," he said I can't talk to black people unless they're Uncle Toms. He was a man so consumed by fear that it turned into anger and that anger turned into self-destruction. And every hour of these new tapes and these released transcripts adds to the record of a man committing political suicide day by day.
GROSS: You were of draft age when Nixon was in office, right?
WEINER: Just short - I got a lottery number.
GROSS: Does that make you angry about the whole Nixon presidency because you know that if he'd stayed in office maybe you would've been drafted?
WEINER: I think that the real damage that was done during those years was not only to the tens of thousands of American soldiers who died for no reason in Vietnam, protecting and defending the honor of a country that didn't honor them until much later, not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Southeast Asia, but a blow to the American political system that could have been fatal and left very deep scars that have lasted all our lives ever since. People's faith in presidents in the political system was so damaged that I believe it has yet to recover. And we're an American democracy and we have been for almost 240 years. And if we don't learn from what Richard Nixon did to us, to our country and to our Constitution, we may have trouble making it to 300 years. And I desperately want the Republic to learn from its mistakes, get stronger and carry on.
GROSS: Well, Tim Weiner, thank you so much for talking with us.
WEINER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Tim Weiner is the author of the new book "One Man Against The World: The Tragedy Of Richard Nixon." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album by the folk rock group Dawes. This is FRESH AIR.
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