On a June afternoon in 1971, President Nixon and three of his top aides—H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger, and John Erlichman—discussed the possibility of exposing Lyndon Johnson’s bombing halt of 1968 as a political ploy to help his own party’s candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something; what’s required is proof. The idea is floated that a file documenting this alleged abuse of power might exist at the Brookings Institute. Nixon promptly orders a break-in to retrieve the file. “Blow the safe and get it,” he says—not your typical Oval Office talk.
As Ken Hughes shows in Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, this conversation is fascinating in almost too many ways to count. Although it was Watergate, and its cover-up, that would finally bring Nixon down, the only break-in he ever ordered was this plan (eventually scrapped) to seize the file from Brookings. This is compelling evidence that Watergate was part of a pattern, not an aberration. Haldeman’s plan to blackmail LBJ was not only ethically dubious, but he was in fact wrong that Johnson’s motivation for the bombing halt was connected to the election. In an ironic twist, Nixon had a different reason for wanting to seize this file: he had secretly interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968 and was afraid such a file would expose him. There’s a final irony: no such file existed.
You may read this rather stunning conversation below, or listen to it here.
Haldeman: The—you can maybe blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff.
President Nixon: What?
Haldeman: You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.
President Nixon: How?
Haldeman: The bombing halt stuff is all in the same file. Or in some of the same hands.
President Nixon: Oh, how does that show—oh, I wondered, incidentally, if that’s—
Haldeman: It isn’t in this. It isn’t in these papers, but the whole bombing halt file . . .
President Nixon: Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it, Henry.
Haldeman: We can’t find—
Henry A. Kissinger: We have nothing here, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Damn it, I asked for that, because I need it. [Unclear]—
Kissinger: Yeah, but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.
Haldeman: We have a basic history of it—constructed on our own—but there is a file on it.
President Nixon: Where?
Haldeman: [Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings.
Kissinger: I wouldn’t be surprised.
President Nixon: All right, all right, all right, you [unclear]—
Haldeman: In the hands of the same kind of [unclear]—
President Nixon: Bob—
Haldeman: The same people.
President Nixon: Bob, now, you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.
Kissinger: But couldn’t we go over? Now, Brookings has no right to have [President Nixon attempts to interject] classified documents.
President Nixon: [Unclear.] I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.
Haldeman: They may very well have cleaned them by now, with this thing getting to—
Kissinger: No, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the file on the bombing halt.
Haldeman: My point is, Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them.
Kissinger: But what good will it do you, the bombing halt file?
Haldeman: The bombing halt—
President Nixon: To blackmail him.
Haldeman: The bombing halt—
President Nixon: Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.
Haldeman: The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson.
Kissinger: Why do you think that? I mean, I didn’t see the whole file, but . . .
Haldeman: On the timing and strategy of how he pulled that?
President Nixon: I think it would hurt him.
Kissinger: Mis—well, I—[speaking over President Nixon] as you remember, I used to give you input—I used to—as you remember, I used to give you information about it at the time, so I have no—
President Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: I mean, about the timing.
Kissinger: But I, to the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October. I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [W. Averell] Harriman.
President Nixon: Well, anyway, why won’t Johnson have a press conference in your view?
Haldeman: Because he’s smart enough not to. From Johnson’s viewpoint, if he has a press conference, it does [unclear]—he will see exactly what we see, which is that the thing that that will accomplish is clearly put this as a battle of Lyndon Johnson’s credibility versus the world.
Ehrlichman: Be a lightning rod.
Chasing Shadows is available July 29.