Initially, government investigators focused on the tapes concerning the Watergate scandal. Over the next four decades, the Nixon Library and the National Archives released 3,000 hours of tape that it considers in the public interest, holding back the rest for family privacy or national security concerns. They released the final batch of tapes in 2013.
Yet even though it’s all out there now, only a small percentage of those tapes have ever been transcribed or published.
Here are some things the tapes have revealed so far.
1. 'Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you.'
Nixon was furious when The New York Times wrote about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. By July, he was speculating about reviving the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate government whistleblowers—or in his words, “going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you.”
“There are three groups about whom Nixon is particularly paranoid: Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers,” says Ken Hughes, a University of Virginia Miller Center researcher who’s written two books on Nixon’s tapes. “He believes that members of all those groups are arrogant and that they put themselves above the law. After the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he became convinced that that leak was part of a conspiracy that was going to leak his own secrets.”
In response to this conspiracy, Nixon “created a counter conspiracy of his own,” Hughes continues. “He created the ‘plumbers,’ this illegal, unconstitutional secret police organization that he ran out of the White House to counteract the imaginary conspiracy against him.”
When the plumbers—so called because they fixed leaks—discovered military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had released the Pentagon Papers, they broke into his psychiatrist’s office to try to find information to use against him.
2. 'We really slobbered over that old witch.'
In November 1971, Indira Gandhi visited the White House to discuss tensions between India and Pakistan. Nixon’s recorded conversations with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger during that time reveal their clear disrespect for the first (and so far, only) female prime minister of India.
“This is just the point when she is a bitch,” Nixon said. Kissinger responded that “the Indians are bastards anyway,” and agreed that Gandhi was “a bitch.” A little later, Nixon added, “we really slobbered over the old witch.”
“Unlike some contemporary politicians, Nixon made a habit of hiding his prejudices from the public; but his tapes certainly capture them,” Hughes says. This gets at one of the centrally weird things about the Nixon tapes: they allow Nixon to continue offending people and incriminating himself long after his death.
When the transcript of Nixon and Kissinger talking about Gandhi became public in 2005, it became front-page news in India and drew rebukes from the country’s government. Kissinger responded by blaming Nixon, who had conveniently died in 1994. He told NDTV: “There was disappointment at the results of the meeting. The language was Nixon language.”
3. 'Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.'
This quote isn’t an order from Nixon to break into the Watergate—it’s an order to break into the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Nixon was afraid that there was a report on the 1968 bombing halt that might contain information on his own illegal attempts to sabotage the start of peace talks to end the Vietnam War,” Hughes says. In June 1971, Nixon told his staff to steal the report from Brookings.
“You remember Huston’s plan? Implement it,” Nixon said, referring to a secret plan to expand government burglary and wiretapping. “I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
The public didn’t learn he’d ordered this until 1997, when Newsweek and The Washington Post transcribed new portions of the tapes.
4. 'To blackmail him.'
There was another reason Nixon wanted his cronies to steal the Brookings Institution report. Nixon always suspected former president Lyndon B. Johnson timed the bombing halt to sabotage Nixon’s election chances. When Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman suggested that “you could blackmail Johnson on this stuff,” Nixon said they should steal the report “to blackmail him.”
Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution at least three times in the summer of 1971, but his staff never ended up doing it. And in fact, the report Nixon was so concerned about doesn’t seem to have existed.
“There were no classified documents at all at Brookings,” said Morton Halperin, a former Brookings employee, in a 1997 Washington Post article. “It was all just their own paranoia.”
Still, the hypothetical burglary is “the only break-in that we know for a fact that Nixon ordered,” Hughes says. Although there’s evidence Nixon directed his “plumbers” to commit crimes and evidence he tried to cover-up his administration’s role in the Watergate break-in, no one’s ever found concrete evidence proving Nixon ordered the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate.
5. 'Kennedy was cold, impersonal, he treated his staff like dogs.'
Nixon “was very resentful and sort of jealous of JFK for having been such a popular president,” Hughes says. This can be seen in an April 1971 conversation about John F. Kennedy’s presidential image versus his own.
“Kennedy was cold, impersonal, he treated his staff like dogs, particularly his secretaries and the others,” Nixon said. “His staff created the impression of warm, sweet and nice to people, reads a lot of books, a philosopher and all that sort of thing. That was a pure creation of mythology. We have created no mythology.”
Nixon then ranted about the kind of public image his staff should project for him.
“In Nixon’s view the Kennedys, both John and Robert, got away with abuses of power that Nixon could not get away with,” Hughes says. “In many ways, Nixon exaggerated what the Kennedy’s did… But at the same time, President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy did approve wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr. which certainly was not justified, and was an abuse of governmental power.”
6. 'I don’t want it before the election with a Thiệu blowup.'
Nixon knew that he couldn’t win the Vietnam War, and that as soon as American troops pulled out, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s U.S.-backed government in the south would fall to the north. But he also knew that this would probably hurt his reelection chances in 1972—which is why he delayed withdrawal until 1973.
Kissinger mentioned this to Nixon as far back as March 1971. “We can't have it knocked over—brutally—to put it brutally—before the election,” he said; and Nixon responded, “That's right.” In the last months before the election, Nixon told Kissinger, “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway”; and “I don’t want it before the election with a Thiệu blowup. If we do, it’s going to hurt us very badly.”
Prolonging a war for political gain is an abuse of government power, but there was no proof that Nixon had done this until the transcripts became public. “I wish that it was the law that presidential meetings had to be tape recorded,” Hughes says. “I think we as citizens deserve to have an accurate record of presidential deliberations.”
However, Hughes notes that because “secret taping has become a lot easier in the age of the smartphone,” he “wouldn’t be surprised if we find out that there are other recordings of presidential conversations.”
7. '…slaughtered and castrated two million South Vietnamese Catholics, but nobody would have cared.'
Nixon made this callous statement after the National Prayer Breakfast in February 1972, while talking to Chief of Staff Haldeman and Reverend Billy Graham about the Vietnam War.
“Who is more keenly aware than I am that, from a political standpoint, we should have flushed it down the drain three years ago, blamed Johnson and Kennedy?” he asked rhetorically. “Kennedy got us in, Johnson kept us in. I could have blamed them and been the national hero! As Eisenhower was for ending Korea.”
What would Vietnam have looked like if the war had ended earlier? “It wouldn’t have been too bad,” Nixon guessed. “Sure, the North Vietnamese would have probably slaughtered and castrated two million South Vietnamese Catholics, but nobody would have cared.
“These little brown people, so far away,” he continued, “we don’t know them very well, naturally you would say.”