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New Book Examines Nixon’s Illegal Actions Before Watergate

“Get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

That’s former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, his voice caught on one of his White House tapes ordering an illegal break-in. And he’s not talking about Watergate.

Ken Hughes, a historian affiliated with the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, explains what happened in his new book, “Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate,” released today by the University of Virginia Press.

Hughes, whom Watergate reporter Bob Woodward called “one of America’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” timed the book to come out near the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 8, 1974.

In “Chasing Shadows,” Hughes draws from his analysis of the tapes of both Nixon and Lyndon Johnson to show how the Watergate break-in was part of a larger pattern of behavior, stretching back to the 1968 presidential campaign and the final months of the Johnson administration.

Book Analyzes Complex Political Maneuverings

To summarize the book briefly: Nixon as a Republican presidential candidate secretly interfered in the Paris peace talks Johnson was trying to organize to end the Vietnam War. Through a Chinese-American fundraiser, Anna Chennault, Nixon urged South Vietnam to delay the peace talks, because if elected, he would give them a better deal. Indeed, after Nixon assumed the presidency, South Vietnam came back to the table.

Hughes analyzes the complicated political maneuverings that went on before and after the election, gaining insight from the Johnson recordings as well, because Johnson got wind of Nixon’s plan but decided not to make it public.

Fast forward three years later when “The Pentagon Papers” were published. Nixon and his aides had reason to believe (erroneously, it turned out) that his behind-the-scenes “sabotage,” as Hughes calls it, was described in documents at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington. That’s when he issued the order to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to “get those files.”

Ultimately, the break-in plan was scrapped, but Hughes’ examination of Nixon’s actions provides a new perspective on a long history of illegal activity that prolonged the Vietnam War and was only partly exposed by the Watergate scandal.

Was It Treason?

In a Q&A with Hughes on a U.Va. Press website, Hughes says Nixon’s actions violated the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens from negotiating with other nations on behalf of the U.S. without authorization.

“During the campaign, in his public statements, the Republican nominee had said repeatedly that he wanted the South to take part in the peace talks,” Hughes said. “If Saigon had believed him, it would have thought it had no choice. The whole point of Nixon’s secret messages to the South Vietnamese during the campaign was to make sure they knew that he didn’t really mean what he was telling American voters. This gave Saigon room to maneuver that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sabotaging the peace talks wasn’t some dumb mistake on Nixon’s part. It was a calculated risk he took, knowing that the bigger risk to his campaign would have been to allow peace talks to start before Election Day.

“Of course, once the sabotage succeeded, Nixon had to worry about covering his tracks. And that’s the best explanation for why as president he ordered the burglary of a think tank.”

Getting the Word Out: U.Va. Press and Miller Center Collaborate

In advance of the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, the Miller Center and the U.Va. Press planned a collaborative project to enhance Hughes’s book with digital material through the press’ online publishing imprint, Rotunda.

The e-book allows readers to move seamlessly from the book to transcripts and audio files of the actual conversations. The transcriptions and audio files are part of Rotunda’s larger online archive, The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition, produced in association with the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. The edition brings together primary source material and presents it in a multimedia-enhanced, fully searchable environment that adapts to any Internet device.

Mark Saunders, director of the U.Va. Press, said the Rotunda digital editions reflect “the full intellectual investment” of scholars like Hughes who have transcribed, analyzed and annotated hundreds of hours of presidential recordings.

“The site allows users to find exactly what they’re looking for through sophisticated searches on the transcripts, selecting topics, dates or particular figures,” Saunders said. “They can drill down to the exact conversation they want, then read the transcript as they listen to the audio. So the Rotunda site provides a huge amount of added value, from historical context and identification of the key actors in an administration to functionality and ease of use.”

Associate professor Marc Selverstone, who chairs the Presidential Recordings Program, agreed.

“It made perfect sense for us to work with Rotunda when we made the move toward digital publication,” Selverstone said. “Rotunda is the gold-standard for digital documentary editing projects, and they offer a sophisticated platform for distributing and exploring the annotated transcripts we make of the presidential recordings.” 

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