Why Didn’t Nixon Burn the Tapes?
by Ken Hughes
In Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon (now a movie), television interviewer David Frost’s first question, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”, serves as a dramatic turning point, a demonstration that former President Richard Nixon∇, out of power and in disgrace, was still master of the situation. “So much for our ‘surprise opening,’” says a character on Frost’s interview preparation team. “Nixon, the battle-hardened trial lawyer, flicked it away as though it had been no more than a fly.” Actually, the answer Frost got was quite revealing, newsworthy, and historically important: Nixon in fact had told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman∇, to destroy most of the tapes in April of 1973, months before Watergate investigators learned of their existence. If Haldeman had done so, Nixon would probably not have had to resign--and Haldeman probably would have gone down in history as the highest-ranking official to be proved guilty of the Watergate cover-up. Haldeman, needless to say, didn’t carry out this directive.
An April 18, 1973, Oval Office tape transcribed by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program shows how close Nixon came to getting off scot free. Nixon had just learned three days earlier that his point man for the Watergate cover-up, White House Counsel John W. Dean, had turned state’s evidence. This was the crucial turning point in the investigation, because Dean had first-hand knowledge of the wrongdoing of Haldeman, Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D. Ehrlichman∇--and the President himself.
Ever since the Watergate break-in, Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman had been looking for the right scapegoat. In the initial months of the criminal investigation, they hoped to limit the prosecution to the ‘Watergate Seven’, the five burglars and the two ‘masterminds’ who planned the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
But the investigation led higher up, to deputy campaign director Jeb S. Magruder and campaign director John N. Mitchell∇. So then Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman wanted to make Mitchell the fall guy.
Everything came to a head on April 15, 1973, when the Justice Department informed Nixon that John Dean∇ had implicated Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Dean was a pivotal figure. Haldeman and Ehrlichman had been managing the cover-up through Dean, just as Nixon had been managing the cover-up through Haldeman and Ehrlichman. So this was a moment of great danger for Nixon, but also a moment of great opportunity. Dean was seeking immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony against Haldeman and Ehrlichman--but he had not, at that point, implicated Nixon himself. The perfect Watergate scapegoat was within reach: the President’s chief of staff, the second most powerful man in the White House, H.R. Haldeman.
Problem: Haldeman knew about Nixon’s tapes. Haldeman had arranged the installation of the recording system for Nixon. Nixon could not openly turn on his chief of staff, because his chief of staff knew exactly how to bring Nixon down. Haldeman knew how and when Nixon had directed the cover-up and could tell prosecutors where to find the proof. Nixon could destroy the tapes, but if the public ever learned that he had done that, he would look guilty.
On the morning of April 18, 1973, the President gave his chief of staff an assignment that would’ve solved all these problems for him.
President Nixon and Bob Haldeman, April 18, 1973
President Nixon: I'd like for you to take all these tapes, if you wouldn't mind. In other words . . .
President Nixon: I'd like to--there's some material in there that's probably worth keeping.
President Nixon: Most of it is worth destroying. Would you like--would you do that?
Imagine if Haldeman had followed through. Nixon would have been bulletproof. If somehow the prosecutors found out he had taped, well, the important tapes would’ve been destroyed--by Haldeman, so it would look like the chief of staff was the one covering up. It would’ve been the President’s word vs. that of of his aides--and his aides would lack credibility due to their own criminal wrongdoing. Haldeman--powerful yet unpopular as Nixon’s designated ‘Lord High Executioner’--would’ve made the perfect scapegoat. But Haldeman didn’t follow through.
Haldeman claimed to think Nixon could use the tapes to defend himself. My theory, however, is that Haldeman did not burn the tapes because he realized that if he did, he would’ve gone down in history as the Watergate mastermind.
Nixon being Nixon, the answer he gave Frost was as evasive as it was informative. He referred to an earlier discussion (Conversation 425-044) on April 9, 1973, when, he said, he directed his chief of staff to retain only the tapes that had “historical value.” In another conversation on that same day, however, the President had said bluntly that he didn’t want there to be any record of him discussing Watergate (Conversation 891-001). In Nixon’s answer to Frost, he emphasized that the conversation took place early in April, before he contemplated Haldeman’s resignation. The April 18, 1973, conversation, which he didn’t mention to Frost, took place after Nixon decided that Haldeman had to resign because Dean had implicated the chief of staff. By that point, the Watergate investigation had reached Nixon’s inner circle and threatened the President himself, giving him ample motive to destroy the evidence.
Frost: Why didn’t you burn the tapes?
Nixon: Now as a matter of fact, curiously enough, I did not only consider, but I even suggested and, I believe, directed that [White House Chief of Staff] Mr. [H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman take the taping system out--not take it out, but go through the tapes and, as I put it to him, to make the search that would be necessary to retain all those that had historical value and to destroy those that had no historical values--those that involved the family, those that involved political or other friends and so forth and so on, those that really shouldn’t be in the public domain. I pointed out that if we waited until after I left office to do it that either only he or I would be able to listen to all of it, it would be a monumental task and that we should do it now, and I suggested then that the taping system be changed because I found out then for the first time that it was one that recorded everything--changed so that I could turn it on and off with a switch. This was in April, early April, early April  before we were considering, for example, the situation with regard to the possibility of Haldeman or [Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D.] Ehrlichman resigning and that sort of thing. But I said let’s have a system whereby we can only record and will only record those that really have historical significance. Now, his recollection, I understand, is that while we discussed it, he didn’t feel that he had been ordered to take it out. And so that time passed. But on June the 4th, 1973, after [White House Counsel] Mr. [John W.] Dean had made some charges that I knew were untrue, certainly in part and probably substantially in many other respects, it was suggested by [Deputy National Security Adviser] Al Haig∇, who was then the chief of staff in 1973, after Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, that I listen to the tapes, and so I did. And it was a very tough experience.
Frost: June was the first time, in fact.
Nixon: Yeah, that was the time I listened all day to the tapes with John Dean [i.e., the conversations between Nixon and Dean]. And after going through that period, I then felt, after listening to the tapes, that perhaps Haldeman not having taken the system out, that it was probably a good idea, because the tapes in many respects contradicted charges that had been made by Mr. Dean. And Mr. Haldeman was to say--talk to me later, when we talked about this matter, that he agreed that one of the reasons that perhaps he didn’t move on the instruction to destroy only those, except for the important national security matters that I have mentioned and domestic issues of importance that I mentioned, was because, he said, after all, he said, you’ve got to have a record in the event that somebody says something and it proves to be untrue. Now I’ll conclude on this point. I didn’t destroy the tapes because, first, I didn’t believe that there was a reason to destroy them. I didn’t believe that there was anything on them that would be detrimental to me. I also, I must admit in all--
Frost: Do you still feel--
Nixon: --candor I don’t believe that they were going to come out. The second point was that I didn’t destroy them because I felt that if at a later time, that had I done so, it would have been an open admission, or at least appeared to be an admission, well, I’m trying to cover something up.
Frost: But looking back on it now, don’t you wish you’d destroyed them?
Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact if the tapes had been destroyed, I believe that it is likely that I would not have had to go through the agony of the resignation, and consequently, I wish that Mr. Haldeman perhaps had either taken my instruction if it was an instruction or suggestion and gone further on it and done what I had suggested: destroyed those except those that had major significance from a policy standpoint. No, it’s true, at the time I didn’t think that the tapes might--I thought the tapes might not come out. At the time I thought that as far as the tapes are concerned, if they did come out, that possibly they would contradict some of the worst statements that were being made at the other time--other side. On the other hand, if I had thought that on those tapes--with the possibility, which there always was that they would come out--that there was conversation that was criminal, I sure as the Dickens--I could use stronger expletives, but not before this home audience--I sure as the Dickens would’ve destroyed them.