Today's post is from Ken Hughes, a research specialist with the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Program and the producer of Fatal Politics. This post originally appeared on the History News Network.
On the thousands of hours of White House tapes Richard Nixon secretly recorded, you can hear him order exactly one burglary. It wasn’t Watergate, but it reveals the real root of the cover-up that toppled a President.
On June 17, 1971, (one year to the date before the Watergate arrests, by impure coincidence) Nixon ordered his inner circle to break into the Brookings Institution. “Blow the safe and get it,” the president said. “It” was a file of secret government documents on the 1968 bombing halt.
“What good will it do you, the bombing halt file?” asked National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger seconds after the president ordered his top aides to commit a felony.
“To blackmail him,” Nixon replied. President Lyndon Johnson had halted the bombing of North Vietnam less than a week before Election Day. Nixon claimed LBJ did it for political reasons, to throw the election to his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Kissinger knew better, since he had inside information about the talks. Having worked on an abortive bombing halt deal for Johnson in 1967, Kissinger used his connections with LBJ’s negotiators then to gain access to the Paris talks in 1968 -- access he used as a secret informant to the Nixon campaign.
“You remember, I used to give you information about it at the time,” Kissinger reminded the president. “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 [Ambassador Averell] Harriman,” the chief U.S. negotiator in Paris. (Kissinger’s words on tape contradict his later claim that he didn’t even have access to classified information at the time.)
Nixon had his own reasons to realize that the bombing halt file didn’t contain blackmail material on Johnson. He knew from classified briefings during the campaign that Johnson had remained unwavering in demanding three concessions: If Hanoi wanted a bombing halt, it had to (1) respect the DMZ dividing Vietnam, (2) accept South Vietnamese participation in the Paris peace talks, and (3) stop shelling civilians in Southern cities. Throughout the negotiations, LBJ didn’t budge from these three demands. Hanoi remained equally adamant, insisting on an “unconditional” bombing halt -- until October 1968. Then Hanoi suddenly reversed course and accepted all three. Johnson didn’t decide the timing of the bombing halt; Hanoi did.
If the bombing halt file didn’t contain dirt on Johnson, what made Nixon want it desperately enough to risk impeachment and prison? Over the decades, evidence has slowly accumulated that Nixon had a far more compelling motive: the fear that the bombing halt file contained dirt on him.