home | about | documents | news | postings | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

The Nixon Tapes:
Secret Recordings from the Nixon White House
on Luis Echeverría and Much Much More

Sidebar: The Tapes

By Kate Doyle with Ron Sodano and Sam Rushay, archivists for the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration

Posted - August 18, 2003

Sidebar - Playing the Right Games
Sidebar - Nixon Speaks
Sidebar - The Tapes
Link - Proceso Magazine


The Tapes

The Nixon White House Tapes consist of some 3,700 hours of recorded conversations between the President and his staff and visitors in various locations, including the President's Oval Office in the White House, his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building (EOB), the Cabinet Room and Camp David, as well as taped telephone conversations made from telephones in the White House. The recordings were produced surreptitiously, without the knowledge of most of the participants. There are currently about 1,779 hours of Nixon White House tape conversations available to the public.

It was Richard M. Nixon's predecessor in the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who first suggested to Nixon that he install a secret taping system. Johnson himself had used recording equipment to tape his telephone conversations (now preserved in the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas); the idea, he told Nixon, would be to create a historical record that would supplement whatever written diary Nixon used.

In February 1971, the Secret Service, at the request of the President, installed listening devices in the White House. They placed seven microphones in the Oval Office: five in the President's desk, and one on each side of the fireplace. They placed two microphones in the Cabinet Room under the table near the President's chair. The Secret Service technicians wired all the devices to central mixers that were then connected to recorders in an old locker room in the White House basement.

In April 1971, Secret Service technicians installed four microphones in the President's office in the EOB. These microphones were located in the President's desk; wires led to a mixer and recorders in an adjoining room. The Secret Service also tapped the telephones in the Oval Office, the President's EOB office, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. These telephone conversations were recorded by tapping the telephone lines from the White House switchboard and relaying the conversations to recorders in a closet in the basement of the residence. Finally, in May 1972, the Secret Service set up a taping system in the President's study in Aspen Lodge at Camp David.

The entire taping system was secret, and was maintained by the Secret Service. Only President Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, and a few of the President's close personal assistants knew the system existed. One of its key features was that the recording equipment in the Oval Office, the EOB office, at Camp David, and on the telephones was sound activated, operating automatically without a conscious decision by the President to tape specific conversations. Most participants were unaware that their conversations were being recorded. The system was tied to the Presidential Locator System and would only activate if the President was present in the room. It was designed to continue recording for fifteen to thirty seconds after the President left the room.

Processing the Nixon Tapes

Unlike previous Presidents, who donated their Presidential papers and other historical materials to the National Archives after leaving office, President Nixon fought throughout his lifetime to maintain control of the White House tapes and prevent their release to the public. In 1973 and 1974, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) subpoenaed 60 hours of Watergate tape excerpts (covering the resignation of John Dean, the "cancer on the Presidency", the "smoking gun" and other conversations). The WSPF prepared transcripts for those tapes segments.

In May 1980, the Nixon Staff released 12 ½ hours of tapes that were introduced as evidence in the Watergate Trials. In June 1991, the Nixon Staff opened to the public about sixty hours of conversation segments subpoenaed by the WSPF for use in its investigations: 47 ½ hours that the Special Prosecutor did not use as evidence in open court, as well as the 12 ½ hours of previously released Watergate Trial tapes. In May 1993, three hours of "Abuse of Governmental Power" tape segments from May and June 1972 were released.

In July 1993, former President Nixon obtained a court order forbidding the release of any of the recordings until the National Archives had finished reviewing all of them and returned private or personal materials. But a lawsuit by historian Stanley Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen helped accelerate the review process and on April 12, 1996 the Archivist of the United States, the Nixon Estate, and Public Citizen reached an agreement to facilitate the review and release of the remaining Nixon White House tapes in a systematic manner.

The first tapes release after the 1996 Tapes Settlement Agreement occurred in October 1997, when approximately 154 hours of Cabinet Room conversations were opened. The first chronological release of the Nixon White House tapes followed in October 1999, with approximately 442 hours of recordings covering February to July, 1971. There have been two other chronological releases since then. The second chronological release in October 2000 included 420 hours of tape conversations from August through December 1971. The third chronological release in February 2002 included 425 hours of tape conversations from January through June 1972. A fourth release of tapes is expected some time in the fall of 2003, which will include conversations from July 1972 through October 1972.

The Mexico Project

Using the extremely helpful guides to the recordings produced by the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, the National Security Archive's Mexico Project searched all tapes opened to date and found 127 conversations that mentioned Mexico, 39 that mentioned Luis Echeverría Alvarez and 3 that mentioned Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. We listened to all 169 of them. Out of those conversations, many were repetitious or contained insignificant references to Mexico. We transcribed 45 of them - the most interesting transcripts (32) as well as 8 of the original taped conversations may be found here.

Contents of this website Copyright 1995-2017 National Security Archive. All rights reserved.
Terms and conditions for use of materials found on this website.