The Coalition Column

President Nixon's Archival Records in the News Again

Lee White, September 2011

A federal judge has ordered the release of nearly 300 hundred pages of President Richard M. Nixon's 1975 testimony before a Watergate grand jury. Judge, Royce C. Lamberth III of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, wrote, “The special circumstances presented here— namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records—far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records.”

The Obama administration had opposed unsealing the records based on privacy concerns for those named in the testimony and their families. Judge Lamberth rejected that argument stating, “in the event that the requested records are unsealed NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration) would review the testimony and its associated materials for privacy concerns.”

The grand jury records will not be released immediately. The Justice Department is reviewing Judge Lamberth's ruling and will decide whether to appeal.

Watergate historian Stanley I. Kutler, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists had filed a suit asking the federal court to unseal the transcript of President Richard M. Nixon's grand jury testimony from June 23 and 24, 1975. Nixon testified in California for eleven hours before two members of the grand jury and attorneys. The full transcript was later read to the remaining members of the grand jury back in Washington, D.C.

Since Nixon had been pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1974, he could not have been prosecuted by the grand jury for any conduct related to the Watergate break-in and cover up. However, Nixon could have been indicted on perjury charges if he lied to the grand jury under oath.

Kutler told the New York Times that Nixon's grand jury testimony was “a rare opportunity to hear him—what should I say?—unplugged. There are no aides, there are no lawyers, there are no spin doctors.” With the possible penalty of perjury over his head, Professor Kutler said, “My guess is he told those people the truth.”

Judge Lamberth noted that press accounts at the time of Nixon's appearance before the grand jury indicate that the testimony covered at least four topics: (1) the 18½-minute gap in a White House tape recording of a conversation between President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman; (2) the alteration of White House tape transcripts submitted to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; (3) the extent to which the Nixon Administration used the IRS to harass political enemies; and (4) the $100,000 payment from billionaire Howard Hughes to President Nixon's friend, Charles “Bebe” Rebozo.

Nixon Presidential Library and Museum Releases More Material

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, operated by the National Archives, recently opened to the public over 500,000 pages of textual materials, one hour of Dictabelt recordings, and an online exhibit focusing on the December 1972 bombing of North Vietnam.

The textual release includes more than 4,000 pages declassified, in whole or in part, as the result of mandatory review requests from individual researchers and as a consequence of the 25-year systemic review program. These documents focus primarily on national security matters, including: U.S. intelligence analysis of Vietnam Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker's cables regarding negotiations with South Vietnam's President Thieu in 1972; Henry Kissinger's meetings with the Chinese leadership before President Nixon's February 1972 trip; and U.S. policy toward Latin America.

The bulk of this textual release comprises the 200,000-page David Gergen collection, which contains the White House speechwriting staff office files from 1973–1974 and the 300,000-page Congressional Relations Office collection (known as the William E. Timmons collection).

Also included are small White House name files (Alpha files) on Shirley Temple Black, the Reverend Billy Graham and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo.

The records made available now also include an initial release of recordings made by the president and some members of his staff on Dictabelt machines. The recordings include dictations and recorded telephone conversations. The recordings in this first installment are of less than an hour in duration.

The Nixon Library is launching the first in its “Exploring Our Sources” web exhibits. This one, called Memoirs v Tapes: President Nixon and the December Bombing is a multimedia presentation of previously released tapes, documents, photos, and videos relevant to understanding the decision-making surrounding the December 1972 bombing of North Vietnam and the successful conclusion of the Paris Peace negotiations.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.