Tim Naftali, a history professor at NYU and the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library has been fighting to get the unedited version of one of the Nixon tapes that has Ronald Reagan making outrageously racist statements. It was initially released in 2000 without that portion to “protect the privacy” of the 40th president, which is an absurd excuse, but now the unedited tape has been released. And wow.
The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh…
Had the story stopped there, it would have been bad enough. Racist venting is still racist. But what happened next showed the dynamic power of racism when it finds enablers. Nixon used Reagan’s call as an excuse to adapt his language to make the same point to others. Right after hanging up with Reagan, Nixon sought out Secretary of State William Rogers.
Even though Reagan had called Nixon to press him to withdraw from the United Nations, in Nixon’s telling, Reagan’s complaints about Africans became the primary purpose of the call.
“As you can imagine,” Nixon confided in Rogers, “there’s strong feeling that we just shouldn’t, as [Reagan] said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these—” Nixon stammered, choosing his words carefully—“these, uh, these cannibals on television last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes, and here the United States is going to submit its fate to that,’ and so forth and so on.”…“Reagan called me last night,” Nixon said, “and I didn’t talk to him until this morning, but he is, of course, outraged. And I found out what outraged him, and I find this is typical of a lot of people: They saw it on television and, he said, ‘These cannibals jumping up and down and all that.’ And apparently it was a pretty grotesque picture.” Like Nixon, Rogers had not seen the televised images. But Rogers agreed: “Apparently, it was a terrible scene.” Nixon added, “And they cheered.”
We already knew that Nixon regularly spewed racism on those tapes, but Reagan was always more careful in public. He used dog whistles — “welfare queen” — but this shows him in private expressing his real view that African diplomats were “cannibals” who hadn’t even learned to wear shoes yet. And Nixon also argued that blacks had lower IQs than whites and that it was almost impossible for them to govern themselves:
Nixon’s analysis of African leadership reflected his prejudice toward America’s black citizens. This is, at least, what he told Moynihan. “Have in mind one fact: Did you realize there is not, of the 40 or 45—you’re at the United Nations—black countries that are represented there, not one has a president or a prime minister who is there as a result of a contested election such as we were insisting upon in Vietnam?” And, he continued, a little later in the conversation: “I’m not saying that blacks cannot govern; I am saying they have a hell of a time. Now, that must demonstrate something.”
And now we have Trump, who has now swapped the dog whistle for a bullhorn and is shouting his racism for all to hear. I am, as always, appalled and terrified by where this leads. We have a moral responsibility to resist this in every way we can.