The Washington Post dubbed it “the smoking gun tape.” It was the recording that doomed the presidency of Richard Nixon. The transcript of a conversation that took place on June 23, 1972, when made public by Supreme Court order in July 1974, became the climactic revelation of the Watergate affair, proving beyond all doubt that Nixon used CIA director Richard Helms to suborn the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglars.
Fifty years after the botched break-in that transformed American politics, the gangsterly dialogue of the smoking gun tape is less shocking than Trumpian. Blackmail as a mode of White House politics? President 45 had nothing on President 37.
“We protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things,” Nixon growled on the tape. “You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things, and we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. This involves these Cubans, [ex-CIA man and Watergate burglar Howard] Hunt, and a lot of hanky-panky that we have nothing to do with ourselves.”
Nixon advised chief of staff H.R. Haldeman on how to get the CIA director to kill the FBI’s probe.
“Say, ‘Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that, ah, without going into the details … don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again.’”
The June 23 tape was incontrovertible evidence that Nixon had obstructed justice. The last vestige of support for Nixon on Capitol Hill evaporated. Two weeks later, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.
But the “smoking gun tape” was not only the denouement of the Watergate affair. It was — and is — an unsettling glimpse into the dark heart of the Watergate scandal, and the workings of American power in the mid-20th century. The commander in chief voiced ominous threats that reeked of unspoken crimes to his intelligence chief, whose agency had employed four of the seven burglars. For the next 50 years, Nixon’s entourage, JFK conspiracy theorists, journalists and historians pondered the June 23 tape as a Rosetta Stone of Nixon’s psyche. What “hanky panky” was Nixon referring to? What did he mean by “the whole Bay of Pigs thing?” What story was going to “blow” if the CIA didn’t cooperate?
A long-overlooked White House tape provides the answers. The “hanky panky” referred to CIA assassination operations in the early 1960s. The “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was the Agency’s reaction to its most humiliating defeat. And the story that might blow was the connection between those events and the murder of JFK.
Richard Nixon and Richard Helms first met at a Capitol Hill briefing in 1956. Nixon, a former Navy lieutenant, was the young, ambitious and anxious vice president. Helms, also a former Navy lieutenant, was a gentlemanly spy, rising in ranks of the CIA with bland efficiency. (“His smile did not always include his eyes,” observed Henry Kissinger.) Helms’ discreet style won over President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed him as Director of Central Intelligence in 1966. When Nixon was elected president in 1968, LBJ recommended he keep Helms on.
Nixon, the insecure workaholic from Southern California, and Helms, a scion of the Philadelphia Main Line, actually managed to get along. While Helms portrayed their relationship as stormy, he flattered Nixon’s wounded pride and supported his hardline policies on Vietnam and domestic surveillance.
On June 16, 1972, just hours before the Watergate burglars were caught, Nixon and Helms had a friendly phone conversation about his meeting with the president of Mexico. “He’s on our side all right,” Nixon said. “Oh, that’s great, Mr. President,” Helms replied.
Fourteen hours later, five burglars were arrested at the Watergate, and the tenuous bond between Nixon and Helms began to fray. Nixon, frantic to hide the burglars’ ties to the White House, assumed his intelligence chief would help. In his memoir, The Ends of Power, Haldeman wrote that when he relayed Nixon’s message about the Bay of Pigs, Helms exploded, shouting, “This has nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs!” Haldeman reported back to Nixon that the gambit had worked and Helms had pledged to help with the FBI. And indeed he had. Helms sent word to acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, to “taper off” the investigation. But when Gray pushed back a few weeks later, Helms acquiesced, and the investigation continued. The director abandoned his defense of the president.
Helms opened his own memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder, with an account of the June 23 conversation. He denied raising his voice and insisted Nixon’s message about the Bay of Pigs was “incoherent,” which didn’t explain his uncharacteristic loss of poise. Helms later told a CIA historian that the phrase had the “devious, hard-nosed smell” of a threat, which was more plausible.
Haldeman suggested that Nixon used the phrase, “the whole Bay of Pigs thing,” as a coded reference to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. It was, he wrote, “the president’s way of reminding Helms, not so gently, of the cover-up of the CIA assassination attempts on the hero of the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro, a CIA operation that may have triggered the Kennedy tragedy and which Helms desperately wanted to hide.”
Haldeman’s interpretation of the “whole Bay of Pigs thing” was disputed by TV talk show host Chris Matthews. He dismissed the story, saying Haldeman’s ghostwriter, Joseph Dimona, made up the JFK connection and put it in the book without Haldeman’s knowledge. Dimona, however, denied Matthews’ claim. He told documentary film producer Eric Hamburg that the book was “all Haldeman’s.”
Dimona and Haldeman are deceased, but Tom Lipscomb, the editor-in-chief of Times Books, which published The Ends of Power, is not. “Bob Haldeman was a perfectionist and a control freak,” Lipscomb said in an interview. “The idea that he didn’t believe what he wrote about the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s assassination is absurd. Absolutely he believed it. We talked about it all the time.”
Haldeman’s take on “the whole Bay of Pigs thing” lived on in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic “Nixon.” The film depicted an ominous exchange about the Bay of Pigs in which Helms (played by the chilly Sam Waterston) condescends to Nixon (played by Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins). In articulating his dream of détente with China and Russia, Nixon says, “Cuba would be a small price to pay.” Helms replies, “So President Kennedy thought.” Spliced with film footage of JFK’s assassination, the exchange implied enemies of Kennedy’s Cuba policy were behind his assassination.
Helms, his espionage skills undiminished with age, obtained a copy of Stone’s script before the film debuted and threatened litigation. Stone excised the exchange from the movie’s theatrical release — for reasons of length, Stone said in an interview — but included it in the director’s cut. Helms did not sue. (He died in 2002.)
Without corroboration, Haldeman’s speculation about Nixon’s meaning has left most Nixon biographers puzzled about “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” But an edgy conversation between Nixon and Helms eight months before the Watergate arrests confirms that Nixon did indeed have JFK’s assassination on his mind when he pressed Helms about the secrets of the Bay of Pigs.