The recent publication of tapes made by three successive American presidents—John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon— gives new insights into how each of them wielded power. Extracts:
During a meeting with his closest advisers at the White House on Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy reflects on the difficult choices he faces
in how to respond to missiles placed in Cuba by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy: You cannot invade and have a worse situation and encourage Khrushchev. You can invade and have those bombs go off and have him also seize Berlin. The people who are the best off are the people whose advice is not taken because whatever we do is filled with hazards. ... If we stop one Russian ship, it means war. If we invade Cuba, it means war. There’s no telling.
On Oct. 27, the most serious day of the crisis, Kennedy won-
On May 27,
1964, Johnson makes clear his private doubts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam to his national security adviser,
Johnson: I’ll tell you, the more I stayed awake last night thinking of this thing, the more I think of it—it looks to me like we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. ... I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think that we can
On July 2, 1971, Nixon tells his chief of staff,
H. R. Haldeman, that publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the
Vietnam War, the month before was part of a conspiracy against his administration.
Nixon: We have got to go after everyone who’s a member of this conspiracy. We’re going to prosecute—got to prosecute everybody. Does that bother you as being repressive?
ders aloud how Washington’s allies will react if they learn he could have avoided an attack on Cuba by accepting Moscow’s proposal to take its missiles out of Cuba in return for removing American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy: I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so, which is 500 sorties, and seven days, and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take the missiles out of Turkey. We all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what’s going to happen to NATO. When we start these things and they grab Berlin, everybody’s going to say: ‘Well, that was a pretty good proposition.’ Let’s not kid ourselves. . . . That’s the difficulty. Today it sounds great to reject it, but it’s not going to, after we do something.
get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw. Bundy: It is. It’s an awful mess. Johnson: I was looking at this sergeant of mine [Kenneth Gaddis, his valet] this morning. Got six little old kids over there ... and I just thought about ordering his kids in there and what in the hell am I ordering him out there for? What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What is it worth to this country?... Of course, if you start running from the Communists, they might just chase you right into your own kitchen.
Haldeman: We’ve got to be repressive.
On June 23, 1971, Nixon puts price tag on ambassadorships in a conversation with Haldeman: Nixon: My point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000. Haldeman: Yeah. I think any contributor under $100,000 we shouldn’t consider for any kind ofthing.
Nixon: From now on, the contributors have got to be, I mean, a big thing, and I’m not gonna do it for political friends. . . .
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.