WASHINGTON – It was Feb. 8, 1971, and the Nixon administration had just launched Lam Son 619 to help South Vietnamese Army troops invade southern Laos.
As the operation soured, President Nixon privately criticized American newspapers and TV correspondents for coverage that he said was intended to embarrass the administration, according to the Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation.
Those private criticisms were made public Tuesday, part of 445 hours of taped White House conversations on foreign and domestic policy that were released at the National Archives II in College Park.
It is the first time that the Archives has released recordings of entire conversations from the Nixon administration. Previous releases have covered only “snippets” of taped conversations relating to Watergate and abuse of power, said Karl Weissenbach, director of the Archives’ Nixon presidential materials staff.
The recordings released Tuesday cover Nixon’s White House telephone conversations from February to July 1971, the first of five sets of tapes that cover six-month periods from February 1971 to July 1973.
The entire set of tapes should all be released in five to seven years, Weissenbach said. The next set, covering August 1971 to February 1972, should be released by the end of 2000.
About 15 reporters and one researcher showed up for Tuesday’s tape release, but Weissenbach said more people might turn out after word about the tapes starts spreading.
Some historians are skeptical.
“Because there are so many more hours of the tapes to be released, it’s becoming somewhat routine,” said Keith Olson, a history professor at the University of Maryland. “Unless there’s some surprise, something that’s a bombshell, then it’s getting routine.”
There are nearly 4,000 hours of tapes altogether, said John H. Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda, Calif., which has posted a guide to major themes covered in the tapes.
Archives’ staff also set up a subject log to guide researchers through the tapes, but finding information is going to be difficult for those not familiar with that time period, Weissenbach said.
Taylor said the only conversations that will not be made public are those that the government deems classified. He disputed the claim that the documents are becoming routine.
“[Scholars, reporters and historians] will spend about half a century mulling through this material to try to find a complete story,” Taylor said. “Nixon has equaled Watergate for a long time and now they’re seeing other things.”
Olson agreed that Nixon is worthy of continued study: He called him one of the last liberal presidents in a series that included Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
“He was willing and did use the federal government,” he said. “The imperial presidents peaked with Nixon and declined ever since.”
But Olson said Watergate will always be an issue when researching the Nixon years.
“You can never get totally away from it [Watergate],” he said. “You can’t consider Nixon without Watergate. You must always factor it in.”