With this article, the Americas Program continues a new series in conjunction
with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. As Mexico Project Director
Kate Doyle explains: “The main objective of the project is to challenge
the myths of foreign policy—on both sides of the border.” To that end,
Doyle combs nearly four decades of U.S. and Mexican archives to uncover new
evidence and bring to light the hidden histories behind the bilateral relationship.
The results, presented in this monthly series, offer the unprecedented opportunity
to separate the rhetoric from the reality, and provide a foundation for rebuilding
binational diplomacy on the basis of shared interests, transparency, and citizen
involvement. The original documentation, as well as previous articles, may
be found at www.nsarchive.org/mexico.
Your comments are welcome at <americas@irc-online.org>.

 

What do presidents talk about behind closed doors? When it came to former
U.S. President Richard Milhouse Nixon and former Mexican President Luis Echeverría
Álvarez, they most enjoyed discussing … themselves. They were
both powerful leaders with egos to match, and according to tape recordings
of two meetings they held in the White House in June of 1972, each saw in
the other a kindred spirit.

Normally, we would not be privy to the substance of their conversations
and would have to be content with whatever public account they later gave
of the meetings. Nor would we learn of Nixon”s private feelings about Mexico
and its president, shared with aides and visitors before and after he saw
Echeverría. But while the two men talked, hidden microphones surreptitiously
recorded their every word: five tiny devices hidden inside Nixon”s chair and
two more embedded in a nearby fireplace.

The microphones, along with devices installed in other key offices, as
well as taps on White House telephones, had been planted in 1971 by Secret
Service technicians. They were there at the suggestion of former U.S. President
Lyndon Johnson (who had recorded his own telephone calls when he occupied
the White House) in order to create an accurate record of the presidency that
historians could use for years afterwards.

But Nixon”s obsession with secrecy prevented the recordings” public release
for decades after he left office in 1974. Nixon fought throughout his lifetime
to maintain control of the 3,700 hours of tapes recorded during his tenure
and it was not until 1999 that the National Archives began to open them chronologically.

Archivos Abiertos wanted to know what the Nixon tapes could tell us about
Mexico. Accordingly, we listened to every conversation that mentioned Mexico
or a Mexican leader–portions of 169 tapes in all. The centerpiece of the
recordings lies in the encounters between Nixon and Echeverría, on
June 15 and 16, 1972. Those meetings are discussed here. Transcripts of many
of the most interesting conversations and a few of the original recordings
may be found below.

Excerpts from
Nixon”s White House Tapes

Playing the Right Games

On June 16, 1972, former U.S. President Richard Nixon talked with CIA Director
Richard M. Helms on a White House telephone just after Nixon met with then-Mexican
President Luis Echeverría. The conversation offers a tantalizing (and
censored) glimpse of the CIA”s interest in Mexico.

Nixon: Hello.
[Secretary]: Director Helms, Mr. President.
Nixon: Hello.
Helms: Good morning, Mr. President.
Nixon: Dick, I just left President Echeverría. He took me aside.
You know he doesn”t speak any English but–he says, “I”m seeing Director
Helms this afternoon.” I said, “Good.” I said, “He”s–you
can, uh–you know–I–he has authorized it directly to you from me.”
Helms: Right.
Nixon: So you should tell him that I talked to you, and so forth. I
don”t know what games we”re playing there, but… . He”s strong–he wants
to play the right games. I had told him, I gave him a little fill-in on Russia
and China, I said, now we”ve had all these initiatives but let me make one
thing clear. I have no reason to believe but that both nations are going to
continue their support of subversion in other countries. I said, that”s just–I
said, we have agreed on no overt confrontations, in effect, but I said this
is what you”ve got to expect and I think … so that”s the way I sorted
it … I … we didn”t go into any of the other domestic things he has,
but ah–
Helms: Well thank you very much, sir. Dick [Vernon A.] Walters [deputy
director of Central Intelligence] is going with me and we”re going to have
about an hour”s chat with him. I-

[Section removed for national security reasons]

Nixon: Because I went into the–why we had to finish Vietnam in
the right way, why it was important for us to hold the ring against aggression
on all over the world, particularly in the western hemisphere, because nobody
else was there to do it. And, ah–he”s on our side, all right.
Helms: Oh that”s great, Mr. President, thank you very much.
Nixon: All right, bye.

 

Nixon Speaks

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon never shrank from voicing his opinions–however
uninformed they might have been–on a wide range of matters. On Oct. 7, 1971,
the president spoke by phone with his ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, on the ability of Africans to lead nations.

Nixon: I”m not saying that Blacks cannot govern. I am saying they
have a hell of a time.
Moynihan: Mm-hmm.
Nixon: Now that must demonstrate something. Now, having said that,
let”s look at Latin America. Latin America”s had 150 years of trying at it
and they don”t have much going down there either. Mexico is a one-party government;
Colombia, they trade it off every two years; Venezuela is tiptee-toe, and
the rest are dictatorships except for Allende, which is a communist dictatorship–elected,
but communist. Now, let me come back to another point. […] I think you may
have heard me tell of my conversation with [Luis] Muñoz Marín
[first governor of Puerto Rico], who, incidentally was capable of governing.
Moynihan: Yes.
Nixon: […] In “58, after Lima and Caracas, I stopped there. And he
and I talked all night … and he, drinking his scotch and all, and he
really lived it up… . [laughing] And I, trying to keep up with him–practically
dead! But he made a very interesting point, very late–early in the early
morning hours. He said, look, he says, I shouldn”t say this, he said, “But
Mr. Vice-President, my people have many fine qualities, I mean, they”re courteous
… they”re, they”re family people … in the arts … and you know,
philosophy, et cetera.” But he said, “I will have to admit, my people”–speaking
of Latins generally–“have never been very good at government.”
Moynihan: Yeah.
Nixon: Now let”s look at that. The Italians aren”t any good at government.
The Spanish aren”t any good at government.
Moynihan: Yeah.
Nixon: The French have had a hell of a time, and they”re half Latin.
And all of Latin America”s not any good at government. They either go to one
extreme or the other. It”s either a family–well, three extremes: family,
oligarchy, or a dictatorship–a dictatorship on the right or one on the left,
very seldom in the center. Now having said all that, however, as you compare
the Latin dictatorships, governments, et cetera, and their forms of government,
they are–they at least do it their way. It is an orderly way which works
relatively well. They have been able to run the damn place! […] Now what
I am getting [at] is this: […] Asians are capable of governing themselves,
one way or another. We and the Caucasians have learned it after slaughtering
each other in religious wars and other wars for many, many years, including
a couple in the last–this century. The Latins do it in a miserable way, but
they do it. But the Africans just can”t run things. Now that”s a very, very
fundamental point in the international scene. See my point?

Whatever Nixon thought of the Mexicans” ability to run a country, he repeatedly
professed to like them as people. He said as much on May 13, 1971, when he
spoke in the Oval Office to Dr. Merlin K. DuVal (“Monty”), assistant
secretary of Health.]

DuVal: […] We”ve become very fond of Mexico, we go there as often as
possible.
Nixon: Do you? [Inaudible] across from the Tucson area, Mexicali?
DuVal: No, further east, Nogales.
Nixon: Nogales, Nogales, Nogales of course.
DuVal: We”re very much at home in Mexico and we travel back and forth freely
and my wife does very well with Spanish and we have a lot of friends down
as far as …
Nixon: Do you have any property? Did you buy anything?
DuVal: No, but we should.
Nixon: You should. No, really, I think it”s an excellent investment. It”s
a stable country, one of the few in Latin America–it has the stability, and
to the extent that they”ll let you, you should really have some property down
there. Great people too, aren”t they?
DuVal: Absolutely marvelous.
Nixon: You”ve got to get to know the Mexicans. And I–so many people particularly
in my state in California–I mean and they sort of look down their noses at
the Mexicans. Here in the East, as you know, everybody is obsessed about the
Blacks, and the Mexicans are put upon much worse than the Blacks from an economic
standpoint. They”re in a horrible condition in Los Angeles and other places,
but ah … they have such quality. They can”t manage anything very well, but–generally
speaking–
DuVal: Even if they can”t–
Nixon: … They can”t do anything very well! [Laughing] But on the other hand,
they work, they”re loyal, they have a … a warmth, a warmth that is very
real. I mean, most of the Latins are poets.
DuVal: And they”re very warm.
Nixon: Yeah that”s right. It”s true! It”s true!

Nixon and Echeverría shared a common vision–and some common problems.
Each considered himself a true world leader, not merely a head of state. When
they met, Nixon was fresh from ground-breaking talks with the leaders of China
and the Soviet Union, meetings that led to the so-called “opening”
of China and the first disarmament agreement between the United States and
the Soviets. Echeverría, who used foreign policy during his sexenio,
or term, as an actor uses the stage, was at the start of a grand U.S. tour,
with stops scheduled in cities that hosted large Mexican-American communities.
Before that he was in Latin America where he met with heads of state, including
Chile”s then-President Salvador Allende. He, too, would later travel to Beijing
and Moscow.

Both men were waging secret wars. In 1969, the Nixon administration had
begun the covert bombing of Cambodia, while Echeverría fought a clandestine
“dirty war” against his own people. And each man wrestled with popular
dissent: Across the United States, protests were at a fever pitch against
the war in Vietnam, and in Mexico, Echeverría faced growing demands
for democracy and justice.

It is clear from the tapes that Nixon felt a great affinity with Echeverría.
He referred to him warmly in a dozen different conversations with White House
aides as “bright, energetic,” “a vigorous fellow,” “a
very attractive guy,” and told his CIA Director Richard Helms, “He”s
strong, he wants to play the right games.”

The two presidents, speaking through a translator, barely touched upon
the bilateral issues that normally crop up between the United States and Mexico,
such as drugs, immigration, or trade. They were too busy talking about geopolitics.
Echeverría spent much of his time discussing communism”s threat to
the region. Latin America was in imminent danger, he told Nixon, beset by
poverty and unemployment and bombarded by Soviet propaganda touting President
Fidel Castro”s Cuba as the answer to the hemisphere”s problems. The solution,
he insisted, was private capital. Echeverría urged Nixon to promote
U.S. business investments in Mexico and the region. To wit:

Echeverría: Tell Mr. President that in the speech that I
will deliver to the joint session of Congress within the hour, I will reiterate
my principals of the Third World vis-á-vis the great powers of the
world. Because –
Nixon: [Interrupting] The Echeverría Doctrine.
Echeverría: Yes–because if I don”t take this flag in Latin America,
Castro will. I am very conscious of this.
[Translator]
Echeverría: We in Mexico feel–and I sensed this also when I
was in Chile and online casino it can be felt in Central America, and among young people,
among intellectuals–that Cuba is a Soviet base in every sense of the word,
both militarily and ideologically, and that this is going on right under our
noses.
[Translator]
Echeverría: […] We are also aware of the fact that Dr. Castro
and Cuba are instruments of penetration into the United States itself, not
to mention Mexico and the other countries of Latin America. They are unceasing
in their efforts, using one path or another.
[Translator]
Echeverría: And I believe, Mr. President, that it”s obvious
that with the large subsidies he receives [from the Soviets] and his very
deep complicity, he seeks to project his influence into groups within the
United States and Latin America. And if we in Mexico do not adopt a progressive
attitude within a framework of freedom and of friendship with the United States,
this trend will grow. I have sensed this not only in Latin America, but in
certain groups within the United States as well.
[Translator]
Echeverría: He has had no scruples whatsoever about sacrificing
his own country and eliminating all freedoms there just to be a tool of Soviets;
at this very moment he is making a grand tour of many of the smaller socialist
countries in Eastern Europe.
[Translator]
Echeverría: And this poses a huge problem for all of Latin America,
in this time of population growth, unemployment, and social tensions aggravated
by international communism. That”s why I believe that it is extremely important–and
this is something of great personal concern to me–that we take their flags
away from them by making real efforts to cooperate at the highest levels of
government, as well as with private initiatives and technology.

Not only did the thrust of Cuba and the Soviet Union into Latin America
threaten the stability of the region, Echeverría warned, he told Nixon
that it was already having an effect among leftist organizations inside the
United States. Echeverría disclosed to Nixon that his aides had gathered
intelligence on U.S. groups planning to protest the Mexican government in
the U.S. cities he would be traveling to.

Echeverría: This problem in Latin America is reflected within
American society itself in the Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans and other
racial minority groups. Therefore either we find balanced economic solutions
to these issues or [the communists] will gain ground in Latin America and
that will have repercussions inside your own borders.
[Translator]
Echeverría: There is no doubt whatsoever that President Nixon”s
meetings in China and Russia were great successes, but at the same time anything
that China and Russia can do to cause problems, they will do–and in Latin
America we feel that directly. I have observed this in Mexico, I saw it in
Chile directly and in every Latin American country in one form or another.
[Translator]
Nixon: Well I think that, ah–first, the president”s analysis is very
perceptive about the problems of the hemisphere. And second, I appreciate
the fact that he is taking the lead–speaking up not only for his own country,
which of course is his first responsibility […]–but he”s taking the
lead in speaking up for the whole hemisphere. Because Mexico, as he said earlier,
provides not only the U.S. border with Mexico but the U.S. border with all
of Latin America. And Mexico also, you could say, is the bridge–the bridge
between the United States and the rest of Latin America. I think for the president
of Mexico to take a leading role in speaking about the problems of the hemisphere
is very constructive. […]
[Translator]
Echeverría: When I was about to leave from Mexico for this trip,
Mr. President, I was informed by my various people that groups of Mexicans
had been in touch with friends of Angela Davis [a well-known Black activist
at the University of California in Berkeley] in this country. And that we
were aware of the plans of the organization that Angela Davis heads to mount
a key demonstration in San Antonio protesting the existence of political prisoners
in Mexico. All of this is connected to people in Chile, with people in Cuba,
with the so-called “Chicano” groups in the United States, with certain
groups in Berkeley, California–they”re all working closely together.
[Translator]
Echeverría: As soon as the plan existed that she would go to
San Antonio to a demonstration in protest of internal affairs of Mexico with
this idea of saying that “all political prisoners in every country should
be released,” we were immediately informed.
[Translator]
Echeverría: They are working very actively–and again, these
events that take place in Latin America have repercussions within the borders
of the United States.

Nixon told Echeverría that he agreed in principle that increased
investment was crucial, but he said that before U.S. businesses would commit
to Latin America, they needed to be confident that countries could protect
private enterprise and ensure “stability without the fear of violent
takeover or expropriation.” He asked Echeverría to carry that
message to the leaders in the region, and to warn the rest of them of the
perils of going down the path of socialist Chile. By spreading the word about
the dangers of communism and the importance of private capital, Nixon said,
Echeverría would become the hemisphere”s most important leader.

Nixon: […] I think one thing that would be very helpful for the
president to emphasize in his statements in Latin America would be the fact
that there is a responsibility to provide stability in government, and some
guarantee for the protection of the right kind of private enterprise, such
as is the case in his country. Now this is a very delicate matter. I do know
this: Nobody in the United States can say that, because then it looks as if
we are interfering in Latin America and trying to tell them what kind of government
they should have. On the other hand, I think if the president of Mexico speaks
out on this subject, […] he could simply say that […] he finds a readiness,
a willingness of American private enterprise to come in on a partnership basis
to Latin America. But there must be on the other side responsibility in governments
in the Latin American countries to provide stability for that kind of investment.
[Translation into Spanish]
Nixon: For example, the president has been to Santiago. I do not know
President Allende, and I do not judge him, I don”t know what his plans for
Chile may be in the future. But on the other hand, as the president well knows,
at the present time all foreign capital is fleeing Chile, trying to get out.
And no new capital is coming in. Now that”s their choice. But if the Chilean
experiment is repeated in varying degrees in other Latin American countries,
there”s no chance that the big corporations […] will put their money
there. Because there are other parts of the world–for example, countries
like Indonesia, Thailand, in Asia and countries in Africa, even, where they
think there”s a better chance for their investments to survive. What I am
saying to the president is not directed to his country. I”m using his country
as an example. If more countries in Latin America could follow the example
of Mexico, I think you”d see a tremendous boom in investment from the United
States and from Europe and Japan. […]
[Translation into Spanish]
Nixon: But I want to tell the president that […] he can count
on me to urge the American business community to invest in Latin America.
I think it”s vitally important for the United States that we not allow the
Cuban tragedy to infect the rest of the Caribbean and eventually the rest
of Latin America. And frankly, to be quite candid, I think it would be very
detrimental to all of us to have the Chilean experiment spread through the
rest of the continent. It will be a very unhealthy hemisphere if that will
be an element–the wave of the future.
[Translation into Spanish]
Nixon: I would also like to say one other thing to the president, without
treading on any of Mexico”s traditional attitude toward maintaining an independent
policy. I think it”s very helpful that Mexico take a greater leadership role
in the OAS [Organization of American States] in matters like this. I am not
thinking now that Mexico should take this role as any agent of the United
States. But I think that Mexico is in an ideal position to do so. And otherwise
the leadership role will be taken by other leaders in the continent who cannot
speak as effectively as can the president of Mexico.
[Translation into Spanish]
Echeverría: Tell him that I agree with his analysis.
[Translator]
Nixon: In other words, let the voice of Echeverría rather than
the voice of Castro be the voice of Latin America.

But if Nixon liked the man, he was indifferent to the country the man represented.
The U.S. president saw himself as a protagonist in the great geopolitical
questions of his day–and Mexico was not one of them, as he told his chief
of staff, H.R. Haldeman, after his first meeting with Echeverría.

Nixon: After you”ve dealt in two summit meetings–one in Beijing and the
other in Moscow–with major subjects, it is really terribly difficult to deal
with even a country as important as Mexico. And frankly, for that matter,
you could say the same for the British, the French, the Italians, and the
Germans. You know what I mean? There are certain countries that matter in
the world and certain countries that don”t matter in the world at the present
time.

Despite Echeverría”s plea for a “new American partnership”
with Latin America, U.S. policy toward Mexico did not change perceptibly during
the Nixon administration. Indeed, the rhetoric of a new partnership has continued
throughout the present day, with few new results. Personal affinity did not
translate into policy then, nor does it today.

Whatever Nixon may have thought of Mexico and its president, Echeverría–who
completed his term in office in December 1976–outlasted his U.S. counterpart.
On June 17, 1972, the day after the two leaders met for a second time in the
White House, five burglars were arrested breaking into the Democratic National
Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in downtown Washington.

It was the beginning of the end: Nixon”s White House tapes would later
prove his downfall. He resigned in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974.

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