I started studying President Richard Nixon’s secret White House tapes in 1996, when the National Archives released 200+ hours of them, all related to Watergate and Nixon’s many other abuses of presidential power. Since Nixon entered the White House the same year I entered kindergarten, he was the first president I ever noticed, and when he resigned I was only 10 years old, so I still had a lot of questions about the scandal–the biggest being, how could this happen in America? I wanted to know whether anything on the tapes would change the the historical understanding of Nixon and the crimes that took him down.
There was a lot.
Having spent my 20s and early 30s as a reporter in radio, television and print, I started publishing articles on what I’d found on the tapes. In the New York Times Magazine, I wrote about Nixon’s secret promise to pardon his aides. Sam Dash, chief legal counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, said this tape would have justified a separate article of impeachment all by itself. More fascinating to me was a surprising answer to the question of why Nixon didn’t burn the tapes. In the Washington Post, I wrote that Nixon tried to get White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to destroy the tapes for him in April 1973, months before Haldeman’s deputy, Alexander Butterfield, was forced under oath to reveal the existence of the secret recording system.
When the Kennedy Library released tapes from the period leading up to the coup that resulted in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, I spent many months researching the historical context. The result was an article that the Boston Globe Magazine on its front page in 1999: “JFK’s Last Cover-Up.” The tapes proved that President Kennedy green lit the coup and learned within hours that the new head of South Vietnam, Duong Van “Big” Minh, had personally ordered the assassinations of Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.
In 2000, I started working as full-time researcher in the Presidential Recordings Program of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center . My main focus has been on Nixon and Vietnam, but in recent years I’ve studied tapes from President Lyndon Johnson’s final year in office. My research has convinced me that the real root of the abuses of power that were exposed following the Watergate break-in reaches back into the 1968 presidential campaign, when candidate Nixon sabotaged Vietnam peace talks right before the election. Since I have no academic credentials as an historian whatsoever, I’m very gratified my web web documentary miniseries, Fatal Politics, is shown in college classrooms. I’ve been interviewed on the White House tapes and Vietnam by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Politico, 60 Minutes, and CNN. My byline has also appeared in Diplomatic History, American Journalism Review, The Hill, History News Network, and Salon.
I am the author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate. I was senior consultant for Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, a documentary by Kunhardt-McGee Productions for HBO and am serving as a consultant for the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam.
Contact me at kenhughes(at)fatalpolitics(dot)com or by visiting the Contact page.