He's back: Nixon tapes offer insights on Shah
By James Warren
July 9, 2000
Upon his death in 1980, the shah of Iran was termed "the bloodsucker
of the century" by the magnanimous souls who had taken over government
radio in Tehran.
As previously undisclosed Oval Office conversations of Richard Nixon
remind, he was very much our bloodsucker.
After a long layoff and prodded by Nixon-obsessed readers, I spurned
the inspirations of presidential politics and middle-manager tasks such
as personnel reviews, and I returned to the National Archives for a few
There I listened to a tape providing not just insight into Nixon's view
of the shah as a benign despot, but unvarnished takes on governments worldwide,
including a depressing, typical spasm of bigotry about Africa.
"But those Africans, you know, are only 50 to 75 years from out
of the trees, some of 'em," Nixon declares in a conversation that
the National Security Archive, a Washington group with no relationship
to the government archive, tipped me to.
The Oval Office musings came on April 8, 1971, mostly between Nixon
and Douglas MacArthur II, a nephew of the legendary general who was a career
foreign service officer then serving as ambassador to Iran (where he escaped
an attempted kidnapping). In addition, Alexander Haig, an assistant to
National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, sat in and made a few innocuous
The conversation is among 445 hours of mostly Oval Office tapes spanning
a brief period in 1971, released last October. There are 2,000 hours yet
to come, with several hundred hours ready for release in October.
The 445 hours unloaded at the National Archives in College Park, Md.,
have generated scant publicity since their formal release because they
are often a pain to listen to and there are no transcripts for most. As
in days past, I was greeted as a long-lost friend by the librarians, who
don't get much Nixon business.
The session began with MacArthur flattery. "You were terrific on
television last night," he says. Nixon's gracious response? "Move
your chair a little bit, more around here" (closer to the recorders?).
"Your friend, the shah, is hoping very much that you will be getting
over this year," says MacArthur, prompting a back-and-forth on logistics
of a trip, with Nixon displaying his fetish for secrecy and not wanting
to tell the State Department, lest it devise reasons for him not to go.
Nixon would not want to arrive via any nearby nations, not "chopper
around through some of those damn African countries. You know, you've got,
some of those if you'd ever start in Central Africa, you're murdered. Northern
Africa, the only place I'd really want to go is Morocco."
The British are soon moving their military presence out of the Persian
Gulf (mostly in Saudi Arabia), says MacArthur, prompting consideration
of how the shah will cope.
"He runs a damn tight shop, right?" says Nixon of a man who
would be driven out of his nation eight years later, winding up in five
nations before dying a king without his throne in Egypt.
"He does," responds the ambassador.
"And can these guys, they can probably fight pretty good if they
have to?" wonders Nixon.
MacArthur, clearly cozy with the shah, does more apple-polishing, declaring
that the shah "said something seriously extraordinary. He told me,
`I've got a very good relationship with him [Nixon],' he said, `He talks
quite frankly,' and he said, `You know, I admire your president. He understands
the international world, and this part of the world, particularly, much
better than either of his predecessors. They really didn't understand the
Middle East thing at all, with all its complexities.'"
As the conversation continues, one gets a full sense of Nixon's at times
bloodless world view, which includes correct suspicions that the iron-fisted
shah faces long-term domestic problems and may be biting off more than
he can chew in requests for U.S. military aid.
Nixon: "Well, the point is that, we, getting back to your point
is, I guess you're right, Iran 's the only thing there. The Philippines
is a can of worms, as you know. Taiwan, curiously enough, is a pretty strong
little place, but it lives in sufferance [of China, presumably]. Malaysia
and Singapore are at each other's throats. [Singapore Prime Minister] Lee
Kuan Yew, the socialist, being probably the ablest leader in the region.
The Indonesians are beginning to come back, but they're 20 years away."
Nixon exhibits qualms about Iran but says:
"It's one friend there. Iran is not of either world, really [Christian
or Arab?]. By God, if we can go with them, if we can have them strong,
and they're in the center of it, and a friend of the United States, uh,
I couldn't agree more, 'cause you look around there, it's [Gen. George]
Patton who said, `Who else do we have, except for Europe?'
"The southern Mediterranean is all gone. [Morocco's King] Hassan
will be there, he's a nice fellow, but Morocco, Christ, they can't last.
Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, uh, Algeria, Sudan, naturally, the UAR [Egypt],
all those little miserable countries around Jordan, and Lebanon, the rest,
they're like, they'd go down like tenpins, just like that."
In light of the upcoming Middle East summit at Camp David, arranged
by President Clinton, Nixon's next remarks about Israel are interesting.
"Some of 'em [countries in the region] would like to be our friends,
but, central to every one of those countries, even as far out as Morocco,
is the fact that the United States is allied with Israel. And because we
are allied with Israel, we are their enemy, that's what it is. Now this
doesn't mean that we throw Israel down the drain, because that would play
into the Soviet hands, too, but it does mean that, right now, we're in
a hell of a difficult spot, because, because our Israeli tie makes us unpalatable
to everybody in the Arab world, doesn't it?"
As MacArthur sounds like a shah apologist, Nixon questions him about
certain assertions, notably a supposed turnaround of the long oil-dominated
economy. What's the deal with diversification, with manufacturing and agriculture?
He lauds the shah for "his ability to run basically, let's face
it, a virtual dictatorship in a benign way because, ah, look, when you
talk about having a democracy of our type in that part of the world, God,
it wouldn't work, would it?"
Cold, but perhaps true, prompting a quickie world tour of politics,
starting with Africa.
"Let's look at Africa, generally. This country [ Iran ] at least
has got some degree of civilization in its history, but those Africans,
you know, are only about 50 to 75 years from out of the trees, some of
'em. But did you know, in all of Africa, of all those new countries, there
is not one country [raps his desk top] that has a so- called parliamentary
democracy [raps table] that meets even the standards that we would happily
insist on for Vietnam? Happily!"
Nixon sneers at those who might dump on a Brazilian official coming
to town by noting that his is not a constitutional democracy. "What
the hell is in Latin America?" he asks rhetorically, proceeding to
bash Colombia ("they trade parties each four years"), Mexico
("a one-party system"), Venezuela ("chaos"), and Argentina
("a tragedy, a tragedy, the problem is that son of a bitch Peron").
Then comes this bit of realpolitik, for which Nixon bashers might not
give him credit.
"But you see, I think, the significant thing is, I don't think
there's any question of, we've just got to be, not tolerant, not tolerant
of violation of principles that we feel and believe in very deeply, not
supporting the idea that there ought to be a dictatorship to replace democracy
or some sort of thing, not saying that dictatorship of the left is wrong
but that dictatorship of the right is right [weirdly, a military band can
be heard playing outside] but, having in mind one solemn fact: That people
in the world are in different states of development and they are different,
and that each needs a system that fits its own.
"Japan, for example--sure they have elections and all that sort
of thing, but you know damn well that a business oligarchy runs Japan.
Right? You were there, huh [as ambassador]? And it's the way it has to
James Warren and Michael Tackett of the Tribune's Washington bureau
are hosts of "Unconventional Wisdom" at 7:05 p.m. Sunday on WGN-AM