Newly released audio exposed what was meant to remain a private conversation between former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan calling African people “monkeys” who “feel uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
Reagan can be heard making the inflammatory remarks, which Nixon responds to with laughter in 48-year-old audio from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Just after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then-California Governor Reagan called Nixon at the White House Oct. 26, 1971, to air out frustrations about delegates who voted against the United States.
He also focused on members of the Tanzanian delegation who started dancing in the General Assembly when the United Nations took a vote to seat a delegation from Beijing instead of Taiwan in 1971, according to a New York University history professor who wrote about the audio in The Atlantic.
“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said.
“Yeah,” Nixon responded.
“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries. Damn them,” Reagan said. “They feel uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
Nixon chuckled before he replied, “Ronald, the tail wags the dog there. Doesn’t it? The tail wags the dog.”
Tim Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history at New York University, found the audio while directing the Nixon Presidential Library from 2007 to 2011.
He wrote a guest post published Tuesday in The Atlantic about his process to release the audio publicly.
“When the National Archives originally released the tape of this conversation, in 2000, the racist portion was apparently withheld to protect Reagan’s privacy,” Naftali wrote.
At least four years after a chronological review of the tapes was completed in 2013, the National Archives began a general review of the earliest Nixon tapes in 2017 or 2018, Naftali wrote.
“Reagan’s death, in 2004, eliminated the privacy concerns,” he wrote. “Last year, as a researcher, I requested that the conversations involving Ronald Reagan be rereviewed, and two weeks ago, the National Archives released complete versions of the October 1971 conversations involving Reagan online.”
Naftali argued in The Atlantic that the conversation between Reagan and Nixon was much bigger than just “racist venting.”
“Had the story stopped there, it would have been bad enough. Racist venting is still racist,” he said. “But what happened next showed the dynamic power of racism when it finds enablers.”
Naftali said Nixon used Reagan’s call, adapted the language and made a similar point to others.
“Right after hanging up with Reagan, Nixon sought out Secretary of State William Rogers,” Naftali said.
Nixon can be heard in that call calling Reagan’s reaction “typical.”
Nixon added in his description of the conversation with Reagan: “He practically got sick at his stomach, and that’s why he called. And he said, ‘It was a terrible scene.’ And that sort of thing will have an emotional effect on people. … This bunch of people who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kicking the United States in the teeth. … It was a terrible thing, they thought.”