An Interview with Timothy Naftali

UPDATE: These are excerpts from a discussion that took place on April 8, 2011. Dr. Naftali was speaking then as the director of the Nixon Presidential Library and not as an independent historian.

Timothy Naftali was the Director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum from 2007 to 2011. A historian, Naftali is well-known for opening the Library’s Watergate gallery in March 2011, which gained extensive national coverage. Naftali’s specialty is counterterrorism and the Cold War, as well as the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He has an undergraduate degree from Yale University, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD from Harvard University. Naftali has also taught undergraduates at the University of Virginia, Yale, and the University of Hawaii. He has authored four books on topics such as counterterrorism and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and is currently working on a book about President John F. Kennedy to be published in 2013.

The Politic: Do you think President Nixon’s abuse of power was inevitable — that something would have come up during his administration that would have led him to abuse power anyway — or do you think there was something special about the Pentagon Papers [a classified study, published in 1971, of American involvement in the Vietnam War] that led him down this path?

Historians are always careful about saying something is inevitable. The president seemed to have – again, from the tapes – a set of ideas about what the presidency allowed him to do, and we see some evidence of some of this kind of activity in 1969 and 1970. But it wasn’t pushed to the limit. In the case of the IRS, the president would have liked the IRS to be more political. It wasn’t. He clearly was not happy with the IRS Commissioner, and this person got edged out. But later on the Congress could not find any evidence that there had been any systematic misuse of the IRS’s power to audit in that period.

We also do know that the president was interested in investigations. He had an investigator sent out to follow Teddy Kennedy in ’69. So there’s evidence of these kinds of concerns. But there’s no evidence that the White House would have crossed over the line into illegality, as opposed to just politically embarrassing actions.

Let me put it to you this way because I don’t want to weasel out of this question. If you accept that there was a pattern of behavior after the Pentagon Papers, which put the president on the road to resignation, you have to then ask yourself: Were the Pentagon Papers a catalyst, was it an accelerant, or was it a game changer? Because if it’s an accelerant, then this might have happened anyway – but maybe not until 1972, when the election was heating up. Was it a game changer? In other words, did it put the president in a mindset that reminded him of the challenges of the 1940s, when he felt that he was fighting Alger Hiss? I think that is something that we’ll be debating for a long time.

I’m confident, given the information available, that in the summer of 1971, the president began to undertake actions that made him very vulnerable to political scandal. He said in his memoirs that the reason he supported a cover-up of the second Watergate break-in was that he was concerned people would discover things that he knew about in 1971. So he began down that road. The question for historians is whether [Daniel] Ellsberg [who released the Pentagon Papers] pushed him down that road. Or given what he thought was permissible and necessary, would he have gone down that road on his own in 1972 fearing that he might not be reelected? I just don’t know.

The Politic: So you don’t have any idea?

Nixon and Johnson shortly before Nixon is sworn in as President

I think that putting the Pentagon Papers firmly in the narrative of Watergate is extremely significant. For people who were alive in that era I was 12 it was very confusing. There was just all this evidence of abuse and wire-tapping and it didn’t seem to make sense. Looking at it now, there is a pattern of behavior that you can see. And it does open up the White House to an enormous political vulnerability. You can link that to the Pentagon Papers.

The evidence now is pretty overwhelming that this pattern of behavior set up the political dilemma that led President Nixon to engage in an obstruction of justice in 1972; it’s that obstruction of justice that would be discovered in 1974 and would lead directly to his resignation. So you can connect these dots without straining logic, and that I think is significant.

The Politic: What is your opinion regarding government secrecy and what information should be kept secret?

Well, I oversee an archive. And our job is to make sure that we provide the public with all the information they need to know to request more information. I think that in the long term — with a few exceptions — everything should be accessible.

There is a balance in our society between what the government legitimately needs to keep secret for national security purposes, and the public’s ability to be sure that the government is not misusing the national security exemption to hide skullduggery and political malfeasance. It’s a balance, and there are different players in the balance. That’s how our system works and that’s where the press plays a role.

I would say that there is a very important need for materials to be kept secret for national security. But in a democracy, most if not all of those documents should be made available. The challenge is to figure out that time, and serious people spend a lot of time trying to figure that out.

The Politic: Do you think there’s a place in that process for leaks? Not necessarily the Pentagon Papers leak, but if government really is abusing power, do you think to some extent it’s good if the press gets access to some material that shows that the government is corrupt, even if it is classified?

We have laws that govern the protection of secrets, and they’re laws. And in our society you follow the law. There are many ways to express dissent legitimately and legally in our society – it’s a free society. Those should be the preferred means to do that.

The Politic: I’m not really talking about dissent, but a check on government power.

The whole Vietnam-Watergate era created a lot of mistrust in government, and for good reason. An example is the credibility gap between what Lyndon Johnson was saying and what was actually happening in Vietnam.

Watergate of course, and all of the revelations that came with Watergate, also led people to begin to mistrust the government. It was sort of a cynical period. If you want to get a real flavor for that period, just look at the movies that were popular. There was Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Capricorn One – the premise of which was that Americans never made it to the moon, but that the moon landings were actually shot in a sound studio. There was the sense that the government was not telling the truth.

As a result of that period and that climate, laws passed that protected private information, so it would be harder for government to abuse power by acquiring private information on you. The Freedom of Information Act was strengthened so that it was easier for you to acquire information about the government while it’s operating. And there were also efforts to make it possible for Congress to know more about the executive branch.

My point here is simply to say that our constitutional system developed to provide more of a check in the secret world than there had been before. And that’s one of the developments that come out of the Vietnam-Watergate era. And it was a very good outcome for the nation.

The Politic: How did the combined Pentagon Papers/Watergate incident impact the American people? 


Watergate caused the president to resign, which was unprecedented in American history. For the first time, the country had an unelected president who had been an unelected vice-president, a consequence of two different and unconnected political scandals. There was a desire for a cleansing of the political system…

The elections of President Carter and President Reagan just four years apart represent two such different approaches to the lessons of Vietnam. There was a national debate over what we should learn from Vietnam; arguably for the people of a certain generation, that debate hasn’t ended yet.

The Politic: Now that the Watergate exhibit is up in the Nixon Presidential Library, do you plan to focus on any other periods of Nixon’s life?

We hope to do the post-presidency next, as well as the domestic affairs gallery.

The Politic: Why the post-presidency?

Well the Library has a chance to tell the full story of the Cold War. Students your age and younger are not old enough to know anything about the Cold War. You didn’t experience it. But it was really important for this country.

Because President Nixon’s political career started in 1946, and because he lived until 1994, [his life encompasses] the full cycle of the Cold War. … The president, even as a former president, remained active in foreign policy and provided assistance and advice to the presidents who followed him. You can use that fact to provide all kinds of information to students about how the Cold War ended.

President Nixon’s career is very useful as a way of getting at basic questions like, “What was the Cold War?” “How did it end?” “What role did the United States play?” “What role did presidents play?” To cover all of that, we need to beef up the post-presidency period; I have some ideas about how to do that and how to teach kids about how the Cold War ended and how freedom developed around the world. It’s not just in Europe, but — because of Nixon lived so long — in South Africa, in Latin America, and in Asia. It’s a phenomenal opportunity. So that’s why.

Nixon shakes meets Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing

The Politic: On a different note, how much of Nixon’s foreign policy do you think was due to Henry Kissinger, and how much do you think was just because of Nixon?

What I’ve seen in the open materials and from talking to people is that [foreign policy] was President Nixon’s idea. He then presented his ideas to Henry Kissinger. For instance, the opening to China appears to have been something that President Nixon suggested to Kissinger. So that was a Nixon idea.

If you listen to the tapes, you will hear the president act as a strategist. But he doesn’t get into the details. Kissinger was in the details. There’s no question that Kissinger shaped the tactics and shaped the details, but it’s not clear to me the extent to which he shaped the strategy.

The Politic: But Nixon did shape some of the details when it came to Watergate, correct?

That’s a whole different story. Yes he did. Not the break-in, but a lot of the other abuses of governmental power that we associate with Watergate. There’s no evidence that he knew in advance of the Watergate break-in.

The Politic: Thank you so much for the interview.

Thank you very much.


Andrew Tran is a freshman in Berkeley College.


Published by Andrew Tran

Andrew Tran is a contributor to The Politic from Irvine, California. Contact him at

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