The 42nd anniversary of the Watergate burglary reminded me of Richard Nixon’s obsession with the “whole of Bay of Pigs thing.”
H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff for Nixon, wrote in his memoirs that he had come to the conclusion that his boss used the phrase as a kind of coded reference to the assassination of President Kennedy.
A tape of a conversation between Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms in October 1971 lends credence to the notion. Listen to the tape, published online by Luke A. Nichter, a history professor at Texas A&M University.
Nixon, it is clear, was interested in what he called the ‘Who Shot John?’ angle.
‘The Dirty Tricks Department’
Before Helms arrives, Nixon’s aide John Erlichman tells the president Helms has been stonewalling his request for documents about the Bay of Pigs. Erlichman makes it clear that he didn’t tell Helms his real purpose. “I was kind of mysterious about it,” he explains.
But they think they have leverage on Helms. At one point Ehrlichman says, “Helms is scared to death of this guy [Howard] Hunt we got working for us because he knows where a lot of the bodies are buried,” This is spoken eight months before Hunt and six other men were arrested at the Watergate office complex for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
When then CIA director arrives, Nixon offers some typically awkward and forced small talk about baseball player Ted Williams and then gets down to business. He says he wants to address the “sensitive” issue of the documents he is seeking. He assures Helms that he fully supports what he calls “the dirty tricks department.”
“I know what happened in Iran and I know what happened in Guatemala and I totally approve of that. I know what happened with the planning of the Bay of Pigs,” he says.”The problem was not the CIA. My interest there is solely to know the facts.”
When Helms doesn’t say much, Nixon presses his case by reminding Helms he is the president.
“First. This is my information,” he says, “Second, I need it for a defensive reasons, for a negotiation.”
When those arguments elicit no response. Nixon tries another justification: He needs the information to protect the CIA. In making his case, Nixon talks about what might be in the records and he utters these words (at around 17:00 in the file):
“The ‘Who shot John?’ angle. Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Nixon to blame? Etc, etc. It may become, not by me, a very vigorous issue but if it does, I need to know what is necessary to protect frankly the intelligence gathering and the Dirty Tricks Department and I will protect it. I have done more than my share of lying to protect you, and I believe it’s totally right to do it.”
What does it mean?
The reference to ‘Who shot John” can only be a reference to Kennedy’s assassination. It seems clear that Nixon thought that the CIA records on the Bay of Pigs might contain information about who was behind the assassination. This indicates, at a minimum, that Nixon did not have confidence in the official theory that Kennedy was killed by one man alone. It suggests that he thought the CIA knew more about JFK’s assassination than it let on. And, it is quite clear, that If the CIA’s actions did become an issue, Nixon would protect “the Dirty Tricks Department.”
Nixon never got the documents he wanted. After the arrest of the Watergate burglars on June 17, 1972, Nixon tried to enlist Helms in a cover-up. In a meeting on June 20, Nixon said an investigation of the burglary could “open up the whole Bay of Pigs thing,” causing the usually unflappable Helms to shout, “This has nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs!”
In his posthumous memoir, Helms claimed that he did not know what Nixon was referring to. But if he remembered the conversation of October 10, 1971, he knew exactly what Nixon was talking about.