In October 1971, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize the communist People’s Republic of China and to expel the Republic of China, aka Taiwan. It was an idealogical defeat for the United States, one that greatly frustrated pro-Taiwan, anti-UN California governor Ronald Reagan. A day after the vote, he rang up President Richard Nixon to vent about who he felt was to blame for the loss: the Tanzanian delegates who hadn’t voted in kind with the U.S. and who had danced in celebration when the victory was announced.
“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan says in a recording published by The Atlantic on Tuesday. “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon can be heard letting out a big guffaw.
After the Reagan phone call, Nixon had a conversation with Secretary of State William Rogers, also recorded for posterity, in which he parrots Reagan’s sentiments with slightly different language. “As you can imagine, there’s strong feeling that we just shouldn’t, as [Reagan] said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these…these, uh, these cannibals on television last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes…”
In yet another recording, Nixon friend confidante Bebe Rebozo tells the president that the African delegates’ reaction to the UN victory “proves how they ought to be still hanging from the trees by their tails.”
The recordings were resurfaced by NYU professor Tim Naftali, who served as director of the Nixon Presidential Library from 2007 to 2011. In the Atlantic piece, which he wrote, Naftali points out that Donald Trump’s recent racist comments are part of an “ugly tradition,” although Trump has aired his views in public rather than in private.
My piece in the @TheAtlantic on newly released segments from the Nixon tapes that provide searing examples of presidential [Nixon] and pre-presidential [Reagan] racism from 1971. Sadly, we have yet to outgrow this problem as a Nation. https://t.co/o9ukijSGAa
— Tim Naftali (@TimNaftali) July 30, 2019
According to Naftali, Nixon’s racism wasn’t isolated to a few off-hand comments. “Nixon believed in a hierarchy of races, with whites and Asians much higher up than people of African descent and Latinos,” Naftali says. “And he had convinced himself that it wasn’t racist to think black people, as a group, were inferior to whites, so long as he held them in paternalistic regard.” He adds that “Nixon never changed his mind about the supposed inherent inferiority of Africans.”
As for Reagan, Naftali says he didn’t leave behind as much demonstrable evidence of his thoughts about people of color. “Reagan’s racism appears to be documented only once on the Nixon tapes, and never in his own diaries,” Naftali writes. “His comment on African leaders, however, sheds new light on what lay behind the governor’s passionate defense of the apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa later in the 1970s.”
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