WASHINGTON — Even after Richard Nixon's secret war in Cambodia became known, the president persisted in deception. "Publicly, we say one thing," he told aides. "Actually, we do another."
Newly declassified documents from the Nixon years shed light on the Vietnam War, the struggle with the Soviet Union for global influence and a president who tried not to let public and congressional opinion get in his way.
They also show an administration determined to win re-election in 1972, with Nixon aides seeking ways to use Jimmy Hoffa to tap into the labor movement. The former Teamsters president had been pardoned by Nixon in 1971.
The release Wednesday of some 50,000 pages by the National Archives means about half the national security files from the Nixon era now are public.
On May 31, 1970, a month after Nixon went on TV to defend the previously secret U.S. bombings and troop movements in Cambodia, asserting that he would not let his nation become "a pitiful, helpless giant," the president met his top military and national security aides at the Western White House in San Clemente, Calif.
Revelation of the operation had sparked protests and congressional action against what many lawmakers from both parties considered an illegal war. Nixon noted that Americans believed the Cambodian operation was "all but over," even as 14,000 troops were engaged across the border in a hunt for North Vietnamese operating there.
In a memo from the meeting marked "Eyes Only, Top Secret Sensitive," Nixon told his military men to continue doing what was necessary in Cambodia, but to say for public consumption that the United States was merely providing support to South Vietnamese forces when necessary to protect U.S. troops.
"That is what we will say publicly," he asserted. "But now, let's talk about what we will actually do."
He instructed: "I want you to put the air in there and not spare the horses. Do not withdraw for domestic reasons but only for military reasons."
"We have taken all the heat on this one." He went on: "Just do it. Don't come back and ask permission each time."
The military chiefs, more than their civilian bosses, expressed worry about how the war was going. "If the enemy is allowed to recover this time, we are through," said Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the naval operations chief who two months later would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Nixon told his aides to plan offensive operations in neutral Laos, continue U.S. air operations in Cambodia and work on a summer offensive in South Vietnam. "We cannot sit here and let the enemy believe that Cambodia is our last gasp."
The papers also are thick with minute aspects of Vietnam war-making and diplomacy. They show growing worries about the ability of the South Vietnamese government years before it fell, but also seek encouragement wherever it could be found.
One May 1970 cable marked "For Confidential Eyes Only" provided national security adviser Henry Kissinger with an inventory of captured weapons, supplies and food. It noted, for example, that the 1,652.5 tons of rice seized so far would "feed over 6,000 enemy soldiers for a full year at the full ration."
The papers also show concern that superpower rivalry would take a dangerous turn if events in the Middle East got out of hand. Israel's secretive nuclear program quietly alarmed Washington.
One U.S. official, reporting to Secretary of State William Rogers in 1969, said Israel's public and private assurances that it would not introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East could not be believed.
The memo by undersecretary Joseph J. Sisco said U.S. intelligence believed "Israel is rapidly developing a capability to produce and deploy nuclear weapons," and this could spark a Middle East nuclear arms race drawing Arab nations under a Soviet "nuclear umbrella."
Sisco's memo foresaw a chain of troubles if Israel could not be restrained.
"Israel's possession of nuclear weapons would do nothing to deter Arab guerrilla warfare or reduce Arab irrationality; on the contrary it would add a dangerous new element to Arab-Israeli hostility with added risk of confrontation between the U.S. and U.S.S.R," Sisco said.
To this day, Israel officially neither confirms nor denies its nuclear status and the actual size of its stockpile remains uncertain. But it has long been considered the only nation in the Middle East with atomic weapons.
"For a long time, the U.S. kept secret its assessment of the status of the Israeli nuclear program," said William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archives at George Washington University. The paper shows "Israel could develop nuclear weapons fairly quickly, something that isn't widely known."
On the political front, the documents show the Nixon administration saw Hoffa as a potential help to the re-election campaign.
A memo on March 19, 1971, from White House counsel John Dean to Attorney General John Mitchell spelled out the political calculation after Hoffa's wife and son requested a meeting with Nixon to ask for leniency. At the time, White House officials were concerned that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., could mount a fierce challenge for the presidency.
"If he is paroled, we may get some credit and he will start off with a constructive relationship with the president. He would be a dedicated factor to box in Kennedy, and he might eventually be key for us to organized labor," Dean wrote.
Nixon pardoned Hoffa in December 1971 for convictions on jury tampering and mail fraud charges, then got the Teamsters' endorsement a year later. Critics have long contended that administration officials cut a deal in exchange for political favors, though that never has been proved.