On April 29, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced that he would release transcripts of 46 taped White House conversations in response to a Watergate trial subpoena issued in July 1973. The House Judiciary committee accepted 1,200 pages of transcripts the next day, but insisted that the tapes be turned over as well. How were these tapes even discovered?
People didn’t know that Nixon had a taping system in the Oval Office, outside of a few trusted advisors. One who did know was Alexander Butterfield, former White House deputy chief of staff for Nixon. While not included on the interrogation list prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, he was eventually called to appear on Friday, July 13.
He had decided that he would volunteer nothing, but if directly asked, he would answer. Butterfield recalled his testimony in a Washington Post article published on June 14, 2012:
After a few hours of questions, Butterfield felt he was in the clear. Then the inquiries turned to the president’s Dictaphone…“Were there ever any recording devices other than the Dictaphone system you mentioned,” he recalled being asked…Butterfield froze. This was a direct question. He hesitated, took a deep breath and answered, “Yes.” The room fell silent. The tension was palpable. “They were young,” Butterfield told me. “They were ecstatic. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s be serious. I know this information I gave you is monumental. Let’s think this through.’ ”
But it was too late. The investigators instantly understood the significance of Butterfield’s answer.
You can read about Nixon’s announcement to release the tapes and how he agreed to comply with the Supreme Court July 24, 1974 below:
Listen to the historical tapes yourself through the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum archives:
A seemingly offhand question and a direct answer began a domino effect of more investigations, court orders, testimony, and reporting that culminated 13 months later to the president’s resignation. Can you think of any other seemingly “small” moments that led to great changes throughout history?
Share your thoughts with your classmates!