As It Happens

Why a historian fought to release tape of Ronald Reagan's racist comments to Richard Nixon

In newly released tapes, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan can be heard calling United Nations delegates from Tanzania "monkeys" who are "still uncomfortable wearing shoes" — eliciting laughter from then-President Richard Nixon. 

Tim Naftali says it's important for people to know Reagan 'was capable of this kind of ugly, overt racism'

President Ronald Reagan speaking on the phone as he tries to drum up support for his budget proposals as his votes trail in the election in 1981. In newly released tapes, then-California governor Reagan called UN delegates from Tanzanian 'monkeys.' (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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In newly released tapes, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan can be heard calling United Nations delegates from Tanzania "monkeys" who are "still uncomfortable wearing shoes" — eliciting laughter from then-President Richard Nixon. 

The comments were made in October 1971 when Reagan was governor of California, but were only released by The National Archive two weeks ago.

Nixon's tapes from the time were originally released in 2000, but the racist portion was redacted over privacy concerns for Reagan. When the former president died in 2004, the privacy concern was eliminated. 

Tim Naftali, director of the Nixon Presidential Library from 2007 until 2011, pushed for the release of the tape. He wrote about it in the Atlantic. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the context in which those comments were made?

Ronald Reagan was a staunch defender of Taiwan Nationalist China. The UN, in a surprise vote, had expelled Taiwan and replaced it with the People's Republic of China.

Reagan was upset and reached out to President Nixon to tell him the United States should basically withdraw, at least from full participation, in the United Nations. That was the context for the call.

What happens is it devolves into a racist discussion about the African delegates who voted against Taiwan and by implication against the United States.

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan described Tanzanian delegates to the UN as "monkeys" in a phone call to President Richard Nixon on Oct. 26, 1971. 0:13

But there was also another call, though, that Nixon had with the secretary of state William Rogers to sort of relay some of that to him. Can you tell us a bit about that call?

If Governor Reagan's racist comment had not found a welcome ear in Nixon, it would have stopped there.

But what happens is that Nixon — and we know this from previous tapes, Nixon had a bigoted view of African leaders and of African-Americans — he was delighted by what Ronald Reagan had said.

He understood that his secretary of state, a patrician who was also not a racist, would not want to hear this kind of language from the president. So what he's doing is he's happily repeating in his own way what Ronald Reagan had said.

And by the way, he doesn't just do this once. ... He does it twice on the tape. He's really delighted by what Reagan said.

After Ronald Reagan's racist remarks, President Richard Nixon calls his Secretary of State William Rogers to relay the story. 0:32

When you heard the tape, I mean particularly of Ronald Reagan, what did you think?

I was appalled.

There is a debate among scholars about the inner-workings of Reagan's brain and what lay beneath his public rhetoric and to what extent were some of the decisions he made — where he started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964, his constant hammering on so-called issue of "welfare queens," the way in which he handled welfare — to what extent did this mean that secretly he was a racist?

This is one data point. It doesn't prove it. But I think it's important for people now who are trying to understand Reagan to keep in mind he was capable of this kind of ugly, overt racism.

After hearing Reagan's racist remarks, former U.S. president Richard Nixon repeats the story to his secretary of state. (The Associated Press)

Why was it so important to you to get access to those [recordings]?

Because I feel that this is historically important to build a broader, more complex picture of our presidents, of American presidents.

I really believe that in this country, it is important to have a national debate and discussion about how we change and don't change as a nation, and that we have to face up to the fact that there is sometimes a chasm between the public rhetoric of our leaders and their private thoughts. And we then have to think about the consequences of that chasm.

In the case of Nixon —  and I know a lot more about Nixon than Reagan — Richard Nixon on tape makes it clear that his bigoted views of people of colour are shaping the way in which he does social policy and his foreign policy. As a student of Nixon, as a student of American foreign policy in that era and his domestic policy, you need to know that. You need to examine the decisions through the prism and understand that they were done through the prism of Nixon's bigotry.

I'm not saying that's what we need to do for Reagan, but this data point's important for those of us who work on the Reagan era and want to understand it better, and for people now who want to understand what lies behind the current president's racially charged and at times racist tweets.

Tim Naftali is a presidential historian and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Let's go back to the present day then and the tweets we've been seeing from the current president, about those four congresswomen known as The Squad, about [Congressman] Elijah Cummings and Baltimore. When you're seeing those tweets and hearing that from him —  what, as a presidential historian ... do you make of it?

What I make of it are two things. One is that he is adopting the tropes — that is, metaphors, turns of phrase — that you can see in the language of the Dixiecrats. Those are the southern white supremacists, Southern Democrats of an earlier generation.

He is also, as president, well aware of the reaction. Don't forget he is supposed to be president of all Americans. He knows that he is triggering anger, disappointment and fear among people of colour, and actually most Americans and their allies. And yet he doubles down.

That must mean that either he believes this racist rhetoric, this nonsense. Or worse — well, just as bad — he's a cynic and he does not care about the consequences for the United States of using such ugly, divisive language.

In either case, the poison of racism is entering the policymaking system in his administration as it did in the Nixon administration and may have done in the Reagan administration. And that's a worrisome proposition.

Written by Sarah Jackson and Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.