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Window Into Nixon White House Opens Wider

Documents released Tuesday from Richard M. Nixon's White House years shed new light on just how much the government struggled with growing public unrest over the protracted war in Vietnam.

The National Archives opened nearly 200 hours of White House tape recordings and 90,000 pages of documents.

A newly declassified memo to Nixon from his secretary of defense at the time reflects just how much the administration felt and discussed public pressure - even as it weighed U.S. geopolitical strategy - in anguished internal debate over war policy.

The seven-page document cautions the president against a proposal from military brass to conduct a high-intensity air and naval campaign against North Vietnam.

Then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said such a plan would involve the United States in "expanded costs and risks with no clear resultant military or political benefits."

With peace talks "seemingly stalled in Paris, with combat activity levels reduced in South Vietnam, but with seemingly rising levels of discontent in the United States, we should review the overall situation and determine the best course of action," the defense secretary writes the president on Oct. 8, 1969.

"The sum total of the considerations ... casts grave doubt on the validity and efficacy" of the proposal from the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, the memo concludes.

At the time, the Nixon administration was secretly conducting a massive bombing of Cambodia to destroy sanctuaries for enemy troops.

In regard to the war generally, "we must ... act in a fashion which will maintain the support of the American people," Laird wrote. The proposed bombing campaign of the Joint Chiefs sought to drive the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. The Nixon administration didn't go forward with the Joint Chiefs' plan. But in December 1972, it launched what became known as the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi when peace talks hit a dead end. The effort stirred even more anger with the American public. North Vietnam called it a terrorist act.

Laird became the biggest proponent of the concept called Vietnamization, urging Nixon to follow through on a policy of troop withdrawals, putting the burden of fighting the conflict on South Vietnamese troops.

The massive B-52 strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong in the last two weeks of December 1972 were a gambit to shock North Vietnam into a serious posture in peace negotiations. The newly released tapes cover the period leading up to the bombing as well as the execution and are expected to include Oval Office discussions about the assault.

The recordings are of Nixon's White House conversations from November 1972 to January 1973 and cover his re-election that fall, steps to bomb North Vietnam and also to make peace with it.

The new tapes also show that President Nixon, though famously reserved, did try on occasion to offer sympathy, as in a condolence call to Joe Biden, who had just lost his wife and daughter in a traffic accident.

Biden: Hello, Mr. President. How are you?

Nixon: Senator I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House were thinking about you and praying for you and also for your two children…. I'm sure that she'll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.

Biden: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you for your call.

The sympathy call came as U.S. B-52's were conducting the so-called "Christmas bombing" over Hanoi, reports CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante.

National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had announced that "Peace is at hand," but the Paris talks had stalled - and Nixon wanted a treaty before congress returned in January as he and Kissinger talked:

Kissinger: I would then recommend that we start bombing the Bejesus out of them within 48 hours.

Nixon: We're gonna continue the bombing. We're gonna continue mining until they get our prisoners back.

This unvarnished history exists only because, for a couple of decades, presidents recorded their meetings and phone calls, Plante reports. As far as we know, they don't anymore; and in many countries, those records would have remained state secrets.

Historians hoped for insights into the 1972 "Christmas bombing," one of the most controversial acts in a divisive war and the most concentrated air attack of the conflict.

The documents take historians closer than the latest tapes do to the Watergate scandal that gathered force in 1973 and peaked with Nixon's resignation in disgrace in August 1974.

The records include 65,000 pages from the files of J. Fred Buzhardt, Nixon's attorney in the titanic struggle over White House tapes that ultimately betrayed Nixon's complicity in the scandal.

Other Watergate figures are represented in the collection, too. Thousands of pages are being released from the files of Nixon aides Charles W. Colson, H.R. Haldeman, Patrick J. Buchanan and John W. Dean.

As well, there are more than 8,000 pages of correspondence from and to Nixon's political lieutenants at the Committee to Re-Elect the President, John Mitchell and committee deputy Jeb Magruder.

Burglars working for the committee broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in June 1972, setting off a chain of events that tied Nixon's top men and the president himself to a cover-up of illegal political machinations.

Over the years, a mountain of paper and tape has emerged shedding light on the inner workings of a president who operated in great secrecy but, ironically, seemed to chronicle every step for history.

This is the 12th release of Nixon White House tapes since 1980. More than 2,200 hours of tape recordings from the Nixon White House now are available, according to the National Archives, which joined the Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif., in releasing the material Tuesday.

All the recordings in the latest release are being put online while the papers can be seen at the two institutions.