Ronald Reagan once described African delegates to the UN as ‘monkeys’ who were ‘still uncomfortable wearing shoes’ in a shocking phone call with President Nixon, according to newly released tapes.
The astonishing outburst came in 1971, the morning after the UN had voted to recognize the Communist government of mainland China and expel Taiwan.
President Nixon had led opposition to the move, but it passed after gaining majority support in Europe, Asia and among a majority of African countries.
After the vote had passed, members of the Tanzanian delegation danced in the aisles of the General Assembly.
Outraged with the vote, Reagan who was then governor of California, called Nixon to vent his fury and drop the slur, according to The Atlantic.
Nixon went on to adopt Reagan’s offensive language and called the African delegates ‘cannibals’ in a subsequent phone call.
Ronald Reagan once described African delegates to the UN as ‘monkeys’ who were ‘still uncomfortable wearing shoes’ in a shocking phone call with President Nixon in 1971, according to newly released tapes.
Nixon was unavailable for a phone call the evening of the UN vote on October 25, 1971 but Reagan was able to get a hold of him the following morning. Nixon recorded that call which later found its way into the archive of the Nixon Presidential Library.
In it, Reagan says: ‘Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did…’
‘Yeah,’ Nixon interjects.
‘To see those, those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!’ Reagan concludes, followed by Nixon laughing.
‘The tail wags the dog, there, doesn’t it?’ Nixon adds.
‘Yeah,’ Reagan says.
Nixon repeats: ‘The tail wags the dog.’
In that October 25, 1971 UN Vote, the Assembly voted to recognize Communist China with 76 votes in favor, 35 against, 17 abstentions and three non-votes.
African countries that voted in favor included Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Cameroon.
The tape was initially published in 2000 but the racist portion was withheld to protect Reagan’s privacy, the Atlantic reports. Reagan passed away in 2004.
A subsequent review after Reagan’s death confirmed that the tape could be published, and two weeks ago it was released.
‘It was worse than I expected. It was the combination of the slur by Reagan and then Nixon’s repeating it, not once but twice in later conversations,’ NYU history professor Tim Naftali, who was former director of the Nixon library and requested the tape review, said to the Washington Post.
‘This was not just revealing about what Ronald Reagan thought about Africans in 1971, and arguably later, it was also a reminder of how Nixon could hold racist views but not think of himself as a racist,’ he added.
According to Naftali, Reagan’s call touched a nerve with Nixon and the president went on to hold the African nations responsible for the loss.
The UN motion passed by 76 votes to 35, with a majority of African countries voting in favour. Opposition was led by America, and the loss left Nixon incensed
After the call with Reagan, Nixon phoned Secretary of State William Rogers and adopted Reagan’s offensive language to complain about ‘cannibals jumping up and down’ after the vote passed.
‘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, and here the United States is going to submit its fate to that,” and so forth and so on,’ Nixon said in his recorded phone call with Rogers.
In a second phone call with Rogers that same day, Nixon reiterated Reagan’s disgust saying he ‘practically got sick to his stomach’. Nixon noted the California governor said ‘this bunch of people who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kicking the United States in the teeth’.
The phone recording has come as a shock to Reagan biographers and historians as Reagan’s personal record appears to be free of such racist and offensive rhetoric. Nixon’s racist views, on the other hand, have been well documented.
However, Reagan did support the apartheid government of South Africa and played up the trope of the ‘welfare queen’ during his time in politics.
Many in the African American community also said Reagan exploited racism for political gain, kicking off his presidential campaign in 1980 in a Ku Klux Klan dominated town of Mississippi.
‘I leave it to Reagan scholars to take this and then connect it to comments about welfare queens and what this may or may not say about Reagan’s general view of race,’ Naftali said.
‘In all of my very careful research into his private papers, I never found an instance where I felt that Reagan was racist…So this is shocking,’ Bob Spitz, the author of ‘Reagan: An American Journey’ said to the paper.
Nixon later rephrased Reagan’s words when he complained to Secretary of State William P. Rogers (right) about ‘cannibals jumping up and down’ after the motion passed
Nixon had his opinions on the UN and even before his phone call with Reagan, had already requested to cancel future meetings with African leaders whose votes strayed from that of the U.S.
However, African delegates were not the only parties responsible for the vote. The British and French also influenced the vote in favor of China instead of Taiwan.
Nixon never considered himself a racist, but his policies have been criticized for his welfare reform and war on drugs.
Until 1971, the UN had recognized the Republic of China as the only legitimate government in China, over the People’s Republic of China.
But in reality, the Communist People’s Republic had been in sole control of mainland China since 1949, when it emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, while the Republic administered only to Taiwan and other small islands.
As a result, the People’s Republic was granted a representative at the UN, and the Republic stripped of its seat.
The move also granted the People’s Republic a seat on the UN Security Council.