It has emerged that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once described African delegates to the United Nations as “monkeys”, a revelation that analysts say should reignite the conversations about presidential views on race.
Reagan made this comment in 1971 while serving as governor of California, newly-unearthed tapes released by a U.S. magazine, The Atlantic, have shown.
It was October 1971, and the United Nations (UN) had just voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China but had expelled Taiwan. Reagan, who was then a supporter of Taiwan, was enraged that delegations from Africa at the UN did not support the U.S. position that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent state.
He was apparently further frustrated upon seeing members of the Tanzanian delegation celebrating the UN decision to support China over Taiwan. Reagan called the then-President Richard Nixon the following day to vent his anger over the development.
“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected.
“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan said.
Nixon replied with a big laugh.
“Well and then they — the tail wags the dog, doesn’t it? The tail wags the dog,” Nixon said.
Tim Naftali, a history professor at New York University and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, unearthed the recording and worked to get it released before giving details in an article for The Atlantic.
He said the National Archives held on to the racist comments when the recording was first released in 2000, a move which was apparently in the protection of Reagan’s privacy.
But after Reagan’s death in 2004, and following continued review process by the National Archives, Naftali said he was able to get the full conversation released.
“I requested that the conversations involving Ronald Reagan be re-reviewed and, two weeks ago, the National Archives released complete versions,” he said.
According to Naftali, when Reagan called Nixon, it was to press him to withdraw from the United Nations, but Nixon later indicated that Reagan’s complaints about Africans became the primary purpose of the call.
After the call with Reagan, Nixon, who would quit as president in 1974, phoned Secretary of State William Rogers and then used the same language Reagan had used in expressing his frustrations over the UN decision.
“As you can imagine,” Nixon confided in Rogers, “there’s strong feeling that we just shouldn’t, as [Reagan] said, he saw these, as he said, he saw these—” Nixon stammered, choosing his words carefully—“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.”
Naftali said Nixon had, even before his phone call with Reagan, requested cancellations of any future meetings with any African leader who had not voted with the U.S. on Taiwan, even if they had already been scheduled.
“Don’t even submit to me the problem that it’s difficult to turn it off since we have already accepted it,” Nixon exclaimed. “Just turn it off, on the ground that I will be out of town.”
Reagan, an American politician and film actor served as the 40th president of the U.S. from 1981 to 1989. Ahead of his presidency, he was a Hollywood actor and union leader before serving as the 33rd governor of California from 1967 to 1975. He had publicly defended the apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa in the 1970s.
Reagan was also against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and had actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while serving as president. He also opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., according to The Washington Post.
Naftali wrote in The Atlantic that unlike Nixon’s racist views that have been well documented, “Reagan’s racism appears to be documented only once on the Nixon tapes, and never in his own diaries.”
“These new tapes are a stark reminder of the racism that often lay behind the public rhetoric of American presidents,” Naftali said.
Reagan passed away in 2004 aged 93 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. His biographers are, at the moment, trying to reconcile the newly-unearthed audio with the president’s personal record.