Lost Tape Reveals Ronald Reagan Calling Africans ‘Monkeys’


After Martin Luther King was shot and civil rights took its place in America’s history, the country put on a sheen of civility. Yet as black people will tell us, racism did not go away. It just lingered beneath the surface, in the shadows of those who used to openly attack people of color. Since then, the U.S.A has grown to be more tolerant in many ways, but Donald Trump ripped open that thin crust of racism and exposed a festering wound of white nationalists. Then, this lost racist tape was discovered.

The former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and clinical associate professor at NYU Tim Naftali wrote in The Atlantic magazine about a portion of a taped exchange between Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that was just released. The racist part had been held back until Naftali’s court order forced a review of the National Archives’ tapes. This one took place in October 1971. Naftali noted that Donald Trump had not been the only racist president:

‘…other presidents have subscribed to the racist belief that Africans or African Americans are somehow inferior. The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.’

The author said the National Archives just released the complete versions of the tape two weeks ago. This one revealed that Reagan was committed to a free Taiwan, but the United Nations (UN) took a vote to seat Beijing instead. He was furious. After the vote, part of the Tanzanian delegation began dancing at the General Assembly. Reagan “despised” the UN, calling it a “kangaroo court.” He wanted to withdraw. In his emotionally open raw state, he called Richard Nixon at the White House.

Reagan was frustrated at the delegates who had voted against Taiwan and smeared them terribly:

‘Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did…To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!’

Nixon did not consider himself a racist, but he gave a huge laugh. Earlier that day, he had called his Deputy NSA (National Security Adviser) Al Haig and canceled all meetings with “any African leader who had not voted with the U.S. on Taiwan:”

‘Don’t even submit to me the problem that it’s difficult to turn it off since we have already accepted it. Just turn it off, on the ground that I will be out of town.’

Nixon was wrong to blame any country from Africa. His State Department blamed British and French machinations “behind the scenes.” Nixon still blamed people from African nations:

‘Racist venting is still racist. But what happened next showed the dynamic power of racism when it finds enablers. Nixon used Reagan’s call as an excuse to adapt his language to make the same point to others.’

After talking to Reagan, Nixon talked to his Secretary of State William Rogers about withdrawing from the UN, and called the African delegations “cannibals:”

‘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— (stammer) —these, uh, these cannibals on television last night. Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes, and here the United States is going to submit its fate to that. You know, but that’s typical of a reaction, which is probably…’

Nixon called Rogers just two hours later and “repeated the story as if it would be new:”

‘Reagan called me last night. and I didn’t talk to him until this morning, but he is, of course, outraged. And I found out what outraged him, and I find this is typical of a lot of people: They saw it on television and, he said, “These cannibals jumping up and down and all that.” And apparently it was a pretty grotesque picture.’

Neither Nixon or Rogers has seen the images on TV. Nixon continued:

‘He practically got sick at his stomach, and that’s why he called. And he said, “It was a terrible scene.” And that sort of thing will have an emotional effect on people … as (Reagan) said, “This bunch of people who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kicking the United States in the teeth”… It was a terrible thing, they thought.’

A few weeks before Reagan’s call, Nixon spoke to Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The president liked Richard Herrnstein’s and Arthur Jensen’s theory that IQ was linked to race and wondered what the professor thought. Nixon said:

‘I have reluctantly concluded, based at least on the evidence presently before me … that what Herrnstein says, and what was said earlier by Jensen, is probably … very close to the truth.’

Nixon thought “whites and Asians much higher up than people of African descent and Latinos. And…it wasn’t racist to think black people, as a group, were inferior to whites, so long as he held them in paternalistic regard:”

‘Within groups, there are geniuses. There are geniuses within black groups. There are more within Asian groups … This is knowledge that is better not to know. Have in mind one fact: Did you realize there is not, of the 40 or 45—you’re at the United Nations—black countries that are represented there, not one has a president or a prime minister who is there as a result of a contested election such as we were insisting upon in Vietnam?’

Later in the conversation, Nixon said:

‘…I’m not saying that blacks cannot govern; I am saying they have a hell of a time. Now, that must demonstrate something.’

Why was this important? Naftali wrote:

‘Nixon’s racism matters to us because he allowed his views on race to shape U.S. policies—both foreign and domestic. His policies need to be viewed through that lens.’

Later, the author said:

‘…this sort of racism did not animate President Kennedy—indeed, early on he took political risks to help African leaders, most notably Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. But his reluctance to do more, sooner for African Americans cannot be separated from the paternalism he brought to the Oval Office or the prejudice held by parts of his Boston inner circle.’

Naftali continued:

‘Kennedy, at least, learned on the job that securing civil rights for all was a moral imperative. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a symptom of a sickness that dwells in American society, sometimes deeply and weakly, sometimes on the surface and feverishly. He bears responsibility for his own actions, but the tropes, the turns of phrase, the clumsy indirection, and worse, the gunk about American society that he and his most devoted followers pass off as ideas, have an ugly tradition. It is not at the core of the American tradition, for what makes us mighty and successful is that we are much more than the narrowest of our minds. But it remains an ineluctable part of American culture, nonetheless.’

The Mueller Report Adventures: In Bite-Sizes on this Facebook page. These quick, two-minute reads interpret the report in normal English for busy people. Mueller Bite-Sizes uncovers what is essentially a compelling spy mystery. Interestingly enough, Mueller Bite-Sizes can be read in any order.