Watergate opened to a flood of scholars

Nixon tapes can now be heard by all, reports Rupert Cornwell in Washington
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Only a fortnight ago, the US National Archives completed its move to a huge, brand-new headquarters in suburban Maryland. Yesterday it made available to scholars and general public alike one of its choicest treasures: Part one of Richard Nixon's White House tapes, including June 23, 1972 - the "smoking gun" that made the 37th President's resignation inevitable.

This first of five batches cover 201 hours of the 3,700 hours of Oval Office conversations that Mr Nixon secretly recorded, doubtless in the hope of securing his niche in history but in fact guaranteeing his downfall once their existence had become known.

Watergate buffs should be warned: to listen to the tapes you must go to the archives in person. They cannot be recorded, nor can they be borrowed like a book from a public library. Nor is their quality of digital CD standards, thanks to the rasping, elliptical speaking style of the man, and the propensity of the recording device to pick up every single sound in the room and beyond.

But the fatal words of that June day, just six days after the break-in at Democratic Party offices here, are as unarguably damning now as they were 22 years ago to the Congressional committee which had to recommend on his impeachment.

Call the CIA people, Mr Nixon instructed, and get them to tell the FBI to ease off its investigation into the burglars because it might lead to "the whole Bay of Pigs thing". Then a few moments later, he was even more explicit: the CIA "should call in the FBI and say, `Don't go further into this case, period'." Contrary to his every assertion, the President had known of, indeed orchestrated a cover-up less than a week after the crime.

The tapes finally entered the public domain last April when the Nixon estate gave up a 21 year fight, and agreed to make available all but the most private of the conversations.

In fact crucial excerpts of the tapes, including the "smoking gun" segment, can already be heard at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.

But for enthusiasts of American history, the tapes are the tip of the iceberg. The new Archives building will house, inter alia, the records and evidence of the Kennedy assassination, copious captured German war records, and Civil War memorabilia - all among 2 billion pages of documents, 8 million photos, 13 million maps and over 200,000 sound recordings.