Haldeman: "My point is Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn't know for sure that we don't have them around."
But Johnson did know that the file was no longer at the White House because he had ordered Walt Rostow to remove it in the final days of his own presidency.
On June 30, 1971, Nixon again berated Haldeman about the need to break into Brookings and "take it [the file] out." Nixon even suggested using former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (who later oversaw the two Watergate break-ins in May and June of 1972) to conduct the Brookings break-in.
"You talk to Hunt," Nixon told Haldeman. "I want the break-in. Hell, they do that. You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in. ... Just go in and take it. Go in around 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock."
Haldeman: "Make an inspection of the safe."
Nixon: "That's right. You go in to inspect the safe. I mean, clean it up." For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the planned Brookings break-in never took place, but Nixon's desperation to locate Johnson's peace-talk file was an important link in the chain of events that led to the creation of Nixon's Plumbers unit and then to Watergate.
Ironically, Walt Rostow made that link in his own mind when he had to decide what to do with "The 'X' Envelope" in the wake of Johnson's death on Jan. 22, 1973. On May 14, 1973, as Rostow pondered what to do, the Watergate scandal was spinning out of Nixon's control. In a three-page "memorandum for the record," Rostow reflected on what effect LBJ's public silence may have had on the unfolding Watergate scandal.
"I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972," Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon's operatives may have judged that their "enterprise with the South Vietnamese" -- in frustrating Johnson's last-ditch peace initiative -- had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
"Second, they got away with it," Rostow wrote. "Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit -- and beyond." [To read Rostow's memo, click here, here and here.]
But there was a third link between Nixon's Vietnam gambit and Watergate, one that Rostow did not know: In Nixon's desperate search for the missing file, he had brought in E. Howard Hunt and created the team of burglars that later got trapped in Watergate.
What to Do?
In spring 1973, Rostow apparently struggled with the question of what to do with "The 'X' Envelope" -- as the Watergate scandal continued to deepen. On June 25, 1973, fired White House counsel John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon's White House.
The very next day, as headlines of Dean's testimony filled the nation's newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with "The 'X' Envelope." In longhand, he wrote a "Top Secret" note which read, "To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973."
In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote:
"Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate. ...
"After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. ... If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated."