Nixon said he saw the Chinese as potentially "the ablest people in the world." He cautioned his diplomat that the Chinese were "very subtle," explaining: "They're not like the Russians, who of course slobber at flattery and all that sort of thing."

He instructed Bruce to report to him through back channels, avoiding the State Department and its feared propensity to leak.

"I'm supposed to be the No. 1 Red-baiter in the country," Nixon said. "I have earned that reputation for what you know very well. Had we just continued the policy of just a silent confrontation and almost non-communication with the [People's Republic of China] … in the end we would reap a nuclear war. No question."

On April 30, 1973, Nixon spoke by phone to top aide H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, who along with aide John Ehrlichman had just been forced to resign by the Watergate scandal. Both of them would be convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

"Hope I didn't let you down," Nixon told Haldeman, adding: "God damn it, I'm never gonna discuss this son of a bitch Watergate thing again. Never, never, never, never." He said, "You're a strong man, God damn it. And I love you. And I, I love John and all the rest and by God, keep the faith."

The day after, Nixon tells Rep. Gerald Ford that firing his aides was "the most painful thing I've ever done," adding: "But they had to be sacked."

"It just made me sit there, damn near cry, because I knew the problem it was, and I think both of them have done a good job," Ford replied. "Despite one of these, these damn critics."

Nixon's secret tapes helped drive him from office the next year; Ford, who had become vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, assumed the presidency and granted him a pardon.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com