It was 40 years ago today when New York State police raided a state prison in Attica, New York, ending a prison uprising to protest inhumane conditions at the facility. For four days the unarmed prisoners held 39 prison guards hostage. On Sept. 13, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered armed state troopers to raid the prison. Troopers then shot indiscriminately more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition. In the end, 39 men would die, including 29 prisoners and 10 guards. After the shooting stopped, police beat and tortured scores of more prisoners. Newly uncovered audio recordings reveal that President Richard Nixon enthusiastically supported the violent operation when he spoke by phone with New York Governor Rockefeller on the day of the raid. Rockefeller confides in the president that before the raid he thought it was possible that as many as 300 prisoners could be killed, but went ahead with the operation anyway. This tape was obtained by University of New Hampshire at Manchester historian Theresa Lynch.
Operator: "I have Governor Rockefeller for you, sir."
President Richard Nixon: "Hello."
Operator: "There you are."
Nelson Rockefeller: "Mr. President."
Nixon: "I know you’ve had a hard day, but I want you to know that I just back you to the hilt, and I was sitting here talking to Bob Haldeman. I didn’t get your call because I’ve had a Cabinet meeting, and then I had a meeting with business leaders right afterwards, and I’ve been—I just got out. But the courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says. I don’t care what they say. I think that you had to do it that way, because if you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have had prisons in an uproar all over this country."
Rockefeller: "That’s right, absolutely."
Nixon: "And you did the right thing. It’s a tragedy that these poor fellows were shot, but I just want you to know that’s my view, and I’ve told the troops around here they’re to back that right to the hilt."
Rockefeller: "Well, aren’t you great, Mr. President. I only called you because I wanted to alert you that we were going in."
Rockefeller: "And when we went in, we couldn’t tell whether all 39 hostages would be killed and maybe two or three hundred prisoners."
Throughout the tapes, President Nixon discusses the racial component of the uprising, describing the prison rebellion as "basically a black thing." Nixon would go on to erroneously state that all of the victims of crackdown were African American, downplaying the multiracial leadership within Attica at the time of the uprising.
Nixon: "Tell me this, is this—are these primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?"
Rockefeller: "Oh, yes, the whole thing was led by the blacks."
Nixon: "I’ll be darned. Are all the prisoners that were killed blacks? Or are there any whites?"
Rockefeller: "I haven’t got that report, but I have to—I would say, just offhand, yes."
Rockefeller: "We did it, though, only when they were in the process of murdering the guards, or when they were attacking our people as they came in to get the guards."
Nixon: "You had to do it."
Rockefeller: "And otherwise we recaptured all the cell blocks and so forth without shooting a shot. And no troopers were wounded. One of them—well, one of them was in the leg. But..."
Nixon: "Only one trooper was wounded?"
Rockefeller: "That’s right."
Nixon: "Good, good, good."
Rockefeller: "It really was a beautiful operation."