The American Presidency: Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon, tainted by Watergate, is widely seen as the villain amongst post-war presidents. But are we in danger of neglecting his positive achievements - the creation of a new Republican Majority, the development of détente and the establishment of the relations of China?

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Professor Vernon Bogdanor


I hope I will be forgiven for beginning with a personal reminiscence, because I first went to America as a very young student, when Richard Nixon was President.  I was at Harvard, which is a North-Eastern liberal university that Richard Nixon really did not care for very much.  I was looked after by a very kindly, mild-mannered, elderly, white-haired professor, who showed me round.  At one point, we were talking and I just happened to mention something about the Government of the United States and Richard Nixon, and he burst out to me - "I loathe Richard Nixon!  I hate Richard Nixon!" he said, with real vehemence. 

I think it is true to say there is no other American President in the 20thCentury who has been so deeply disliked, and I think even people who are not interested in America very much remember Nixon for just one thing: that he is the only President forced to resign before the end of his term.  This happened in August 1974, almost two-and-a-half years before the end of his term, which would have been at the beginning of 1977.  He had to resign because of Watergate, which is a shorthand term for the presidential cover-up of a burglary of the Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the main opponent opposition party, and also because of a widespread abuse of power.  So this is a picture of someone who was greatly disliked.

It is fair to say that Nixon was not hated everywhere, and indeed, when he was Eisenhower's Vice-President, in 1958, he paid a visit to the Eastern Block, where he had a famous debate with Khrushchev at an international exhibition of American goods in Moscow.  When in the Eastern Block, he visited Warsaw, and to everyone's surprise, and it was certainly a surprise to the authorities, people burst out from the crowds and handed Nixon flowers and said, "Long live Eisenhower! Long live Nixon! May you live 1,000 years!"  So he was popular in one part of the world at least - Communist Poland. 

Also, one has to say, in America, if he was deeply loathed by some, he was very popular amongst others.  He became a Congressman at the age of 33, a Senator at the age of 37, Vice-President at the age of 40, the second youngest in American history, and between 1952 and 1972, he was on the Republican ticket at every presidential election, except for 1964, and he had another record, which must be nearly unique I expect: he won every single primary election he fought in.  The purpose of what I am going to say today is to try and explain this paradox, of why he was, by some, so deeply loathed - I don't think that's too strong a word - but also, amongst others, so very popular.

Richard Nixon was born in 1913 at Yorba Linda, which is about 100 miles from Los Angeles.  He was born on his father's lemon ranch.  That was unsuccessful, and his parents moved and established a grocery store, which was not particularly successful either, and Nixon had to help out in the store and got the habit of hard work that did so much for him in his political career.  He had a very difficult upbringing.  His parents, remarkably, were Quakers.  His mother was a pacifist, and one thing Nixon certainly was not was a pacifist, but he always claimed he owed something to his Quaker heritage.

He won places at Harvard and Yale, but he could not afford to go there, and he therefore attended instead a small Quaker college in California called Whittier College.  After that he went to Duke University Law School, where he established himself very early on as both strong academically and as a very powerful debater.

There was one episode at Whittier College which I think has some symbolic importance for his future.  There was a smart dining club there called the Franklins, and they would not take Nixon.  They thought this grocer's son was not really smart enough for this dining club.  He was looked down upon.  So Nixon responded by setting up his own dining club, called the Orthogonians.  This symbolised much of his future political career: he was looked down on by the elite as a poor boy from difficult circumstances, but he would get his own back on those who looked down on him.  That, in a sense, reflects his whole career in the Republican Party.

He was a representative of those who were looked down on by the smart New Deal liberals who were dominating Washington, the Democratic majority at the time he grew up, but he represented those who resented being looked down on, who were perhaps a majority of the Americans, but even if they were a majority of the Americans, they felt themselves part of an embattled minority.

Nixon, after leaving Law School, had further snubs, because he had a fine academic record and he sought a place in a smart New York or Washington law firm, but was continually rejected.  He then settled in California and joined a law firm there.

When the War broke out, he came to Washington and worked in the Office of Price Administration, which gave him a lifelong distaste for bureaucracy, and he did not like Government running things.  Then he joined the Navy and became a commander.

After leaving the War, he returned to California, where he was asked by the local Republican Committee if he would fight against a very popular Congressman, called Jerry Voorhis, who had been in the House for ten years and it looked as if he would be difficult to beat.  Nixon said he would, and this campaign was very typical of those he fought because his main method of fighting an election was to denigrate his opponents; not to put forward his own views or policies, except in very broad, general terms, but to denigrate his opponent, in particular by casting doubt on his opponents' patriotism and implying that they were soft on communism. 

There were anonymous phone calls in this campaign, where people were rung up, anonymously, and told, "Jerry Voorhis is a communist."  No one has actually traced those phone calls to Nixon, it is fair to say, but on the day of the election itself, there was an advertisement in the Los Angeles newspapers which said, "Vote against New Deal Communism: Vote Republican, Vote American!"  In the end, Nixon won, and his victory has often been attributed to these tactics, but he probably would have won anyway because 1946 turned out to be a Republican year, and the Republican slogan was "Had enough? Had enough of the New Deal bureaucracy?  Had enough of price controls, wage controls, rationing?" etc., and the Republicans won control of Congress for the first time since 1928.  It is also fair to say that Nixon did not invent anti-Communism, though he did exploit it, and there were others running similar sorts of campaigns; he was not the only one.

In 1950, he stood for the Senate in California, and defeated a liberal candidate by using much the same tactics.  He entered the House at the same time as John Kennedy, in 1946, and what you may perhaps think is surprising is that they became quite close friends.  Indeed, when Kennedy had to undergo dangerous back surgery, Nixon, as Presiding Officer of the Senate - this was at the time he was Vice-President, in 1954 - he said he would not allow Kennedy's absence to give the Republicans control of the Senate; he would not take advantage of it.  Kennedy's wife, Jackie, wrote to Nixon saying: "There is no one my husband admires more."  Shortly after that, it seemed that Kennedy's health was so poor he was going to die, and Nixon was seen in tears in the Senate building; he was deeply upset and he felt very close to Kennedy.

He first made his name in the House of Representatives on the House Un-American Activities Committee.  This was a Committee whose function was to root out subversives.  Nixon rooted out a very big subversive, a man called Alger Hiss.  Now, Alger Hiss had been a leading figure in the State Department, and had accompanied Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945, and when the United Nations was set up in that year, the Soviets proposed that he would be a very good candidate for Secretary-General, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, so he was a very big figure indeed.  But there had been a lot of gossip in Washington in the 1940s that Hiss had been associated with the Communist Party, and various Government Departments had been warned at various times of that since 1939, but they had done nothing about it.  But Nixon not only exposed Hiss, but ensured that something was done about it, and eventually Hiss was convicted of perjury in denying that he had been a Communist.  He was not convicted for spying because the limitations on that had run out, though there is some evidence that he was a spy.

Eisenhower said this was one of the reasons why he chose Nixon as his Vice-Presidential candidate in 1952, not only that he had dealt with Hiss, but that his methods had been fair, which I think is a reasonable comment.  But, in a sense, Nixon was unfortunate because, shortly after this, Senator McCarthy began to make his wild accusations against all and sundry that they had been Communists or fellow travellers, and Nixon was somehow associated with that, as a McCarthyite.  It was because of this that his triumph really turned to ashes, and liberals tended to think of him as a McCarthyite and never really forgave him.  They saw the attack on Hiss as an attack on the New Deal and on Roosevelt's foreign policy.

Nixon was, on the whole, a supporter of Roosevelt and Truman's foreign policy, in the sense that he was an internationalist, unlike many Republicans.  He was not an isolationist.  He was a strong supporter of NATO.  He was a strong supporter of foreign aid; aid to underdeveloped countries and marshal aid.  He was also much more forthright than Eisenhower in denouncing segregation and he was a strong supporter of civil rights.  Indeed, he was made an Honorary Member of the California Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples, and he was thought of much more as a friend of Afro-Americans than Eisenhower was.  So despite this anti-Communist rhetoric that he had used in his campaigns, he was not on the right of the Republican Party; he was in the centre, and you can begin to see the explanation of both the paradox of why he was loathed but also liked.  Outside the Republican Party, he was a polarising figure: you were either for him or you were a near-Communist whose patriotism was suspect.  Inside the Republican Party, he was at the dead centre: he was a broker between the different wings, the internationalist wing and the isolationist wing, the more liberally-minded Republicans and the conservative Republicans.  He was a figure around whom the whole Republican Party could unite, a broker with the Party, an attack dog outside.  That was another reason why Eisenhower chose him as his Vice-Presidential candidate: he was a man who could hold the Party together.

He became Vice-President in 1953, with Eisenhower, and he spent eight years as Vice-President.  This was a very unhappy time for him, if not a humiliating time, because Eisenhower took the view that he should remain above the battle, as the grandfather, as it were, of the nation, and therefore the political work should be done by Nixon.  So Eisenhower would not spend his time attacking the Democrats because he should be above the battle and so Nixon had to do it.  Nixon certainly did not apply this task with any moderation, because he implied that his Democratic opponents were infiltrated by Communists - again, that their patriotism was suspect - and he called Harry Truman and other Democratic leaders "traitors to the high ideals in which Democrats in the past have believed."  Truman chose to interpret that as saying he had been called a traitor, which was not quite right, but it was still a fairly forceful denunciation.

Now, people assumed that Eisenhower was above all that and that Nixon was doing this on his own, when in fact he was not.  He was being egged on by Eisenhower, it is now known, and he was egged on by men who were older and wiser than himself, if you like.  But you may also argue that Nixon did not need too much egging on; that this was his style.  Still, Eisenhower remained the father of the nation, while Nixon was seen as a rather rough and unpleasant politician.  Attitudes towards him were summed up by Adlai Stevenson, who was a Democratic candidate for the presidency who failed twice, in 1952 and 1956, when he coined the phrase "Nixonland" when he said "Nixonland is a land of slander and scare, the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call, and hustling and pushing and shoving, the land of smash and grab and anything to win."  Well, that was how his opponents saw him.

In 1960 he was the Republican candidate against John Kennedy, and he thought he would beat Kennedy very easily, because he realised Kennedy had charm but Nixon was the experienced Vice-President and he was also a hard worker in politics - indeed, no one ever worked harder than him - and the future Leader of the House.  Tip O'Neill, said, "In all my years of public life, I have never seen a Congressman get so much press," he said of Kennedy, "while doing so little work," and Nixon, he said, was the hardest worker he had ever known. 

One day, his wife said, "Look, we're seeing too little of you, Dick; you're always working, and isn't it time you saw a bit of the family"  Why don't we have a picnic together one Sunday?"  Nixon said, "That's a good idea - let's do that."  So they prepared a picnic, and Nixon drove the family to his Senate Office where he unpacked the basket, and they started eating, while Nixon got on with his work!

On another occasion, they were on what his wife thought was a vacation trip to Seattle, in Washington State.  But then Nixon saw there was a bookshop selling copies of his book, and he rushed in to sign them for his admirers.  So he did not really ever have much of a holiday.

He thought he would win fairly easily because Kennedy was inexperienced; he thought his record in Government would win the election for him.  He therefore adopted a statesmanlike pose, and that was his mistake: paradoxically, he lost the election through not being Nixon.  He was too much the statesman, and his problem was that, unlike in his previous election, except for 1956, he was defending a record and not being his normal, attack-dog self.  It was Kennedy who was the attack-dog and it was Kennedy who adopted the sort of dishonest tactics that Nixon had been accustomed to adopt.

At this time, Kennedy had been briefed by the CIA that Eisenhower was preparing a coup against Fidel Castro, the American Communist leader, but of course this remained secret.  Kennedy then chose to attack Nixon in the debates because the Administration was too passive towards Castro and was allowing a Communist regime to flourish ninety miles from Florida.  Nixon could not possibly reply to that accusation - he could not reveal secrets, even though he knew Kennedy's claims were not true - and therefore Nixon floundered, and he had to act the statesman, and Kennedy did not act the statesman.  Nixon thought it would be quite wrong to reveal the details of Kennedy's uncertain health, to put it mildly, or his womanising, either of which would have cost him the White House.  As it was, he lost the election, but very narrowly.  He lost by 120,000 votes in an election in which 69 million Americans voted.  It is thought, possibly plausibly, that he lost because of fraud in Illinois and Texas.  In Illinois, he lost by about 4,000 votes, and it is thought that the graveyards in Illinois had voted in that election; and the Texas vote was very much under the control of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's Vice-Presidential candidate.  Nixon thought, to the end of his days, that the election had been stolen from him, but again, he was statesmanlike and he did not protest.  Eisenhower said he ought to demand a recount and protest, but he said, "No, we can't leave the Government of the United States in limbo in this dangerous Cold War situation."  So, again, he was a statesman, and it cost him.  But roughly the same number voted for Nixon as for Kennedy, even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the country by about two to one, and Nixon ran four points ahead of Congressional Republicans.  Nixon was more popular than his party; Kennedy was less popular than his party.

Nixon visited the Senate for the last time after that.  As Vice-President he was Chairman of the Senate.  He looked around the Senate building, and he said, "I thought to myself, well, I'm leaving now, but I'll be back someday!"

He went to California, and he faced a problem because, he said, "I've done so well, I'm going to be asked to fight in 1964, in the next election, but Kennedy will probably be unbeatable in 1964, a Democrat unbeatable - people will say give him a second term.  I want an excuse not to have to fight."  He said, "I can find it, that excuse, if I stand for the Governorship of California, because if I'm there, I can say I can't possibly consider national affairs, and my first loyalty is to California."  So he took on a rather lacklustre Governor of California, a Democrat called Pat Brown, for the Governorship of California, and it was thought he would win.  This campaign also had many of the features of the Nixon style, because his main campaign slogan was "Is Brown Pink?"  It is not clear whether Nixon himself was responsible for this, but the Nixon Campaign produced a doctored photo which showed Governor Brown bowing to Mr Khrushchev on his visit to California in 1959. 

But Nixon had another stroke of bad luck because, just before the Governorship election, there was the Cuba Missile Crisis, which Kennedy was thought to have handled well, and that swung votes to the Democrats.  Nixon lost that election quite substantially.  Out of six million votes, he lost by 300,000.  His composure left him at this stage, because after the election, to the dismay of his advisors, he went down to the hotel to meet the press and he snarled at them.  He said, "You've always been unfair to me.  You've always shafted me.  You've never given me a fair run."  He said, "But I can tell you this, you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, gentlemen, because this is my last press conference." The New York Times, a liberal newspaper and a great enemy of his, said this was the end for him.  It said that he was "unelected and unmourned, an unemployed lawyer," but they spoke too soon, because his last press conference was the beginning of his next campaign.  Indeed, his very attack on the press, awful though it seemed to liberal Americans, struck a chord with many Republican supporters who thought the press was biased against them - that since the days of Roosevelt, the press had been too sympathetic to the Democrats - and he received a large number of letters congratulating him for his attack on the press.  He also had support from his old tormentor, in a way, Eisenhower, because Eisenhower said, "Dick did have a point about bias in reporting, and the arrogant sort of journalistic sharp-shooting that occurs daily in all too many publications."  So although the liberal elite thought that this was Nixon finished, it actually gained him a lot of support.  Indeed, immediately after he had said "This is my last press conference," he started thinking of his next campaign, and indeed, with Nixon, it is difficult to think that he could do anything else but think of the next campaign.

He moved to New York, established himself in a law firm, and made a lot of money.  He also became the stalwart of every possible Republican chicken dinner that he could attend.  He realised, in 1964, that Goldwater's candidacy was doomed, but unlike some of the liberal Republicans, he supported him and kept his doubts to himself.  He spoke for as many congressional and senatorial candidates as he could, and thereby gained support for the future.  He became known as the man who would always put the party first, go anywhere for the party, speak at any chicken lunch, chicken dinner, whatever it was, for any Republican candidate, whether left or right.  He was, if you like, "Mr Republican".  He gradually worked his way back and, as I say, he won every primary in 1968, and he became the Republican candidate in the 1968 campaign, which has been called the most heated of the Twentieth Century.

In that election, unusually in American politics, there were three candidates.  The Democrat candidate was Lyndon Johnson's Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, who was very uneasy because his party was divided on Vietnam between those who supported Lyndon Johnson's position and those who were doves.  Humphrey was in a difficult position because he had been Johnson's Vice-President but it seemed that he was alienating a lot of people in the Democratic Party because of Johnson's policy.  At the Chicago Democrat Convention of that year, there were riots from students and other rebels, and the Conference was a bit of a shambles, with conflict between the police and the students, and Humphrey seemed in a very difficult position.

The third candidate, besides Humphrey and Nixon, was George Wallace.  He was the Governor of Alabama and segregationist who established the American Independent Party.  The theme of this party was, as he put it, that "Liberal intellectuals and long-hairs have run the country for too long" and he said they were "intellectual morons who don't know how to park a bicycle straight."  He was standing on a straight, hawkish and segregationist ticket.  His Vice-Presidential candidate was General Curtis LeMay, who was widely thought to be the model for Dr. Strangelove, and his slogan was "Bombs away with Curtis LeMay!"

Nixon retaliated by also choosing a hard man for his Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Spiro Agnew, who was the Governor of Maryland.  He had been elected in 1966 in what was normally, at that time, a Democrat state, on a fairly liberal ticket, but his mind had been changed by the revolts and upheavals of the time, and by 1968, he was a strong law-and-order man.  He was a product of the backlash, if you like.  Nixon called him an "urban expert" and he was sufficiently an urban expert enough to keep well away from Baltimore, where he was unpopular.  Nixon also said the public did not know him very well, but they soon would; and it is true, they soon did know him very well, because of the ethnic slurs he cast on particular people.  He talked about not Poles but Polaks, and called one reporter a "fat Jap", and then, when asked why he and Nixon were not campaigning in the inner city areas, he replied: "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all"!  His future career was unfortunate: he was required to resign in October 1973.  He himself had not been quite a law and order candidate, because he was accused of taking kickbacks on public works contracts while Governor of Maryland, and he plea-bargained for his resignation.  He resigned in 1973.  He was replaced by Gerald Ford, the Republican minority leader in the House who then, a year later, replaced Nixon after Watergate.

Nixon won the 1968 Election quite comfortably in the electoral college, but by a slim margin of votes - just half a million.  But the Election itself was clearly a repudiation of the Johnson Programme: Wallace and Nixon between them won 57% of the votes, so it was clearly a repudiation, if you like, of New Deal liberalism.  It was the first sign of the disintegration of that consensus, that two more conservative candidates were doing so well.  But Nixon did not bring a Republican majority to Congress with him, and for the first time since the mid-19th Century, both Houses were controlled by the opposition.  It was the first time a new President had failed to bring coattails, as it were, with him, and this obviously constrained what he could achieve, and I think has to be borne in mind when discussing his presidency.

Once in power, with domestic policy, Nixon tended to look down on domestic matters.  He said the country, America, could really run itself, without a President, and the only point of having a President was to run foreign policy.  But there is a great difference, I think, between what Nixon said and what he did, and he achieved much more than is usually recognised by critics. 

Firstly, on civil rights, under his presidency, desegregation was almost completed.  When he came to power, 68% of black children in the South attended all-black schools; by the time he left office, only 8% did: desegregation in the South was almost completed under his presidency.

Secondly, he expanded public expenditure.  Indeed, public expenditure reached its highest level, as a percentage of national income, under Nixon's presidency.  He tried to get through a healthcare scheme, not a state scheme of a British type, but a more modernised insurance scheme, but failed to get that through Congress.  He also tried to do what Clinton was later to achieve: a family assistance programme, which would give a guaranteed annual income for poor families, rather than the system of benefits which Roosevelt had established, a kind of welfare to work programme, the sort of thing that Clinton later implemented and that Gordon Brown has implemented here.  But that too got nowhere with Congress.

Oddly enough, he did more for the young than any other American President.  He was seen by the young, the student revolutionists particularly, as the quintessential square in a suit, and someone said he was the sort of chap who would wear shoes on the beach, and he was certainly out of sympathy with the student rebels.  But he ended the draft.   He established an all-volunteer Army for America, he brought the draftees back from Vietnam, and he lowered the voting age to 18.  So I think you can argue, paradoxically, that he did more for the young than any post-War American President.  He certainly went further than most Republicans.

But it is true that the dominant problems in his presidency concerned foreign policy, and particularly Vietnam.  I think it is often not recognised by people who criticise him what an impossible position he was placed in by previous Presidents.  He inherited a commitment made by four previous American Presidents to South Vietnam, and by the time he became President, there were half a million American combat troops in Vietnam.  Lyndon Johnson, shortly before leaving the White House, had instituted a bombing halt, because he had been told this would lead to negotiations with the North Vietnamese, but in fact, it led to no response at all, so Nixon was faced with a problem.

There were two extreme positions that he had to deal with.  The first was from those who said that North Vietnam could be defeated if they went for all-out war - take the restraints off and simply bomb North Vietnam to bits, invade them if necessary.  The thought was that America was clearly the greatest military power in the world, could not be defeated by, as it were, little men running around in pyjamas, this guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam, and so on.  This view had been rejected by Kennedy and Johnson, on the grounds, partly, that it might lead to war with China or the Soviet Union, and Nixon shared that view, and in any case, he was bound by Lyndon Johnson's bombing halt.  But even if he had wanted an all-out war, the Democratic Congress would never have supported that, so that option was off the table.

The second option, suggested to him by many of his advisors, was simply to withdraw and blame the Democrats for the war.  Nixon said you cannot do that because it would mean overthrowing an ally who had relied on America, there would be a Communist government in South Vietnam, America would be seen as a fair-weather friend, and that would not affect just South Vietnam, it would affect other countries which relied on America's security.  "America was the guarantor and sustainer," he said, "of the post-War international order."  All Presidents had supported it, and he was not going to let America down.  So that position too had been rejected by Kennedy, rejected by Johnson, and rejected, it is fair to say, whatever people say in hindsight, by most Americans, and the Election of 1968 showed the strength of the hawkish position, that Wallace and Nixon, both hawks on Vietnam, got 57% of the vote.  So did the Election of 1972, because George McGovern, the Democratic candidate, was a dove, and he lost every state except Massachusetts and Washington DC.  There is no evidence of great public support for unconditional withdrawal.  The majority wanted American withdrawal, but not if it meant a Communist government in South Vietnam.  Oddly enough, polls showed that not only was the Vietnam War more popular than the Korean War, but that despite the student revolt, it was disproportionately popular amongst the college-educated young; that the people at Harvard and Berkeley did not represent the mass of college-educated people, who were more sympathetic to the war than would be seen from the demonstrations.

So Nixon followed the middle way: he agreed with the doves that the American commitment should be ended, or at least scaled down, and said "We must extricate America from this"; but he also agreed with the hawks that America could not simply withdraw, that isolationism was the obverse of a rather naïve idealism, that if America could not be perfect, it should do nothing at all.  There was not a perfect solution. I think one has to bear that in mind when evaluating Nixon.  There were only imperfect alternatives, and Nixon followed Johnson in saying let's have a negotiated solution, and that was in line, as I say, with Johnson, and with the Democratic platform of 1968, which did not call for unconditional withdrawal. 

Between the election and the inauguration, Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon's National Security Advisor, later to become Secretary of State, told North Vietnam that the Americans wanted a negotiated settlement, and there was no reply.  In May 1969, Nixon produced his proposals: he said there should be a coalition government in South Vietnam, with participation from the Vietcong, that is, the Communists, in the South, and there should be free elections, under international supervision, and then mutual withdrawal of all outside troops within on year of a ceasefire.  The reply from North Vietnam was that America had to withdraw unconditionally and overthrow the South Vietnam Government and, until then, it would not release American prisoners of war; in other words, they demanded unconditional surrender.  So Nixon added to the policy a new element, the element of "Vietnamization": he said, "I'm going gradually to withdraw American troops and build up South Vietnam's capacity to fight this war.  It's their war.  If it can be won, they've got to win it, but I'm taking American troops out."  This is what he proceeded to do: to withdraw American troops gradually.

The trouble with this policy was that if American troops were withdrawing, what incentive did the North Vietnamese have to negotiate?  The North Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Van Thieu, said in 1970 to Henry Kissinger: "How can you expect to prevail with the South Vietnamese Army alone when it could not win with the assistance of half a million Americans?"  So Nixon said, alright, I'm going to combine the carrot of withdrawal with a stick.  over the Christmas period of 1972, though not Christmas Day itself, he then started intensive bombing and mining of Hanoi and Hai Phong, the main port in North Vietnam.  He also bombed the supply routes to the Vietcong in Cambodia and Laos, for which he was much criticised, but it brought the North Vietnamese to the conference table, and after his landslide victory in 1972, he signed an agreement with North Vietnam in Paris, the 1973 Accords, and that agreement was a triumph of the American position because it said that the South Vietnamese Government would remain in existence and there would be a negotiated solution.  The South Vietnamese were very worried about this, because it meant American withdrawal, but Nixon said, "Don't worry - I will support you with funds, and if the agreement is broken by the North Vietnamese, America will come back.  Don't have any fears - we will support you."  Nixon said he wished he had done this bombing earlier, in 1969, to have brought Hanoi to the conference table earlier, because the trouble is that Nixon's bombing had inflamed Congress and the anti-war movement, and Congress cut off the funds which underpinned the agreement, the defence of South Vietnam and support for its leaders, and so Nixon's threats if the agreement was broken became empty, and then after that came Watergate, which totally destroyed his credibility.  So it was that in 1975 North Vietnam simply took over the South.

There was also a deeper reason why his policy failed, I think, which is that you cannot run a foreign policy in a democracy in the way that Nixon tried without legislative or public support.  In Britain, in the 20th Century, every single war or military exercise has had bipartisan support: the opposition have supported every single one, except for Suez, in 1956, and I think that is one of the reasons why Suez failed.  In America, World War I had bipartisan support, as did World War II and Korea.  Vietnam also had bipartisan support at the beginning, until 1968, but by then, a significant section of the people and of the policymaking elite had come to the conclusion the war could not be won, and some said that it ought not to be won.  Perhaps Nixon was a bit unlucky, because his strategy was not that different from that of Kennedy and Johnson; indeed, in some ways, it was more dovish than theirs was because he was withdrawing American troops and they were putting them in, but the consensus had collapsed, and Nixon sought a middle way between surrender and escalation, and perhaps there was no such middle way to be sought, so the policy, judged by experience, failed.

Nixon is also remembered for the opening to China, of course.  Again, he saw an obvious reality.  His critics said that he was giving China legitimacy.  He said "America and China were brought together not by common ideas or ideals, because that kept them apart, but by common interests," and Nixon said he could do it because of his reputation as such a strong anti-Communist - his opponents could not, but he could.  He said if you do not do that, the Chinese could get back together with the Russians, and the balance of power would then be against America.  He said, "But as it is, we can now be a key player in intervening, as it were, between China and Russia - we're the factor of balance in the world."  When he met Mao Zedong, he said it was "a week that changed the world": " alter the world balance of power by preventing China falling back into the arms of the Russians, in which case the world balance of power would have been against the West."  He was playing diplomatic chess, if you like, but again, can you play diplomatic chess in a democracy if you do not have the support of Congress and the people?  Someone once said "Democracy is government by explanation," and Nixon effectively gave no explanations.

Nevertheless, his achievements in foreign policy were very considerable.  He was attacked for widening the war, but as I say, he withdrew American troops, and by June 1972, there was no Vietnam duty for new draftees, and by August of that year, the last American combat troops were out.  He disentangled America out of Vietnam.

He began to create the new structure of what came to be called détente, with arms agreements, nuclear non-proliferation agreements and so on, developing the rules and conventions to deal with crises.  He helped create a structure of peace - a framework for a stable peace - in which the Americans had to co-exist with the Communist world, but of course he could not exorcise the trauma of Vietnam.  Neither could he exorcise the trauma of Watergate, which meant the end of his presidency.

In the summer of 1972, there were two break-ins and burglaries at the Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Complex in Washington.  The second one was apprehended by a caretaker and five people were captured.  These people were later seen to have been very junior operatives in the Committee to Re-Elect the President, called CREEP.  It is not clear whether Nixon authorised the break-in, but he certainly authorised the cover-up of the break-in - that was revealed on tapes - when he told the CIA to advise the FBI not to pursue the investigations.  He also bought the silence of the burglars with money to cover bail, lawyers' fees and so on.

In March 1973, one of the burglars said the conspiracy had gone high up in the White House.  He implicated John Mitchell, the former Attorney General in Nixon's Government, and a close friend of Nixon, Bob Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff, and his Head of Domestic Policy, John Ehrlichman.  All of them had to resign shortly afterwards.

In March 1974, these and a total of seven of Nixon's close aides were indicted for involvement in the cover-up, and Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, although that wasn't made public, but then the tapes revealed the smoking gun that he had been involved in the cover-up.  If he had not resigned, he would have been impeached, because the House had drawn up articles of impeachment based on the obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.  It was passed by the House, and it needed a two-thirds majority in the Senate to pass.  That meant 34 Senators would have to vote against it for Nixon to be saved, and only 12 could be found; and the public support for impeachment was 66 to 27 percent.  So, in August 1974, Nixon resigned.

However, we should put this into context by remembering that Nixon was by no means a lone villain.  Former Presidents had also sanctioned illegal wire-tapping, and they had used federal agencies for political intelligence.  Roosevelt's son, James Roosevelt, told Nixon's Secretary: "Everything they ever accuse him of, Father did twice as much of."  Truman had ordered Nixon's records in the Office for Price Administration to be investigated.  He had ordered officials in his Justice Department to look at Nixon's naval records, but they found nothing.  The Democratic National Committee had sought to use forged letters to prove that Nixon had taken money from the oil industry.  But you may argue, none of them committed so many illegal acts as Nixon - that if it had just been a few, perhaps it would have been alright - but there was a whole collection of them.    After his resignation, the new President, Gerald Ford, pardoned him, and that was, in accepting a pardon, perhaps a tacit admission of guilt, though Nixon never publicly admitted it. 

But this was a crisis - as I say, this was carried through a culmination of trends of previous Presidents, and it was not only a personal crisis for Richard Nixon, but also for an institution, the institution of the powerful presidency, free of checks and balances.  Since the time of Roosevelt, it had been argued that, if America was to solve its problems at home and abroad, it needed a strong President, a strong Executive, to handle domestic crises and foreign problems.  The only partial exception amongst Presidents was Eisenhower, who had tended to defer to Congress.  Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon restored the strong President.  The US, they said, could not work unless it had that - it needed more economic growth, more defence spending, Eisenhower was a fuddy-duddy who lived in the past and was too conservative in his approach; America could resolve all its problems if only it had a very strong President.  But if you have a strong President, how do you ensure that President acts with restraint, within the Constitution, that the presidency became so strong it became unaccountable and unfettered?  If you give men the power to do good, you also give them the power to do bad things, and the whole thing came apart in Watergate.  The question that was never answered by the activist Presidents of the Sixties, whether Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon, was: how do you ensure that America has a strong and effective Executive while also ensuring that it is properly restrained?

However, I want to conclude by saying that I think too much attention has been given to Nixon's psychological quirks and to Watergate.  There is no doubt that Nixon was a failed President, and because he specialised in whipping up resentments, he gained no credit for his good measures and he could not unify the country.  Nor could he work with Congress; unlike Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, he was simply incapable of bargaining with Congressmen and Senators for votes.  Part of the role of the President, as I have said in previous lectures, was to unify the country; there is an extent to which the president is an elected monarch; a head of state as well as a partisan.  Eisenhower understood that the best of all the Presidents that I have talked about, arguably at the expense of his political role.  Nixon did not understand it at all - that is at the root of his failure.  Eisenhower was President of all the people; Nixon, a partisan President of half the people, and he vilified the other half.  But I think it is not enough to say that Nixon was a failed President, because I think there is a sense in which, oddly enough, he is the representative American politician of the post-War era.

When he died in 1994, Senator Dole, who was to be the Republican candidate in 1996, said, "I believe the second half of the 20th Century will be known as the Age of Nixon."  Now, in post-War America, the effects of the New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had created a contented majority.  It had created what economist J.K. Galbraith called "a culture of contentment".  The majority in America were no longer radical, as they had been in 1932; they were a stabilising and conservative force, and they did not want further radical change. 

Nixon understood that in his acceptance speech in 1968.  He said: "For most of us, the American Revolution has been won.  The American Dream has come true!"  He said he was going to "...speak for the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators - they work, and they save, and they pay their taxes."  Nixon is sometimes called a conservative, but he was not in a sense - he was in one sense, and in another sense not.  He wanted to preserve that settlement against people who were attacking it.  In the 1980s, it was attacked by Ronald Reagan from the radical right. In the 1960s, it was attacked unsuccessfully by the radicals of the left.  There is a parallel perhaps in Britain, with Margaret Thatcher from the right, and Tony Benn from the left.  Nixon did not want to undermine it from either direction, certainly not from the left, but he did not want to undermine it from the right either.  He favoured healthcare for Americans, he favoured a welfare state, he favoured public expenditure - as I say, they reached record levels under his Administration - and, despite his rhetoric, he was in the centre of politics, perhaps even slightly to the left of centre.

Eisenhower's grandson, David, said this about Nixon: "Nixon's Administration was definitely making the Great Society work, which is the same posture vis-à-vis that Administration as my Grandfather vis-à-vis the New Deal."   In other words, Eisenhower was trying to make the New Deal work, to stabilise things, and Nixon was trying to make the Great Society work.  He said, speaking of Eisenhower, "My Grandfather was ideologically between Nixon and Reagan."  In other words, Reagan on the right, Nixon on the left, and Eisenhower in the middle.  But the trouble was, by 1968, the contented majority felt insecure.  Their contentment masked unease, and they felt like an embattled minority, because there were people who were challenging the rules by which they had achieved success and contentment - the revolt of the Sixties, culminating in 1968. 

First, the Civil Rights movement was going much further than many wanted: not only desegregation in the South, but also bussing in the North - the forcible movement of children so as to make schools multiracial, which many white people in the North, particularly members of the white working class, resented - and then, further movements for affirmative action, with quotas, for ethnic minorities.  Secondly, there was the movement for women's rights and gay rights, which the contented majority saw as threatening to the traditional family.  Then there was crime, the breakdown of law and order and the urban riots; and finally, the youth rebellion, threatening the values of American society, and in particular the values of those who had succeeded; the growth of the counter-culture, which poured scorn on success, poured scorn on hard work, and traditional, constitutional methods of political debate, and, in foreign policy, poured scorn on the policy of containment, first put forward by Truman, and then implemented by other Presidents.  Authority seemed no longer to be listened to, and it was breaking down the family, the church, the school, and the country - all these symbols of authority were breaking down just when large numbers of people had finally made it. 

Even worse, the rebels found a lot of support amongst left wing academics in the universities, and they were criticised for being soft on criminals, and then nominees on the Supreme Court were said to be too soft on crime and not tough enough on criminals.  They were making excuses for the young - the universities were defending young revolutionaries.  Ronald Reagan, who became Governor of California in 1966, as a protest against the revolts, accused the universities of "subsidising intellectual curiosity".  Worst of all, they sympathised with the enemies of America, with people like Jane Fonda visiting Hanoi, and so on.  They were minimising the dangers to American security, and making excuses for traitors, as they had done with Alger Hiss, and all that culminated in 1968, and the movement of the counter-culture gradually took over the Democratic Party.  The party of Truman, which had represented working class aspirations, gradually came to be taken over, in 1972, by George McGovern, by the dissidents, and it was summed up, in his typical language, by Vice-President Agnew, in October 1969, who said: "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterise themselves as intellectuals."  The conclusion that the counter-culture rebels people drew was that America, far from being a moral defender of the peace, was an unjust and even a wicked country.  That view was not shared by those who had been successful. 

So what you faced there, and what Nixon understood, it was not an economic crisis, of the kind that Roosevelt had rescued the country from, but a cultural crisis; a crisis of American self-confidence.  It began with the assassination of Kennedy, which is the first blotch on the American Dream; then the urban riots, the student revolts and Vietnam, all contributed to this cultural crisis. 

Now, Nixon, as I said, had entered the House of Representatives at the same time as Kennedy, in 1946.  He was older than Kennedy - Nixon was born in 1913, and Kennedy in 1917 - and in 1960, in the debates between Nixon and Kennedy, Kennedy had seemed the wave of the future, and Nixon seemed to belong to the past, to the conservatism of Eisenhower, or to a rather sterile anti-Communism, McCarthyism even, and small-town America - the past that was fading away.  And yet, in a curious way, Nixon was a much more modern figure than Kennedy.  Kennedy was rooted in the past in the New Deal, which he was going to extend; Nixon saw that post-War problems were different, that they were cultural as much as they were economic, and that there was a seismic shift in American politics.  This shift had began in a very small way in 1946 when the Republicans again won control of Congress and it was going to lead to Republican majorities in the latter part of the 20th Century.

When standing for the presidency in May of 1968, Nixon spoke of the silent centre, the millions of people in the middle of the American spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly.  In November 1969, he coined the phrase "the silent majority".  He said "Working Americans have become the forgotten Americans, the majority that did not demonstrate, did not involve itself in civil disobedience, the majority that kept to the rules.  Most Americans were un-young, un-poor, un-political."  A poll taken shortly after that speech, in November 1969, showed that three-quarters of Americans believed they belonged to that silent majority - three-quarters identified with that.  Nixon was a master at representing the resentments of those who had succeeded but felt insecure about their success, and he created a political coalition based on those resentments.  That is why he remained at the centre of American politics for so long.  He was the guardian of those who were economically contented but felt culturally threatened.  The new politics after 1968 was not that of those who wore beards and sandals, but of Nixon's rather boring, sober-suited, small businessmen, shopkeepers, members of the working class, the hard-hats, but with resentments.  The revolution came not from the militants on the left, but from the respectable right, from those with something to lose.  Nixon said that he was always stronger in Main Street than he was in Wall Street.

In 1968, when there were the demonstrations in favour of liberalising laws on drugs, opinion polls showed 85% were against liberalising laws on drugs, and 62% said they should be toughened.  On bussing, which was also something favoured by many on the liberal left, just 2% favoured it.  Even blacks in the North, by a small margin, were opposed to it, by 47% to 45%. 

The secret of Nixon's success was that he saw simple things which others missed.  He saw simple things where others saw as complications.  He saw, in the late Forties, that Alger Hiss was guilty, when many were trying to make excuses for him.  He saw that an opening needed to be made to China, that China could not be forever an outlaw.  He saw, above all, that most Americans did not think that their country was villainous but, for all its faults, a country on which others relied.  He understood the nature of the culture of contentment, and he tapped the discontents and resentments of the silent majority so well because he felt that he belonged to it himself.  He was not, as I said at the beginning of the lecture, a Franklin - he was kept out by the smart clubs.  He was an Orthogonian.  He represented the majority, the majority whom everyone looked down on, but they were actually a popular majority in electoral terms.  Also, he learnt from experience and learnt from his mistakes, which few politicians do.

So I think you can say that the post-War period was the "Age of Nixon" in this sense, that he was closer to the views of the American majority than any President in the post-War era.  He is the key figure between the end of Roosevelt's New Deal and the rise of the populist right under Ronald Reagan.  He did not create the discontents that he exploited, any more than he created anti-Communism.  He represented those discontents, he saw that they were there, and he represented him, and that is why one can call the post-War era from 1946 to 1974 "the Age of Richard Nixon".




©Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Gresham College, 28 October 2008

This event was on Tue, 28 Oct 2008

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE

Professor of Law

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law, former Visiting Gresham Professor of Political History, Research Professor at King's College London, a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

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