Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part IX Richard Nixon

Historian William Leuchtenburg spares nothing in his criticism of Richard Nixon. The president is portrayed as a psychotic, neurotic, anti-Semitic lunatic - and those are his least offensive qualities. For one thing, Nixon as president virtually abandoned the use of the Oval Office.  As Leuchtenburg notes, "During the day, [Nixon] secluded himself in a hideaway in the Executive Office Building [EOB]. At night, he cooped up alone in the Lincoln Sitting Room of the White House.  In his EOB retreat, where he spent most of his time, he scribbled notes to himself on a yellow pad for hours… In truth Nixon had almost no friends....Nixon shied away from personal contact. If he had to talk to people, he preferred to use a phone in order to keep them at a distance."

Nixon largely ignored his Cabinet, choosing instead to, "step outside the traditional executive departments and made a powerful National Security Council the main engine of his foreign policy, with [Henry] Kissinger installed in the White House in the West Wing at close reach....In his machinations at the Office of Management and Budget and by other means, Nixon sought to create a personalized government center in the White House separate not only from the legislative and judicial branches but from the rest of the executive branch."

And yet, despite all of this, there were incredible advances in social policy during Nixon's tenure - although, granted, much of it emanated from the Democratic Congress, Nixon still signed much of it into law rather than veto them [and, in many cases, a Nixon veto would have been sustained, thus killing the legislation]. Perhaps nowhere was this social progress more evident than in the area of civil rights.  As Leuchtenburg writes, "After his presidency ended, even some of his harshest critics expressed astonished approval of Nixon's civil rights record, for, at the same time that he was seeking to win over the [racist George] Wallace following [for 1972], he was presiding over a remarkable trend toward greater equality - a disjuncture no one has been able to explain...By far the greatest progress in school integration took place not under Kennedy or Johnson but under Nixon. The proportion of African American pupils attending all-black schools in the South fell from 68% in 1968 to 8% in 1972." Indeed, Tom Wicker wrote that on civil rights, "The indisputable fact is that [Nixon] got the job done - the dismantling of dual schools - when no one else had been able to do it."

Of course, as Leuchtenburg points out, one reason for this progress was Nixon's almost complete lack of interest in domestic affairs [unless there was a political payoff to be gained]. Unlike Johnson, it was foreign affairs that most interested Nixon. Like Johnson, however, Vietnam remained a quagmire.  And the numbers were chilling.  Leuchtenburg writes, "In Nixon's first six months in office, more Americans died in Vietnam than in all but one similar period in the past....In contriving a strategy for Southeast Asia, Nixon opted for the worst possible choice: very slow de-escalation over a number of years, interspersed with paroxysms of bombing. Especially hideous was the American treatment of Laos. A half million U.S. bombing missions killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of peaceful Laotians..." Indeed, one-third of American deaths in Vietnam occurred on Nixon's watch.

And, even in foreign affairs, Nixon was not always in charge.  A particularly frightening example of Nixon's incapacitation was the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  It is a chilling story detailed by Leuchtenburg, "The Yom Kippur conflict raised one of the greatest tests of Nixon's years in office, and at the height of it, the president was absent without leave. His gargantuan airlift and the threat of Soviet intervention brought the world the closest to a nuclear confrontation it had been since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, but during the 16-day war, Nixon did not once attend a White House strategy conference. Left on their own, and acting with excessive zeal, Kissinger and other subordinates made the perilous decision to order a worldwide nuclear alert without informing Nixon until after it was done. Hunkered down, Nixon could not be troubled with events abroad because he was wholly absorbed in coping with a domestic exigency that portended the ruin of his presidency. The Watergate controversy, ostensibly scotched, had become the consuming event of his tenure."

Almost as interesting as Nixon's presidency is the historiography that has grown around it in the last 40+ years.  Although the only man to resign the presidency, Leuchtenburg notes, "In an astonishingly brief time after his downfall, however, reconsideration [of Nixon's presidency] began, and numbers of writers offered a more positive assessment of his tenure and came to view him, in retirement, as a sage.... Nixon's rehabilitation rested almost wholly on his conduct of foreign relations."

Leuchtenburg, however, says Nixon's foreign policy "genius" is highly overblown. In fact, he is sharply critical of Nixon's foreign policy, noting that pro-Nixon historiography, "credits him with too much and pays too little attention to his shortcomings.... Nixon focused on Russia and China, and on little else. He gave scant attention to Europe, save for the USSR, where d├ętente had a very short shelf life. Engrossed in realpolitik, he neglected Africa, which did not figure largely in the Cold War.... His policies toward South Asia were capricious, in part because he regarded India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, as a 'bitch' and a 'witch'. In deciding to back Pakistan's war against India because he could not let at American ally 'get screwed', he helped bring about India's resolve to develop nuclear weapons and Pakistan's crushing of Bangladesh. He took a still more cavalier attitude toward Latin America, notoriously in Chile, where he connived to overthrow [Salvadore] Allende and gave his support to the vile regime of General [Augusto] Pinochet. Even his one undoubted achievement - the opening of China - came at a cost. The announcement that Nixon was going to China struck Japan with  'typhonic force', said the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo - a shock so great that it led to the fall of the [Eisaku] Saito government."

It was for Vietnam, however - even more so than Watergate - that Leuchtenburg says Nixon bares as the greatest blame.  Indeed, while sometimes praised for ending the Vietnam War, Leuchtenburg writes, "Nixon actually pursued a disastrous course in Southeast Asia. He carried on the war in Vietnam senselessly for four more years, and he devastated Laos and Cambodia." Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote,  "Nearly all the names on the left-hand side of the Vietnam Wall in Washington commemorate men who died in action while Richard Nixon was their commander-in-chief, and they died after he had decided that the war could not be won."  Leuchtenburg also points out that, as a result of Nixon, "The murderous Khmer Rouge, which had been a negligible faction at the time of the invasion of Cambodia, grew ten-fold after it - with awful consequences for the Cambodian people in the Killing Fields."

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