Why I Think History Will Be Kind to Nixon


Mr. McDougall is Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-chair of FPRI's Center for the Study of America and the West. He is also a Pulitzer prizewinning historian and author of the just released FREEDOM JUST AROUND THE CORNER: A NEW AMERICAN HISTORY 1585-1828 (HarperCollins, 2004).

An address to the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace, August 5, 2004.

To help my thinking about President Nixon's historical legacy, I accessed the Nixon Library's excellent web site and reread the eulogies made at the president's funeral. I was stunned to realize it's been ten years already since that sad and glorious day. Yet the fact that thirty years have passed since Nixon's resignation does not surprise me. The anxieties and crises of the 1970s seem distant because so much transpired since. Americans overcame Vietnam and Watergate, stagflation and oil shocks, Soviet threats and hostages in Iran. In the 1980s we recovered our strength, optimism, and prosperity, won the Cold War, and launched the computer revolution. In the 1990s, America displayed unprecedented might in the first Gulf War and rode the wave of globalization to unparalleled wealth and cultural influence. Finally, of course, 9/11 jolted America into a new protracted conflict more terrifying and challenging in some respects than the Cold War.

What connection, if any, remains between the Nixon presidency and those subsequent events? Is Nixon rightly viewed today as a period piece who left little legacy, and that negative? Or did his career have a good deal to do with later events, helping to shape the America and world we live in today? There are, I believe, at least three answers to those questions, suggesting that Nixon left a mighty legacy, but also that decades may pass before scholars, journalists, and politicians own up to the truth.

Just for fun, I pulled from my shelf some current textbooks to see how their authors assess Nixon's importance in modern history.

The best of the lot, Palmer & Coulton's History of the Modern World, mentions Nixon just four times: for visiting China; for Watergate and his resignation; for escalation in Vietnam despite promising peace; and for teaming with Kissinger for detente and arms control.

Prenctice-Hall's Western Civilization mentions Nixon three times: for overthrowing Allende in Chile; for withdrawing from Vietnam without victory or honor while spreading the war to Laos and Cambodia; and for ending the military draft to quiet protests.

The Western Heritage, also from Prentice-Hall, mentions Nixon just twice, for Vietnamization and detente with Moscow.

The Longman text, Civilization in the West, contains exactly one mention of Nixon: his 1959 tour of Latin America, when he was pelted with eggs and rocks!

Western Civilizations, published by Norton, mentions Nixon for escalating the Vietnam war and provoking Hanoi's counter-attack in 1972; for Watergate and resignation, and for being the president under whom Kissinger achieved detente.

The Western Perspective, a Harcourt-Brace textbook, makes no mention of Nixon at all, while the Knopf text, The Western Experience, mentions Nixon one time, in connection with--are you ready?--Soviet grain purchases from the U.S.

So much for Nixon's place in world history in the views of my colleagues. How would I assess Nixon's legacy?

First, I would argue that Nixon's politics and diplomacy laid the foundations for victory in the Cold War. Nixon extricated the U.S. from the exhausting, divisive commitment of a half-million soldiers to a guerrilla land war in Asia. And even though the Paris Accords failed, for reasons we can debate, America's alliances and posture in the world survived that defeat.

Indeed, Nixon left America in a far stronger geopolitical position thanks to his strategic alignment with China, which completed the encirclement of the Soviet Union and forced Moscow to deploy millions of troops on its eastern front even as it faced NATO in the West. The opening to China also ensured that after the Soviet Union collapsed, the result would not be new hot and cold wars in the Asia/Pacific, but stability and prosperity throughout the region.

Finally, Nixon transformed American politics by summoning to life the Silent Majority and capturing the working class vote for the Republican Party. Those patriotic, blue- collar, Catholic or Southern voters gave him his landslide in 1972, but more importantly, they formed the core of what became known as the Reagan coalition that won back the White House in 1980 and even the Congress by 1994.

To be sure, neither Nixon nor Kissinger could foresee that future. As my friend Harvey Sicherman, an Alexander Haig protege, puts it: statesmen tend always to back into the future. But Nixon's maneuvers at home and abroad made the best of a bad situation, and so helped to make possible the later achievements of Reagan.

What of Nixon's policies, as opposed to his politics? In 1994 a liberal feminist, Joan Hoff Wilson, shocked her fellow historians with Nixon Reconsidered. In that book Wilson accorded Nixon strange new respect for his many progressive policies. Under Nixon, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, including welfare and affirmative action, reached its fullest extent. The Justice Department carried out Court-ordered integration of schools and labor unions in the North. The Office of Economic Opportunity was founded, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Eighteen-year-olds got the vote and military conscription was abolished. The Supreme Court struck down state laws banning abortion. The federal government imposed wage and price controls to combat inflation. Not least, it was Nixon who pulled the dollar off the gold standard established at Bretton Woods in 1944.

Let me say a few words about that act of historic importance. Ever since World War II, the world's leading currencies had been pegged to the dollar, which in turn was pegged to gold at $35 per ounce. But the dollar had not really been good as gold at least since 1960, by which time the dollar came under pressure because of a U.S. balance of payments deficit caused by European and Japanese economic recovery and by America's overseas military commitments.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations were obsessed with this balance of payments crisis, but did nothing about it, even as foreign speculators made a killing by selling dollars short and hoarding gold. It took Richard Nixon to take responsibility and take the hit for facing up to reality. In 1971 he suspended gold payments and let the dollar float to its real value against the mark, yen, and other currencies. In the short run he was roundly attacked for economic nationalism. But in the long run his bold action liberated exchange rates, released international flows of capital, and laid the basis for the economic globalization of the 1980s and nineties.

Needless to say, most liberals give Nixon no credit, even for policies they applaud, while the best conservatives can say is that Nixon gave in to the Democrats on domestic issues so that he could pursue his ambitious foreign agenda. Hence, Nixon's domestic achievements, whatever one thinks of them, do his image no good.

What image will posterity nurture of Nixon? The best analysis is David Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow, published last year. Greenberg describes five Richard Nixons that beguile and perplex the American people. First, Nixon the Villain, Tricky Dick, the devious politician who ruined himself through abuses of power. Second, Nixon the Victim, who won a landslide re-election only to be toppled in a coup led by liberals in the media and Congress. Having repudiated their own Vietnam commitment, liberals held Nixon to peacetime standards of ethics even though he was a war president.

Hence, behavior that had been excused when FDR or JFK were in office was now judged an impeachable offense. Third, there is the image of Nixon as brilliant Statesman, maneuvering with Kissinger on the geopolitical stage. Fourth, there is Nixon the Populist, who bestrode national politics for a generation and ran on the Republican ticket five times! Nixon the Populist is the Nixon of the Silent Majority speech, Billy Graham rallies, and patriotic demonstrations by hard-hats. Fifth, there is Nixon the Liberal, as outlined above.

Which of these images best reflects his true legacy? All of them, Greenberg concludes, because Nixon was a complex personality leading a complex nation in a highly complex era. But his guess is that Nixon's dominant image will always be Nixon the Villain for the simple reason that he is the only president obliged to resign the office.

I disagree--and not only because I believe Nixon's role in U.S. and world politics stands on its own. I disagree because I suspect even Watergate will someday be understood as simply the most dramatic episode in a long-overdue rebellion against what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called the Imperial Presidency. The Democrats themselves forged the imperial presidency from FDR in the Depression and World War II, to Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson in the Cold War. But by the late 1960s, Democrats such as Senators J. William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, Frank Church, William Proxmire, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern reached the conclusion over these long emergencies that Congress had abdicated too much power to the White House. Nixon's election in 1968 was their moment to strike. Freed from having to support their own president and war, Democrats began to hold hearings, sponsor legislation, leak secrets, and spin the media, all for the purpose of reining in the executive branch--even, or especially, in matters of national security. Between 1969 and 1980 a whole series of measures resulted, including the War Powers Act, investigations and restrictions on the CIA's covert activities, denials of executive privilege, cutoffs of funding for military missions and foreign assistance, sanctions against allies on human rights grounds, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and Freedom of Information Act. Someday, after all those with a psychological stake in hating Nixon are dead, historians may come to see the impeachment proceedings as the ultimate check on the power of the president, indeed a president who had the audacity to achieve peace in Vietnam and the world despite Congress, then had the audacity to win forty-nine states.

Someday historians may also record that no president save Lincoln and FDR took office in more trying times. Nixon inherited a war his predecessor had no strategy for winning or ending. Nixon inherited an embattled army of 540,000 demoralized troops increasingly vexed by drugs, racial tension, and mutiny. Nixon faced a hostile Congress and media. Nixon led a society rent asunder by violent riots and protests. Nixon was obliged to call Americans to discipline, patience, and sacrifice even as the baby-boomers trumpeted civil disobedience, instant gratification, and all manner of self-indulgence. Nixon inherited an economy wounded by Johnson's guns-and-butter policies and surging inflation. Nixon confronted a world in which the Soviet Union boasted of nuclear parity, China was implacably militant, the third world seemed ready to go communist, and even America's allies had turned sullen or hostile. Indeed, Nixon deserves enduring credit just for being willing to serve as president in 1969, and enormous credit for achieving as much as he did.

In the end, Nixon faltered. But few men have ever been asked to carry so great a weight of responsibility, or for so long. That is why his best epitaph may be Henry Kissinger's in his book Diplomacy. In retrospect, Kissinger wrote, the safest course of action for Nixon would have been to go to the Congress, early in his first term, lay out his strategy for de-escalating in Vietnam, and oblige members of Congress either to endorse his strategy or liquidate the war. But, Kissinger continues, Nixon rejected such advice because he felt that history would never forgive the appalling consequences of what he considered an abdication of executive responsibility. It was an honorable, indeed, a highly moral and intellectually correct, decision. But in the American system of checks and balances, the burden Nixon took on himself was not meant to be borne by just one man. This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Nixon was undoubtedly a victim. A victim of his suspicious personality, a victim of lack of Republican cohesion, a victim of media coverage of the Vietnam war, a victim of the political aspirations of cabinet members, a victim of incompetent legal counsel and a victim of overzealous democrat and main stream media haters as those now attacking GWB.
The Watergate scandal and cover-up was nothing. Similar projects still go on today but are effectively detached from the government by use of PAC's and other political arms of the major parties. Hooray for Buckley v Valeo etc.
As a result of the Nixon fiasco, both parties now understand the destruction that Presidential impeachment imposes. Impeachment threatens the efficient operation of government and the acceptance of that government by the governed. Destabilization of that trust is now accepted as potentially fatal by the two major parties that control our government. In our lifetimes we will never again see a President removed from office as was Nixon threatened, it is just counterproductive. Evidence to my claim is the refusal of the Senate to remove Clinton from office when they had him on the more serious and admitted criminal act of perjury.

mark safranski - 8/18/2004

Nixon inevitably, whether regarded favorably or not, is goimng to be regarded as an epochal politician. The most apt comparison would be Henry Clay who also attempted to shape his era and ultimately failed.

From the Hiss investigation to his resignation Nixon was connected to most of the pressing issues of an American generation. He ran five times for national office and all of his California races garnered national attention. Even as Vice-President,an inherently unimportant office, Nixon emerged as a partisan strategist for the Senate GOP and as a loyal lightning rod for the Eisenhower administration. While some American politicians have had greater ideological effect ( FDR, Reagan) few have been a force " in the arena " as Nixon would say, for so long a period of time.


Maarja Krusten - 8/18/2004

This article seems to have attracted few posters. To anyone who stops here, apologies for the triple posting of my comment on FOIA, the page remained up on my Smartphone after I sent it and the message was inadvertently re-sent again after I got home from work.

Maarja Krusten - 8/17/2004

McDougall's inclusion of FOIA as a Nixon era law passed by Democrats is somewhat misleading. The Freedom of Information Act initially went into effect in 1967 while Lyndon Johnson was president. It subsequently was amended several times, starting with changes in 1974. Efforts to allow more public access to federal records began as early as 1955. CSee Rep. Dawson's 1955 comment on an informed public and democracy, quoted in H. Rpt. 93- 876 on the 1974 amendment.)

[posted by smartphone mobile while at lunch]

Maarja Krusten - 8/17/2004

McDougall's inclusion of FOIA as a Nixon era law passed by Democrats is somewhat misleading. The Freedom of Information Act initially went into effect in 1967 while Lyndon Johnson was president. It subsequently was amended several times, starting with changes in 1974. Efforts to allow more public access to federal records began as early as 1955. CSee Rep. Dawson's 1955 comment on an informed public and democracy, quoted in H. Rpt. 93- 876 on the 1974 amendment.)

[posted by smartphone mobile while at lunch]

Maarja Krusten - 8/17/2004

McDougall's inclusion of FOIA as a Nixon era law passed by Democrats is somewhat misleading. The Freedom of Information Act initially went into effect in 1967 while Lyndon Johnson was president. It subsequently was amended several times, starting with changes in 1974. Efforts to allow more public access to federal records began as early as 1955. CSee Rep. Dawson's 1955 comment on an informed public and democracy, quoted in H. Rpt. 93- 876 on the 1974 amendment.)

[posted by smartphone mobile while at lunch]

Maarja Krusten - 8/16/2004

McDougall's article shows how difficult it is for anyone who, like him, lived as an adult through the Nixon years to assess his legacy. I think it is too early to predict what the legacy will be, in part because too many people still view Nixon and his opponents and supporters through their own voting patterns. And, of course, not all of the primary source documents--the White House tapes and documents held by the National Archives--have been released to the public yet. The definitive book on Nixon has yet to be written. I can say that because I spent 14 years working with Nixon's unreleased tapes and records during the 1980s.

The records that have been released by the Archives reflect a very complex person. They corroborates the views expressed in early memoirs by William Safire, John D. Ehrlichman, and H. R. Haldeman. The aides saw a man who seemed to be like a multi-faceted prism or a layer cake of not just a mere two, but six full layers, to slice through. I met Haldeman in 1987 and was greatly impressed by the deep and introspective quality of his reflections on the Nixon years. Some of that was captured during the 1980s in oral histories done at the National Archives.

A broad brush approach such as McDougall applies has its limitations. On the one hand, McDougall notes that "Someday, after all those with a psychological stake in hating Nixon are dead, historians may come to see the impeachment proceedings as the ultimate check on the power of the president." To dismiss Nixon's critics broadly as "haters" is to take the easy way out. Yes, it may be tempting to take that approach in our current "you're either for us or against us" environment, but in truth, people supported or opposed Nixon for very varied and complex reasons.

McDougall further undermines what otherwise may be decent arguments with statements such as "Nixon was obliged to call Americans to discipline, patience, and sacrifice even as the baby-boomers trumpeted civil disobedience, instant gratification, and all manner of self-indulgence." But not all baby boomers were "McGovernites," as Newt Gingrich so famously characterized them during the 1990s.

I am a baby boomer, someone who graduated from a college in Washington, DC in 1973. But I don't fit McDougall's characterization. I worked on Nixon's campaign in 1968 and voted for him in 1972. I remember hearing catcalls on campus as I walked to class as a student, "Gee, you must be a Republican, you're wearing a dress." It is true I never wore the prevailing attire of jeans and surplus army jacket while I was an undergraduate. But, ever since then, I have disliked stereotypes and broad brush characterizations.

People who voted for Nixon focused on many different issues and appeals--a "peace with honor," "law and order," urban unrest, education, values, etc. While I voted for him because I agreed with the general direction in which he was taking the nation, I have to say I did not then see Nixon as someone who "was obliged to call Americans to discipline, patience, and sacrifice."

If McDougall wants to understand the complexities of the people who voted for Nixon, he should look through the hundreds of letters from ordinary citizens that are filed in the National Archives' Nixon records collection at College Park, Maryland. My college age letters are among them. I worked at the National Archives as an archivist from 1976 to 1990 and processed some of Nixon's White House Central Files--Subject Files for public release.

In various collections, such as the WHCF Trip files, there are wonderful and touching letters to the President from regular Americans. In their varied pleas and expressions of support or concern or pain, the letters reflect the hopes and fears of the American people for their country. Some of the letters written in 1973 and 1974 are quite poignant in their steadfast support for Nixon. Although the letters say much about how Nixon was viewed, unfortunately, no historian has yet looked at the President through the now publicly available letters he received from ordinary citizens.

I spent 14 years as an employee of the National Archives, screening Nixon's White House tapes and documents to determine what could be released to researchers. As an Archives employee, I assisted Dr. Joan Hoff, who wrote the book on Nixon's domestic policy that McDougall mentions in his article. I also assisted Stephen Ambrose and Stanley Kutler while they did research at the Archives.

Starting in 1986, Nixon's archival materials have slowly begun to be released to the public. (See http://hnn.us/articles/6675.html for an account of how difficult that was, and http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~hns/articles/2004/020504a.html for an account of the unfortunate baggage now trailed by the Nixon Foundation. ) Perhaps if McDougall had more time to listen to the hundreds of tapes and to pore through the millions of pages of contemporaneous archival files, instead of reflecting on secondary sources or citing the memoirs of a party of interest, such as Kissinger, he would be able to write an article which better reflects the complexities of Nixon the man, his era, and those who supported and opposed him.

Maarja Krusten
Former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist, 1976-1990

Andre Mayer - 8/16/2004

Richard Nixon was, as Walter A. McDougall writes, a president of substantial abilities and accomplishments -- but his career was shodowed, and eventually ended, by his paranoid tendencies. He wasn't really "tricky" as his enemies believed (in fact he was among our more candid presidents), but he wasn't a "victim" in the way supporters claimed, either. The "character issue" wasn't, then, about morality, but about mental balance. I suspect that the truth about Watergate is that the whole unraveling scandal was itself a coverup, of the fact that the President of the United States really truly believed that the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association was a Cuban agent.

The standards that had changed were not those that had protected FDR and JFK, but those that kept Wilson in office after he was incapacitated. In many respects, I'd accept a comparison of Nixon to Wilson, although there surely should be some downgrading for losing the war and being forced from office.

(By the way, I am a liberal Democrat who was an intern in the Nixon White House.)