John F. Kennedy calling on Americans to “go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard” is one of the most memorable political speeches in history. Kennedy, however, never saw the moon landing. It was President Richard Nixon who called Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to have an ‘interplanetary conversation’ from the White House. But most people tend to forget this, due to many historians having spent their undergraduate years protesting against Nixon. When it comes to presidents there is none that I feel more ambivalent about than Richard Nixon. In many ways he may have been the first 21st century president, but he himself held some of the most abominable ideas of the 20th century. He didn’t hide his paranoia with good grace like his contemporaries, which eventually led to his undoing, and has arguably hurt the reputation of the Republican Party to this day. For good or bad he laid the foundations for the modern political order.
Some say it was Nixon who ignited the Politics of Hate. Unlike Eisenhower or Goldwater, Nixon wasn’t a calm firm voice that warned of our society being undermined by bad laws, ideas and antagonists abroad, but an alarmed voice that said America’s fabric was being ripped apart by enemies at home. If this sounds familiar then it means you’re watching the 2016 American Presidential debates. It’s hard to fully damn Trick Dick for this, 1968 like today was a time of unprecedented tension. The Democrats under Lyndon Johnson ignored the growing waves of crime and violence saying it was a product of inequality that would be cured by his Great Society. Nixon took up the banner during the election of 1968. America was losing the war in Vietnam and the kids weren’t all right, Instead of acting like their parents dealing with the privations of the Great Depression and serving with eagerness in toppling the fascist empires during WWII they were shirking their social responsibilities of registering for the draft and cutting their hair. The Civil Rights Movement was collapsing, there were race riots in major cities and pro-segregation populist George Wallace almost had one third of the vote (I wonder which modern political figure Wallace most resembles?). Meanwhile Robert Kennedy had been shot dead and hippies and hard hats clashed in the streets at the Chicago Democratic Convention because of the lackluster Hubert Humphrey who had been chosen by behind the closed doors of cigar smoke-filled rooms. Nixon spoke against those out of control kids, promised to end the crime wave and give us a victory in Vietnam. Nixon won the election fair and square. Between the rudderless left, and the Neo-Confederate Wallace Nixon was tragically, the most qualified candidate in the race.
Like Richard III, Richard Nixon in American media is either portrayed in a villainous or a cartoonish manner. He appears a sweaty irritable old man yelling into one phone line about how the hippies are out to get him, and then on the other line screaming at Kissinger and Haldeman to “get in here!” in his unique diction that is the most mocked political voice after Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is much tragedy in the life of Nixon; he wasn’t posh and poised like JFK because he actually grew up during the Great Depression unlike Kennedy who later said he didn’t even know about it till he attended Harvard. Nixon didn’t get into Duke because of his family money or connections, but because he worked his ass earning the nickname “old Iron Butt” (due to this sitting in Duke Law Library studying for hours at a time).
He married Pat Nixon, who met him in a theater group and likewise had grown up in poverty. She was attracted to him “because he was going places, he was vital and ambitious … he was always doing things”. If anything, his marriage is where Nixon deserves praise even from leftists. It wasn’t a staged marriage for political gains, despite years of searching there is no evidence he cheated on her. This, compared to the volumes of lurid stories about JFK’s swimming sessions with secretaries while his wife went shopping, and LBJ who flaunted his affairs in front of his wife and actually boasted that “he had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose”. Nixon wasn’t born into wealth, he had worked for everything he got, and because of that he was utterly vindictive against anyone who he thought would take it away from him.
When he left the Navy after WWII and entered the political arena, he was merciless in attacking his opponents, accusing them of being communists which is how he earned the moniker “Tricky Dick”. He always wanted power; Nixon’s dream out of law school was to work for the FBI. He was disappointed when his application went unanswered, and years later he learned he would have been hired if it weren’t for budget cuts. His dream of being one of J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men was shown by his dark obsession with Law and Order and his strong desire to vanquish what he saw as society’s deviant enemies who undermined America’s traditional values though smoking pot, dodging the draft, and engaging in homosexuality. All of these things Nixon saw as vices promoted by treacherous intelligentsia that wanted to destroy our society. He didn’t hate the Soviet Union for being antithetical to liberty, like his Conservatarian colleague, Senator Barry Goldwater, the reason Nixon feared the Soviet Union was that it would overcome America like Sparta overcame Athens because of their discipline and how they ruthlessly and savagely purged those that engaged in what he viewed as the anti-social behavior of drug use and homosexual love.
This obsession with order over individuality, and the idea that martial virtue, sacrifice and bold aggressive leadership would make a great nation is a very 20th century idea, promoted the progressive presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It’s no irony that Richard Nixon requested that he be given Woodrow Wilson’s desk when he was decorating the oval office. It was on this desk that he signed the laws that initiated the American War on Drugs, the longest-fought conflict on American soil that has destroyed millions of lives, wasted trillions of dollars and created a draconian legal order that has eroded civil liberties and turned our police force into a standing army. The President in his opinion had the mandate to stop lawlessness even if it at times went outside of the law.
Nixon’s most influential impact was on the global political order. Many demonize the man who created his foreign policy, Henry Kissinger, as a cold Svengali who overthrew foreign governments and secretly bombed nations. These are often the same historians that conveniently forget that the interference in the political affairs of our Latin neighbors was American policy during the 20th century: Eisenhower initiated the coup in Guatemala, JFK’s CIA played a role in assassinating Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Ngo Diem of South Vietnam, LBJ backed the 1964 coup in Brazil. Kissinger’s behavior was the norm, but unlike the other former Secretaries of State that spin altruistic motives for their actions years after the fact so they can be become highly paid professional commencement speakers at colleges, corporate events and charity fundraisers . Kissinger never lied to America like that, as he said “covert action should not be confused with missionary work”. He had fled Nazi German as a teenager only to learn that his family that was left behind died in Hitler’s death camps. As he worked in intelligence during WWII, he was made well aware of the utter brutality of America’s good war, and adapted his lifelong outlook that the only way to stop and slay dragons would be the wiliness to act like one.
Kissinger ended up with Nixon because most of Harvard’s Social Science department fell for the elegance and high ideals of JFK like young people at the time fell hard for the Beatles. Even though he was a ragging anti-Semite, Nixon liked Kissinger’s bluntness and willingness to act. Kissinger liked that Nixon listened. As early as 1965, Kissinger saw the war in Vietnam as unwinnable. Nixon had served as Vice President under Eisenhower and remembered how the general handled the Korean War. He was elected in 1952 under the promise that he would “go to Korea”; and did so, seeing the war as unwinnable. He drafted a vague threat to the North Koreans and the Chinese that the war had to end on those boundaries, or America would escalate the conflict and possibly introduce nuclear weapons.
Nixon and Kissinger repeated Eisenhower’s policy. They escalated Operation Rolling Thunder and bombed North Vietnam more viciously than the Germans during WWII, in order to negotiate a better settlement. Nixon and Kissinger are remembered by the ageing left who protested the Vietnam War as war criminals, but they forget that it was those two men that actually ended the unwinnable conflict. It would be nice to think that Love-in’s and rock music ended the war, when actuality it was ended by a bunch of tie-wearing Republicans in a smoky war room who ran cost analysis and made a decision. It’s tragic that people forget this fact not only because Nixon deserves credit, but because well-intentioned activists still think that screaming and acting like public nuisances will change government policy.
This deal made the unthinkable possible: the most diehard anti-communist would shake the hand of Chairman Mao. Only Nixon Could Go to China; only he had the legitimacy as an anti-communist to engage with one communist faction to undermine the other. China’s alliance with the US meant that Russia’s military had to move a good number of its forces away from the eastern block to the vast Chinese border. It undermined the prestige of Revolutionary Maoism among international communists. The historian Niall Ferguson points out that the Cold War was really won in Asia and the economic miracles that happened in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong which were being witnessed by the Chinese led to them adopting market reforms that would lift over a billion people out of poverty by the end of the 20th century. All of this happened because Only Nixon Could Go to China.
Nixon’s presidency witnessed a man walking on the Moon, the Vietnam War ending, and the turning of a land of one billion people from our bitterest enemy into an ally. But all of that was undone not by an assassin’s bullet but by his own voice. Nixon’s tapes are fascinating to listen to. Here you hear the voice of a man freely talking among friends; though educated; he uses the crudest terms and in the middle of meetings would go off on tangents about how homosexuals, blacks, Jews and pot smokers were taking over. Diaries are works scripted for posthumous readers. Reagan had a tendency to cross out curse words in his diary, but these stream of conscious tapes meticulously recorded for future historians the record a man who forgot he had them on. The tapes reveal that he was a sad angry man who thought the world was going to hell and whose enemies were plotting his downfall.
Nixon wasn’t completely paranoid. The elite liberal establishment resented him and danced as his presidency collapsed. JFK had defeated Nixon in 1961 using professional men hired by his father who knew how to bribe any official that could have a hand in counting votes. It was one of the closest elections in history and it had been stolen. However, JFK’s men didn’t bungle a simple burglary, and JFK didn’t record his phone calls with men he had spying on his political enemies. Kennedy knew who had to do this, and is now unwarrantedly seen as an immaculate marble saint. Nixon’s lurid conversations which should have exposed him as mean spirited human being turned him into a monster. No president before or since then has resigned, but judging by the direction of technology it’s likely to happen again in our lifetime.
FDR’s secret service men would rip the film out of cameras of those that dared to take photos of the President in his wheel chair. Today every phone can be voice recorder or a camera that can deliver that single incriminating sentence or picture to an audience of millions on the World Wide Web. The next big scandal won’t involve Cold War spies or a corrupt securities bailout, but will come from text messages of a politician who forgot that other people could see it.
No president will fall as hard as Nixon did because no one really believes them be inherently good men anymore. If Nixon did any good thing, it was to undermine the virtue and trust of executive authority which the Presidency to this day never regained. For that we should thank Nixon. His dishonest actions gave us honest insight into how government works and how powerful men really are behind the curtain.
This post was written by Neil McGettigan.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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