Pride and Prudence

Pride and Prudence

Mini Teaser: A spate of books provides a welcome opportunity to reassess Nixon.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

Upon graduation, Nixon entered Duke University Law School. At Duke, he excelled and ran for and won the presidency of the law school bar association in 1936. He was finally free of provincial Whittier and headed for the big time. Or so he thought. Despite his successes, he landed a job neither at a New York law firm nor the FBI in Washington, DC. At that time, Duke was not well known, and the Great Depression lingered on. Nixon was disconsolate. He headed back to Whittier and procrastinated for a summer before he finally accepted a position with a local law firm. In Whittier, however, he met and wooed the woman who would become a pillar of strength for him during his many trials, Patricia Ryan.

World War II rescued Nixon. He began working for the Office of Price Administration in 1941-which instilled in him a lifelong hatred of bureaucracy-before entering the navy in 1942 (where he proved a master poker player). His service toughened him up, preparing him for the rough-and-tumble of political combat. The animosities and status anxiety that Nixon harbored toward the better set as a youth soon emerged in full flower. His hatred of the liberal, eastern establishment became one of his animating passions and a ticket to political success. And Nixon, in turn, would earn the enmity of the establishment, which viewed him, in Herblock's famous cartoon, as a blackguard, emerging covered in slime from a manhole, intent on smearing his opponents.

Black is at his most sure-footed in dealing with the Red-baiting period in Nixon's career. Nixon was seen as one of the "primitives," as Dean Acheson called them, who saw Reds anywhere and everywhere (but decades later Acheson would meet with Nixon in the White House to advise him on the Vietnam War). According to Black himself, "Nixon was not slow to grasp the potential for this line of attack, though he was always careful to stay well clear of the most rabid imputations of treason to distinguished Democrats." When first running for Congress in 1946, Nixon sensed that after four consecutive defeats at the hands of Roosevelt and eight straight defeats in congressional elections, the Republican ship was about to come in.

Nixon headed back to California where he challenged and defeated the incumbent congressman, Jerry Voorhis. Aided by Murray Chotiner, one of the most devious political consultants in American political history, Nixon painted Voorhis as something of a Communist dupe. For example, the Nixon campaign depicted Voorhis's votes for lend-lease shipments to the USSR as nothing less than "six pro-Soviet votes." Black indicates that Nixon was never taken in by his own rhetoric about Communist perfidy in America, but used it in an opportunistic fashion, which would explain how he was able to shift so smoothly to espousing détente, along realist lines, once he became president.

In Congress, Nixon played an important role as part of the more farsighted World War II generation of Republicans. He traveled to Europe as a member of the Herter Committee and persuaded his frugal constituents back home to support the Marshall Plan as a vital part of confronting Communism. He also made a beeline for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Black's verdict on the committee could hardly be more censorious: "It is fantastic, sixty years later, to imagine that the United States had such a preposterous congressional committee. . . . The HUAC staff was a rag-tag of ex-communists and former FBI agents . . . still recovering from shell shock." Nixon, Black argues, kept aloof from the troglodytes on the committee and was more careful than they were in handling evidence.

Nixon's moment of vindication came in 1948 when he exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. The importance of this episode can scarcely be exaggerated. The Hiss affair transfixed the nation. It catapulted Nixon to national fame and helped ensure that he won election to the Senate in 1950. And Nixon's dogged pursuit of Hiss earned him credibility with conservatives that he never completely lost.

Almost single-handedly Nixon defied the prevailing, liberal sentiment in favor of Hiss, the gilded lawyer who was a charter member of the eastern establishment, by championing the brooding Whittaker Chambers, who had been part of a Communist spy ring with Hiss, only to renounce his belief in world revolution and, eventually, turn on him. (Black, incidentally, goes astray in claiming that Chambers had "privately thrown in his lot with McCarthy." In fact, Chambers despised him, warning William F. Buckley, Jr. that McCarthy was a "raven of disaster.") In 1950, Hiss, who had sued Chambers for libel, was found guilty of two counts of perjury. For a two-term congressman who was only thirty-seven years old, it was a big victory. But according to Black,

Nixon felt ever afterward that he had had a Pyrrhic victory, that while he had gained great renown and prominence from the Hiss affair, he had also earned the implacable and relentless animosity of the most powerful media and political and social elements of the liberal establishment.

If Nixon had tempestuous relations with liberals, his dealings with Dwight D. Eisenhower were not much smoother. As Black copiously shows, they were, in fact, quite strained. Eisenhower viewed Nixon as overly ambitious and came close to dumping him during the famous "Checkers" affair, revolving around a private slush fund for Nixon. (As Black points out, both Adlai Stevenson and Eisenhower had their own questionable sources of income, vastly surpassing Nixon's.) The tensions between the two never entirely dissipated, even when Nixon became president. Black acutely observes,

Eisenhower would admire Nixon's intelligence, courage, and determination but disapprove his Cassius-like appetite for power. He would affect the avuncular grandeur of the spontaneously elevated hero, but was made uneasy by Nixon's knowledge that with Eisenhower, all was not what it seemed.

But these two realists largely saw eye to eye on political issues. There were no wild military adventures on Eisenhower's watch. Instead, Eisenhower extricated the United States from the Korean War and avoided becoming entangled in Vietnam. He acted prudently, and Nixon loyally supported him. Nor was this all. As vice president, Nixon demonstrated a markedly liberal side on domestic issues. Black tells us that Nixon sent his children to integrated private schools and refused to sign a race-restrictive covenant on the resale of a house he bought in Washington, DC's Wesley Heights. Nixon, Black also tells us, "was well recognized as, in civil rights terms, the most liberal and activist senior federal political leader in the country." Nixon's move to the center was also apparent in his campaign for the presidency in 1960. Nixon refused to play up the Soviet threat and took the high ground in avoiding even a hint of dirty politics toward Kennedy-he was a man, wrote Theodore White, "almost pathetic in his eagerness to be liked." Though Nixon went on to suffer a painful loss to Pat Brown in the 1964 California race for governor, he had been shrewd enough to refuse to run for president that year. The Far Right imploded during Barry Goldwater's tumultuous and abortive run, leaving the field open for Nixon four years later.

The 1968 election was tailor-made for Nixon. The liberal establishment-McGeorge Bundy, William P. Bundy and Robert McNamara, among others-had helped drag first Kennedy then Johnson into the jungles of Vietnam. Liberalism cracked up under the pressure of the war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the rise of the counterculture. Nixon called for "law and order" to stem moral licentiousness. He created what might be called the Nixon Democrats-the ethnic, blue-collar Catholic northerners who were dismayed by the Democratic Party's move to the left.

As Jeremi Suri bluntly puts it in Henry Kissinger and the American Century, "Nixon and Kissinger inherited a mess in Vietnam." Slightly over a half-million American soldiers were battling in South Vietnam. Protests were rampant in both the United States and western Europe as America became "Amerika." The image of the United States had suffered greatly, much as it would decades later under George W. Bush.


NIXON ALMOST immediately attempted to reshape American foreign policy along realist lines. Perhaps his boldest move was to appoint Harvard professor Henry Kissinger national security advisor. Kissinger's Ph.D. dissertation was on the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich and the Concert of Vienna, which helped secure European peace for much of the nineteenth century. Kissinger, a long-time exponent of realism as opposed to simplistic moralism in foreign affairs, espoused a foreign policy defined by pragmatism to promote stability and order abroad. The Nixon Doctrine, which the president announced in 1969, was a natural outgrowth of such thinking. The doctrine made it plain that the United States intended to revise its traditional approach to containment. While the United States would provide military assistance to American allies, "we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

A belief in diplomacy and a recognition of the limits of America's ability to confront its opponents were also behind the 1972 opening to China and the advent of détente with the Soviet Union. The former policy had been hinted at by Nixon in a Foreign Affairs article during the 1968 presidential campaign. His visit to China was very much a personal triumph for the former cold warrior, and Mao himself viewed Nixon with great affection. In a sense, Nixon's journey was the precursor to Reagan's embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev-the two Republican presidents who ended the confrontation with Communism.

Essay Types: Book Review