Pride and Prudence

Pride and Prudence

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

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

If anything, Nixon and Kissinger's promotion of détente with the Soviet Union was even more courageous, given that they faced constant and vituperative attacks from within their own ranks for daring to negotiate nuclear-arms-control agreements with the Kremlin, including the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaty. Kissinger, to his amazement, found himself being attacked from the Right. But the neoconservative attacks on Nixon and Kissinger as appeasers carrying out a new "Munich" were excessive. Such hypertrophied language was also employed by Ronald Reagan, as he went on the attack against Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination and, later, against Jimmy Carter in 1980. (In 1976, the neoconservative-led Committee on the Present Danger declared, "The Soviet military buildup of all its armed forces over the past quarter century is, in part, reminiscent of Nazi Germany's rearmament in the 1930s.") Ironically, Reagan, who had his own utopian streak, went much further than either Nixon or Kissinger ever contemplated. Where they had endeavored to create a stable global structure based on balance, Reagan wanted to tear it up, at the end even proposing to eliminate the entire U.S. land-based nuclear force (in 1987).

As part of their grand design for reshaping foreign policy-bringing an end to the Vietnam War-Nixon and Kissinger mistakenly assumed that Soviet pressure would prompt the North Vietnamese to sue for peace. Not so. The North Vietnamese were not the playthings of the Kremlin.

Nixon has come in for a drubbing for failing to end the war sooner. But the temptation to seek more than simply a pullout-and instead what Nixon and Kissinger called "peace with honor"-was obviously immense. Had the war ended sooner, Nixon's administration would most likely not have spun out of control, engaging in surveillance of war protesters and ending up with a bunker mentality, in which it saw enemies everywhere.

So, despite his foreign-policy successes, Nixon could not stave off the inevitable. Once the White House taping system became public knowledge during Watergate, his tenure as president was effectively over. James Rosen's superb The Strong Man, which is scheduled to appear in May, delves into the interstices of Watergate, arguing persuasively that Attorney General John Mitchell was essentially ambivalent about, if not opposed to, the machinations of Nixon's subordinates. Rosen, a reporter for Fox News, has performed Herculean labors in unraveling Mitchell's career, and his meticulous account underscores the complexity of getting a true grasp on what actually occurred. Rosen reports that Mitchell spent his final weeks of freedom in May 1977, before he was sentenced to prison, reflecting upon Watergate. The occasion was David Frost's televised interview with Nixon, which was broadcast in three installments.

This was the first campaign in Nixon's newest battle. Nixon had run out of offices to campaign for after beginning at age twelve in grade school. Now he had a new struggle-rehabilitating his reputation. It was one that he would never stop waging and that has faced some considerable road bumps, not least because of the hostility that his name continues to evoke. Indeed, James Reston's The Conviction of Richard Nixon provides a flavor of the animosity that Nixon provoked, and continues to provoke, among the liberal Vietnam generation. Reston makes no secret of his loathing for Nixon. The problem with this approach is that it does little to elucidate why Nixon behaved as he did. The Frost/Nixon play, by contrast, presents a very human Nixon, in some ways, as he himself says, his own worst enemy. Nixon, after all, stated, "I have impeached myself."

Since then, a number of historians and journalists have reexamined his actual record as president. In her compact biography, Richard M. Nixon, Elizabeth Drew notes that under him a host of new environmental laws were enacted, including a bill strengthening the Clean Air Act of 1967. Nixon also signed into law in 1972 the Clean Water Act. According to Drew, "Whatever his motives and his positioning, Nixon presided over a historical expansion of environmental protection in the United States." Other Nixon initiatives included establishing the first Office of Consumer Affairs in the White House, ending the draft and greatly increasing support of the arts. In essence, Nixon was a big-government conservative, who, Drew writes, accepted the premise that "the federal government can do good things for the people. He was the last Republican president to do so."

Nevertheless, Nixon helped mold the modern Republican Party. He ended the reign of the isolationists and country-club plutocrats who railed against Roosevelt and Truman. But now the party he once headed faces its most dire crisis since 1974, when the Democrats captured Congress and went on to take the presidency. That victory proved a mere interregnum as the country moved right during the Carter presidency. Reagan repudiated much of the Nixon program, at least rhetorically. As Timothy Naftali reminds us in his elegant biography, George H. W. Bush, who had headed the Republican National Committee during the Nixon years, was the last legatee of Nixon, pursuing a cautious foreign policy, acutely conscious of the great power of the United States as well as its limits. "Besides his own father," writes Naftali, "Bush viewed Nixon as his most significant political mentor."


IT IS THUS no small irony that Bush's own son, George W., repudiated his and Nixon's embrace of realist principles. From the outset, he has scorned the advice of Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, viewing them as relics of an earlier era (when, in fact, their apprehensions about Bush's recklessness have been amply realized). The time had come, Bush and his neocon advisors agreed, to overturn the previous policy of maintaining stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran needed to be put on notice. What was required was the obverse of realpolitik-an ideological crusade that would upend the old order and usher in a new age of democracy and liberation.

With the rise of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the administration has begun to reassess its belligerent approach abroad. The modest steps it has taken, including dealing with North Korea, are overdue. But there has been no real reckoning inside the GOP with the Bush era. This is remarkable. For small-government conservatives, the expansion of the military that has taken place under Bush and the profligate expansion of American commitments are surely reasons enough to embrace realist principles. But conservatives will have to turn as much to history as to contemporary events to make their case for the GOP to come home to its older traditions of prudence and caution. It would be a pity if, in reexamining the origins and course of recent Republican foreign policy, they failed to ponder Nixon's record.


Jacob Heilbrunn, the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Doubleday, 2008), is a senior editor at The National Interest.

Essay Types: Book Review