Richard Nixon, from Mean-Spirited Disgrace to Elder Statesman



Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Studies Program, Tel Aviv University, Israel. He received his doctoral degree in Modern History from Oxford University.

Richard Nixon was a man of contradictions.

He was brilliant at delineating a worldview and mean at describing his fellow human beings.  His political thoughts could be all-encompassing in their reach while his personal instincts could be very short-sighted in their horizon. He said his dream was to further the cause of world peace, but he did much to create discord with individuals.

It should be noted, though, that Nixon had close friends and intimate political assistants who were loyal to him.  

He did not discriminate.  His disdainful comments about minority groups applied to them all without discrimination:  Jews, Italians, Poles, African Americans, etc. He could be equally denigrating in his remarks about them all.

On the other hand, he would have no problem whatsoever working with people who belonged to any of those minorities he disliked.  Nixon drew a line between his personal dislike of a minority group and the political allegiance of an individual.  If a person shared his worldview, Nixon was more than ready to have him on his staff, notwithstanding his ethnic or religious background.  The closest person to him in shaping foreign and national security policy was Henry Kissinger, a Jew with whom Nixon, in his twisted ironic manner, would share his anti-Semitic remarks.

His was a peculiar case:  he was shy and introvert and yet he was in a world of outgoing and extrovert people, the world of politics.

Nixon popularized and made his own a memorable phrase:  "The Silent Majority." Three words that encompass Nixon's genuine belief that a silent majority of the people in the United States backed him; and that the minority that did not was simply more visible and audible.  Reality warranted Nixon's phrase, at least until the Watergate affair inundated his presidency.  What better phrase for a president who was shy and introvert?

Nixon was the architect of many foreign policy successes.  However, as time elapsed, some of them were seen by posterity as less glowing in the distance then they seemed to be at the moment of creation.  

To be sure, due to Watergate, he was compelled to be much less involved in preserving the foreign policy processes he had initiated.  He built the edifice, but was hardly there to maintain it.  How would détente with the Soviet Union have fared had Nixon's mind been free from the Watergate affair?  How would the Vietnam debacle have looked like had he stayed on to finish his second term?

The problem was not only that Nixon had to face Watergate and then resignation, but that Congress was hardly in the mood to sustain a weak South Vietnam or actively to confront an expansionist Soviet-led campaign in the Third World.

How absurd can it be that Nixon, who won his re-election in 1972 by a huge margin, should have had around him people who thought it was necessary to do what they did at the Watergate to secure his re-election?

Without the benefit of hindsight, Nixon could have won comfortably in 1972 by just sitting in the White House and waiting patiently for election day to arrive.  The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once wrote that the world would be a much better place if everyone just sat quietly in his/her own room.  Had Nixon and his assistants followed Pascal's dictum during the election campaign in 1972, history might have looked considerably different. 

Nixon's tragedy was that he had a statesman's vision within the mental framework of a mean-spirited paranoid.  Certainly, he thought he was being persecuted.  Indeed, more often than not reality seemed to have proved him right.  The problem was that, on many an occasion, his mode of conduct was responsible for that.  He helped create the situation, to begin with, about which he subsequently complained. 

Well, to be fair to him, his political rivals were not always innocent bystanders.  Some of his rivals were hardcore ideologues bent on his political destruction; some others simply could not stand him.  The world of politics produces likes and dislikes that go beyond ideas.  Nixon's is a particularly prominent case study of that.

Nixon chose Henry Kissinger to be his national security adviser following his victory in 1968.  Kissinger was not part of the inner group of Nixon's assistants and advisers.  He ended up, though, being the closest person to Nixon in shaping foreign and national security policy, an area which the president was most interested in and where he had his most striking successes.

Nixon held three summit meetings with the leader of the Soviet Union, an unprecedented feat.  He was the first U.S. president to meet a Soviet leader in Moscow and to receive him in the United States.

He was the first U.S. president to sign a comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union putting a cap on the increase in nuclear weapons held by both superpowers (SALT I).

Nixon was the first president to pay an official visit to Communist China.  Following more than twenty years of an official boycott, China was re-incorporated into the realm of U.S. foreign policy.  A singular diplomatic achievement, the opening to China was perhaps Nixon's greatest foreign policy success.  Kissinger played a central role in the diplomacy that preceded Nixon's achievements in the international arena.

Thus, through the so-called Shuttle Diplomacy conducted by Henry Kissinger in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Nixon administration managed to secure three interim agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors:  two with Egypt and one with Syria. 

By then, Kissinger had already been appointed as Secretary of State, in addition to his post as National Security Advisor:  the first and only person so far to have held both positions simultaneously in U.S. history.

Nixon and Kissinger shared a common conceptual view of foreign policy, and more than one common personal trait.  They were both realists.  According to the realist school of international relations, the international system is anarchic, and each country seeks to enhance its power in order to further its national interests. Ideology plays a secondary role, if at all.  Similarly, both Kissinger and Nixon were paranoid and bent on secrecy.  The diplomacy they conducted was founded upon secrecy and realpolitik.  

Without the secrecy, the China opening might have failed.  However unpalatable to the State Department that felt, rightly, excluded, Kissinger's secret diplomacy bore fruits in reaching the SALT agreement and the peace accord with North Vietnam.

Secrecy in the conduct of diplomacy should be distinguished, in this context, from the results it produces.  The agreement ultimately reached must be made public; not necessarily the way to achieve it.  The veil of secrecy may be a necessary means to negotiate without outside pressure; making the final agreement public knowledge is essential for it to have legitimacy.

The problem with the Nixon-Kissinger diplomatic style, particularly while Kissinger served as National Security Adviser and not as Secretary of State, was that negotiations were concealed not only from the public, but also from the highest-ranking U.S. diplomats.  This created mistrust and frustration in the decision-making system.  The result was internal infighting that was played out through leaks and which were ultimately detrimental to all concerned.  As President Dwight Eisenhower used to say, when individuals and organizations feel that they are active participants in the decision-making process, the chances of obstruction in the implementation of policy decreases significantly.

Policy was decided upon and mostly conducted by Nixon and Kissinger, which led to an efficient, rapid and coherent process.  Indeed, policy was clear and unambiguous; but so was the internal opposition to it.  Nonetheless, Nixon found in Kissinger his ideal partner for shaping foreign policy. Kissinger found in Nixon an ideal president to implement his conceptual worldview and to realize his personal ambitions.

Nixon would end his presidency as a seventh-rate politician, but would subsequently end his life as a widely-respected and admired statesman.  His comeback was amazing.  Time was able to work for him; but so was his fervent desire for recognition.  He worked hard to achieve it, to be sure.  Doing so outside the political system was paradoxically easier.  He was no longer politically active, which helped him build an image of a wise statesman, well above the daily political quarrels.

Like Janus, the Nixon of past days, the mean-spirited politician, the person responsible for obstructing the law, was facing backwards; the Nixon who was resting in peace at his funeral, the brilliant world-statesman, the respected analyst of international affairs, was looking forward. 

Like Janus, the two were one and the same.  One can hardly think of a more intriguing contradiction in modern history.

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