…[A] Riddle, Wrapped Up in Mystery, Inside an Enigma…”

A Review of John A. Farrell’s and Patrick J. Buchanan’s Nixon Biographies*

The protagonist of this review is not the Soviet Union despite the quote in the title. Winston S. Churchill may have met Dwight D. Eisenhower’s young Vice President in the waning years of his premiership in the early 1950s, but Richard M. Nixon so much lived and worked in the shadow of another giant of the Second World War that he was not very likely to attract much attention in the corridors of 10 Downing Street or Westminster. However, even by that time the young Republican politician had already acquired a reputation of sorts in the US. He had already taken on some of the iconic figures of the (liberal) Democratic establishment, including Rep. Jerry Voorhis and Dem. Helen Gahagan Douglas (labelled the “Pink Lady” in the 1950 contest for one of the Californian seats in the US Senate by the Nixon campaign), and first and foremost Alger Hiss, a “model” New Dealer, a product of the Ivy League Universities (as compared to Nixon’s more modest education at Whittier and Duke University). It was not only the liberal political establishment that despised Nixon and characterised him as a sort of caveman zealot, but the liberal press also found him soon, and as James “Scotty” Reston from The New York Times put it: “he was never one of the boys” (quoted by Farrell, p. 203).

The other press pillar of the liberals, The Washington Post – which became later, together with The New York Times, a scourge of the Nixon presidency as they were carrying out a crusade to drive Nixon out of the White House – started to depict him in Herbert Block’s (“Herblock”) cartoons as an enemy of Lady Liberty on account of the Californian Congressman’s role played in the House Un-American Activities Committee. In short, a kind of inverted witch-hunt started as early as the late 1940s against Nixon, and it was following him until, at least, 9 August 1974. Nixon even had to suffer at the hands of the liberals for the mistakes and sins committed by his liberal predecessors in the Oval Office; he was the biblical scapegoat for the missteps and misjudgements of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as well.

The attacks on him as an individual and a politician were not really justified. Nixon was quite a well-read politician, who immersed himself in authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Friedrich Nietzsche, and his favourite musical pieces were Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, but he also loved Fryderik Chopin and Johannes Brahms at least in his youth. (Brahms seems to enjoy quite a popularity among American politicians: he is also one of Condoleezza Rice’s favourite composers.) He authored altogether 12 books; two of them in his years as an active politician; while his “Asia After Viet Nam” is arguably one of the most important essays ever published in Foreign Affairs (October 1967). As for his political philosophy, Garry Wills called him the last liberal, the embodiment of the self-made man in his Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970); and his reviewers, including Michael Ryan (“The Last Liberal”, The Harvard Crimson, 15 October 1970), or John Leonard (“Books of the Times: Mr Nixon as the Last Liberal”, The New York Times, 15 October 1970) endorsed the characterisation. Others even went one step further and considered him “us”, the quintessential American. Thus, the journalist Tom Wicker, though working for The New York Times he was at one point targeted as one of the enemies by President Nixon, wrote a rather perceptive biography on Richard Nixon under the title of One of Us (1991),1 while the celebrated liberal author Gore Vidal declared: “We are all of us Nixon, and he is us” (quoted by Farrell, 325). The contradiction, that is the mutual hatred between a liberal Nixon and contemporary liberals can be explained quite plausibly by the fact that classical or Manchesterian liberalism had been replaced by a “New Deal liberalism” in the 1930s: a belief in an increased role of the state in the economic and even the social sphere as a realisation of the turn-of-the-century Progressives’ ideas of social engineering. Nixon found himself in a no-man’s land of sorts, because, at the same time, the conservatives also questioned his credentials, and did not really feel that he was “one of us”. Despite the fact that he supported Barry Goldwater in the latter’s doomed presidential candidacy in 1964, William F. Buckley and the other keepers of the conservative “flame” harboured deep suspicions about his genuine commitment to conservative values; Patrick J. Buchanan gives vent to his frustration with Nixon in his Nixon’s White House Wars because the President frequently chose a pragmatic approach to issues instead of pursuing a conservative agenda without compromise.

It is worth mentioning that not even did Ronald Reagan escape the ire of some of the more dogmatic ideologues in the 1980s when, for instance, David Stockman accused him of betraying “Reaganomics” for the sake of some faux Keynesianism.2 The “soft” social conservative in Nixon might have been a result of his upbringing and early life, the modest conditions he was living in even as a young federal congressman with a family, and the disdain he had to suffer at the hands of the privileged, especially the East Coast upper middle class, while Dwight D. Eisenhower also ignored him in general, and socially in particular (Farrell, 211).

The irony was that Nixon, who was viewed by observers left and right as the embodiment of “the American, this new man”, did not really fit into either of the traditional ideologies in America, was socially an outsider, unpopular most of the time even in his own Party, awkward in connecting with people at large, a loner, and an introvert in an extrovert society. He was the stereotypical American in other aspects though; it was especially his indomitable will and determination to start anew even after the biggest failures, such as the defeat in the gubernatorial contest in California in 1962. He seemed to be gaining strength from defeats as well; even after the ignominious departure from the White House as the only American president who had to resign, he lived down his reputation as the “tricky Dick”, and was able to play the role of the elderly statesman, whose advice was sought at home and abroad alike. He became the subject of innumerable articles and books even during his lifetime; the interest in Nixon, labelled as one of the most talented political leaders in the post-war United States, did not abate with his death in 1994. In reality, it has even become stronger since; John A. Farrell’s Richard Nixon. The Life, and Patrick J. Buchanan’s Nixon’s White House Wars. The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever are the most recent testimonies of this interest and attempt by scholars, journalists and contemporaries to understand this most complex character, to reinterpret some of the hastily made judgements, and dispel some of the stereotypes about him.

Richard Nixon. The Life is not Farrell’s first encounter with the Nixon mystery. He first summarised his views on the 100th birthday of Nixon in an essay titled “The Operatic Life of Richard Nixon” in The Atlantic on 9 January 2013. He singled out Nixon’s desire to become a world leader á la Woodrow Wilson, and he even ordered the so-called Wilson desk to be installed into his study. (It is history’s irony that the desk was actually belonging to a no-name US Vice President at the end of the 19th century; and the name itself is a misnomer based on the journalist and columnist William Safire’s false information.) However, as it turned out, Nixon was a Wilsonian only in name; the doctrine attached to his name, and its concrete manifestation, the “Vietnamisation” programme actually renounced the idea of “making the world safe for democracy”. Instead, his opening to the People’s Republic of China, or engaging with the Soviet Union even after the proclamation of the infamous Brezhnev doctrine of limited national sovereignty, and the crackdown of the Prague Spring was more pragmatic if not classic balance-of-power politics. Farrell in The Atlantic essay found another clue to Nixon’s personality when he quoted the President telling Safire, who was working in the press office of the administration alongside with, among others, Buchanan: “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” The President strove to instil fear into his real or presumed enemies, and even dabbled with the Machiavellian “madman” theory in relation to the Vietnam War. The author further raised very serious questions regarding Nixon’s democratic credentials at home as well. As he claimed: “It was Nixon who helped launch the McCarthy era, … who set the South against the North in his ‘southern strategy’ [in 1968] and instructed his Silent Majority to distrust the country’s elected institutions” (emphasis added). The conclusion Farrell drew was not very flattering as he discovered in Nixon quite a gallery of some of the most controversial characters in American history and literature: “flickers of the demagogue Willie Stark, the salesman Willie Loman, the raging Ahab, the wily Burr, the paranoid Captain Queeg”.

However, his fully-fledged biography is much kinder and sympathetic towards his hero. True, it is unfair to compare a few pages long essay with a meticulously researched book running several hundred pages, with notes based on extensive research from presidential libraries to such holdings as the Bela Kornitzer Papers at Drew University3 and covering some 130 pages, while the bibliography lists hundreds of items on Nixon and his era. Though Nixon’s political and personal life has been a favourite subject of various psychoanalytical essays, Farrell avoids this trap. The quotes he uses are from written documents or oral history sources, no “he thought, she thought” sort of reconstructions of mental processes or invented dialogues. In fact, Farrell did not have to put anything into the mouth of the personalities who appear on the pages of this exemplary biography. The historical sources tell it all; and the story, if well told, can be as fascinating as an exciting literary piece. Farrell knows how to tell a story; he builds up the (sub) plots carefully; each of the chapters has its own “plot” and climax.

Nixon was first and foremost interested in foreign affairs: he found it the “appropriate” and more convenient area for a president for at least two reasons. First, the US became the leader of the free world after the Second World War at least as much by default as by design; therefore the President of the US was not only the leader of his own country, but he spoke for the whole “free” world as well. It appealed to Nixon immensely to follow in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin D. Roosevelt, and to leave an imprint in history. Second, the American president is more independent in pursuing foreign affairs from the checks and balances implied in the political system and public opinion than in domestic politics. Richard Nixon. The Life reflects this reality. The bulk of the material on Nixon’s years in the White House, besides – naturally – the Watergate scandal, is on Vietnam and the Nixon–Kissinger “triangulation”, that is, opening to China and the balancing act between the two Communist giants.

Nixon was born into rather modest circumstances in Yorba Linda, California on 9 January 1913. His parents, Frank and Hannah loved their five sons in their own way, which – in the case of the father – meant frequent whippings of the boys when he was not able to control his temperament. The mother was reserved to a fault; in short, the Nixon household was not a place where the children encountered much intimacy. The family then moved to Whittier, and Richard, who was the second-born son, went to the local elementary, high school and college too. He took an early interest in history, while on the football field he was coached to win at almost any cost. Nixon went on to study law at Duke University Durham, North Carolina, and graduated in 1937. As graduates from Duke were not sought after as much as those from the Ivy League universities for prestigious and well-paying jobs, he had to return to Whittier, and became employed at a local law firm. In 1938, he met Patricia Ryan at a comic mystery play in which both had minor roles; they got married in June 1940. Pat became a lifelong partner in the ups and downs of Richard’s career; she died in 1993, and his husband followed her a year later. The year of 1940 brought about a significant change in their life (at least in hindsight): Nixon was offered a minor job as a staff attorney at the newly formed Office of Price Administration in Washington, DC. He joined the Navy in August 1942, and after being trained, he was transferred to the South Pacific in May 1943. There he served in the South Pacific Air Transport Command – it is interesting to note that three of the post-war American presidents served in the Pacific theatre at the same time in 1943–1944: besides Richard M. Nixon, John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush. (Of them, it was only Nixon who did not see combat.)

Two of them entered national politics at the same time: Nixon in California and Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1946. (Their parallel lives in the next one and a half decades could have been an appropriate subject for Plutarch.) Their position cannot have been more different. Kennedy was a “favourite son” in Massachusetts, whose father had decided that one of his sons should climb high on the proverbial greasy pole in American political life. Nixon was handpicked by a small group of business people to run against a quintessential liberal and New Dealer, Jerry Voorhis in the Twelfth Congressional District in California. They had rather a hard time “selling” Nixon; it was during this campaign that he was labelled as “one of us” and “as American as Thanksgiving” (Farrell, 42). Nixon was riding on a Republican wave: the party regained a majority in both houses of the US Congress, partly as a result of a backlash against President Truman’s domestic political measures, and the inevitable difficulties arising out of the transition from an economy on war footing to an economy in peacetime. However, Nixon’s victory was not just one of the series of Republican gains; he defeated a kind of model New Dealer. The electoral victory sealed Nixon’s fate to some extent: the bullseye was pinned on him by the liberals, and it remained there until 1974. This bullseye was further put into focus by the young Congressman’s other “trophy” in 1950. The US Senate was said to be the single most exclusive club in the world with its 96 members at that time, and Helen Gahagan Douglas was again more than just a Democratic senator. She was rubbing shoulders with the East Coast elite (she and her husband were among Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt’s friends), and was seen as one of the pillars of the moderate Democrats in the West. They, in general, still wished to continue the wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union, naturally on a less intensive level. However, their ideas were becoming less and less attractive even among the centrist democrats, such as the President himself, and even one of their flag-bearers, Vice President Henry A. Wallace had to resign. Moreover, the investigation and the hunt for Communists, “fellow travellers” and “pinks” had already been started – that is, the period popularly identified as the McCarthy era was in full swing. Congressman Nixon had already been serving on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) since February 1947, and had been busy exposing those who were suspected of having any contacts with leftist organisations in the US. Senator Douglas was a committed New Dealer, a self-proclaimed progressive, on the left of the Democratic Party, who endorsed the cause of, among others, labour unions. The Nixon-campaign went after her with a vengeance: she was depicted as “pink right down to her underwear”, and Nixon’s campaign manager, Murray Chotiner started to employ modern means of campaigning (and mud-slinging) with billboards, radio broadcasts, ads in newspapers, press releases and prepared radio spots (Farrell, 139); it did not matter much that some of the information in them was untrue. The real liberal icon to be slaughtered by Nixon was, however, Alger Hiss. He embodied the Eastern liberal establishment – and as it turned out, was actually a Soviet spy too. His case also exposed a traditional deep fault line in American society, a sort of anti-establishment feeling on “High Street”, the man-in-the-street pitted against the privileged, born with silver spoons in their mouths. Though Hiss was not yet condemned as a spy at that time, his career in the administration was broken, while the liberals never forgot and forgave the role Richard Nixon had played in the Hiss case as a member of the HUAC.

Nevertheless, Nixon was much more than the “attack dog” of the Republican Party. As Farrell emphasises, he tried to steer the Republican Party away from the image of the party of Wall Street as early as 1952; he made attempts to “humanise” the party (Farrell, 198) as he perceived with excellent political acumen that the so-called New Deal coalition was fraying. It is generally acknowledged that Nixon was one of the shrewdest American politicians in the post-war period in international affairs; however, he does not seem to get the credit for reshaping American party politics. His discovery of the “forgotten man” in 1952 can be linked with his “Silent Majority” and “southern strategy” in the late 1960s; and the two should be put into the context of the Republican ascendancy in presidential elections: Republican presidents spent exactly twice as much time in office between 1953 and 1993 as the Democrats (24 years versus 12 years). Of course, it was not only Nixon’s political insights and sensitive antennae that made it possible, but it is fair to say that he was one of the oft “forgotten” architects of this development. His contribution to the electoral victory in 1952 was only grudgingly admitted by his fellow Republicans, and later on President Eisenhower seemed to keep his Vice President at arm’s length when it came down on truly sensitive issues.

Nixon’s years as US Vice President became memorable for two incidents – neither of them was of historical significance and, in fact, one of them, the famed “kitchen debate” with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in summer 1959 exposed Nixon as vulnerable to the unexpected aggressive behaviour of the Soviet leader. (Two years later, President Kennedy also had his unpleasant moments with the combative Soviet Secretary General at the Vienna summit.) When he was met by the threat of physical aggression his stamina and determination was on full display though. In April–May 1958, he was sent on a Latin American tour to demonstrate American commitment to the continent despite reports of strong anti-American sentiments and even hatred in some countries. His entourage was first attacked by a mob in Peru, but the real danger waited for him in Caracas, Venezuela, where the CIA had previously gathered information about an assassination plot. Undaunted, Nixon continued with the programme, and at one point a mob surrounded his car, pelted it with rocks and eggs, and even wanted to turn the Vice President’s car upside down. Eventually, the Venezuelan police came to his rescue, but the incident was a close call. The two events were important for Nixon to establish a reputation back at home as someone who was willing to stand up for the United States even in hostile environments. Moreover, Nixon was a most loyal Vice President, and he very tactfully stepped in during President Eisenhower’s treatments in hospital. Despite it all, he did not get much help from the former Second World War hero when he ran for President in 1960; in fact, “Ike” was not very enthusiastic when Nixon was almost forced on him as Vice Presidential candidate in 1952, and only reluctantly kept Nixon on the ticket after the famous Checkers speech, in which Nixon successfully defended himself against charges of corruption. Eisenhower spectacularly stayed away from Nixon’s election campaign in 1960; in fact, he drove a kind of nail into the campaign’s coffin when he remarked in August of that year when answering a question about his Vice President’s major ideas that he had accepted: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”4

The comment was jumped on by the Kennedy campaign and the press, which was “fawning about JFK” (Farrell, 283) throughout 1960, especially during and after the first presidential debates broadcast live on television and radio. The very first one on 28 September 1960 was a sort of game changer: Kennedy skilfully took advantage of the differences in their physical appearances and, to some extent, “played for the gallery”, while Nixon, who had just recovered from an illness, was more informed regarding the details, but was not able to instil such a trust into the viewers as his opponent. Even with a media headwind against him, he was barely defeated in the polls in November 1961, and it turned out later that rather serious irregularities had happened at least in two key states: Texas and Illinois.5 Nixon decided against challenging the election result as he did not wish to push the country into a constitutional crisis. It may not be a stretch to conclude that Nixon may have drawn two lessons from the election: One, an increased sense of being treated unfairly, a sense of not being allowed to play on a level playing field, and he may have decided never to allow it again. In his next two presidential contests he gave no quarters to his opponents; his no-holds-barred approach does seem to be one of his less fortunate legacies. Two, mainstream media became almost public enemy No. 1 for Nixon; his bitter outburst after his defeat in the gubernatorial contest in California in 1962 summed it up: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” His suspicion of the media bordering on paranoia led, ultimately, to Watergate and his resignation; in reality, he had quite good reason to believe that the mainstream liberal press, especially the influential The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the media conglomerate around them (including Time and Newsweek, and such network televisions, as for example NBC) were doing their very best to destroy his presidency, and thus create a kind of siege mentality inside the White House, as – among others – Buchanan’s Nixon’s White House Wars demonstrates.

The 1960s brought about dramatic changes in the United States which culminated in one of the critical elections in the history of the country, when the dominance of the New Deal coalition, which had put four Democratic presidents into the White House as opposed to one Republican since 1933, came to an end in 1969. The following years presented the mirror image: four Republican presidents between 1969 and 1993, with only a one-term Democratic one, Jimmy Carter. Though Nixon was regarded by many as politically dead after 1962, he was working hard to help shape a conservative response to the seemingly unstoppable liberal ascendancy, which manifested itself in the civil rights legislation, the expansion of the welfare state – Medicare and Medicaid two of the most significant achievements –, the introduction of affirmative action, feminism, the ever louder voice of the different minorities, as well as the rise of counterculture. Nixon sought solace after the bitter years of 1960–1962 in authors such as Edmund Burke, Niccolo Machiavelli, Friedrich Nietzsche and Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative (1960). In fact, the mainstream liberal ideology and its dominant role in the history of the United States6 was starting to be challenged by people such as William F. Buckley or Russell Kirk, while the condemnation of Alger Hiss and the defence of Senator Joseph McCarthy became rallying points for the opponents of the one-sided liberal interpretation of American intellectual life. Nixon was a man of action and not a political thinker; he recognised earlier than most other people that there was a “great Silent Majority” in America, the “forgotten Americans” (Farrell, 333) who became increasingly fed up with the turbulent sixties, and were longing for “law and order” and peaceful life at home. These people lived predominantly “south of the Potomac and west of the Appalachians” (Farrell, 334), and in ethnic neighbourhoods in northern cities. One of the most significant shifts in American political life was the realignment in and of the South: since 1968 this region constituted as reliable a Republican voting bloc as it was for the Democrats between the birth of the Republic and 1968. Nixon realised that the Kulturkampf waged by the liberals alienated the socially conservative and religious masses in the South, and made their wooing by the Republican side a major electoral strategy in 1968. If anything, the discussion of this intellectual background is missing in Farrell’s biography; it seems that without an understanding of the increasingly sharp debate between liberals and conservatives in the 1960s it is more difficult to understand the “making of President Nixon” in 1968 as well.

The conservative backlash, together with the identity crisis within the Democratic Party, in which Hubert Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were fighting for the soul of the party, offered a good opportunity for any Republican candidate to take back the White House. Nixon had learnt a lot from his failures in 1960 and 1962; he ran a very controlled campaign, and refused – among others – to participate in presidential candidates’ debates. Nor was he willing to take part in one in 1972 either. Even though he was not universally liked within his Party, his early endorsement of Goldwater in 1964, and after that his dedicated footwork in the 1966 congressional election for the party’s candidates earned him enough credit in the primaries and, ultimately, at the national convention in Miami. Ronald Reagan “retired from the field” (Farrell, 333), while Nelson Rockefeller had not been able to mount any serious challenge to Nixon’s candidacy. The “Rockefeller Republicans” in the East Coast, and elsewhere too, were a dying race, and the region was on its way to become a Democratic stronghold for the next few decades. The Electoral College results showed a comfortable victory for Nixon over Humphrey and George Wallace (301–191–46), but the Republican candidate received only 512,000 more popular votes, that is, about one percentage point of the total, than his rivals. Ironically, Nixon’s “beginning of the end” started around the time when he won the 1972 presidential race with the largest Electoral College margin to date (520–17), and with a similarly decisive majority of the popular votes (60.7 per cent) against George McGovern, who represented the left (progressive) wing of the Democratic Party. With hindsight, it was a huge mistake, an overkill, even a sin, to break into the Democratic Party headquarters located in the Watergate complex in downtown Washington, DC. Though it was not Nixon who had initiated this crackpot idea, but the sort of siege mentality and drawing up lists of the “enemies” of the President, for which he was responsible for, created an atmosphere in which illegal, and outright criminal actions were condoned and even encouraged by senior figures in his administration.

All presidents claim that history (and his predecessor) has dealt him a bad hand. But Nixon was able to say so with more justification than some of his colleagues before and after him. The country was coming apart socially and politically at home; in fact, there were signs of economic problems on the horizon too, as it was becoming more and more difficult to finance an extremely expensive war in Vietnam, and a similarly costly “War on Poverty” at home. Ultimately, Nixon was forced to take a series of economic and financial measures in the summer of 1972: he introduced wage and price controls, a tax on imports, and “the suspension of the Bretton Woods Agreement, which had governed world trade for more than twenty-five years” (Farrell, 444). In practice, the latter step meant scrapping the gold standard, and floating the dollar against the other major currencies. Furthermore, it indicated a turn in American economic strategy against liberal principles; in reality, it meant that the US refused to allow American national economic policy to be constrained.7 These unorthodox measures were heavily criticised at that time, but Nixon was proved right in the long term by gaining larger elbow room and more flexibility in financial policies. The Vietnam War was, however, an albatross on his shoulders throughout his first term in the White House.

The Vietnam War is arguably one of the most meticulously documented and researched themes in the history of post-war America. The “inside story” of the Nixon administration’s policies towards the war, the never-ending public and secret negotiations in Paris, the innumerable peace feelers and initiatives, and the international background, with special reference to the role of China and the Soviet Union is well-known from the multi-volume documents in the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, as well as from the memoirs of the single most important architect of those policies besides President Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger.8 Farrell discusses in details the President’s idea that putting more pressure on Vietnam, and applying a no-holds-barred approach to the fight, such as, among others, the (secret) bombing of the supply routes of the North Vietnamese military and the Vietcong (National Liberation Front) in officially neutral countries, or the Christmas bombing in 1972 in parallel with the diplomatic manoeuvres to isolate Hanoi. Nixon’s underlying message to the Chinese and the Soviets was basically similar: they should choose between cooperation with the US in vital strategic questions in the Asia–Pacific region and international security at large on the one hand, and their continued military, diplomatic and economic assistance to North Vietnam on the other one. In conjunction with these efforts, Richard Nixon proclaimed early in his presidency (on 25 July 1969) the so-called Nixon doctrine, which stated that the US would not “undertake all the defence of the free nations in the world”. The principle, by implication, acknowledged the diminished American capabilities, the emergence of a more multipolar world instead of the bipolar world view in the first decades of the Cold War, and was a clear repudiation of the Truman Doctrine and Kennedy’s commitment to supporting countries all the world over which were fighting for liberty.9 It may be interesting to note that almost at the same time the Soviets moved in the opposite direction with the so-called Brezhnev doctrine in response to the Prague Spring. A great number of people in the US perceived the 1970s as a decade of US retreat and Soviet advance in world politics; it was the Reagan doctrine that called for the rollback of Soviet influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1980s. It was not only in domestic politics that the ruthless political operator in Nixon was at work, but also in foreign affairs. Despite the fact that he knew that the Saigon regime’s days would be numbered after the American withdrawal from South Vietnam, he repeatedly assured the South Vietnamese that they would not be thrown under the bus after an agreement with Hanoi. The Nixon administration’s role in, for instance, Chilean politics in the early 1970s was not a model of an ethics-driven foreign policy either, while his public support of the Ceauşescu regime was also conceived in classic Realpolitik. In sum, his Wilsonian pretensions were mostly for the gallery; his idealism, if he had had any in his youth, had arguably altogether gone by the time he arrived in the White House.

Richard Nixon’s place in history is likely to be secured by his policies vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union. As a shrewd observer of international relations since the late 1940s, he – and Henry A. Kissinger – realised that there had been a vital shift in the relationship between the two Communist giants: they had been conducting an intensive ideological and geopolitical “cold war” against each other. This offered an opportunity for the United States to try to widen the gap between them, and to rearrange the power relations on a global scale. Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972 meant the triumph of Realpolitik over a foreign policy based on “values” and, in a way, was the tacit admittance of the failure of the United States to impose the Wilsonian liberal internationalism over the realities of international relations in general. The trip to China can also be interpreted as a sort of admittance of the failure of American exceptionalism, and the underlying irony was that a President who was thought to be “as American as Thanksgiving” was the one who helped puncture the myth. In fact, Communist internationalism and ideology were also exposed as tools cloaking harsh geopolitical and strategic interests both in Moscow and in Beijing, as George F. Kennan had explained with regard to the Soviets as early as 1946 in his famous “Long Telegram”. The strategic triangle created in the early 1970s served American interests well in the ensuing years. Some observers and strategists are even recommending nowadays a kind of reverse triangulation in which the United States should “contain” its preeminent global rival, China, with the assistance of the Russians, whose major competitor in the Far East and Central Asia is China as well. One can detect another legacy of the Nixon–Kissinger foreign policy, and that is a suspicion of multilateral institutions (again, the assumed pillars of a liberal world order), and a preference for bilateral deals made by the strongest powers in the world – sometimes over the heads of allies and enemies alike. Farrell, as in the other sections of his volume, is rather restrained in making judgements or putting the story into a wider historical context. In this particular section it might have been helpful to analyse the international scene in more depth, and even to try to represent the mindset and strategic goals of the Chinese and Soviet leaders so that the reader gets a clearer picture of what Nixon was able to accomplish and what he was not able to.

Of course, the bulk of the last few chapters is devoted to the “third-rate burglary” and its aftermath, which ultimately forced Nixon to resign on 9 August 1974. The story is too well-known to be recounted here; one fact should be mentioned, though. What happened on 17 June 1972 in the Watergate complex was not really anything new. Farrell quotes a Secret Service agent who was assigned to the Nixon campaign staff in 1960, and who warned that they could expect “the customary chicanery of American politics” (italics added) from the Kennedys, including “spying, blackmail, ‘come-on girls’, hecklers, and bugged hotel rooms” (Farrell, 475). The Washington Post, which became the preeminent participant in this big game hunting, had found nothing wrong with the irregularities in 1960 when Kennedy had won, but now its editor Benjamin Bradlee, a Kennedy confidant, took the high moral ground and unleashed a crusade against Nixon, who seemed to be challenging longstanding liberal causes and ideas both at home and abroad. There is no question that what Nixon and some of the senior members of his administration had been doing was illegal and unconstitutional in cases, but the reality is that the techniques they resorted to to keep power were not all that new. What was new was the exposure of raw power in its entirety, and it was not a pretty sight at all. The other major factor in the downfall of the President was the decade-long hostility between him and the liberal elite in politics, the media and cultural life, who saw a golden opportunity to get revenge for Voorhis, Douglas, Hiss, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, his antipathy towards counterculture and the excesses of the various –isms of the 1960s, the destruction of the New Deal coalition, and the forging of a conservative majority that was to last for the next quarter century or so.

The term of “Silent Majority” was invented by a young journalist, Patrick J. Buchanan, who was recruited into the Nixon campaign staff in 1966. He had previously worked at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and had strong (paleo)conservative credentials. His ideology and combative style meshed well with such tough, no-nonsense political operators as H. R. Haldeman or John Ehrlichman, who had been working for Richard Nixon since the early 1960s. The job in the Nixon campaign launched a long career for Buchanan in national politics: he served ultimately three presidents as speechwriter and communications director; ran for President on a Republican ticket twice (in 1992 and 1996), and once on a Reform Party ticket (2000). He became a sort of household name in the world of American media as a commentator, a pundit, and a syndicated columnist. Besides his more ephemeral newspaper and magazine pieces, he has written 13 books, including his early autobiography, Right from the Beginning (1988); The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilisation (2002); and a rather controversial, iconoclastic study on the Second World War: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (2008). His latest book, Nixon’s White House Wars (2017) is part autobiography, part an insider’s story of the operation of the Nixon administration’s communication machinery. As in every autobiography, it is the author who comes through as shrewd, principled, and “right from the beginning”,10 while the other person who gets the highest marks from Buchanan is a surprise choice: Vice President Spiro Agnew, who went down in history as a corrupt and incompetent politician, a drag on the Nixon administration. However, in Buchanan’s account, he was a committed conservative, even more so than President Nixon, who was willing and courageous enough to stand up for conservative causes in the face of massive attacks in the liberal media (Buchanan, 86–89, 190–92).

It seems logical that Buchanan identified himself with Agnew: he himself wanted a political counterrevolution in Washington11 by recapturing the anti-Establishment tradition in American politics.12 Buchanan was especially helpful for Nixon in dispelling the suspicion regarding Nixon’s conservative credentials among the “high priests” of conservatism around, for example, the National Review, as well as refining Goldwater’s “too simple” analyses and “shallow” proposals.13 Although Nixon needed to some extent this defence, primarily because of his identification with the Eisenhower administration’s “soft” conservatism, he invariably took a “strict constructionist”, that is, conservative approach to the court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Warren Court “legislated” in various cases in the eyes of the conservatives instead of only interpreting the Constitution and law in general. Ultimately, Nixon was able to appoint four new judges to the US Supreme Court, and the “Warren Court” was thus replaced by a much more conservative “Burger Court” first (1969–1986), then a “Rehnquist Court” until the mid-2000s (1986–2005).14 The new judges may have been conservative enough for the President, but not for the ideologically more committed Buchanan, who believed that aside from William Rehnquist, the other three appointees did not qualify as true conservatives. His judgement is based mainly on one of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions of the time, Roe v. Wade (1973), which extended abortion rights substantially. Buchanan resented the fact that three Nixon-appointees, Warren E. Burger, Harry Blackmun and Louis Powell joined the 7–2 majority in favour of the ruling.15 In other words, one may conclude that one of the “wars” in the title of the Buchanan volume was fought for the soul of the President, and in a broader sense, for a “pure” conservative turn after decades of liberal dominance in national politics. Another war was waged against the mainstream (liberal) media; Buchanan was one of the proponents of waging an implacable war in this area. It may have made matters worse and contributed to the siege mentality inside the Nixon White House, though a plausible argument can be made that The New York Times or The Washington Post, and other liberal-leaning media outlets throughout the country, would not have been less lenient with the Nixon administration even without the hostility towards them coming from the White House. As Kevin Phillips, one of the major strategists for Nixon’s presidential campaign, and architects of his ultimate victory, put it: “the whole secret of politics [is] knowing who hates who”.16

A third war for the mantle of a genuine anti-Communist was lost by Nixon in 1972 with the so-called opening to the People’s Republic of China. China had been one of the most sensitive issues for the conservatives since at least 1949, when a debate broke out about the question of “Who lost China?” The hard-core conservatives rallied around Taiwan, that is, the Republic of China, and the United States adopted the so-called two-China policy, while regularly blocking Beijing’s membership in such international organisations as, for instance, the United Nations. The ideological opposition to Communist ideology made them see a Communist monolith for some time even after the gradual and increasingly open rift between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. It is true that they had realised the Realpolitik considerations behind the Nixon–Kissinger triangulation, but deplored the perceived cosiness between the American President and Chairman Mao Ze-dong at their meeting in Beijing in February 1972. However, what really angered the American right was the Shanghai Communiqué, which in their reading meant that “[t]he fate and future of the Republic of China and millions of indigenous Taiwanese on the island was none of our business” (Buchanan, 242). Nixon’s visit to China was the first step for the US to establish regular diplomatic relations with Beijing, while at the same time relegating the mission in Taipei to a representation, and ultimately abandoning the decade-long two-China policy and adopting the one-China policy. However, the shift in the policies towards China was not all. Nixon paid a visit to Moscow in May 1972, where the SALT-I and the ABM treaties were signed; in a broader sense, Washington accepted the détente process, which started in 1969 and ended with the Helsinki accords in 1975. The hard-line anti-Communist conservatives attacked the process as one favouring the Soviets, and especially the Helsinki accords, which – in effect – officially recognised the post-war borders in Europe. And, finally, the same hardliners saw the Vietnam peace treaty in January 1973 as a sell-out of the South Vietnamese to the Communists (which it was in a sense). Overall, the emerging neo-conservatives believed that US foreign policy was stripped of its ethical values, and that Nixon and National Security Adviser Kissinger had replaced it with an immoral Realpolitik. It was also values, but this time those of liberal internationalism, that were deemed missing from the foreign policy of the Nixon administration by the liberal establishment. Thus, the myth of a value-driven American foreign policy was laid bare by the Nixon administration, and together with its dirty tricks in domestic politics, Nixon, who had been seen as “one of us”, seemed to be betraying left and right alike at the same time. The President had steered himself into a political vacuum, and he was left with very few defenders after the Watergate break-in and his subsequent efforts to cover-up. In fact, one of the ironies of the Watergate case was that Nixon, who had centralised power into the White House to an extent never before seen, and created an “imperial presidency”, was in reality unable to control his own people.17

Buchanan was, nevertheless, one of them. He supported Nixon’s efforts, some of them outright criminal, like obstruction of justice, some of them bordering on unconstitutionality, and some of them ruthless exploitations of inherent presidential power (such as the “Saturday night massacre”), and strongly urged the President to fight back with all means at his disposal. However, he was cautious enough to turn down Nixon’s request to lead the campaign against the people on the “enemy list” of the White House. The task was ultimately assigned to Egil Krogh, who went to jail in due course for the unlawful methods applied during this campaign. When ordered to appear before the Watergate Committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, he went on the attack and complained about the “covert campaign of vilification carried on by staff members of your committee” and “as for the ‘dirty tricks’ of the campaign of 1972”, he quoted Theodore T. White, who had written that they had had “the weight of a feather” (Buchanan, 326–327). And, most important of all, he urged Nixon to destroy the infamous tapes of conversations inside the White House, one of which ultimately turned out to be the “smoking gun”. However, the President insisted on keeping them, and they proved beyond reasonable doubt Nixon’s attempts to obstruct justice. Nixon later admitted in an interview to David Frost in 1977 that “I brought myself down. […] I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish” (Buchanan, 384).

Buchanan remained in politics, and he joined the “Reagan revolution” in 1980. In fact, there were quite a number of similarities between the election in 1968 and the one in 1980: an important one was the rise of the “Reagan Democrats”, who, to a large extent, had been the “Nixon Democrats” twelve years before: predominantly East Coast Catholics and Southern Protestants and a large portion of blue-collar workers. The turning point in electoral policy was the one engineered by Nixon in 1968, and the election that year also saw the defeat of the “liberal Republicans as the party’s power base shifted South, forever”.18 Nixon’s role in the shift of balance between the great powers also proved to be a lasting legacy of a president, who for all his political mistakes and personal liabilities was one of the most transformational American politicians in the post-war period.

* John A. Farrell, Richard Nixon. The Life. New York: Doubleday, 2017 (737 pp.); Patrick J. Buchanan, Nixon’s White House Wars. The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever. New York: Crown Forum, 2017 (436 pp.).


1 The title was taken from Richard Nixon’s 1946 campaign pamphlet.

2 The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986).

3 Bela Kornitzer was a Hungarian-born journalist (1910–1964), whose The Real Nixon: An Intimate Biography (1960) was arguably the first serious attempt at a biography of Nixon, which was based on extensive research, and traced Nixon’s rise to national prominence from his humble Californian origins.

4 David A. Graham, “If You Give Me a Week, I Might Think of One”, https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/ 2016/05/if-you-give-me-a-week-i-might-think-of-one/484556 (accessed: 25.07.2018).

5 For instance, John F. Kennedy took Illinois by 9,000 votes, and it was especially the returns in Chicago that came under suspicion where Mayor Daley made sure a Democratic majority (Farrell, 294ff).

6 The most widely read and most popular interpretation of the role the liberal thought had played in the US was at that time Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution (1955).

7 Doug Stokes, “Trump, American Hegemony, and the Future of the Liberal World Order”. International Affairs, 94:1 (2018), p. 141.

8 Though the author lists Henry A. Kissinger’s memoirs (White House Years, Years of Renewal, and Years of Upheaval), one may miss his Vietnam. A Personal History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (2002), as well as George C. Herring’s works on the Vietnam War, especially his classic America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-–1975 from the otherwise carefully collected pieces listed in the Bibliography.

9 “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aid/Ready-Reference/JFK-Quotations/ Inaugural-Address.aspx (accessed 16.07.2018).

10 Winston S. Churchill said it for all authors of autobiographies: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

11 Very similar ideas were promoted by Steve Bannon as special adviser to President Donald Trump in 2017; moreover, Buchanan’s worries about the potential perils of immigration may also be well received in the present-day administration. Note that interesting parallels between the current US and Hungarian immigration and border protection issues are discussed in Éva Eszter Szabó, “Fence Walls: From the Iron Curtain to the US and Hungarian Border Barriers and the Emergence of Global Walls”. In: Walls, Material and Rhetorical. Past, Present, and Future. Guest-edited by Virginia R. Dominguez, Review of International American StudiesRIAS, Vol. 11, Spring–Summer, No. 1, 2018, pp. 83–111. www.journals.us.edu.pl/index.php/RIAS/article/view/6385/5347 (accessed: 25.08.2018).

12 The classic study on the anti-Establishment tradition in American political life is Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). The most frequently quoted sentence by Spiro Agnew was uttered at a Republican fund-raiser in New Orleans on 19 October 1969: “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterise themselves as intellectuals.” www.thisdayinquotes.com/2009/10/spiro- agnew-warns-us-about-effete.html (accessed 20.07. 2018).

13 Sam Tanenhaus, “When Pat Buchanan Tried to Make America Great Again”, 5 April 2017. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/…/charge-of-the-right-brigade/ (accessed 15.07.2018).

14 “I consider my four appointments to the Supreme Court to have been among the most constructive and far-reaching actions of my Presidency.” Nixon quoted by Buchanan, Nixon’s White House Wars, p. 112.

15 Buchanan, ibid., p. 112.

16 Phillips is quoted by Tanenhaus, op. cit. In one of the speeches written by Patrick Buchanan for Spiro Agnew, the Vice President asked: “What did Americans know about this coterie [the liberal media]? Little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence seemingly well-informed on every important matter.” Agnew continued: they lived and worked in New York or Washington, DC, where they basked “in their own provincialism, their own parochialism”. Quoted by Tanenhaus, op. cit.

17 See, among others, Wicker, op. cit., p. 20.

18 Ted Widmer, “Richard Nixon’s impressive 1968 comeback”. The New York Times International Edition, 10 August 2018, p. 9.

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