In Defense of Nixon

Having read this thread (, I feel that it may be useful to explain why Clinton referered to Nixon as a “statesman”, and why he was in fact deserving of having a flag at half-staff for his own merits, not simply because he was president.

In domestic policy, Nixon was a crook. Granted. There are those who say he thought of himself as a medieval prince, rather than an elected leader, and that Kissinger encouraged that. Fine. The fact remains, however, that Nixon’s attempt at detente and his China policy were absolutely excellent ideas - and for these, Nixon deserves our respect. The following is an excerpt from an essay I did for one of my foreign affairs classes (for what it’s worth, the essay got an “A”):

** President Richard Nixon was not exactly overburdened with troublesome things like scruples, honesty, or a sense that he had a duty to be truthful to the electorate. But as traditionalists, he and Kissinger attempted to reshape the world in such a way that traditionalist doctrine taught would keep the United States safe, not just for days or weeks or even months, but years. Perhaps decades. They failed, in some ways, but not because their theory or foreign policy practices were unsound – it was domestic politics, and not foreign policy, that ended up destroying the Nixon administration. It is an undeniable truth that despite Nixon’s arrogance and high-handedness, he did a better job of promoting and securing the interests of the United States of America than any other President we have studied.

	Nixon and Kissinger, like all traditionalists, saw the world as a dangerous place which approximates a hobbesian state of nature, plagued with anarchy and the threat of war. But Nixon and Kissinger saw an opportunity to avoid the threat of war with the Soviet Union by institutionalizing the balance of power in Eurasia. Kennedy had known that, thanks to the Sino-Soviet split, the balance of power in Eurasia was fundamentally stable – the Soviets wouldn’t dare do anything too adventurous with an unfriendly People’s Republic of China on their border. Nixon reasoned that, if the United States had improved relations with the PRC, it could ensure that it remained hostile to the USSR, and act as a check on the. And if the United States actually established normal relations with the PRC, then the Sino-Soviet and Eurasian balance of power could remain stable indefinitely. That balance of power would become “institutionalized”.

	But to Nixon and Kissinger, making it difficult for the Soviets to wage war on NATO countries just wasn’t good enough. They wanted to Soviets to lack not only the opportunity, but the desire to go to war or do any other evil expansionist things. Nations, according to traditionalism, don’t just go to war because they feel like it, they go to war to promote and secure their interests. So Nixon tried to move the world, and US-Soviet relations, into an “Era of Negotiations”. Since both the United States and the Soviet Union were fundamentally unthreatened, they could afford to negotiate on issues where the interests conflicted, rather than engaging in brinksmanship. And that’s what the Nixon administration did, with a series of talks and treaties designed to move the world away from the Hobbesian state of nature. 

	For example, both the US and USSR considered one of their highest interests to be trying to prevent a nuclear war – widespread death and destruction are generally considered to not further the interests of countries they happen to.1 Before Nixon, these two countries would try to prevent nuclear war by participating in expensive, difficult arms races to try to build as many and as high-quality nuclear weapons as possible. But Nixon tried to address the threat of nuclear war through negotiation, with the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty One) treaty with the USSR, designed to regulate and freeze the number of ICBMs, as well as eliminating the destabilizing anti-ballistic missile systems being researched. These talks had actually started under Johnson, but Nixon was the one who finished them and got the treaty. This was conciliation, not deterrence or compellence, and it worked, primarily because as long as there were no missile defenses and each country could maintain secure retaliatory forces, it didn’t actually matter how many missiles they had.

	Nixon negotiated on other issues with the USSR as well, including post-WW2 borders of European nations and regulation of conventional weapons buildups in Europe. Not all these negotiations succeeded, but the attempt was made, at least, to show the Soviets that they could pursue their interests through negotiations and the international system. In addition, Nixon normalized US-USSR trade relations, and tried to help them get more trade with other nations – the idea being to give the Russians a stake in the international system. Sure, the Soviets could pull out of START and other talks and treaties, and build up their forces in an aggressive way, and do any number of things we wouldn’t like – but if they did that, they’d lose the benefits of membership in the international community and trade deals. Kissinger called this the “delicate calculus of pluses and minuses”, and it worked to constrain the Russians even in a Hobbesian international system. Détente was the name for this whole policy of a shift to an era of negotiations, and it was effective. 

	It was effective on the international scene, of course. But it wasn’t popular at home – it seemed like weakness, pandering to the Soviets as the people and Congress saw it. And the Watergate scandal degraded Nixon’s ability to build popular support for détente. Nixon was, as Drachman and Shank made clear, a man obsessed with secrecy and unwilling to confront those in the public or his own administration who opposed him, calling anti-war protestors “bums”. He could never be an effective leader of the American people, he held them in too much scorn for that. But he pursued the traditionalist interests of the United States in a unique, innovative way that worked while it lasted – it showed that the Soviets would negotiate, that they weren’t the horror-movie unrelenting monsters that the Truman administration had characterized them as. And so I say that Nixon did the best job of pursuing America’s interests of any president we studied. He just did a miserable job of convincing the people of that. **

Might want to get a mod to un-bold that (and move the thread to GD, of course). Bolding everything is almost as much of a pain to read as all-caps.

Speaking for the far right (if I may be so bold)…

I can’t think of any reason that any conservative should make excuses for Richard Nixon. I can’t think of any reason we should defend the guy. WHAT did he ever do for us? Let’s see…

  1. He appointed Harry (Roe vs. Wade) Blackmun to the Supreme Court.

  2. He expanded domestic spending more than Lyndon Johnson or FDR had ever dared dream.

  3. He imposed wage and price controls.

  4. He kowtowed to Brezhnev and Mao.

For crying out loud, if ANY Democrat had done those things, conservative Republicans would regard him as Satan incarnate! Nixon was NOT a conservative in any meaningful sense. I maintain that the ONLY reasons conservatives defend Nixon are misplaced loyalty, partisanship, and an irrational feeling that anyone liberals despise THIS much must be okay!

But any conservative who looks at Nixon’s record rationally has to conclude that:

  1. Domestically, the Nixon years were a DISASTER for every conservative cause.

  2. In foreign policy matters (SUPPOSEDLY Nixon’s field of expertise), Nixon and Kissinger were driven by a stupid and wrong-headed belief that the United States was on the wrong side of history, that our enemies were far more powerful than we were, that our demise was assured, and that the best we could hope for was to stave off our collapse for as long as possible. (Small wonder that Kissinger identified so strongly with Metternich!)

Does that sound like a philosophy that any Reagan Republican should or would embrace?

Nixon was slime. I’d find a way to overlook that if he’d ever done ANYTHING to suggest he shared ANY of my values or cared about ANY of the causes that are important to me. But his record proves he DIDN’T.

Why any Republican would waste time defending him baffles me.

I’m not a Republican, I just like his foreign policy.

astorian, if you’ll notice, the OP is about foreign affairs – on which Tricky Dick deserves a great deal of praise. I will request a cite from a reputable source on “kowtow to Breshnev and Mao” as a description of his stance vis-à-vis the two big Communist powers. And of course his conduct in the 1960 election was exemplary.

Against all this, Watergate and the “enemies list” did not exist in a vacuum. William Manchester documented some of the gimmickry which he used to move from a demobilized Navy Lt. Commander to Congressman – and it was heavily “dirty tricks.” And he perpetrated more of the same in the 1950s as Vice President.

But my father, a lifelong Republican not given to taking balanced views, commented to me shortly before he died that Nixon was crooked, but he did the right things overseas as President.

Let us not forget The Southern Strategy. In order to win the Redneck VOte (that is the votres from white trash like me), he allowed the Party of Lincoln to embrace racist policies.

Not only was this morally wrong, it also was a deal with the devil for very short-term advantage.

On the other hand, nobody ever said Nixon was a dummy. The fact he acomplished so little is remarkable. He did not “solve” Vietnam with victory. He did not put pressure on the Soviets to any great extent. He seemed consume with playing the game but not winning it.

One could make the case that Carter did more in real terms than Nixon.

And he also created the EPA!!! How outrageous, that a Republican president would actually care about the environment!!! just like Teddy Roosevelt did.:rolleyes: :rolleyes: :rolleyes:

Nixon’s wedge-driving between Soviet Russia and China was a brilliant stroke of state craft. However, his derisive and downright scornful attitude towards the electorate tarnished the Executive office in ways that persist to this very day. Only Ronald Reagan managed to do anywhere near the damage that Tricky Dick inflicted upon this nation’s highest elected position. The deceit, lies and abrogation of citizen rights instigated by Nixon’s administration would wait nearly forty years before finding its rival in the current crop of scoundrels running America. Such highhanded and treacherous manipulation of executive privilege neutralized any lasting legacy of achievement Nixon might have attained or deserved.

I’ll add that Nixon’s price and wage freeze was one of the single most influential policies in teaching corporate America how to produce and market goods far more cheap and shoddy than any before.

According to one description of the book Nixon and the Environment by J. Brooks Flippen,

I’m glad to see Nixon getting his due on the “price and wage” disaster . It was that experience that caused me to vote for McGovern and to relish every moment of Watergate.