The Nixon Presidency
I have been asked to discuss the presidency of Richard Nixon. I am glad to try, but first I must define the yardstick I am using in measuring this man and his stewardship.
Many people have tried to formulate a job description for the president of the United States. It isn’t easy. There is no such thing as on-the-job training. The individual who succeeds to the presidency must take whatever baggage he already possesses and try to grow into the job.
The presidency of the United States is undoubtedly the toughest job in the world. Not only does the president have the personal responsibility for executing the laws passed by the Congress, he is also the person responsible for assessing the state of the union and recommending legislation which appears to be necessary for the welfare of the nation. The president and vice president are the only two people elected by all of the people of the United States. The president is, therefore, the undoubted and unchallenged leader of the nation. Since our nation is the strongest one in the Free World, this makes him in effect the leader of the Free World. The capability of the person who fills that position is extremely important. Its requirements are awesome indeed.
A prime requisite for a president is a thorough knowledge of history. I happen to believe profoundly in the truism “the past is prologue.” Unless the president is well aware of situations which have occurred in the history of the world in general and this country in particular, he will likely be overwhelmed by some of the problems that he faces. He will also be tempted to reinvent the wheel on too many occasions instead of following paths which had succeeded in the past.
The president must also have a thorough knowledge of the contemporary world, and a sound basis in geopolitics. He needs to know the scenery on the stage upon which he will perform. He also needs to know the other members of the cast, who, like himself, are heads of state.
The president must have an understanding of both the domestic and world economies. As the leader of the strongest nation in the Free World he bears a large share of the responsibility for keeping a stable economy capable of producing the necessities required for the health and happiness of its people. The interplay of the forces of supply and demand, the intricacies of the international monetary system, and the needs and aspirations of the nations of the world are worthy of his concentrated study.
The system of alliances and understandings around the world, and the hopes and fears of the people and leaders of the various nations are items of indispensable knowledge to one who must be concerned with world politics.
The president must have the ability to communicate. The greatest ideas are of no value unless they are expressed in such a way that they can be understood and appraised by the leaders and the people of the world.
A president must have at least the personal attributes, which I list without reference to the order of priority:
1. An economic and political philosophy
2. A liking for his fellow man
3. The ability to make decisions promptly
4. Personal integrity
5. Belief in a Supreme Being
6. A dash of humility
7. A lot of self-confidence
A president must have, or he must very quickly acquire, a deep knowledge of the three branches of government and the way each impinges upon the other. Equally important is a knowledge of the framework of the various state governments and the particular problems and assets of each state. The last but by no means least attribute of a successful president is a well-developed sense of humor. His failures will be many. His vexations will be frequent. The people and the news media will frequently misjudge him, and he will feel that they are being unfair. Unless he is able to keep his eye on the big picture, and put the lesser annoyances which he must endure in their proper places, he will not only not be able to do a good job, he will loathe every minute of his incumbency.
Measuring the Richard Nixon who was elected president in 1968 against this job description, you come to the conclusion that this man was as well prepared for the presidency as any person in our country’s history. He had served in the House and the Senate, and for eight years as vice president of the United States. If there had been a presidential training school, he would have graduated cum laude. He certainly had a fine knowledge of history, the contemporary world, and geopolitics. He was never a great student of the domestic economy or the world economy, but he certainly understood the interplay of international politics and geopolitics, as well as any man could. He and Henry Kissinger made a superb team in the conduct of foreign policy because each had a basic understanding of the world and its problems, and the kind of treatment needed to further the interest of the United States of America while dealing with other nations.
Richard Nixon certainly had the ability to communicate. He was a forceful and convincing speaker. He spoke without notes, but certainly not without preparation. In fact, I was in his hotel room on an occasion prior to his election to the presidency, when he was writing a speech on a yellow pad. I asked him if he had the means of having it typed and he said “Oh no, I don’t want to type it. In fact, I’ll probably tear it up after I memorize it.’
His personal attributes would give him a mixed score. He certainly had a philosophy and the ability to make decisions. There is grave doubt as to whether or not he really liked his fellow man, and, in the latter days of his administration, his personal integrity was subject to question. As for humility, I doubt that he could even spell the word. He gave the impression of being supremely self-confident. However, I am told that some psychologists might come to the conclusion that the ego displayed came from a deep-seated feeling of inferiority. I am not making that judgment, but I do advance the possibility that persons more qualified than I in psychology have done so.
While I would not really say that President Nixon had a well-developed sense of humor, he certainly did have a sense of humor. One personal instance bears out this analysis. At a leadership meeting when I was chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, there was a question as to whether the Congress would take a certain action before adjourning for a long recess. I said:
"Mr. President, if Congress does not act, I suggest very strongly that you call the Congress back into Special Session for the purpose of completing this legislation. If you do this, I would also like to request protection from the Secret Service, because my own colleagues will probably try to assassinate me for what I have just said".
I went back to my office and within one hour my secretary told me that Mr. Smith, a Secret Service man, was outside and wanted to talk to me. He came into my private office and said “President Nixon has told me to be at your disposal and protect your life” I said, “Is this the way President Nixon tells me he will call the Congress back into Special Session?” The gentleman said, “I don’t know, Sir, but he told me to stay with you until I was dismissed.” I said, “You’re dismissed now, and tell the President that I get his message.’’
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 over Hubert Humphrey by a margin not much larger than the one by which John Kennedy had defeated him in 1960. Both houses of Congress were dominated by the Democratic party. President Nixon was never popular with Democrats. He was extremely partisan, and had, in the Jerry Voorhees and Helen Gahagan Douglas campaigns, been accused of being not only partisan but unfair. His personality could be very brusque, and very brash. In some ways he was easy to dislike, and many Democrats found those ways.
Thus, he came in with an uncertain mandate, and with many members of the congressional majority prepared to dislike him. This was not an enviable position, to put it mildly.
Also, President Nixon inherited the most unpopular war in our history. When he took office, we had over one-half million Americans in Vietnam. We had suffered casualties which saddened and sickened most of the American population. Our reasons for being in the war were never explained adequately by either the Kennedy administration or the Johnson administration and, therefore, our people were making sacrifices that they did not want to make and did not understand.
During the 1968 campaign, Nixon said that he had a way to end the war. He never elaborated on this until after he became president. Then it became apparent that he truly did want to end the war but not with the loss of South Vietnam to the Communists. His secretary of defense, Melvin R. Laird, was the author of the Vietnamization program. The concept was to build up the capabilities of the South Vietnamese army and air force so that the United States could withdraw its forces and South Vietnam could defend itself from incursions from the predatory North Vietnamese.
Unfortunately, intervening events made it impossible to complete the process of Vietnamization successfully. The “sixties’ generation” mainly were disenchanted with the war. It is true that most of the members of that generation went along loyally and served in the armed forces when drafted, but many of that generation and other Americans too, demonstrated against the war. In many instances, those demonstrations turned into full-fledged riots. Draft dodging and desertion were common. The situation at home was not good, to say the least.
Although Richard Nixon was supposed to have been a “tough guy,” those demonstrations and the fervor of the opposition to the Vietnam war disturbed him deeply. They also encouraged the North Vietnamese and made it more difficult to have meaningful negotiations for peace between the belligerents.
Even so, by the end of 1972, things were going our way. The full-fledged attack of the North Vietnamese in a conventional manner employing many divisions, which occurred in late 1972, was turned back, largely by the South Vietnamese. The bombing which took place in December of 1972 and January of 1973 practically decimated the ability of North Vietnam to support the war. It was then that the North Vietnamese finally agreed to meaningful negotiations, and the treaty which purported to end the Vietnam War was signed in 1973.
As we know, the Vietnam War was not thus concluded. The South Vietnamese held the North Vietnamese at bay for almost two years, with the help which we gave them. However, in the end, the South Vietnamese were overrun by a cunning, resourceful enemy who refused to play by the rules we thought they had agreed to.
The final blow to South Vietnam came when the House of Representatives refused to adopt an emergency authorization and appropriation of $300 million, asked for by President Ford, to bolster the South Vietnamese forces, which were in danger of being overrun. The morale of the South Vietnamese was shattered. They were confronted by an enemy who was freshly supplied by Russia, freshly manned, and whose infrastructure had been rebuilt. Their own infrastructure was a shambles. They were short of ammunition, fuel, transportation, aircraft, and most of the munitions of war. The final debacle was certain and foreseeable.
It is easy to second guess Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War. As previously mentioned, he felt deeply the divisions in the nation which sprang from American involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps this caused him to start withdrawing increments of American troops, probably sooner than he should have. I can certainly understand the political desirability of “bringing the boys home.’’ However, withdrawal of Americans at that time, with Vietnamization still a dream and North Vietnamese troops still on the soil of South Vietnam, gave the wrong signal to everyone. It encouraged the North Vietnamese, discouraged the South Vietnamese, and did not help the domestic situation very much.
There were times when the North Vietnamese army was almost completely committed in South Vietnam. Hindsight indicates that an Inchon-type landing in North Vietnam at that time promised great success in disorganizing and perhaps overrunning the logistical rear of the North Vietnamese army. Had we been committed to winning that war, we would have found this opportunity to be irresistible.
Many of us felt that it was a mistake for the United States to have involved itself so deeply in Vietnam. However, since we were there, and so deeply mired in that struggle, it may have been that the best way out was to do everything necessary for the conquest of North Vietnam. After that, Vietnamization could have proceeded full speed, with almost 100 percent assurance of success. This would have taken longer American involvement, but in the final analysis, we may have had success instead of failure and perhaps would have shortened the war considerably.
However, by the time this opportunity occurred, the United States had been led to anticipate an end to American involvement in this unpopular war. Even a president who had been recently elected by an overwhelming majority might have found trouble maintaining popular support for an escalation. The mold had already been set, and we now know that the course to eventual loss of South Vietnam was then irreversible.
Had President Nixon’s mandate in 1968 been greater, he might well have taken a more aggressive course in Vietnam—one calculated to bring victory. Vietnamization was a gamble which might well have worked had the support of the American people for our effort in that part of the world not waned so rapidly. As it turned out, Vietnamization took at least four years, and then, because of the failure of American public support, failed. Perhaps President Nixon should have realized that the time it would take for Vietnamization was probably not available to him considering the rapidity with which American support for the war was disappearing. Then he would have had only two alternatives: (1) cut and run, getting our people out as fast as possible, or (2) adopt a strategy calculated to win the war.
I do not fault his choice of the Vietnamization strategy, considering the situation which confronted him. I only regret that under the circumstance it was not possible to have followed a course which would have saved the people of Indochina from the agony they have suffered.
The tragic sequence of events we call “Watergate” must be dealt with. The most destructive phase of Watergate was the weakening of the American presidency just at a time when a strong president could have completed the work of Vietnamization and ensured the survival of a Democratic regime in Indochina. Instead of that, as the capabilities of our allies decreased, the Soviet Union rebuilt North Vietnam, resupplied its army, and enabled it to break the solemn obligations of the Treaty of Paris. The War Powers Act, obviously aimed at the already wounded President Nixon, cast further doubts upon American capabilities or desires to insist upon the performance of obligations undertaken under the Treaty of Paris. There was no longer any doubt that whatever North Vietnam did, we no longer had the will to intervene.
I do not intend to go into a long dissertation on Watergate. Suffice it to say that in my opinion, the combination of the unpopular Vietnam War and the overreaction of Richard Nixon to leaks of information from the White House probably were the root causes of the events which finally led to the resignation of a president of the United States.
I was well aware that the Nixon White House leaked like a sieve. On at least three occasions after meetings of the Republican leadership in the Cabinet Room, Jack Anderson quoted verbatim conservations which took place at those meetings. He quoted me several times, and always did so with absolute accuracy. It was enough to disturb anyone, and I certainly have no fault to find with the desire of President Nixon to discover the source of those leaks. Nonetheless, the formation of the “plumbers” was a classic bit of overkill. It was never properly controlled, and at last lurched into the chaos which not only brought down Richard Nixon, but damaged the Republican party almost beyond repair.
One of Richard Nixon’s more noble attributes is loyalty to his friends. This virtue probably caused him to refrain from taking the actions which he should have taken as soon as Watergate broke, since many of those most intimately involved in the whole matter were close associates of the president.
I think every president should read Machiavelli’s The Prince. The theme which runs through the entire work is “The Prince Must Survive.” Others are expendable, but the prince and, in this case the presidency, must survive. Nixon’s loyalty to his friends kept him from taking the action which any chief of state should have taken in order to protect not only the presidency, but the Republic itself.
It has always been a source of wonderment to me that the Nixon tapes were not destroyed. I know of no theory which adequately explains this. The best explanation I have heard is that both Bob Haldeman and Richard Nixon felt that the executive privilege would keep them from ever having to give up the tapes and that they could ‘stonewall it” to the end. What a price to pay for an extended ego trip, which those tapes represented!
The domestic policy of the Nixon administration deserves comment. Although Nixon thought of himself as a conservative, some of his domestic proposals were more to the liking of liberals than they were to members of his own party. The Family Assistance Plan which was crafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan was in many ways a good plan. It would have been terribly expensive in the early years, but it at least had a chance of getting many people back to work and off of the welfare rolls. I supported it, as did Gerald Ford and many others whose conservative credentials were impeccable. However, the plan failed because of lack of sufficient congressional support, even from traditional liberals.
Nixon proposed a plan to reorganize the executive branch which had a great deal of promise. The underlying idea was to reduce the number of people who reported to a single boss. The government would have been divided into four superdepartments each comprising part of the present departmental structures of the government. The Democratic party-dominated Congress would have no part of this plan.
In fact, the Democrats made it very difficult for President Nixon to do much of anything toward cutting the size of the government. In his budgets he requested changes which would have saved money and undertook unilaterally to impound funds in areas which he thought could be cut. The Impoundment Act severely limited the power of the president to refuse to spend funds appropriated by the Congress. The federal government is still suffering from this ill-considered piece of legislation. Future students of government may well look with favor on the economic policies Richard Nixon tried to adopt. Because Watergate and Vietnam have overshadowed so much of the Nixon domestic program, the jury will be out for many years.
As previously stated, in Richard Nixon you saw a man who was on paper better prepared for the presidency than practically any man in our history. On the other side of the coin are events, some of which were caused by the president and his staff and some of which were not, which combined to flaw the entire administration. You also see personal traits of character, and unexpected shortcomings of performance on the part of the president himself, which contributed mightily to the downfall of the Nixon administration.
It was not easy for some members of Congress, including this one, to decide for impeachment. Unfortunately, quite a few of my colleagues had such a personal dislike for Nixon that they would have voted for even harsher treatment. Those of us who had worked with the president and respected his capabilities came to several conclusions: (1) The words of the president taken from his own tapes amounted to flagrant obstruction of justice, (2) the president’s support in the country was irreversibly low, and (3) leaving him in office would have ensured a crippled presidency until 1977. We had to conclude that removing him would be more likely to strengthen the country.
Click image to enlarge.
We are fortunate that Gerald Ford came in, healed a lot of wounds, and restored integrity and respect to the presidency. The Republic survived another harsh test, but only after paying a horrible price. The full cost of this sad episode is still undetermined, and only future generations will be truly able to assess its cost in treasure, broken lives, loss of world esteem, and lowered national self-respect.
The bottom line is that this is still a great country—probably the greatest in history—because a great people have willed it to be so. They still do.
Rhodes, John. “The Nixon Presidency.” In Modern Presidents and the Presidency. Edited by Mark Landy. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1985. Printed by permission of the publisher.