Book review: Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell

 A political portrait looks back on the life of one of the most controversial presidents in modern American history. Review by Niall Ferguson

‘I am a square,” Richard Nixon told a journalist towards the end of his life, drawing a square in the air with his forefinger. “My values are traditional: God, country, family. I am absolutely opposed to the destruction of those values that came about during the Vietnam era. Free love, drugs, tearing down your country, denying God, selfishness and indulgence — everything I despise took root when I was president and there was so little I could do to stop it…I represented everything they were trying to overthrow.”

In the affections of the baby-boomer generation that runs America today — from the Oval Office to the casting couches of Hollywood — Nixon does indeed occupy a uniquely low place. Never in the history of American democracy have so many people loved to hate one man so much.

True, most baby-boomers long ago reached some kind of accommodation with God, country and family. But to this day, they still hate Nixon. They look back on his resignation as one of their generation’s greatest achievements. Although he was by no means the least popular of modern presidents while in office, he is certainly bottom of the league today.

It is, of course, easy to see why Nixon is hated. His presidency ended more ignominiously than any other, with resignation forced upon him following the exposure of his efforts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. Nor was this an isolated lapse. Dicky was always tricky: witness his denials during the Alger Hiss case that he had spent time at key witness Whittaker Chambers’s farm, or the 1952 funding scandal that nearly cost him his place on the Republican presidential ticket.

Nixon’s youthful anti-communism, too, always irritated liberals. As a congressman, he came to national attention with his implacable pursuit of Hiss, the State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union. As Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice-president in the 1950s, he continued to play the Cold Warrior, famously confronting Nikita Khrushchev in a televised debate about the merits of Soviet and American kitchens. Above all, there was Nixon’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save South Vietnam from communism, unhappy memories of which are currently being stirred by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary series.

In this new biography, John A Farrell (born in 1953, Nixon’s first year as vice-president) re-retells the tale in terms that few of his fellow boomers will find objectionable. We read here of Nixon’s culpability in helping the South Vietnamese “steal…a moment of genuine hope” for peace in Vietnam in 1968 — according to Farrell, the “most reprehensible” of all Nixon’s acts. We read, too, that an option existed the following year, Nixon’s first as president, for “an immediate withdrawal of US forces under terms that would lead to the unification of Vietnam under a communist government”. Instead, Farrell writes: “More than 20,000 US soldiers…died on Nixon’s watch.”

Never mind that these counterfactuals can easily be shown to be unrealistic and the statistic misleading. The conspiracy theory that Nixon scuttled a chance for peace in 1968 has two logical defects. First, the South Vietnamese knew very well, without any help from Nixon, that President Lyndon B Johnson was cynically timing a Vietnam “October surprise” to help Hubert Humphrey defeat Nixon. They had every incentive to drag their feet and hope for a Republican victory. Second, the North Vietnamese had no serious intention of making peace in 1968 or 1969. Despite the failure of their Tet Offensive, they had not given up on achieving outright military victory even as they went to Paris to negotiate in bad faith.

As for the death toll, the reality is that nearly two-thirds of all US fatalities in Vietnam happened under Democratic administrations. And of the 21,000 who died between 1969 and 1974, more than half lost their lives in 1969. By 1974, the toll was down to one. The Nixon administration ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. It was not Nixon, but the Democrat-dominated Congress that doomed South Vietnam by cutting off the aid on which its defence depended.

Farrell’s misrepresentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy is unfortunate, as it detracts from his readable if superficial book’s recognition that, on a host of issues, Nixon was in truth the most liberal Republican president of the modern era. Admittedly, this was partly a matter of congressional arithmetic. As Farrell notes, Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to take office with both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition party. Yet Nixon was drawn to the kind of big government solutions to social problems that the Democrats had favoured since Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. “The problem with the right-wingers,” he told HR Haldeman, his chief of staff, was that “they have a totally hard-hearted attitude where human problems and any compassion is concerned.” As Alan Greenspan, the future Federal Reserve chairman, rightly noted: “The size of government under Nixon grew immensely. His reasoning was always, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, they [the Democrats] will do more.’”

As assistant to the president for domestic policy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform that guaranteed a basic annual income, day care, and training for the jobless. This was just one of many Nixon-era initiatives that modern-day conservatives blame for the subsequent hypertrophic growth of the “administrative state”.

Farrell dwells on Nixon’s “Southern strategy”, which was designed to woo disgruntled white voters away from the Democrats by implicitly criticising the previous administration’s civil-rights legislation. Race was without question the decisive factor in the 1968 election, but more because so many erstwhile Democrats defected to the segregationist George Wallace. Once in office, Nixon pushed harder than his predecessor for the desegregation of Southern schools. He increased by a factor of 35 the funds available for enforcing civil rights.

Abroad, too, Nixon confounded efforts to typecast him. Not only was he intent on ending the Vietnam War; it was Nixon who went to China and met Mao Tse-tung, Nixon who signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the interim Strategic Arms Limitation agreement with the Soviets in May 1972.

Many commentators today draw casual parallels between Donald Trump and Nixon. The only things the two men really have in common, thus far, is their irresistible impulse to wage war on the media and the media’s insatiable desire to do them in. Contrary to liberal folk memory, Nixon was a centrist who secured a second term by a landslide not through skulduggery but because his foreign and domestic policies were hugely popular. That he was a square was a large part of his appeal at a time of national and international upheaval. That he was a crooked square should not distract us, as it has distracted Farrell, from the undoubted achievements of his presidency.

Doubleday £30 pp737

Niall Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923-68: The Idealist

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