My latest reading of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician covered Richard Nixon’s 1950 race against liberal Democratic Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate.
How did Ambrose’s narrative about this particular election compare with that of Irwin Gellman in his book, The Contender? Here are some of my comparisons between the two narratives:
—-Ambrose and Gellman agree that the Democrats in the Democratic primary basically ripped each other to shreds before Douglas even had to face Nixon.
—-Gellman says that there was no shred of evidence that Nixon’s campaign had a huge supply of money from wealthy interests. Ambrose never says that Nixon’s campaign had a huge supply of money, but he does say on pages 213-214 that big ranchers and farmers, as well as oilmen, donated to Nixon, and the reason was that they preferred Nixon’s stances on certain issues. Douglas, for example, supported President Harry Truman’s attempt “to limit farmers in California to 160 acres of land that could be irrigated with federally controlled water”, whereas Nixon was against it (page 214). In addition, Douglas “had voted for federal control of the tidelands oil, and Nixon against” (page 214). And, while Douglas does not say that realtors and developers contributed money to Nixon’s campaign, he does say on page 210 that many of them didn’t care for Douglas’ support of low-income housing (perhaps in terms of the policies that she embraced).
—-Gellman argues that Douglas was unfair to lump Nixon together with Senator Joseph McCarthy. I have not read everything that Ambrose has said about Nixon’s stance regarding McCarthy, but my impression is that, according to Ambrose, Nixon thought that McCarthy was raising valid concerns, but Nixon had issues with McCarthy’s recklessness and lack of evidence for some of his accusations. (On page 237, Ambrose said that Nixon was unimpressed by McCarthy’s lack of knowledge about Communism in the United States, for McCarthy did not even know who Earl Browder was, when Earl Browder was the head of the Communist Party USA!) On page 212, Ambrose states: “Nixon’s initial response to McCarthy was negative. In a press conference on April 15, 1950, he said that only the [Communist Party] was profiting from McCarthy’s charges.” At the same time, McCarthy did come to California to express his support for Nixon’s candidacy, but this was not at Nixon’s invitation, nor did Nixon share a stage with him. As Ambrose says on page 219, “Nixon did not repudiate McCarthy, but neither did he embrace him.”
—-Gellman argues that even Democrats had problems with Douglas because she was so far left, and yet he does narrate that prominent Democrats came to California to express their support for her. I get a similar picture from Ambrose. Ambrose narrates that Douglas was disliked because she was a woman in a man’s world and was very left-wing. Even John F. Kennedy delivered to Nixon a contribution from his father, Joseph Kennedy! Moreover, Ambrose tells a story by reporter Earl Mazo that “is probably too good to be true”, but it would be ironic if it were true! One of Nixon’s campaign strategies was to point out the significant number of times that Douglas voted the same as Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who was extremely left-wing and was believed to have Soviet sympathies. According to Mazo, Marcantonio didn’t even like Douglas, and he indirectly encouraged Nixon to pursue the Douglas-Marcantonio-connection strategy in order to win! Ambrose is clear, though, that Truman really wanted Nixon to lose, and California was visited by prominent Democrats who spoke in favor of Douglas: Vice-President Alben Barkley, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc.
—-The picture that I got from Gellman (and this was my impression) was that Nixon believed that he was simply presenting the facts about Douglas’ record, rather than calling her a Communist. Meanwhile, according to Gellman, Douglas (in a vain attempt to play on anti-Communism) was making the baseless charge that Nixon was against aid to South Korea, and she also said that Nixon voted to cut NATO funding. I got a little more detail out of Ambrose’s narration. For one, Ambrose does not think that Nixon’s accusation against Douglas that she voted with Marcantonio 354 times was particularly fair, for Nixon himself voted with Douglas and Marcantonio 100 of those times, and many of those other votes Douglas made were along party lines. Ambrose also says that “One of Nixon’s favorite lines was to say that Helen Douglas was ‘pink right down to her underwear'” (page 218), which sounds like quite an attack! Regarding Douglas’ accusations against Nixon, Ambrose, like Gellman, refers to Nixon’s defense that he voted against the first aid package for South Korea because it omitted aid to anti-Communist Formosa, but Nixon voted for the second aid package. But Ambrose also states that Douglas was distorting Nixon’s record on aid to Europe: “In fact, Nixon had not voted to cut the aid in half, but for a one-year rather than a two-year bill, with a renewal provision” (page 215).
—-In their own way, Gellman and Ambrose conveyed the nuances in some of Douglas’ positions. Gellman went into more detail than Ambrose on Douglas’ stance regarding internal Communist subversion (she was against it, but she thought that HUAC’s methods were inappropriate), as well as her position on Korea (she attacked Nixon for voting against aid to South Korea and even believed that the U.S. needed to defend South Korea, but she herself preferred peaceful solutions to problems and international disarmament). Ambrose, however, provided Douglas’ rationale for opposing the Truman Doctrine, which sought to combat Communism in Europe: she wanted UN involvement in the process.
—-In their own way, Gellman and Ambrose discuss the nuances in some of Nixon’s positions. I’d like to refer to a couple of positions that Ambrose mentions. First, while Nixon was a strong supporter of Taft-Hartley, he sought the union vote by saying that “management should give labor a stake in business and industry, through profit sharing plans and similar devices” (Nixon’s words, page 213). That sounds rather progressive, especially when it’s compared with conservatism today! Second, while Nixon opposed Truman’s proposed national health insurance, Nixon “favored voluntary health insurance provided by private companies, but insured by the federal government” (Ambrose’s words on page 220). I’m not sure how that would work, but it’s worth noting, since Nixon’s name came up in recent discussions about health care: that Nixon as President supported a public option (like President Obama), that he supported private HMOs, etc.
I’d like to close this post with something that Ambrose says on page 212, as Ambrose discusses the claim of certain Republicans that Communist infiltration into key institutions (namely, the Manhattan Project and the State Department, respectively) enabled the Russians to develop an atomic bomb and the Communists to take China. Ambrose believes that the reality was more complex:
“Things were obviously not so simple as the Republicans painted them. That there was an atomic spy ring is unquestionable; that it explained the Russian success is uncertain. In a sense, the only real ‘secret’ was that the theory was correct and an atomic bomb did work, which was a ‘secret’ the United States gave away at Hiroshima. That there were China hands [in the State Department] who preferred Mao to Chiang is also unquestionable; that they were traitors is altogether another matter. But these complexities were lost on many voters, who concluded that Nixon was correct in his assessment of the danger of internal Communism.”
More on this topic tomorrow!