My latest reading of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician concerned Richard Nixon’s stance on race during the 1956 Presidential election, and also his support as Vice-President for allowing more Hungarian refugees into the U.S., when there was concern that such a policy could bring spies into the country.
1. On the issue of race, both the Democratic and the Republican tickets for the Presidency could be praised and criticized. The Democrats in the 1956 platform championed “equal opportunities for education”, while criticizing the Republican stance that segregation be “progressively eliminated” (the platform’s words). Yet, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson did not fully endorse the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision against the racial segregation of public schools, and Stevenson’s running mate was a pro-segregation Senator from the South. Moreover, a Democratic victory in Congress would mean that southerners would have clout in that body, and southern Democratic politicians tended to be staunch segregationists.
Republican Dwight Eisenhower also did not speak in favor of the Brown decision, and there were Republicans who “wanted to make further inroads in the Deep South” (page 413). Yet, Nixon boldly spoke against racial segregation, and he asked Father Francis Cronin (who was on his campaign staff) to include more stuff, not less, on race in Nixon’s speeches. Nixon loved to talk about Nate George, an African-American athlete at Whittier College who worked with young people in Los Angeles. Nixon said that George and George’s wife (a third-grade teacher) were “as fine Americans as anyone could want to meet” (Nixon’s words). Ambrose states on page 413: “By the 1980s [when Ambrose wrote this book], such words would sound condescending, but in the mid-fifties, Nixon was almost the only prominent politician in the country saying them, and certainly the only candidate for high office doing so.” I would say that, while Nixon’s appeal to Nate George may sound condescending, I think that one way to break down racial barriers is to personalize the “other”, as Nixon sought to do.
Nixon expressed hope that African-Americans would be given the opportunity to develop skills so they could contribute to America. But, according to Ambrose, part of Nixon’s reason for speaking so boldly on race was political, for Nixon told Father Cronin that the Republicans would not get the South, but there was a significant number of African-American voters in states that had “heavy electoral votes” (Nixon’s words).
On what Nixon believed should be done on civil rights in the 1950’s, that is not entirely clear to me, at least in my reading of Ambrose thus far. In 1952, Nixon was for progress in civil rights, yet he wanted it to be “at the state level and voluntary”, and he feared that “compulsive” federal legislation could “set back race relations by fifty years” (Ambrose on page 269). Yet, Nixon desired that segregation be banned in Washington, D.C., opposed the poll tax, and favored anti-lynching legislation. In 1956, Nixon criticized Stevenson for not affirming the Brown Supreme Court decision, and Nixon as Vice-President strongly supported Eisenhower sending federal troops to Arkansas to enforce school desegregation. That’s not exactly allowing progress in civil rights to be voluntary!
Regarding Nixon personally, Ambrose says on page 438 that “Nixon’s daughters attended an integrated school, and he had refused to sign a restrictive covenant when he bought his new home” (page 438).
2. In Hungary in 1956, there was an attempted revolt against the Communist government, which the Soviet Union crushed. Hungarian refugees then fled to Austria, but Austria’s resources were limited, so it asked the U.S. to help. In the U.S., however, the McCarran-Walter Act (which Nixon as a Senator voted for) limited immigration to the United States. Eisenhower and Nixon wanted for McCarran-Walter to be amended so that the Hungarian refugees could come to the U.S. and stay permanently, but Congress was resistant. There were a variety of good reasons to admit the refugees: that the U.S. was obligated to do so because it encouraged the Hungarian revolt then did not come to the Hungarian rebels’ assistance when they were in trouble; that the refugees were young and educated and could contribute to the U.S.; and that it “would make good propaganda” for the U.S. to admit them (Ambrose on page 423). But there was fear among several Congressmen that allowing the Hungarians to immigrate could bring in spies. Nixon sought to alleviate that concern, saying that such was unlikely because the refugees “knew one another well, and what each had done during the revolt” (Ambrose on page 425). But Congress did not budge. Ambrose on page 425 states: “[Nixon] never said so publicly, but by now he must have regretted his vote in 1952 to override Truman’s veto of McCarran-Walter.”
I admired Nixon when I read this story on account of his compassion for the Hungarian refugees, and also because he had the intellect to come up with ways to answer objections against allowing them to immigrate.