I started Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972. This is the second of a three-volume series on the life of Richard Nixon.
Ambrose is such a gifted writer, that I could probably pick something on every page of his book and write a blog post about it. But I’ll focus on four items for today’s post.
1. The Foreword to the book had a couple of gems on the topic of memoirs. On page 9, Ambrose says that Nixon’s memoirs “are voluminous, detailed, sometimes almost embarrassingly revealing (certainly more so than any other President’s memoirs), and usually reliable on statements of fact.” That was my impression, too, when I read the memoirs. Nixon comes across as rather cynical and ruthless in his memoirs, and, even in his own account of Watergate, he does not exactly come off smelling like a rose. At the same time, I think that Nixon also tries to portray himself as an empathetic, compassionate human being. I tend to agree with Jules Witcover’s statement in his book on Nixon’s relationship with his first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, entitled Very Strange Bedfellows, that Nixon in his memoirs depicts himself as a benign observer during Agnew’s scandals, when Witcover argues that Nixon actually wanted Agnew out of office.
On page 10, Ambrose says: “No other Administration in American history has produced so much in the way of memoirs by the participants as the Nixon Administration. The reason, at least in part, is obvious: in no other Administration did so many members need so much money for such horrendous legal fees.” I’m not sure if Ambrose is correct about the number of memoirs by an Administration’s participants, since there were a lot of books by people in the Reagan Administration. And, some time after this book by Ambrose, a number of big players in George W. Bush’s Administration have written memoirs. But Ambrose’s comments on page 10 remind me that I have so many books to choose from when it comes to my Year (or More) of Nixon.
2. After Nixon lost the 1962 California gubernatorial election and told reporters that they wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, Nixon moved to New York City to work for a legal firm. But, according to Ambrose, Nixon was not over when it came to politics, notwithstanding what he had told those reporters, for Nixon continued to hold press conferences, go to foreign countries, campaign for Republicans, form contacts, and write. Nixon was one of the foremost critics of the Kennedy Administration. By moving to New York, Nixon was trying to give the impression that he was truly over with politics, since New York was liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s territory. And yet, while Nixon was alienated from the state Republican party, he continued to associate with prominent Republicans in New York City who had worked in the Eisenhower Administration. According to Ambrose, “These New York City Republicans…got [Nixon] into the best clubs, introduced him to the best society, sent business his way” (page 25). Henry Kissinger remembers it differently, saying that Nixon was shunned by the elite in New York City, exasperating Nixon’s feeling that he was “beset by enemies” (Kissinger, as quoted on page 25). But Ambrose says that Nixon actually “turned down more invitations than he accepted”, and that Kissinger’s recollection was due to Kissinger’s movement within “different circles” (page 25).
Nixon was solidifying and forming contacts, even in New York City. Yet, according to Ambrose, Nixon also spent more evenings at home, spending time with his family and increasing his political and historical knowledge by reading books.
3. On page 23, Ambrose quotes Nixon as saying in 1963: “Too many people today are gloating publicly because the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Communists are having an argument. What they fail to realize is that this argument is not about how they can beat each other, but how they could beat us.”
This was what Nixon was saying about the Sino-Soviet rift in 1963. He would come to believe, however, that the United States should reach out to Red China and exploit its rift with the Soviets, out of a sense that the Red Chinese were too vulnerable to try to beat the United States.
4. On pages 34-35, Ambrose describes how the U.S. saw itself, and how a number of others saw the U.S., right after World War II:
“American moral superiority was based, above all else, on the heritage of World War II. At the end of the war, America’s prestige had never been higher. The U.S. had provided the tools and the men to save Europe and Russia from Hitler and his Nazis. The U.S. had driven the Japanese out of China, Indochina, Burma, Korea, the Philippines. The U.S. had given the Philippines independence, without forcing the Filipinos to wage a war of national liberation to achieve it. America had asked for nothing for itself in return. Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Vietminh in Vietnam at that time, hailed the Americans as the true friends of the oppressed of the earth. So did such dissimilar men as Charles de Gaulle, Churchill, and on one occasion even Stalin himself. In a world full of hatred, death, destruction, deception, and double-dealing, the United States at the end of World War II was almost universally regarded as the disinterested champion of justice, freedom, and democracy.”
What got my attention was that Ho Chi Minh, and even Stalin himself at one time, regarded the United States as a force for good. I have my doubts that this was the sum-total of their views on the United States, though.