Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 10

I have two items for my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972.

1.  On page 289, Ambrose says the following about President Richard Nixon’s policy on arms control:

“Nixon responded to the conflicting pressures by yielding to all of them.  He pushed hard for ABM, and for MIRV testing, and for SALT.  His idea was to use ABM as a ‘bargaining chip’ in SALT.  He would build new weapons, the ABM, so that the United States would not have to build new weapons after the SALT agreements were reached.  Simultaneously, he would push ahead with MIRV, which unlike ABM would not be a subject for discussion in SALT.  There was something for everyone: SALT for the liberals, the doves, and the fiscal conservatives; ABM and MIRV for the conservatives, the hawks, and the Pentagon.  This was smart politics.  Whether it was good policy was less clear.”

I don’t want to get too deeply into the intricacies of arms control, but I’ll define a few terms here.  SALT referred to talks about arms control that the United States had with the Soviets in the 1970’s.  The ABM is a defensive sort of weapon.  There was talk in the 1980’s that the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars”, would be in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. You may recall that Star Wars was intended to be a defensive sort of weapon: it would shoot enemy missiles from space.

On page 259, Ambrose discusses Nixon’s policy on ABM: that a program called Safeguard would protect launch sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but not American cities.  Jerry Voorhis criticized Nixon for this in The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon, which I blogged through last month.  Ambrose says that Nixon’s policy would mean that the U.S. would need fewer ABMs: after all, if we’re only protecting ICMB launch sites and not cities, then that means that we’re protecting fewer areas, and thus that we don’t need as many ABMs.  But why protect launch sites and not American cities?  On page 259, Ambrose quotes Nixon as saying that an ABM system defending the cities “tends to be more provocative in terms of making credible a first-strike credibility against the Soviet Union.”  Nixon went on to say, “I want no provocation which might deter arms talks…and escalate an arms race.”

What I get out of Nixon’s statement is that, if we were to protect our cities, we would be communicating to the Soviets that we could strike them first, and that we wouldn’t be affected that much were they to strike us back.  Our concern for the innocent lives in those cities would then not be a deterrent for us to strike at the Soviets first, for our cities would be protected.  The Soviets would not agree to a policy that gave such an advantage to the United States, and so Nixon, realizing this, gave up a policy that would protect American cities through ABMs.   

But the Soviets themselves had ABMs.  I remember watching a documentary on the Cold War that was explaining the Soviet ABM system, and the ABM was presented as a sort of umbrella that would protect the Soviets and allow them to have first-strike capability, without having to worry about the consequences of a retaliatory American attack.  On page 277, Ambrose says that, in the middle of 1969, “the Russians had not got going on MIRV; the Americans had not got going on ABM.”  Ambrose says that it would have been sensible had the U.S. and the Soviets swapped: the Soviets would give up on ABM, where it was superior, and the U.S. would give up on MIRVs, where it had the advantage.  Then, the U.S. wouldn’t be spending money on ABMs to keep up with the Soviets in that department, and the Soviets wouldn’t be pursuing MIRVs.  But that didn’t happen, Ambrose narrates.  The hawks on both sides did not want to give up these weapons after so much money had been spent on them. 

Ambrose’s statement on page 289 that fiscal conservatives, alongside liberals and doves, supported arms control through SALT intrigued me.  That makes a degree of sense, since the government spends a lot of money on the military, and that could result in deficits and an increase in the national debt, maybe even higher taxes and inflation.  From a fiscally conservative standpoint, supporting arms control would arguably be the right thing to do.  I think of a book that I read as a child, David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: How the Reagan Revolution Failed.  Stockman narrated that, as Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he not only went after domestic spending, but military spending as well, to the chagrin of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger!  Essentially, Stockman thought that all that military spending was not necessary to protect the U.S.—-that the same job could be done with fewer resources.  But there were people who disagreed with him.

2.  On page 291, we read the following about Nixon’s attitude towards the FSS, which was his welfare reform proposal:

“Nixon felt a strong draw toward FSS.  He liked the idea of helping the working poor, neglected under the current system, and liked even better the idea of making welfare recipients work.  He thought of himself as coming from a working-poor family, and at times identified with that class.  So did his wife.  When a welfare worker suggested, at a White House conference, that Pat put the First Family on a nineteen-cent-a-meal per person welfare budget diet to see what poverty in America was like, Pat snapped back, ‘I worked my way through college.  I’ve known hunger.  When we were growing up we didn’t have anything.  I’ve known what poverty is.'”

Some, such as Roger Morris (whose book on Nixon I will probably blog through at some time), questions whether the Nixon family was all that poor when Richard was growing up.  That said, I do believe that Richard Nixon genuinely saw the family of his upbringing as people who struggled but got whatever they had through hard work.

While I liked that Pat snapped back at that welfare worker, I wonder something: did Pat at the time that she snapped back truly know what poverty was like, even though she had experienced it earlier in her life?  You hear from all sorts of politicians that they grew up with humble upbringings, and so they know what it is like for the average American to struggle.  But do they know?  Their humble upbringing was in their past.  Now, they make lots of money and don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.  Is there a possibility that they might have become out-of-touch with their humble past?  Moreover, just because they made successes of themselves, rising out of poverty in the past, does that mean that it’s easy for people today to rise out of poverty?  Not everyone has the same talents and intelligence.  Economic opportunities that were available in the past may not be as available now.  Social connectedness may not be as strong nowadays, in areas.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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