For my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972, I’ll highlight something that Ambrose says on page 440. The subject is President Richard Nixon’s pursuit of detente, which was “a relaxation of tension” with the Soviet Union and Red China (page 439).
“In promoting d[e]tente, Nixon had strengths of his own, many of them equally obvious. First, as he often pointed out, he was the one, the only one, who could pull it off. It was not just that his anti-Communist credentials were impeccable; it was that he did not have to deal with Nixon. That is, had anyone but Nixon tried to promote d[e]tente, Nixon would have been the leading, and devastating, critic who would have rallied the right wing to kill the initiative.”
Nixon may not have had to deal with himself, but he still had his share of right-wing critics. Why couldn’t they rally the right-wing to oppose Nixon’s detente policy? The reason was probably that many on the right felt that they had no other place to go, which is what Ambrose says on pages 440-441. It was either Nixon, or someone the right-wing would like a lot less.
Couldn’t Ronald Reagan have emerged as a formidable leader against detente? Reagan spoke against detente in the 1976 Presidential election, when Reagan ran for the Republican nomination against Gerald Ford. I’m not sure if he spoke against detente when Nixon was President, but Reagan in a 1989 interview told Jim Lehrer that Nixon sent him (meaning Reagan) on trips abroad. It seems to me that, in a sense, Reagan was a participant in Nixon’s foreign policy as opposed to being a vocal adversary against it.
Ambrose does tell some interesting stories about opponents of detente. First, there were Teddy Gleason and Jesse Calhoun, who led the maritime unions movement. They did not care for Nixon’s plan to expedite and increase Soviet access to U.S. grain markets, a plan in which the Soviets would buy more U.S. grain. Ambrose says on page 479 that “They thought all Communists were swine to be avoided when they were not being attacked”. Consequently, Gleason and Calhoon “refused to load Soviet ships.” Henry Kissinger tried to persuade Gleason to load the ships, but Gleeson cussed Kissinger out. Nixon then sent Charles Colson, who said to Calhoon that the SALT agreement depended on the trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Calhoon yawned, retorting that he didn’t care for SALT. A deal was eventually reached: the maritime workers would load the ships, and Nixon would free money up for the construction of more ships, as well as support the sort of legislation that maritime unions wanted. According to Ambrose, “Ten months later, Gleason became the first member of the AFL-CIO’s executive committee to endorse Nixon’s re-election” (page 479).
Second, there was George Meany of the AFL-CIO. When Nixon’s summit with the Soviets was announced, Gleason suggested that Nixon visit Fidel Castro in Cuba. Meany said, “If he’s going to visit the louses of the world, why doesn’t he visit them all?”
Third, there was actor John Wayne. Wayne said that he was shocked by Nixon’s trip to China. Ambrose says on page 480: “Wayne enclosed some reading for the President, including a spurious ‘Communist rules for revolution’ pamphlet that was employing a right-wing vogue, and a hate piece ‘fact sheet’ on ‘that Jew, Kissinger.'” I don’t know if it was the hate piece that mentioned Kissinger being a Jew, or Wayne himself.