For my blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll quote something that Ambrose says on page 97. We’re in 1973, during the Watergate scandal, and Nixon was telling his aides to read the chapter in his (Nixon’s) book Six Crises about the Alger Hiss case. I’ve written more than once about the Hiss case on this blog for My Year (or More) of Nixon, but I refer you to this post if you want a rough summary of it.
Nixon’s order to his aides really distressed them, according to Ambrose. Ambrose says:
“Nixon seemed not to recognize that in the Hiss case he had been the prosecutor/investigator, while in the Watergate matter he was the one on the defense, nor that the plain lesson of the Hiss case was that when the opposition controls the Congress, even the President cannot cover up. It gave the aides a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs to realize that Nixon would have loved to have been on the prosecuting/investigating side of Watergate. They knew that someone with his skills, armed with the power of subpoena, would have destroyed their woefully disorganized and badly managed defense without difficulty. They also knew that there were Democrats on the Ervin Committee who were almost as ruthless, skilled, and eager to attack as Nixon had been back in 1948.”
Why did Nixon refer to the Hiss case during the Watergate scandal? What lessons did Nixon think the Hiss case could teach him and his aides during Watergate? For one, in my reading of Ambrose so far, it appears that Nixon was comparing Watergate to the Hiss case to highlight that the Democrats did their share of cover-ups, and that the Truman Administration’s cover-up (or lack of cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities) during the Hiss case was worse than Watergate. Nixon says a couple of times that Watergate was not as bad as what the Truman Administration did during the Alger Hiss case, for the Truman Administration was protecting a traitor.
Second, in volume 2 of his memoirs, Nixon says that a lesson from the Hiss case is that cover-ups are futile. Nixon argues that, during Watergate, Nixon cooperated with Congress and provided it with information. The thing is, though, there was a limit to his cooperation.