I covered a lot of ground in my latest reading of Richard Nixon’s Leaders. I finished Nixon’s chapter about French leader Charles de Gaulle, and I read a significant portion of his chapter about General Douglas MacArthur and Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who worked together to rebuild Japan after World War II. I won’t be mentioning every single passage in my latest reading that I found noteworthy, since there were so many. As I’ve said before on this blog, I do love reading Nixon, particularly on account of his conversational writing-style. But I will offer some samples.
1. On page 43, Nixon says about Charles de Gaulle:
“The de Gaulle I met in 1960 was very different from the arrogant, abusive character portrayed by reporters and foreign service personnel. I found him to be a very kind man with a somewhat shy quality that is hard to describe. He was not warm, but neither was he harsh. I would say he was almost gentle. But, as with most leaders, gentleness of manner was one thing; policy was another thing.
“Most leaders I have known had a gentle side to their natures, but it would be a mistake to call them gentle people. Those who are in fact gentle are seldom good at wielding power. A leader has to be brutally tough at times in order to do his job. If he frets too much about the toughness of his task, if he lets himself be deterred to much by sentimentality, he will not do what he has to do right, or even do it at all.”
In Nixon’s depiction, de Gaulle was a formal and reserved man, on the one hand, and Nixon says that Winston Churchill complained that de Gaulle was too stubborn and intransigent! But, on the other hand, according to Nixon, de Gaulle was also genuinely kind and considerate. De Gaulle at dinners would invite other people into a conversation rather than monopolizing people’s attention, and he complimented Pat on the flower arrangement. De Gaulle could step out of his formality and reserve when he was entertaining his daughter, who had a mental disability. And, in the political arena, de Gaulle could use flattery whenever it would suit him politically!
I didn’t know a whole lot about de Gaulle before reading Nixon’s discussion about him, but I have in the past appreciated some of the things that Nixon said about de Gaulle. I remember watching David Frost’s interviews of Nixon on C-SPAN, and the topic was Nixon’s reserve. Nixon noted that Charles de Gaulle was a good leader, and yet de Gaulle was not exactly a back-slapping politician. This resonated with me, as someone who has been judged as cold, stiff, and reserved, for it told me that one could be reserved and still accomplish things. But Nixon’s stories in Leaders about de Gaulle’s kindness especially appealed to me, for they told me that one could be quiet and reserved and yet kind. I know people who are rather quiet, but they are pleasant people to be around because they listen and they express concern and understanding. That’s the sort of quiet person I should aim to be.
Incidentally, the motif of formal and reserved, yet kind, people comes up elsewhere in Nixon’s works. Nixon in volume 1 of his memoirs, for example, depicts conservative Republican (and Presidential candidate) Robert Taft as such a person: one who was formal and reserved, yet was also loving to his wife, who was in a wheelchair; Nixon says that Taft took his wife to many of his political events. Why does this theme come up more than once in Nixon’s work? Perhaps it’s because it reflects how Nixon saw himself, or what Nixon himself wanted to be.
2. On page 88, Nixon says the following about General Douglas MacArthur:
“MacArthur always felt compelled to be different from those around him, and this led to certain glaring but harmless eccentricities. In the military, uniform dress is intended in part to reinforce the command hierarchy. But MacArthur wanted to stand out, not fit in. To another officer who asked about his unusual garb, he said, ‘It’s the orders you disobey that make you famous.'”
In my opinion, this coincides with something that Nixon said earlier in the book when discussing Churchill: that leaders of the past were far more colorful, whereas many leaders of today, in the age of television, are more boring and homogeneous. Nixon notes that he knew a lot of interesting personalities when he was in Congress in the 1940’s.
I wondered to myself if there were any colorful personalities in government today. There are—-I think of the Tea Party politicians, who are not exactly mainstream. But they strike me as rather paranoid and extreme, so I don’t think that they are eccentric in a good way. But I do admire certain politicians who take bold, outside-of-the-mainstream stands: I think of the Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, or Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. There are times when I would like to hear something other than the usual banal political script.
Nixon portrays MacArthur as, well, different. He says that MacArthur probably enjoyed the company of people in Asia more than that of Americans. This stood out to me because it was consistent with how Nixon depicts MacArthur’s governance of Japan after World War II: that MacArthur governed with sensitivity towards the Japanese, and also with social justice, as MacArthur brought about land reform that ensured a broader distribution of the land. But it also stood out to me because I myself have enjoyed the company of many Asians: foreign-exchange students from Asian countries, or English-as-a-Second language students I have tutored. I found them to be nicer than a lot of Americans! That’s just my impression, and I realize that I should not stereotype.
I should note that Nixon’s portrayal of leaders in this book is not always positive. While Nixon says a lot of positive things about MacArthur, he also expresses disapproval. For example, when Dwight Eisenhower as President had a heart attack, MacArthur said that he was in Vice-President Nixon’s corner and wanted Eisenhower to get out of the way (which, in my opinion, may have meant resigning, not dying). Nixon said that he found MacArthur’s comments to be “highly inappropriate under the circumstances” (page 92). But MacArthur’s comments probably reflected the long-standing tension that he (MacArthur) had with Eisenhower, which Nixon talks about.
3. On page 114, Nixon tells the following anecdote about MacArthur and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida:
“Another time Yoshida brought MacArthur an ingenious toy horse that he had brought for [MacArthur’s son] Arthur during one of his anonymous walks through the streets of Tokyo. When Yoshida visited MacArthur’s office again a few days later, he saw the toy still sitting on the general’s desk, next to a stand containing his famous corncob pipes. Yoshida asked MacArthur why he had not yet given it to his son. The Supreme Commander answered somewhat sheepishly that he had been having too much fun playing with it himself. Later he reluctantly passed the toy on to Arthur.”
I loved this humorous anecdote, especially since my impression of MacArthur in reading Nixon’s book is that MacArthur was rather formal and took himself very seriously. Even MacArthur liked to play, once in a while! I enjoy Nixon’s book because of these sorts of anecdotes that reveal the human side of leaders. And yet, Nixon also gets into policy. Nixon praised Yoshida’s stance against rigid anti-monopoly laws, for example, which was consistent with Nixon’s own criticism of anti-trust laws in volume 2 of his memoirs: Nixon thought that large companies could produce more. Something else that I found interesting was Nixon’s statement that MacArthur advised President Lyndon Johnson not to send more troops to Vietnam. I was surprised by this, for MacArthur was a hawk when it came to the Korean War and his beliefs about the need to combat Communism in Asia. There may be more nuance to that, however, since one could be a hawk, while also being against sending more American troops. One could support reliance on air power rather than ground-forces, or one could believe in using more Asian troops to fight Communism in Asia rather than American troops (I think of Vietnamization, and also MacArthur’s support for using some of Chiang Kaishek’s men during the Korean War).