I have two items for my post today about Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. We’re in the time of the Truman Administration, and Richard Nixon is a United States Senator representing the state of California. These two items, in my opinion, exemplify Conrad Black’s treatment of Nixon and the events surrounding him.
1. On pages 170-173, Black talks about General Douglas MacArthur’s desired strategy for the Korean War, which would lead MacArthur into conflict with President Harry S Truman. On page 170, Black summarizes MacArthur’s stance: “He considered Korea an opportunity to suck into the peninsula and destroy the Chinese Communist army, to bomb China’s industrial areas to rubble, and so to weaken the People’s Republic that Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists, who had just been chased off the mainland to Taiwan, could return.” Black says that MacArthur has been accused of advocating that the U.S. threaten to use nuclear weapons, but Black believes that this is false (though Black notes on page 171 that President Dwight Eisenhower “would discretely threaten this, to his and America’s profit”). Black’s opinion is that MacArthur using Chiang’s soldiers and providing them with air support “would certainly have broken the stalemate in Korea, with interesting results” (page 171). Yet, Black doubts that Chiang would have been able to resurrect his own rule in mainland China, for Chiang was corrupt, inept, and unpopular with many in that country.
As Senator, Richard Nixon introduced a bill that would reverse President Truman’s recall of General MacArthur. Nixon in his book, Leaders, says that his speech to the Senate at the time actually distributed the blame between Truman and MacArthur. Nixon on pages 98-99 of that book quotes himself as saying in that speech: “Let me say that I am not among those who believe that General MacArthur is infallible…I am not among those who think that he has not made decisions which are subject to criticism. But I do say that in this particular instance he offers an alternative policy which the American people can and will support. He offers a change from the policies which have led us almost to the brink of disaster in Asia—-and that means in the world.” Black not only considers Nixon’s proposal in the Senate to be “an unconstitutional usurpation of the prerogatives of the commander in chief”, but he also dismisses what Nixon would say in Leaders as “a reinterpretive reading of his remarks” (page 172). Black goes on to say that MacArthur was insubordinate, but Black is also critical of how Truman handled the situation. According to Black, Truman could have warned MacArthur privately, or Truman could have left MacArthur as governor of Japan, where MacArthur’s contribution was widely acclaimed. Black states that this “would have blunted the impact of MacArthur’s removal”, and that the “general was seventy-one and retirement, if decorously executed, would not have been premature” (page 173).
Overall, I found Black’s discussion of Truman and MacArthur to be fair and balanced, in that Black talked about what he considered to be the positives and negatives of both men. On how Black covered Nixon in terms of this situation, I wish that Black had gone into more detail about how Nixon’s treatment of his Senate speech in Leaders was “a reinterpetive reading of his remarks”, for Nixon in Leaders actually quoted from his own Senate speech. How exactly would Black interpret Nixon’s remarks, if he doesn’t buy into how Nixon is interpreting them? They sound pretty straightforward to me: Nixon did not see MacArthur as infallible! At the same time, perhaps one could argue that, even if Senator Nixon tried to convey that he was being balanced and fair-minded, the big picture was that Nixon was backing MacArthur.
Incidentally, I read an Amazon review that critiqued Black’s treatment of the Korean War. It’s by History Addict, who says:
“The Nixon biography is not quite as good as the FDR study. There are, for example, a few glaring geopolitical mistakes. On several occasions Black writes that the United States should have brought Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army from Taiwan into the wars against Chinese proxies–North Korea and then North Vietnam–and, given that Chinese troops were advising those proxies, let them fight Chinese soldiers themselves. That would in fact have been an enormous error, for Chiang’s primary goal in the 1950s and 1960s was to provoke a war between the United States and China both to prevent a Sino-American rapprochement and to increase the odds that the PRC would collapse and he could return in glory to the mainland. Given that goal–and Chiang’s cynical and manipulative history–it would have been disastrous to make the United States dependent on his behavior and that of his military.”
I’m not sure on what History Addict bases his claims, but my hunch is that they’re based on something, since History Addict has read history. What I’m getting from History Addict’s remarks is that Chiang could have decided to sit back and let the U.S. and the Red Chinese duke it out, without involving his own soldiers. That way, the Communists in China would be weakened and Chiang could return to power, without losing his own men. History Addict’s point is that Chiang would not have wanted for his own soldiers to be involved in the Korean War, so he’d be reluctant to participate in MacArthur’s plan.
2. On page 178, Black addresses the charge that Nixon in one case sought to craft policy to benefit contributors:
“Some critics and historians have made something of the fact that [Nixon] sent in a bill to enable two contributors to his fund to drill for oil on federal land in California. Nixon did not push hard for the bill, which died. Nixon didn’t lift a finger for the people who had given him a few thousand dollars, which were uncontroversially spent.”
I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once in Black’s book: Black attempts to defend Nixon from charges that Nixon was unethical or corrupt. I don’t believe that Black reflexively defends Nixon, mind you, for there are plenty of times when Black is quite critical of Nixon. Whereas Irwin Gellman in The Contender, for example, disputes that Nixon at the 1952 Republican National Convention was trying to undermine support for Earl Warren and was playing different sides (Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower), Black essentially says that Nixon was doing precisely that: that Nixon was claiming to be for Taft to undermine support for Warren, while also supporting Eisenhower (pages 189-190). On one of the big accusations against Nixon, Black maintains that Nixon was rather shady. And yet, here and there, Black dismisses some of the other charges that historians have made against Nixon.
The charge that Nixon favored special interests looms large in Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician. I’d say that it’s a major theme of the entire tome, for, even when talking about California prior to Richard Nixon’s birth, Morris refers to the special interests that sought to consolidate their wealth and power in the state. Jerry Voorhis would go against these special interests, Morris argues, whereas Nixon as a politician would favor them. Black appears to have a different perspective, however. While Black acknowledges that Nixon in his campaigns for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate received a considerable amount of money (something that historians who are more favorable to Nixon tend to downplay, or even deny), Black also disputes that the contributors to Nixon’s fund were millionaires (not that Morris says that they were, but Morris does regard them as well-off special interests). He also seems to deny that their contributions got them any favors from Richard Nixon. For example, regarding Nixon’s political fund, which would be controversial in the 1952 Presidential election, Black notes that Nixon did not know who the donors are (something that Morris disputes). The implication here may be: How can Nixon benefit contributors, when he does not even know their identity? At the same time, like Morris, Black acknowledges that Nixon’s political fund from the contributions of California businessmen was designed to make Nixon into a high-profiled spokesperson for conservatism (or Morris would say special interests).
These are my impressions so far, and I have not yet finished Black’s tome.