Nixon Part Four
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 29 2016
Hiss Case as Paradigm
Nixon was always proud of his part in pursuing allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was an American government official who was convicted of perjury in 1950. Before he was tried and convicted, he was involved in the establishment of the United Nations both as a US State Department official and as a UN official. Nixon would always consider the Hiss case a defining moment in his career and included it as the first of the “six crises” he described in his political memoir of the same name.
Anthony Summers, in his Nixon biography The Arrogance of Power, considered that the Hiss case was a paradigm for Nixon’s later career because of several themes that it brought out.
- Delusion: Nixon could not resist exaggerating his own role. Robert Stripling, chief HUAC investigator, called Nixon’s account “pure bullshit”.
- Addiction to intrigue: Nixon’s journalist friend Walter Trohan believed Nixon developed “a weakness for playing cops and robbers in the Hiss case. Maybe this led him to countenance Watergate”.
- Vengeance: Nixon questioned the competence of the judge in the first Hiss trial and wanted to prosecute the foreman of the jury.
- Resentment of the elite: The Ivy League types that Nixon detested thought Hiss could not be guilty because he was from their class.
- Persecution complex: Nixon thought people were out to get him because of the Hiss case whereas he was repeatedly out to get others.
- Rage to blame others: attorneys Vazzana and Stripling who worked on the Hiss investigation said Nixon became viciously abusive with them when evidence was questioned.
- Cracking under pressure: he drove himself beyond his limits going without food and sleep and family life. During the Hiss case Nixon started using sleeping pills.
Perhaps Nixon’s greatest crime was to conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. Nixon tried to project an image of himself as a peacemaker on Vietnam but had been an early adopter, disagreeing with Eisenhower, for sending in ground troops. He plotted to prolong the war for his own political advantage.
President Johnson surprised everyone by announcing a peace initiative in the form of a bombing halt. On March 31 1968, LBJ declared he would not be running for re-election. “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing.” Peace in Vietnam was the last thing Nixon wanted at that point as it might hand the election to Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Nixon wanted to take the credit for ending the war himself.
Anna Chennault was the Republican party’s chief female fundraiser. She had friends in the South Vietnamese government and at Nixon’s bidding persuaded them not to participate in peace talks. Three days before the election the FBI sent LBJ a wiretap report that Chennault had contacted the South Vietnamese ambassador telling him “hold on We’re gonna win”. President Thieu announced that South Vietnam would not be sending a delegation to the Paris peace talks. LBJ correctly described Nixon’s scheming as treason and the Logan Act of 1799 provides severe penalties against private citizens who interfere in negotiations between the US and foreign governments.
Humphrey lost the election. With Nixon as president the war went on for another four years; 20,763 more Americans died; 109,230 South Vietnamese soldiers died; 496,260 North Vietnamese fighters died.
Cambodia was secretly bombed without congressional approval and when the truth emerged during Watergate one congressman, Robert Drinan, described Nixon’s actions as “conduct more shocking and more unbelievable than the conduct of any president in any war in all of American history”. The bombing contributed to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime – two million Cambodians died.
Nixon was fortunate to avoid prison for his part in the criminal activity and cover up relating to the Watergate affair. Fourteen of his associates who thought they were doing his bidding served jail sentences. Nixon avoided impeachment by resigning.
Much has been written about Watergate and I read a great deal of it with great fascination as well as following the news as it unfurled. Briefly here is what happened. On June 17, 1972, a security guard found five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort. On January 30, 1973, former Nixon aides G Gordon Liddy and James W McCord Jr were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men pleaded guilty,
The FBI discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP or CREEP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. An investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations and the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president should release the tapes to government investigators. The tapes revealed that the president himself was directly implicated in trying to cover up activities that took place after the break-in and used federal officials to impede investigations. There has been speculation that Nixon was trying to find out what dirt the Democrats had on him about the Chennault affair, funding from the Mob or his role in Cuba. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.
Watergate led to calls for greater controls on fund raising as well as condemnation of government surveillance. The achievements of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to them being portrayed onscreen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann. Aggressive investigative journalism enjoyed a vogue.
How do the effects of Watergate look after 40 years? The tactics covered by the term “Watergate” were used in the name of national security to attack political enemies. Could that happen today? We were already getting nostalgic about Obama before he left because we were so horrified at the prospect of Trump. Obama may have had the excuse of an obstructionist Congress for failing to achieve some of his aims. However, in matters of national security, he exercised largely unchecked powers. After 9/11, national security concerns (much as during Nixon’s formative years of the cold war) have presented a good argument for unimpeded presidential powers in all areas of national security, just as the Executive Presidency was argued to be a good thing in Sri Lanka in order to defeat the LTTE, but still remains seven years after the defeat of terrorism. I have just been watching Oliver Stone’s film Snowden. It seems that the courts, the Congress and much of the public now tend to agree with Nixon: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
During his election campaign, Donald Trump seemed to believe that if he were to be elected he could do anything he wanted. He could lock up Hillary Clinton just by telling his Supreme Court to get the job done. He could deport Mexican immigrants by diktat and build a wall to prevent more coming in and expect Mexico to pay for it. He could lock up Muslims. He could stop the press criticising him. Richard Nixon tried all that kind of stuff and ended up losing the presidency he had wanted so much.
Trump probably did not want the presidency as much as Nixon did. To Trump, the election was an advertising campaign for Trump Enterprises and the surprise bonus of the real presidency itself provides a unique marketing opportunity. Nixon was intense about politics, Trump not so much. Nixon was thwarted. Can Trump be thwarted?
Next week – did Nixon have any good points?