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18 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Rethinking Nixon: forty years after Watergate, can the 37th president be rehabilitated?

It is now four decades since Richard Milhous Nixon resigned in disgrace as US president – he remains reappraised but not rehabilitated.

By John Bew

In February 1969, the New Statesman was the nearly subject of an embarrassing incident in Anglo-American relations. Expecting a Democratic victory for Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in the US presidential election of November 1968, Harold Wilson had appointed the former Labour MP and New Statesman editor John Freeman as the new British ambassador in Washington, DC. During his editorship from 1961 to 1965, Freeman and his paper had been brutally critical of Nixon, once describing him as a man of “no principle whatsoever except a willingness to sacrifice everything in the cause of Dick Nixon”.

As the newly elected president headed to London for a summit with Wilson – to discuss the future of Nato, the cold war and Vietnam – the prime minister’s choice of ambassador now looked as though it might backfire. Freeman’s previous condemnation of Nixon was well known to the president’s battle-hardened entourage, particularly his chief of staff, H R Haldeman, and the White House counsel, John Ehrlichman. Known collectively as the “Berlin Wall”, because of their German-sounding names and the fortress they built around the Oval Office, these two uncompromising loyalists had been with Nixon for more than a decade. They wore the scars of a succession of brutal campaigns in which critics and enemies had often been steamrolled by the Nixon machine. They would play leading roles in the Watergate saga.

As the US delegates sat down to dinner at No 10, however, Nixon lightened the mood with an unexpectedly witty gambit. “Some say there’s a new Nixon, and they wonder if there’s a new Freeman,” he began. “I’d like to think that’s all behind us. After all, he’s the new diplomat and I’m the new statesman.”

The assembled British guests roared with laughter. Wilson, whose “smooth talk” Nixon distrusted, quickly scribbled a note on the back of the president’s menu card, praising him for “one of the kindest and most generous acts” he had seen in the course of his political career. “You can’t guarantee being born a lord. It is possible – you’ve shown it – to be born a gentleman,” Wilson wrote. Freeman, who was also in attendance, went on to enjoy a relatively successful tenure in Washington, and had a close personal relationship with Nixon’s national security adviser and future secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

The anecdote, told in Richard Reeves’s 2001 biography, is an insight into a different Nixon – a man more at ease with himself and his surroundings than the brooding figure whose awkward victory stance (arms jutting out above his head like antennae, fingers making the “V” sign) stands in eternal contrast to the suavity of John F Kennedy or the stature of Lyndon Baines Johnson, titans of 1960s American politics.

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It is now 40 years since Nixon suffered the ignominious fate of becoming the only US president ever to resign from office. On 8 August 1974, when Nixon announced his resignation to his staff, Kissinger told him that history would eventually judge him as one of the great presidents. “That depends, Henry, on who writes the history,” he replied.

The 40th anniversary of his departure has been marked with a flurry of new books on Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Yet, as ever, the most fascinating insights come from the unfiltered words of Nixon himself.

The latest tranche of transcripts from the Nixon tapes – culled from a recording system that he personally installed at the White House – has been published in a collection by the historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke A Nichter. They contain an odd mixture of crude banter, paranoia, anti-Semitism, casual racism, homophobia and reflections on history, geopolitics and global affairs. Christopher Hitchens, a relentless critic of Nixon, once described the tapes as “the gift that never stops giving”.

Two decades ago, after Nixon died on 22 April 1994 at the age of 81, the then US president, Bill Clinton, spoke at his funeral and urged Americans to judge him by the “totality” of his life. Clinton had not been the first president to seek Nixon’s counsel, particularly on foreign affairs. Reagan met him at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1984 to assist the slow return to some respectability. Reappraisals of Nixon have come in ten-year cycles, coinciding with the anniversary of his resignation or his death 20 years later. There have been notable efforts: by Jonathan Aitken in 1993, for one (before his own conviction for perjury), and by Conrad Black in 2007 (a 1,200-page doorstopper, written while he was awaiting trial for fraud).

Yet reappraisals are quite different from full rehabilitation. Long before Watergate, Nixon had styled himself as the “comeback kid”. A decade earlier, his career had looked dead and buried after his failed bid for the presidency in 1960. This was followed by defeat in the Californian gubernatorial race two years later, upon which he announced his retirement from politics.

Although the obituary of his political life was premature, Nixon never achieved that final comeback he hankered for: recapturing the esteem of Americans which he believed he deserved and for which he pined obsessively, despite the contempt with which he sometimes spoke of them. Even after his landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972, which won him a second term as president, the drawers of his desk in the Oval Office were packed with scrunched-up copies of the latest polling data.

Nixon was haunted by his defeat in the 1960 race against JFK, an election defined by the decisive impact of the first televised presidential debate. He would return to that experience whenever he felt the odds were stacked against him. In a conversation with Kissinger and Haldeman in 1971, he complained that “Kennedy was cold, impersonal, he treated his staff like dogs, particularly his secretaries and the others . . . His staff created the impression of warm, sweet and nice to people, reads a lot of books, a philosopher, and all that sort of thing. That was a pure creation of mythology.”

In his 1995 biopic, Oliver Stone has Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) turn to a portrait of Kennedy and say, “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

While JFK came to represent something lost after his assassination in 1963, Nixon was in many ways the defining (and most polarising) figure of the 1960s and 1970s. Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland, published in 2008, argued that Nixon manipulated political and social events between 1965 and 1974 in a way that still shapes divisions in America. Under him, the US “cult of consensus” gave way to a notion of social and cultural struggle – the birth of “the American cacophony” – which Nixon played upon for his own ends. “The argument over Richard Nixon, pro and con, gave us the language for this war,” wrote Perlstein. His thesis follows the lead of the father of “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S Thompson, who claimed the disgraced president represented “that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character” and that he was “a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream”.


Born on 9 January 1913, Richard Nixon was the son of a lemon-farming Quaker in small-town California. Two of his brothers died young from tuberculosis and nothing was handed to him as it was to the Kennedy boys. Although his memoirs breeze over the early years of his life, countless historians and psychologists have pored over personal and family details for evidence of trauma, or to try to find some clue to the insecurity, taste for conflict and paranoia that infected his whole career.

Nixon inherited a divided nation in 1968. He was elected on a “law and order” ticket at the height of protests against the Vietnam war, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and at the peak of the Black Panther movement and the Weathermen, as well as widespread racial tension and social disorder. As he began his presidency, a memorandum by one of his appointees, the academic and future Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, warned: “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”

It was Nixon who popularised the phrase “the silent majority”, and from them he believed he gleaned his core support. In some respects he represented traditional America in an increasingly uncertain world and he embodied much of that unease. Nonetheless, he saw himself as a sort of Abraham Lincoln, willing to take bold measures to reunite the nation or set it on another path. His distaste for the “East Coast elite”, the media and the Ivy League establishment did not stop him from taking unexpected paths – not least in his choice of Moynihan, a veteran of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, to become his adviser on urban affairs – to the horror of many Republicans.

It must be said that some of Nixon’s putatively “liberal” reforms – of social security, in civil rights and environmental protection – originated in the Democratic-controlled Congress, and he was not always comfortable with how far some of them went. At the same time, he was taken with the Disraelian vision of “one nation”, much beloved of Ed Miliband. In 1969 he remarked to Moynihan, who had given him a copy of Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli, that “it is the Tory men with liberal policies who have enlarged democracy”.

But he himself framed these measures in characteristically parochial terms as a stab at the heart of the liberal establishment. “I wanted to eliminate the last vestiges of segregation by law, and I wanted to do it in a way that treated all parts of the nation equally,” he wrote in his memoirs, first published in 1978. “I was determined that the South would not continue to be a scapegoat for Northern liberals.”

Nixon was more comfortable being commander-in-chief in the international arena than he was as a midwife for the modern America hoping to emerge from the trauma of the 1960s. Following his first election to Congress in 1946, he had made his name as a staunch anti-communist by serving as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, set up in response to fears of communist infiltration in Hollywood, the labour movement and other institutions. He became notorious for the zeal with which he went after Alger Hiss, a retired US state department official who had been “outed” as a spy by a fellow former Communist Party member, Whittaker Chambers, previously a senior editor at Time magazine. In 1950, in the tense atmosphere of the Korean war, Nixon made the leap to the Senate after another brutal race in California – this time against Helen Gahagan Douglas, wife of the popular actor Melvyn Douglas, whom he accused of being “pink down to her underwear”. It was Douglas who made the moniker “Tricky Dick” stick.

As Eisenhower’s vice-president from 1953 to 1961, Nixon assumed a growing responsibility for international affairs, because the president was often ill. He travelled to the Middle East, South America and in 1959 even to Moscow, where he had an encounter with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who later called him a “son of a bitch”.

After his defeat in the 1962 race for the California governorship, Nixon used his enforced sabbatical to think more deeply about the international system, reading the work of a young Harvard scholar called Kissinger, but arrived at his own conclusions about Europe, China, Russia and the Middle East. As Barry Goldwater – with a disastrous lurch to the right – led the Republicans to defeat against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon travelled the world, laying the ground for his presidency. He told Nato allies that Johnson had neglected them, and criticised the conduct of the war in Vietnam.

It was in 1967 that Nixon announced his conversion to the view that the United States should seek rapprochement with China to weaken the communist bloc. This preference for détente was linked to a different conception of US foreign policy, in which “reciprocity” and “balancing” were to be cornerstones. His defining contribution, he claimed with hindsight, was to make Americans think about the entire international picture rather than dealing with events episodically, crisis by crisis. “Our tendency to become preoccupied with only one or two problems at a time had led to a deterioration of policy on all fronts,” he wrote in his memoirs.

As Nixon’s comeback gathered pace, he was imbued with a growing sense of destiny, heightened after the death of his mother in 1967 when he broke down sobbing in the arms of the evangelist Billy Graham, who urged him to “let it all out”. The intensity of his feelings was captured in the bizarre notes he scribbled to himself throughout his career, in which he often referred to himself in the third person. “Combat is the essence of politics,” he wrote on a yellow pad before he announced his decision to run again in 1968. He confessed in his memoirs that during the 1966 congressional campaign he was “something of a chronic campaigner, always out on the stump raising partisan hell”. But “the simple process of growing older”, he wrote, “had probably rounded off some of the hard edges of the younger Nixon”. Increasingly he saw himself as a statesman rather than a dirty street fighter; yet in him, in truth, the two were indivisible.

Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society” – tackling poverty and racial injustice – had begun to implode with the rise of extremism, the assassination of Dr King and, above all, the war in Vietnam. Nixon took advantage, winning the presidency against Humphrey (Johnson had pulled out of the Democratic primaries in March 1968) and promising to restore domestic harmony and to end the war. He compared himself with Winston Churchill, suggesting that his years in the wilderness had made him the great politician he would become. He spoke of how he had once regarded Neville Chamberlain, declaring “peace for our time” on his return from Munich in 1938, as a hero. In retrospect, Nixon came to think that “Chamberlain was a good man” but “Churchill was a wiser man”.

In his memoirs, Nixon spoke of his desire to seek a middle path between “hawks and doves” on what action to take in Vietnam. He had inherited a war in which 31,000 Americans had died. The conundrum was how to extricate half a million troops without complete humiliation and the routing of South Vietnam by the North. He believed that any opening to the Chinese or the Soviets depended on a demonstration of US strength. In this, he disappointed widespread expectations that his pre­sidency would bring a swift resolution of the war.

“Peace with honour” was the aim; “Viet­namisation” and the “quarantining” of the conflict were the means to the end. What this meant, in practice, was that the South Vietnamese would have to bear the burden of the fighting on their own but the communists would be prevented from taking their campaign further, such as into neighbouring Cambodia. So, while US troops began to return home in their thousands, US air force planes were sent in ever-increasing numbers in the opposite direction to take part in what became the biggest aerial bombardment in history.

By March 1970 the US was dropping 130,000 tonnes of bombs every month on North Vietnam, eastern Cambodia and Laos with the aim of disrupting the safe havens used by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Vietcong, and holding back the Khmer Rouge. It is worth noting that such bombings had in fact begun under the Johnson administration in 1965. What Nixon’s campaign did was to escalate the attacks to unprecedented levels by authorising the use of B-52s for carpet bombing. The attacks were timed to coincide with talks with the North Vietnamese to bring the war to a close and to get the Chinese and Russians to reduce their support for the Vietcong. The consequences were harrowing. By 1973 the target area covered half of neighbouring Cambodia, the tonnage of bombs had surpassed the load dropped on Japan in the Second World War and the bombardment had caused an astonishingly high number of fatalities – the number of victims is estimated between 40,000 and 150,000.

The decisions to take these actions were taken from the White House, where Nixon centralised the foreign-policy process in a way that caused such discomfort at the Pentagon that the Joint Chiefs of Staff ran a spy ring of sorts to steal documents from Kissinger and Nixon so they could understand what was going on. The controversy surrounding the aerial attacks further poisoned domestic American politics, too. On 4 May 1970, at a protest at Kent State University in Ohio against the bombings, the National Guard opened fire on students, killing four of them. “Richard Nixon is going down in history, all right, but not soon enough,” ran a front-page editorial in the New Republic.


Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, an outcome for which Nixon always blamed Congress, accusing it of blocking military aid to South Vietnam. Behind the scenes, however, he and Kissinger were aiming at nothing short of a revolution in US foreign policy – which had more impact on 20th-century international affairs than anything outside the two world wars. It was to be achieved by a “triangular diplomacy” that made the United States the power broker between the world’s two great communist powers; as Nixon described it, the aim was to assume the “position the British were in in the 19th century when among the great powers of Europe they’d always play the weaker against the stronger”.

The sensitivity of these negotiations was heightened by the fact of their mediation through Pakistan and Romania, two unrepentant military dictatorships. But they led to Nixon’s celebrated visit to China in February 1972 and the release of the Shanghai Communiqué, which created the basis for normalisation of relations. This, in turn, set the basis for the Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow that enabled the signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (Salt I). Nixon also argued that it was this resetting of great-power relations, combined with Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy”, which prevented the 1973 Yom Kippur war from turning into a third world war after the Soviets threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt and Syria.

Nixon’s accommodation with the “reds” was greeted with fury by the leading conservative commentator William F Buckley and the right of the Republican Party, and also by many on the left who saw détente as the justification for dirty deals with dirty regimes. In the short term, however, Nixon’s reward was a comprehensive victory in 1972 with one of the biggest pluralities in US history. For those who had lived through the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam war, the cooling of the cold war was a valued prize. Harold Wilson later called Nixon the “most able” president he had come across for his aptitude in foreign affairs. “He got Russia to come to the negotiating table and that was something,” Wilson said in 1981.

In early 1972, on the eve of his visit to China, Nixon expressed the more statesmanlike belief that: “We are in a situation at the present time where, and it will be the last time when the United States, through its power, can create conditions which can lead to peace for, perhaps, 25 years. Nobody can look beyond that. That would be a great deal.” Yet there is no denying that the birth of détente was a murky process, highly controversial even within the Nixon administration. To be able to think in grand strategic terms required the ability to blind oneself to heart-rending human costs – to assert American power by being willing to “bomb the bejesus” out of swaths of territory in Asia and to time the action for maximum political effect (such as the bombing of
Hanoi just before the Salt summit in Moscow). William Shawcross’s acclaimed exposé of the Cambodia campaign, published in 1979, was pointedly titled Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia by way of a comment on the corollary of “big-picture” thinking.

Already, in the midst of Nixon’s inter­national triumph, his presidency was beginning to unravel from within. On 17 June 1972 five men were arrested at the Watergate office complex in Washington, where the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee were based, carrying rolls of film and bugging equipment. Watergate was in many ways an act of self-immolation
that cannot be separated from Nixon’s paranoia and insecurity. Although he may not have known about the operation, it was the work of a dirty tricks team that the president himself had created. Not just the cover-up, but the ugliness of these dark arts, were what sealed his fate. It remains the
archetypal scandal in US politics, like an oil spill streaming across the sea even though the tanker responsible has long since sunk.

Hunter S Thompson suggested that historians would remember Nixon “mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship”. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped and cornered by hounds:

The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in . . . It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

There remains something deeply enigmatic, even tragic, about Richard Nixon. The historical significance of his presidency is beyond doubt and, in many ways, we live in a world of his creation. John Freeman came to think that he had “courage and guts”. Yet, in terms that even Nixon would understand, the true greats of politics transcend their age, rather than get mangled in its wheels. 

John Bew is an award-winning historian and an NS contributing writer

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