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27 April 2020updated 02 Jun 2020 8:21am

From the NS archive: Mr Nixon’​s America

14 April 1972: An assessment of the Nixon presidency, a matter of months before Watergate.

By Anthony Howard

Richard Nixon’s name was irrevocably tainted by the Watergate scandal but before that broke there were signs of disquiet. In April 1972, just months before Watergate took over the headlines, Anthony Howard, recently appointed editor of the New Statesman, visited the US to report on the Nixon presidency. He found an “illusionist” leader, widespread despondency among the less well off in American society, promises of ending the involvement in Vietnam contradicted by the huge scale of American deaths there, overtures made to China that lacked substance, an uncomfortably close alliance between government and big business, and compromised officials close to the president.

***

Four years ago when Richard Nixon was merely running for President I spent a good deal of time on the campaign trail following him. It was a curiously bewildering experience. Mechanically, everything was perfect. The press tables at the open-air rallies were never without clean pads and sharpened pencils; the buses on which we travelled invariably had three different brands of cigarettes available on free offer. But was there not something suspicious about all this solicitude? Eventually the day came when I resolved to break away from the journalistic shepherding and strike out on my own. What I learnt then I have never forgotten. Even an al fresco Nixon rally in a town square looked very different seen from the crowd than when viewed from the cushioned and privileged area of the press enclosure. For one thing the crowds were nothing like as large as careful TV image building made them out to be; for another the enthusiasm – apart from the ecstatic screams of the specially hired “Nixonettes” – was virtually non-existent. When covering Mr Nixon I then and there decided one could make no greater mistake than to assume that things are necessarily what they seem.

That still seems to me to be a valuable lesson to bear in mind this election year. Even paid-up liberals of long standing like Professor JK Galbraith have on occasion felt the need, if not to rush, then at least to stumble grudgingly to Mr Nixon’s defence. Did he not, after all, last summer cast aside what were long regarded as his two unassailable convictions, his indomitable belief in a world-wide communist conspiracy and his unshakeable faith in free-market capitalism? Just as there is joy in heaven over a sinner that repenteth so on earth there must in fairness be some measure of forgiveness for a wrong-headed man who finally turns back and forswears his foolish ways.

Yet how complete in fact has been Mr Nixon’s conversion? The events of the last two weeks have made it look pretty suspect. Take, first, the claim that – say what we like about him – Richard Nixon has at least extricated the American army from Vietnam. Of course when he became President there were 550,000 troops there; now there are under 100,000 (and next month there will be 70,000 if present schedules are stuck to). But this de-Americanisation of the war has been bought only at a price. It is not an area that is often inquired into but the Washington Post provided one salutary reminder last Sunday. Mr Nixon, it wrote, “has become the man who has assembled and let loose more destruction from the sky than anyone else in the history of creation”.

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Nor is that all. Even in terms of his own vote Mr Nixon’s entitlement to any credit for having “wound down” the war does not bear any close examination. During Lyndon Johnson’s five years in the White House 30,000 US troops were killed in Vietnam. In Mr Nixon’s first three years no fewer than 15,000 American soldiers have already lost their lives in combat – or just 1,000 short of LBJ’s overall average of 6,000 dead a year. Moreover, so far as the other side is concerned Nixon’s firepower has been even less discriminating than LBJ’s. Perhaps only an “illusionist” of Mr Nixon’s undoubted skill would be able to declare in face of all that: “Vietnam will not be an issue in the campaign as far as this administration is concerned because we will have brought the American involvement to an end.”

Much the same motif of “now you see him, now you don’t” goes for the other Nixon achievement that at first sight seems unassailable – his opening of the door with communist China. One does not have to doubt the impact made by the President’s Peking visit in order to question the implications behind it. From the start there was always a view that “far from commemorating some kind of breakthrough in America’s relationship to the world,” the trip in fact represented a reversion to a very old-fashioned type of diplomacy. And everything that has happened since has confirmed the impression that Mr Nixon was doing nothing more than picking up the Chinese “chequer” in order to tip over the Russian domino.

Those who claim to detect in the President’s pilgrimage to China a sort of anti-communist Canossa should perhaps reflect on the words that his Secretary for Defence, Mr Melvin Laird, chose to use about the Soviet Union last week. No high US government official previously had ever cast the Soviet Union as the principal culprit for the whole war in Vietnam; but the naturally aggressive Mr Laird had no hesitation about doing it – perhaps because, unlike his predecessor, he did not have to worry about China. Far from Mr Nixon’s “week that changed the world” having led to any new era, it looks increasingly as if it has taken America straight back to the crudest form of balance-of-power diplomacy.

Abroad, Mr Nixon’s record does not strike me as offering anything like the departure from his past that it has sometimes been depicted. To discover just how little he has really changed it is probably still necessary to look at the type of nation he has created at home. It is, admittedly – and this, indeed, is the principal claim made for him in the letters going the rounds soliciting campaign contributions on his behalf – a nation that, contrary to some expectations four years ago, has avoided being put to the fire and the sword. But this deliverance has been bought only at a pretty heavy cost. In a dozen years of visiting the United States I have never known a time when I have been so conscious of a smouldering resentment burning away beneath the surface. It is almost as if all the less privileged now accept that life is stacked against them – that wherever the “breaks” may go, they will never be allowed to fall into the lap of the little man. Under Lyndon Johnson there may have been despair but the despair was there because people had once had expectations. Under Richard Nixon few of those survive, and, consequently, if there is calm there is also total despondency.

It is a despondency, too, of a particularly bitter variety. If one statistic is known right across the length and breadth of the nation it is perhaps that no less than 40 per cent of American public companies pay no form of federal income tax. This week as the average small-time American has been battling with his own individual tax return it is that kind of knowledge that has been biting deeply into him. Perhaps for the first time in American history there is a growing belief that if you begin in rags you will always stay in them; if, on the other hand, you start with riches you will never lose them.

In a slightly ominous way this almost un-American defeatist doctrine has found itself reinforced by the current serial running in Washington, the ITT case. Here, after all, was a vast public company – its products, as it boasts in its 1968 annual report, engaged in every type of activity “from the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the moon” – able apparently to have dealings at the top with the Nixon administration in a way which the ordinary citizen could not hope to have even with his local Inland Revenue Service office. Worse, in the climate of Mr Nixon’s Washington, the revelation of those dealings provokes scarcely a blush from the federal government. Mr Richard Kleindienst, the government official most intimately involved, simply goes on TV to announce that he is still confidently expecting to be confirmed as Mr Nixon’s Attorney General, the nation’s highest law enforcement officer. In the bars there are not even any horse laughs – there are simply wry, twisted smiles.

In a way it would be surprising if there had been any more vigorous reaction. After all, Mr Kleindienst’s predecessor, John Mitchell, who presumably must have quite a lot of other company secrets usefully locked away in his mind, is already Mr Nixon’s chief campaign organiser for 1972. Nor is he the only former cabinet officer who finds himself in what elsewhere might well be regarded as a singularly inappropriate position. Mr Nixon’s principal fund raiser this summer is none other than the recently retired US secretary of commerce – a bagman able presumably to collect corporate donations on the basis of favours already received or of promises of considerations to come. American campaign methods may never have been particularly fastidious but Mr Nixon’s must rank as the most uninhibited yet.

At least, however, they are making an impact – though not perhaps in quite the way that the President intended. For me the great overriding attraction of America has always been its sense of idealism: it may sometimes have been naive, certainly often it turned out to be sadly misplaced. Yet there was never any denying that it was there – even when it led straight into a quagmire like Vietnam. It has been Mr Nixon’s singular achievement not just to eradicate it but also to establish in its place a pervasive atmosphere of world-weary cynicism. Perhaps it was always the only climate in which he could hope to flourish. But, despite America’s current superficial calm, beneath the surface there lurks a turbulence that could yet make itself felt before next November.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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