Nixon’s Greatest Moments
- Nixon: A Life by Jonathan Aitken
Weidenfeld, 633 pp, £25.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 297 81259 9
Winding up his efforts in the 1954 mid-term elections Vice-President Richard Nixon handed an aide the notes of his last campaign speech and said: ‘You might like to keep it as a souvenir. It’s the last one, because after this I am through with politics.’ Suffering one of his periodic depressions, Nixon had considered the matter with his wife Pat, and decided that he should retire from politics once his term as Vice-President finished in 1956. Except, of course, that he hadn’t really decided anything. Typically, he wrote himself a little memo on the subject headed ‘Reasons to get out’, the reasons divided into Personal and Political, with the main personal reason being ‘Wife – (columns, personal, staff hurts)’, meaning that Pat didn’t like the newspaper comment or imagined sleights from Ike’s staff. Under Political came a set of points:
1. Politician must be able not to take issues to heart – fight and forget – twist and turn – I live each one – and hard ones.
2. Don’t like social life, the prestige.
3. Some convince selves [they are] indispensable – but not the case.
4. Therefore – no reason to stay in – unless – you
(a) Enjoy it – personal
(b) Need the job (economic, money)
(c) Job needs you.
The memo repays study. Note the redundancies: you have a section called ‘Personal’, then under ‘Wife’ one of the reasons is ‘personal’, while under ‘Political’ we get ‘Enjoy it – personal’; or the peculiar need to explain to himself, a working politician, that not taking issues to heart could also be described as ‘fight and forget’ or ‘twist and turn’. Take 4(b): why, in a memo to oneself, does one need to explain ‘Need the job’ at all, let alone have to add ‘money’, as if ‘economic’ was unclear. Note, too, the self-pity (‘staff hurts’ and ‘hard ones’) and concomitant self-glorification: para 4 is supposed to have ‘you’ as the subject but by 4(c) this has irresistibly been turned around. Nixon, it seems, felt good telling himself that he didn’t like ‘the prestige’ and that he wasn’t indispensable, but having got these self-praises out of the way, 4(c) sneaks in to negate para 3 entirely.
What the memo reveals above all is Nixon’s wild uncertainty about who he was, a man with no still centre, not at ease with himself, a self-made man who had conquered the world thanks to hard work and note-making, but who was way out of touch with his own feelings. Hence the pathetic belief that the way to sort out those feelings was to use study methods and write a memo to himself. And yet it’s no good – the feelings remain so remote that he writes a heading for ‘Wife’, where an ordinary man would surely have written ‘Pat’. In the end the memo is inconclusive, and when Eisenhower did eventually try to dump Nixon from the ticket in 1956 he fought like a tiger to stay.
The same wild veering was apparent when he became President. The results were surprising and sometimes good. Nixon came to office as the friend of the hard Right and then turned turtle and imposed wage and price controls. The natural ally of corner-cutting businessmen, he emerged as the most progressive environmentalist since Teddy Roosevelt, pushing through a mass of anti-pollution legislation, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and showing an absolute passion for parks. A poor boy, he had known how much the less fortunate depend on accessible parks: ‘when in doubt,’ he said of the release of Federal land, ‘make a park out of it.’ His Southern strategy depended on a careful courtship of racist whites, but his own principles on race were unimpeachably liberal. When he came to office – 15 years after the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation – only 5.2 per cent of black children were in integrated schools. By the end of his first term this figure had soared to 90 per cent. Above all, Nixon was the Cold Warrior who broke the long freeze with China and brought about detente with the USSR. Not surprisingly, neither the Chinese nor the Russians ever forgot: throughout the worst years of his disgrace he remained an honoured guest in Beijing and 13 years after the President’s resignation the Soviet Ambassador to the US was still singling out his term in office as ‘the most fruitful and productive in the post-war years’.
This upside to the Nixon picture is much to the fore in Aitken’s adoring biography. It is a strange coming-together: Aitken, the hereditary Tory, born with a large silver spoon in his mouth, and the lower-class Californian Nixon, engaged all his life in a furious class struggle against Ivy Leaguers. When Aitken hosted Nixon’s post-Watergate British tour, he had to work overtime to protect him from the slights of the Establishment: the Government boycotted the visit, the Foreign Office declared Nixon persona non grata, and even retired Tories like Macmillan (‘I couldn’t face it ... I was too fond of Jack’) refused to meet him. Greeted on a visit to Oxford by a hostile crowd of American students singing ‘Jail to the Chief’, Nixon characteristically snarled: ‘Rhodes Scholars from Ivy League schools, I’ll bet.’ It never seems to occur to Aitken that, transposed to America, he would be just the sort of person Nixon would hate.
One can, however, see what draws him to Nixon. Aitken is himself a somewhat raffish, racy figure. He has always had the money to take risks; and no sooner was he elected as a young MP than he immediately got into an enormous D-notice row with the Government. Precisely because Nixon has no still centre, because he has never known who he is, because he is in some respects a wild chancer, he has always had an element of danger about him. Seymour Hersh, in his biography of Kissinger, tells how Nixon and Henry decided at the outset that the way to play the Chinese was to put it about that Nixon was mad, that he might order a nuclear strike at any time: this was, after all, how the West saw the Chinese and it led to a certain exaggerated respect. It’s worth reflecting that no other President would have gone in for such a strategy and that if the Chinese were even half as mad as the West feared they were, it might well have had catastrophic results. This tale doesn’t feature in Aitken’s book, but one suspects that there is not a little danger in his own make-up – perhaps he wishes there was more.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 12 · 24 June 1993
Like Nixon himself, R.W. Johnson’s review of Nixon: A Life (LRB, 13 May) raises doubt and alarm. Because Nixon rose ‘from the bottom of the social heap’ and, claims Johnson, worked harder and read more than other incumbents, he was ‘in many ways the most impressive of America’s post-war Presidents’. Yet Nixon’s fractured personality (‘he has never known who he is’) rendered him ‘not fit for public office’.
Johnson is not always meticulous with Aitken’s text. Nixon, electioneering in 1952 when McCarthyism was at its height, called Truman, Acheson and Stevenson not traitors but ‘traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation’s Democrats believe’. In 1947, John Kennedy gave Nixon the telephone numbers, not of tarts, but of ‘three suitable young ladies, one of which was the number of his sister’ as possible social contacts when the Herter Committee visited Paris. On Nixon’s and Kennedy’s rivalry in the 1960 Presidential election, Johnson is misleading: ‘JFK’s famous dismissal of Nixon (“no class”) stuck at the time, but Nixon’s view of JFK as a spoiled Harvard womaniser is now more widely shared.’ Kennedy’s private remark was prompted by Nixon’s changing from gallant, likely loser (on TV: ‘If he does become our next President, he will have my wholehearted support’) to delegating to his press spokesman the culminating moment of conceding the election. Thus, though he conceded by telegram, he failed to thank his nationwide army of workers and signal an end to division. Kennedy’s ‘famous dismissal’ never leaked. It was first published over five years later in Pierre Salinger’s With Kennedy.
‘A spoiled Harvard womaniser’ can surmount illness and have huge voter-appeal. Johnson interpolates a caricature fostered by recent scandal-embroidering biographers. By focusing almost exclusively on the dubious count in Illinois and Texas, Aitken, Stephen Ambrose and virtually all other biographers infer that Nixon was robbed of the 1960 election. He showed statesmanship in declining to contest the result. ‘Nixon behaved well … refusing to ask for a recount,’ says Johnson. But Nixon admits to Aitken that his campaign chairman tried to buy votes – ‘The party had been doing it for years.’ Kennedy’s slight eve-of-election lead put pressure on the Republicans. Their vote-rigging in rural, downstate Illinois is alleged. In the Washington Post of 4 January 1961, Drew Pearson charged that Hoffa’s Teamsters’ Union and Mafia money were vital in ‘switching Ohio, considered safe for Kennedy, into the Nixon column’: of all states, Ohio (26 electoral votes) registered the largest swing by far between eve-of-election poll and result. The matter may have been most fairly put by Theodore White in Breach of Faith: the electoral outcome of ‘counterfeiting across the nation … rested on whether the Democratic crooks or the Republican crooks were the more skilful.’
State recounts, where permitted by law, take an inordinate length of time; legislatures have to be recalled etc. There was only one, in Hawaii, and it took seven weeks; Nixon’s four electoral votes went to Kennedy. Nixon alluded to the minefield when he wrote in his Memoirs: ‘And what if I demanded a recount and it turned out that despite the vote fraud Kennedy had still won? Charges of “sore loser” would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.’
Johnson repeatedly queries Aitken’s ability to understand, but the same can be levelled at him with regard to the American Right. The obverse side of the Right’s ‘naked opportunism’ was a genuinely-held fear that New Dealism, British socialism (much cited in the late Forties) and Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949 heralded eventual engulfment by Communism. Nixon’s ‘persecution of Alger Hiss’ occurred before McCarthy discovered the electoral value of Communism. It is problematic to say that ‘Nixon rode the wave of McCarthyism.’ From the start (1950), Nixon advised McCarthy not to use the witchhunting techniques that in late 1954 were to bring McCarthy down. In his March 1954 speech, Nixon topped and tailed his ‘shooting rats’ metaphor (rightly deplored by Johnson) by insisting that procedures against alleged Communists ‘must be fair and they must be proper … So we have to be fair.’ Johnson omits both quotes.
Perhaps most alarming is Johnson’s failure to understand the Alger Hiss case. He commends age-old conspiracy theories that are repeated in ‘recent biographies of J. Edgar Hoover’. If Hiss had been straightforward in answering queries about his alleged links with Communists in the Thirties and much else, he would not have been convicted of perjury. His own documents experts agreed that the copies of classified papers taken from and returned to the State Department had identical typescript to that in personal letters typed earlier on the Hisses’ typewriter. Long-hand notes of stolen papers, they agreed, were in Hiss’s hand. It is not possible to replicate the typescript of one machine by making another – Hiss’s defence counsel employed a ‘forger’ who tried for over a year and failed. Anyway, it was Hiss’s brother, not the FBI, who traced the long-discarded typewriter. ‘Several of Hiss’s own documents experts, after examining samples of Chambers’s typing, agreed that he could not have typed [the copies]’: Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978). Professor Weinstein had embarked on his five-year study of the case in the belief that Hiss was innocent. The evidence, which included thousands of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, forced him to change his mind.
Vol. 15 No. 14 · 22 July 1993
Michael Meadmore’s letter (Letters, 24 June) taxes R.W. Johnson with ‘failure to understand the Alger Hiss case’, but it is Meadmore himself who is wide of the mark. Hiss, a former US State Department officer, was convicted of perjury in 1950 for denying that he had given State Department documents to his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, in 1938. Chambers said the papers were destined for the Soviet Union. Congressman Nixon was Hiss’s principal harrier, and the case paved Nixon’s road to the White House.
At his sentencing to five years in prison, Hiss again denied the charges and expressed confidence that ‘how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter’ would eventually be disclosed. Hiss meant that it would be revealed how Chambers had got access to Mrs Hiss’s typewriter, since Chambers had brought forth copies of State Department documents retyped in typescript closely matching that of personal letters typed at home by Mrs Hiss. Unknown to Hiss at the time of his trials, there was another way to forge typing, a technique that Meadmore mistakenly denies is possible: building a replicating typewriter. During World War Two – a decade before the Hiss trials – intelligence operatives using that technique ‘could produce faultlessly the imprint of any typewriter on earth’. One such operation, with the collaboration of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, called for rebuilding a typewriter ‘that precisely duplicated the machine in Rome [and produced] a letter so perfectly forged by matching the imperfections of typewriter keys … that it caused the removal of certain key pro-Nazis in South America’ (William Stevenson: A Man Called Intrepid). President Nixon reportedly told his aide Charles Colson that ‘the typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case’ (John Dean:Blind Ambition).
Even if the copies were typed on Mrs Hiss’s typewriter, that says nothing about who typed them or how they came into Chambers’s hands. There was no expert testimony on those questions: only Chambers’s word, against the word of both Mr and Mrs Hiss, that the typist was Mrs Hiss (Chambers had first said it was Mr or Mrs Hiss, but he changed that version when he learned that Mr Hiss could not type) and that Chambers himself had collected the copies at the Hisses’ house. Chambers had been a house guest of the Hisses briefly in the Thirties, and he also had sources in the State Department other than Hiss. In any case, the fact that the typescripts were closely matched suggests a frame-up; no rational intelligence agent would leave such a trail leading back to himself. The form of the papers also belies espionage: short excerpts, summaries and full copies appear at random, and telling parts of the original documents are omitted entirely or paraphrased while routine material is copied verbatim. (They are all publicly available in Volume VII of the printed court record.)
Chambers also produced four notes pencilled by Hiss, which Chambers said Hiss gave him to convey to the Soviets – again, a most unlikely spy story. The notes had been creased and crumpled; portions are unintelligible to anyone but Hiss; and they look just like what Hiss said they were: notes he made to himself for briefing his superior officer on incoming cables and then discarded.
Finally, Meadmore’s reliance on Allen Weinstein’s Perjury betrays his unawareness of the critical and investigatory discrediting of Weinstein’s book and putative change of mind; of his published apology and capitulation to a libel suit; and of his continuing refusal, in violation of the rules of the American Historical Association, to make his supposed source materials available for verification. Far more qualified than either Weinstein or Meadmore are General Dmitry Volkogonov, the overseer of the Soviet intelligence archives, and Yevgeny Primakov, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who last year conducted an archival search at Hiss’s request. They reached the ‘firm conclusion’ that ‘Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.’
Vol. 15 No. 18 · 23 September 1993
The ingenious low technology of the typewriter age, as recounted by John Lowenthal, is hardly decisive proof of Hiss’s innocence (Letters, 22 July). As for General Dmitry Volkogonov, Lowenthal has simply stuck to the original and discredited version of the story, as launched by Alger Hiss at his press conference last October. Hiss had claimed that Volkogonov, having (at Hiss’s request) examined the relevant KGB files, had found no incriminating references to him, and thereupon claimed to be exonerated of the charges levelled against him.
The Volkogonov ploy was destroyed not long after by Herbert Romerstein, a leading American authority on Soviet communism. It turned out that Volkogonov did not have free access to secret files, but merely looked at those made available to him by Yevgeny Primakov, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (successor to the KGB’s First Directorate). It was and remains an absolute rule that Moscow never exposes its spies (defectors excepted). In November 1992, not long after the Hiss press conference, Volkogonov happened to be in Washington to testify before the Senate Committee on prisoners of war. Romerstein met him and Volkogonov confirmed that he had not been given free access to the secret files. Oleg Gordievsky, a major KGB defector, makes a number of conclusive references to Hiss’s espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, in the book co-authored by Christopher Andrew, KGB: The Inside Story. A brief quotation tells it all: ‘The KGB’s main source within the State Department, Alger Hiss, was actually a member of the American delegation at Yalta.’