I was born in 1964, which technically makes me a Baby Boomer. It also means my first-hand memories of the Nixon presidency are meager ones. I remember being angry about Watergate, because the extensive TV coverage of the hearings frequently pre-empted cartoons. And I remember my family had a Watergate-themed jigsaw puzzle in which the illustration was a horde of insects streaming out of the White House (it was “bugged” – get it?). And I remember that my parents voted for John Schmitz for president in 1972 because they thought Nixon had sold out conservatism.
Which isn’t a bad segue into the topic of this post: my very mixed feelings about our 37th President. Briefly put, I think Nixon was a disaster domestically and a good foreign policy President.
So much of the modern federal regulatory state abhorred by conservatives and blamed on the Democrats is actually the handiwork of the Nixon Administration: the creation of OSHA and the EPA, the Endangered Species Act, wage-and-price controls, revenue sharing and affirmative action. And those are the policy initiatives that actually became reality. Nixon also pushed for national health insurance and a guaranteed minimum income. In other words, the Nixon Administration accepted and acted upon the premises of the modern welfare state and the aggregation of power in Washington. When it came to domestic policy, Richard Nixon was an anti-conservative (and a forerunner of the big government conservatism of George W. Bush that has undone the Republican Party).
Internationally, President Nixon was a good steward of his constitutional duties. He entered the White House at a critical stage in the Cold War. Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous strategy in Vietnam was killing thousands of American servicemen with no clear end in sight — fracturing the bipartisan Col War consensus and diverted billions from the American strategic arms program just as the Soviet Union was conducting a spectacular build-up of its strategic nuclear weapons program.
Nixon determined to change course in Vietnam and — with a new commander of American forces in Vietnam, Creighton Abrams –pursue a path that would ultimately enable to South Vietnamese government to defend itself from North Vietnamese aggression without the need for American ground troops. That meant training the South Vietnamese Army to fight the Communist itself while reducing the intensity of the conflict to a level Saigon could handle. Since North Vietnam’s ability to wage war was completely dependent of Soviet and Chinese arm shipments, that meant squeezing that arms pipeline down. Which is what Nixon did during his first term, never flinching in the face of vicious criticism from the Left.
Arms reached the Communist forces three ways: from Sihanoukville in Cambodia; via train across China from the Soviet Union; and via Soviet ships coming into Haiphong Harbor.
Nixon proceeded to close these off, first by invading Cambodia in 1970. The Nixon’s 1971-72 rapprochement with China was driven in large part by his desire to win the PRC as a strategic anti-Soviet ally who would squeeze down Soviet arms shipments to Hanoi via Chinese railroads. Finally, Nixon mined Haiphong Harbor in 1972.
While the peace accords negotiated by Nixon and Henry Kissinger allowed (over Saigon’s objections) substantial Communist forces to remain in South Vietnam, Nixon also formally committed American air power to enforcing the accords. If not for the Watergate scandal that fatally weakened his Presidency, it is very likely the South Vietnamese government would have survived and mastered the battlefield situation, the relationship between North and South Vietnam would resemble that between the two Koreas: a poverty-stricken, militarized North and a strong, prosperous South. Unfortunately, Watergate felled Nixon and emboldened th Democratic Congress to cut-off all assistance to South Vietnam, dooming that country to Communist take-over.
So what”s the point of this little history lesson?
Well, we seem to find ourselves in a somewhat parallel situation. We have a Republican President who — with the singular exception of tax cutting — has mostly ditched small government conservatism. Abroad, Bush is pursuing a war strategy in Iraq — as Nixon did in Vietnam — aimed at standing that government up to eventually provide for its own security, in the face of a hostile Democratic Congress. Ironically, in his conduct of the post-invasion phase of the Iraq War, President Bush has played both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon roles.
The price of Nixon’s failures should be a bracing reminder of the bill we’d pay for failure today.