Roger Morris, who was a National Security Council staffer in 1969 and 1970, and who later published a massive study of Richard Nixon’s career up to 1952, made two more contributions this week to “100 Days,” the group blog in which historians compare events that took place in the first hundred days of other presidencies to those of the Obama Administration.
Morris’s posts – which don’t mention President Obama’s European trip last month at all – concern RN’s visit to Europe in early 1969. They focus on his memorable meeting with France’s President Charles de Gaulle (who was, at that point, less than a year away from retiring from politics, though no one could have anticipated it at the time) and on his amiable talk with Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson after the latter had named John Freeman, a frequent and bilious critic of RN, as Ambassador to the United States. (Thanks to RN’s offer to let bygones be bygones, Wilson became a great fan of the 37th President and was one of the first to welcome him to the UK when he visited in the late 1970s.)
But even as Morris’s account of RN’s first Presidential trip overseas demonstrates how effectively he ushered in a new era of engagement with Europe after Lyndon B. Johnson’s comparative neglect of that continent, the historian draws some rather suspect conclusions. He notes that RN listened to De Gaulle’s advice concerning Vietnam but did not follow it (but doesn’t add that Nixon paid keen attention to De Gaulle’s recommendations about extending the hand of friendship to China). This leads Morris to claim that RN’s trips overseas throughout his Presidency -including the groundbreaking PRC and USSR visits – were “fleeting exercise[s] in politics and public relations, rather than the statesmanship he sought to prove,” and that they did no more than reinforce policies that had alreadly been decided.
This claim is hardly supported by the historical record. While it’s true that the agreements between the PRC and the US that constituted the Shanghai Communique were carefully negotiated before RN traveled to that city, it made an enormous difference to Sino-American relations that he was there to sign it. The handshake with Zhou Enlai at the airport was a milestone that went far beyond public relations. Many other examples from RN’s 5 1/2 years in the White House could be mentioned.
However, it’s good to see that in the more than 50 comments appended to Morris’s posts, there are many expressing their appreciation of RN’s achievements during his trips abroad.