Today is the fortieth anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation address to the nation on August 8, 1974. At that time, I was ambivalent about him, and this feeling endures.
The primary reason for my ambivalence is my status as a Jew. The famous Nixon tapes, particularly those most recently released, prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Richard Nixon was a virulent and obsessive anti-Semite. Like any other classic anti-Semite, Nixon would offer the lame defense that “some of my best friends are Jewish.” His first California political consultant, Murray Chotiner and his Mudge Rose New York law partner, Leonard Garment were both Jewish, and these two close friends played vital roles in his ultimate ascension to the presidency. I doubt, however, that Nixon ever revealed his anti-Semitic essence to either of these two gentlemen.
Yet most paradoxically, this outrageously anti-Semitic president will always have a well-deserved place of honor in world Jewish history. It was Richard Nixon who saved the very existence of the State of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War by his resupply of the Jewish State with crucial military weaponry and supplies through Operation Nickel Grass, the airlift operation that took place via the Azores Islands. I will always be grateful that Richard Nixon, and not his 1972 opponent, George McGovern was President at the time of the Yom Kippur War, for I have serious doubts as to whether McGovern would have performed the resupply operation.
The Jewish factor, however, is not the only reason for my Nixon ambivalence. His records on both domestic and foreign policy serve as further sources of my conflicting feelings.
Nixon’s primary focus as president was on foreign policy. In 1968, he told presidential election historian Theodore H. White that “I’ve always felt that this country could run itself domestically without a President; all you need is a competent Cabinet to run the country at home. You need a President for foreign policy; no Secretary of State is really important; the President makes foreign policy.”
Yet President Nixon did have historic accomplishments in the domestic arena in two areas; civil rights and the environment. By contrast, on the economy, he was a disaster.
Most political journalists are unaware of Nixon’s landmark accomplishments on civil rights, notwithstanding his prejudice against African-Americans, which also is proven on the tapes. His record on school desegregation in the South was outstanding, as attested to as follows by the late Tom Wicker, a major political reporter for the New York Times and a severe Nixon critic:
There’s no doubt about it—the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years, or probably since. There’s no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived, orchestrated and led the administration’s desegregation effort. Halting and uncertain before he finally asserted strong control, that effort resulted in probably the outstanding domestic achievement of his administration.
The Nixon administration Department of Labor also authored “The Philadelphia Plan.” This initiative set a range of percentages of minority hirings with which contractors would be required to make a “good faith” effort to comply.
In terms of long range impact, perhaps Nixon’s greatest accomplishment was his founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. As one who served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA, I take great pride in the role this agency has played over the past four decades in enhancing the environmental quality of our nation – and I feel I have Richard Nixon to thank for its existence.
Nixon actually displayed political courage with his accomplishments in the civil rights and environmental areas, where he ran counter to his “Southern strategy” and “laissez-faire” constituencies, respectively. Unfortunately, Nixon did not show the same courage on economic matters, where his policies were grounded purely on political expediency. The prime example of this was his catastrophic implementation of the wage-price freeze and the closure of the gold window in 1971. These actions were implemented strictly with a view towards the 1972 reelection campaign, and they ultimately resulted in actual increased inflation and domestic product shortages, particularly in oil production.
In the foreign policy realm, I also have ambivalence regarding the Nixon record. As chief diplomat, Richard Nixon will always merit supreme historic credit for his opening to China. Yet the downfall of his entire administration was due to his horrific misjudgments on the war in Vietnam.
It is true that Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from his predecessor as president, Lyndon Johnson. Yet Nixon ultimately converted Johnson’s war into Nixon’s war. His goal at the outset of his administration should have been an immediate unilateral withdrawal from an unwinnable war. Instead, Nixon’s “Vietnamization” efforts were based on the foolhardy notion that the Thieu government could eventually lead a successful resistance to the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. In the process of the Nixon administration’s turning over responsibility for the South Vietnamese war effort to the corrupt and incompetent Thieu regime, which collapsed within two years after the 1973 American withdrawal, 25,000 additional American lives were lost.
Nixon’s paranoid reaction to domestic dissent on the war ultimately cost him his presidency. The Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg and published by the New York Times, were an indictment of the Johnson administration Vietnam policies and not those of Nixon per se. Yet because he had continued the basic LBJ Vietnam policies, Nixon regarded Ellsberg and the anti-war media as a mortal threat to himself. This led to the formation of the White House Plumbers, the burglary of Ellsberg’s doctor’s office, and ultimately the Watergate cover-up itself.
So as I contemplate the historic significance of the Nixon administration on this fortieth anniversary of his resignation, I have a welter of conflicting emotions about Richard Nixon: gratitude for his saving the existence of the State of Israel, approbation for his opening to China, appreciation for his establishment of the EPA and his landmark civil rights accomplishments, scorn for his economic policies, disgust for the foolishness of his Vietnam policies and his role in the Watergate cover-up, and ultimate contempt for his despicable anti-Semitism. These perceptions and opinions are hardly likely to change, and accordingly, my Richard Nixon ambivalence will doubtless continue.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.