In 1974, Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office to avoid being impeached. In 1994, after his death, he was apotheosized as if he had been one of the greatest of American presidents. What accounts for such an extraordinary transformation?

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

It was not the first time that Nixon had staged a remarkable recovery. After having served as Eisenhower’s vice-president, he was defeated by John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960—narrowly defeated and perhaps fraudulently defeated but defeated. He was beaten again by Edmund G. Brown in a race for the governorship of California in 1962. He bore the stigma of two successive failures and wondered whether to continue in politics. But, as he himself related, he realized that “there was no other life for me but politics and public service.”1 He came back to win the presidency against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in 1968. It was his reward for twenty-two years of almost continuous political campaigning, beginning with a successful run for the House of Representatives in 1946.

In the end, Nixon’s presidency is going to decide his place in history. It has been studied with care, especially in the second volume of Stephen E. Ambrose’s three-volume history, but all the work will now have to be reconsidered, revised, and rewritten. The upheaval in the Nixon cottage industry has been caused by the publication of The Haldeman Diaries, a work that is indispensable for an understanding of the Nixon years in the White House. In his introduction, Ambrose himself says that he would like to write another book based on the diaries. There has been a recent rash of books on Nixon, all of which have suffered the same fate.

Harry Robbins Haldeman—better known as H.R. or, more familiarly, Bob—was a rising young member of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in Los Angeles, when he volunteered to work in Nixon’s vice-presidential campaign in 1956. Twelve years later, Haldeman was assistant to the president and chief of staff in the White House. Of all Nixon’s lieutenants, he was the most trusted, the most ubiquitous, the most powerful. If a historian had had a fantasy of knowing all that one man nearest to Nixon had known, he would have chosen Haldeman.

This fantasy has become a reality, because Haldeman kept a diary, beginning on January 18, 1969 and ending on April 30, 1973. About 40 per cent of the total diary has been published in this book of 684 pages, including an introduction and afterword by Stephen Ambrose, a foreword by Haldeman, and a prefatory note and final note by Haldeman’s widow, Jo. The rest is available on CD-ROM. Only a small amount was deleted on the grounds of national security.

As far as I know, this diary is unique. We have never had such an extended and detailed account from a chief of staff. My impression is that Haldeman set down the events of the day in flat, workaday prose, almost always without trying to do more than that. He was such a true believer that he did not think it necessary to make Nixon look good or argue for one side or another. He does not tell all, because he was sometimes not with Nixon and did not take part in all of Nixon’s meetings and conversations. But he was present at so many of them that he was able to record Nixon’s innermost thinking and his political dealings, and an unrivaled portrait of the President comes through. We get very little sense of Haldeman himself; he seems to be satisfied to put down what he heard from his master.

As a result, this diary and Nixon’s tapes—when they are all made available—should give us an insight into this presidency with a far greater intimacy and authenticity than that for any other president in American history. Since only a small portion of the 4,000 hours of tapes have so far been made public, the story of the Nixon presidency may have to be rewritten again. But for now, Haldeman’s diary takes precedence over everything else that we have.


The mind of Richard Nixon reveals itself nakedly in Haldeman’s diaries.

Nixon had a familiar collection of phobias. He believed that whites and blacks should not mix. In 1970, he wanted Haldeman to tell the staff that he “does not believe in integration, will carry out the law, nothing more.” In that same year, he said that it was not really possible to communicate with blacks, “except with Uncle Toms and we should work on them and forget militants.” In 1972, he “decided to take the hard line against integration.” He did not want to have black servants at White House functions and moved to “shift away from all black waiters.”

Nixon was even more hostile to Jews. He was so angry with Jews who boycotted a visit by French President Georges Pompidou, who had sold jet fighters to Libya, that he canceled a delivery of jets to Israel. All the Jews “seem to be the ones that are for liberalizing the regulations on marijuana.” The “place for us is not with the Jews and the Negroes.” He lamented with Billy Graham, who served him politically, “the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media.” In one of the tapes, Nixon declared: “The arts, you know, they’re Jews, they’re left wing.”


Nixon was also no champion of women’s rights. He read a book by H.G. Wells which led him to say that “Wells has the feeling that the solution to all problems is education for everyone, and that’s a terrible idea, especially for women.”

But he had a particular hatred for two other categories of people. The press sent him into tirades and fulminations. It was the “enemy,” he told Senator Edward Kennedy. He early recognized the importance of television; “a one-network TV deal is worth a hundred times the writing press all put together.” But he also believed “the press and TV don’t change their attitude and approach unless you hurt them.”

He feared the press but had only contempt for intellectuals. “In this period of our history,” he held forth, “the leaders and the educated class are decadent. Whenever you ask for patriotic support, they all run away: the college types, the professors, the elite, etc.” He was always ready to go into “his anti-college-education spiel.”2

Nixon saw enemies everywhere. He once claimed that “we’ve checked and found that 96 per cent of the bureaucracy are against us; they’re bastards who are here to screw us.” The departments were “full of vipers.” There was even a “conspiracy of the White House staff that he feels is out to get him.”

Though he was elected as a Republican in 1968, Nixon was not really a Republican. Beginning in January 1970, he began to plot the replacement of the Republican party by a new, Nixonite party, one that would draw on some of the same groups, including Southern Democrats, that had helped to elect him in 1968. He explained to Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, the White House counsel, the “need to build our own new coalition based on Silent Majority, blue collar, Catholic, Poles, Italians, Irish. No promise with Jews and Negroes.” It was to be right-wing but not “hard right-wing.” This project preoccupied him almost to the end of his presidency. At different times its name was “Conservative Party,” “Independent Conservative Party,” or “Republican Independent Party.” He wanted decisions to be based on political grounds, with special emphasis on “Italians, Poles, Elks and Rotarians, eliminate Jews, blacks, youth.” In April 1972, he thought that he and John B. Connally, the renegade Democrat whom he had appointed secretary of the Treasury, “could move to build a new party, the Independent Conservative Party, or something of that sort, that would bring in a coalition of Southern Democrats and other conservative Democrats, along with middle-road to conservative Republicans.” If they could bring it off, he saw Connally as the new party’s candidate for president in 1976.

In this way and in others, he was a little man with big ideas. He had especially big ideas about arranging his place in history. His heroes in the twentieth century were Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Connally fed his ambition to be regarded on their level by telling him that “the big thing about all of them is their comeback from defeat, not their conduct of wars, etc. Connally feels we should very much build the comeback story” to advance Nixon’s claim to fame.

Nixon was not willing to let the future decide whether he merited the same rank. He kept driving his staff to portray him as if he already had heroic stature, “especially since the death of de Gaulle, we have a real opportunity to build the P[resident] as the world leader.” De Gaulle inspired him: “Thinking about schedule, he feels he should be more aloof, inaccessible, mysterious, i.e., de Gaulle feels overexposure detracts from impact.” He once complained that we “haven’t inculcated in all the staff the view that their job is to build the P[resident], not themselves.” He wanted to become a mythological figure: “He got back on the general PR [public relations] question again, the point that we’ve not created a mythology, that the courage, boldness, and guts hasn’t [sic] come across.” Yet he later decided that “he was completely wrong in his original concept about building mystique and image. Realizes this is impossible.”

One of his “basic rules” to his staff was: “It’s extremely important that the leader never be in the position to allow the impression that he was wrong.” He seemed to live in two different worlds—the fantasies of his yearning for greatness and the realities of his personal shortcomings and political excesses.



The Vietnam War, which Nixon inherited from Lyndon Johnson, was the greatest test of his presidency. Until now, we have mainly known about the negotiations to end the war from Nixon’s national security adviser and negotiator, Henry Kissinger. The Haldeman diaries give a somewhat different version of what actually happened.

Kissinger occupies a large part of Haldeman’s book. Despite Nixon’s respect for his abilities, Nixon, if one can trust Haldeman, almost gave up on him. Pages of the diaries are filled with references to Kissinger’s tantrums, “unbelievable ego,” vendetta with Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and rivalry with Nixon himself. On November 21, 1972, Haldeman recorded that “If Time has a Man of the Year this year and doesn’t give it to Nixon, it’ll probably go to K[issinger], which would really cre-ate a problem. I’m going to have to handle it. P[resident] really feels he [Kissinger] should leave by midyear.” But by midyear, Nixon was wholly embroiled in the Watergate scandal and in August 1973 decided to appoint Kissinger as secretary of state. The hot-and-cold nature of the Nixon-Kissinger relationship is one of the main features of Haldeman’s book.

From the very start of the negotiations in 1969, the North Vietnamese made their position clear—the removal of the South Vietnamese regime headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu and the equivalent of a North Vietnamese victory. Nixon’s policy was three-fold—the progressive removal of American troops from South Vietnam, the continued pressure on North Vietnam by large-scale bombing and mining of North Vietnamese harbors, together with refusal to give up on Thieu.

According to Haldeman, both Nixon and Kissinger were strangely optimistic about ending the war rapidly. On March 20, 1969, Nixon “stated flatly that war will be over by next year.” On October 8, 1969, Nixon “fully expected that an acceptable, if not totally satisfactory, solution would be achieved through negotiation within the first six months.” In April 1970, both Nixon and Kissinger agreed that the war could be wound up this year “if we keep enough pressure on and don’t crumble at home.” In March 1971, both again agreed that “there’s a 50/50 chance at least of getting a Vietnam settlement this summer and ending the war completely.”

When none of these expectations was fulfilled, Nixon resorted to heavy bombing in Cambodia and Laos and the mining of Haiphong harbor. Through all of these setbacks and miscalculations, Nixon continued to bring back American troops; both he and Kissinger agreed in May 1972 that “regardless of what happens now, we’ll be finished with the war by August.” By the end of 1972, 500,000 American troops were reduced to 20,000. A break came on October 8, 1972; the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, agreed to end the war without removing Thieu. More months passed before the final accord was reached. It gave the North Vietnamese all they wanted except for one thing—the United States was not going to take responsibility for kicking out Thieu.

Nevertheless, Thieu opposed the agreement with North Vietnam all the way. The main thing for North Vietnam was to get the Americans out of South Vietnam. Kissinger later wrote: “What was success for us—the withdrawal of American forces—was a nightmare for our allies; even with a cease-fire they simply could not imagine how they would be better off without us.”3 Kissinger went to Saigon to convince Thieu and his associates to sign on. After days of being bullied, threatened, and implored, Thieu burst into tears—and eventually signed.4 In his most recent version of the negotiations, Kissinger wrote, “we had gone to the outer limit of what could be conceded.” 5 The outer limit was the immediate removal of the Thieu regime. When North Vietnam gave up trying to get the Americans to overthrow Thieu, the deal was made.

But Thieu knew better than the Americans that the real issue was the presence of American forces in South Vietnam. Once they were removed, South Vietnam’s fate was sealed. Kissinger has recently defended the removal: “Nevertheless, Nixon and I, along with many senior members of the Administration, believed that the military and economic provisions of the agreement would enable South Vietnam to resist foreseeable pressures from the North, provided the North Vietnamese adhered to the portion of the agreement that prohibited renewed infiltration.”6 After all the destruction that North Vietnam had suffered, and in view of the Communist doctrine that agreements were only as good as the power to enforce them, to have expected North Vietnam to adhere to this prohibition was a pipe dream. The idea that the agreement—with no more American ground forces on the scene—could be enforced only by more bombing and that Congress would tolerate a renewal of the war was a delusion.7 In 1975, North Vietnam struck again and the Nixon-Kissinger house of cards collapsed ignominiously.

Kissinger’s version of the negotiations in his books makes it appear that he wore down the North Vietnamese. Haldeman gives a quite different impression. He records that Kissinger came back time and again from the secret negotiations in Paris empty-handed. In his memoirs, Kissinger has a chapter entitled “Vietnam 1970-71: Forcing Hanoi’s Hand.” Nixon knew better. In April 1971, he made the point to Haldeman that “if we wait more than a couple more months, we won’t have anything left to negotiate anyway, except the residual force and the bombing vs. the release of POW’s.” Hanoi’s hand was never forced; the negotiations essentially went the way the North Vietnamese wanted them to go. “It was Hanoi, not President Nixon, that determined the timing and the pace of the negotiations,” Kissinger wrote in a letter to The New York Times of June 3, 1994, shortly after the publication of the Haldeman diaries. In effect, Kissinger waited month after month to get a signal from Le Duc Tho that North Vietnam was willing to settle for something short of Thieu’s immediate elimination.

Nixon tried to do the impossible in Vietnam. He committed himself to “Vietnamization,” which implied reducing American ground forces to the vanishing point. This limited him to bombing and mining, which could not bring North Vietnam to give up its ultimate aim—the conquest of South Vietnam and unification of the country. The Americans had long accustomed South Vietnam to depend on them, but he had to take away this crutch before they had learned to walk by themselves. There were two ways for Nixon to abandon the South Vietnamese—by agreeing to overthrow Thieu’s regime in the negotiations with North Vietnam and to eliminate American ground forces outside the negotiation. Finally, North Vietnam settled for the second route, which made it possible to conclude the negotiations but did not make possible the ultimate survival of South Vietnam.

A new book on Nixon by Jonathan Aitken is seriously vitiated by its treatment of the Vietnam War. Aitken, a British member of Parliament and minister of state for Defense, is Nixon’s latest, and somewhat unlikely, biographer. He has worked hard on getting the facts in place, and some of his interviews add interesting sidelights to the story. His strategy is to admit many of Nixon’s failings but to end up by praising him. He refers to Nixon’s “rough edges, his uncomfortable political abrasiveness, and his social insecurities,” his “tyrannical streak” and “willingness to engage in duplicity, and at times mendacity,” the “‘dark’ side of his nature.” In the end, he celebrates Nixon as having been “excessively maligned for his faults and inadequately recognised for his virtues,” his “Shakespearean complexity,” his “hidden depths.” Aitken treats Kissinger in much the same way. Kissinger was an “intellectual valet of prodigious industry,” “a courtier skilled in the arts of flattery and manipulation,” “pandering to Nixon’s worst instincts with cunning sycophancy.” But he was also “a shrewd diplomatic bargainer…and an effective collator of briefing papers…an excellent presidential assistant, but he was a follower, not a leader; a brilliant draftsman, not an innovator of conceptual thinking.”

For Aitken, Nixon stood firm for “peace with honor” in his dealings with North Vietnam. This verdict is wholly based on Nixon’s refusal to oversee the overthrow of Thieu. Aitken asserts: “This ability to read the minds of Communist leaders was one of Nixon’s greatest strengths.” But Aitken does not show how Nixon succeeded in reading the minds of the North Vietnamese leaders in 1972- 1973. They were willing to wait a while before cashing in on their agreement with Nixon, knowing full well—as Thieu knew—that the South Vietnamese regime could not survive without major American ground forces.

A different view of Nixon’s war policy is taken by Joan Hoff, professor of history at the University of Indiana, in Nixon Reconsidered. She has produced a “revisionist” version of Nixon’s administration, which means that she believes Nixon’s domestic policy was more important and successful than his foreign policy. She claims that Nixon

exceeded the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society in the areas of civil rights, social welfare spending, domestic and international economic restructuring, urban parks, government reorganization, land-use initiatives, revenue sharing, draft reform, pension reform, and spending for the arts and humanities.

Little of these activities finds its way into Haldeman’s diary and Nixon himself might have been surprised at her conclusions.

One of her chapters on the Vietnam War is entitled “Vietnam: Without Peace or Honor.” In contrast to Kissinger’s view that Watergate prevented the United States from successfully carrying out the 1973 agreements with North Vietnam, she asserts: “Watergate cannot be blamed for the failure of the Paris Peace Accords to work; they were unworkable the day they were signed, and so were the secret pledges that were supposed to make them workable.” Hers is a strong-minded book that may change to some extent the way Nixon’s administration has been regarded.


The Watergate scandal is the least satisfactory portion of Haldeman’s book, though it is the only subject about which his diaries are published in full. We can learn a great deal about it but not what Nixon did to merit his punishment.

Nixon clearly was not responsible for and did not know in advance about the break- in of the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. The event is first mentioned by Haldeman on June 18, 1972—“a group of five people had been caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters. Actually to plant bugs and photograph material.” On June 20, Haldeman noted: “I told the P about it on the plane last night. He was somewhat interested. The more he thought about it, it obviously bothered him more.” His immediate reaction was how to counterattack—“He feels we should be on the attack for diversion, and not just take it lying down.” He asked, as if to defend one wrongdoing by bringing up what he considered to be another: “Do they justify this kind of thing less than stealing the Pentagon Papers, or the Anderson files, and so on.”

This was the introduction to the “cover-up,” the phase of the scandal that finally brought Nixon and his closest associates down. One reason Nixon was not upset by the break-in was that it was only another “dirty trick” of which he was an old practitioner. In his memoirs, written after his resignation, he boldly recalled what he had said at the outset of his administration: “I told my staff that we should come up with the kind of imaginative dirty tricks that our Democratic opponents used against us and others so effectively in previous campaigns.”8

Haldeman’s diary is full of Nixon’s dirty tricks. He put forward a welfare program called the Family Assistance Plan, which he told Haldeman “to be sure it’s killed by Democrats and that we make a big play for it, but don’t let it pass, can’t afford it.” Haldeman dutifully reports:

Has several plots he wants hatched. One to infiltrate the John Gardner “Common Cause” deal and needle them and try to push them to left. Feels we can benefit from a third party to the left. I’m not so sure, might push Democrats to center, better to have them go left. Next, a front that sounds like SDS to support the Democratic candidates and praise their liberal records, etc., publicize their “bad” quotes in guise of praise. Give the senators a “radiclib” rating.

Against his Democratic opponent, Senator Edmund S. Muskie, Nixon recommended: “P wants me to launch plan for ‘lib’ mailings supporting Muskie to all Democratic leaders and editors in South,” where it would offend conservatives. He had one of his favorites, Charles W. Colson, who was White House liaison with special interest groups, to hire a private detective to follow Senator Kennedy in Paris and take photos of him with various women, which were then leaked to members of Congress and the press. He wanted the IRS to investigate “the big Democratic contributors” and celebrities. After he had learned of the Watergate break-in, he thought that “every time we have a leak in our organization we should charge that we’re being bugged. Even if you plant one and discover it.” He ordered an IRS audit of the taxes of Lawrence F. O’Brien, head of the Democratic National Committee. To fight back the Watergate charges, he wanted “to get our people to put out that foreign or Communist money came in in support of the demonstrations in the campaign, tie all the ’72 demonstrations to McGovern and thus the Democrats as part of the peace movement.”

Thus Nixon was no stranger to the Watergate “dirty trick,” even if he did not himself instigate it. The origin of the break-in went back to the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), headed by Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, with support from Nixon appointees in the White House. He did not pay much personal attention to Watergate until March 20, 1973, almost a year after the event, and then devoted almost every day to it. As the web of evidence drew closer and closer to the presidential office, embracing Haldeman and Ehrlichman, he gave up on saving anyone but himself. At the end, he was bitter about Kissinger’s behavior—“he’s waiting to see how it comes out.” Nixon decided to surrender on August 7, 1974, and resigned two days later.

The cover-up, not the break-in, broke Nixon and almost everyone around him, with the exception of Kissinger. Haldeman himself was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, and served eighteen months in a Federal minimum-security facility. Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald R. Ford, and went into seclusion, seemingly in disgrace forever more.

Haldeman recounts in detail Nixon’s efforts to escape punishment but tells little about what Nixon did to deserve it. For those who want a blow-by-blow account, it is necessary to turn to Watergate by Fred Emery, the Washington bureau chief of The Times of London during the entire Watergate period and the author of a five-part British television series on the subject. His book is a serious effort to tell the story and supersedes previous accounts.

Emery, not having the Haldeman diaries, mainly depends on the tapes that have been made public. The most incriminating tape was that of June 23, 1972, soon after the break-in. When Nixon was told that the money for the break-in group came from the CRP, he proposed that those who had donated it should simply lie. He agreed that it was best to call off the FBI by telling it that the break-in was a “CIA thing.” Nixon’s advice was: “Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.” More than anything else, this “smoking-gun” tape, according to Nixon himself, induced him to resign.9 At one point, Nixon said to Patrick Gray: “I gotta have a relationship here where you go out and do something and deny on a stack of Bibles.”

Emery does not preach at the end. He permits Nixon to have the last word: “That the way I tried to deal with Watergate was the wrong way is a burden I shall bear for every day of the life that is left to me.” It was a burden that seemed heavy enough to prevent anyone from ever living it down.


But not Richard Nixon. Kissinger once told Haldeman that “Nixon was absolutely superb in dealing with defeat, and terrible in handling success.” His greatest test in dealing with defeat came after 1974.

After his disgrace, Nixon took three-and-a-half years to write his 1,094-page Memoirs. By August 1975, he had received $600,000 and 20 percent of the profits for talking with David Frost. Beginning in May 1977, four ninety-minute broadcasts ran on American television. In February 1976, he had already come back in the news with a visit to Beijing on the fourth anniversary of his original journey; the old Communist oligarchs received him with much honor. In the summer of 1978, soon after the publication of his memoirs, he began to travel in the United States, in November to England and France. In England, he spoke at the Oxford Union, in France at a three-hour television interview. In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter invited him back to the White House for a state dinner in honor of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He made another trip to Beijing in September 1979. The Gallup poll put him among the ten most admired Americans, up in two years from one of the most despised Americans. His comeback was well on its way.10

The press, which had been Nixon’s nemesis, turned in his favor. When Nixon moved to New York in 1980, New York magazine of June 9, 1980, put him on the cover and devoted six pages to him. “Richard Nixon is back on ‘the fastest track in the world,’ as he calls New York,” it began. “He’s out walking the early-morning streets. Signing autographs at Yankee Stadium. On television.” Nixon began to invite well-known publishers, journalists, and politicians to lunches and dinners at his house in New York and later in Saddle River, New Jersey. As Marvin Kalb has related, “he delivered dozens of speeches, wrote op-ed pieces, addressed editorial boards ‘on background,’ courted journalists, and traveled from one end of the world to the other, meeting world leaders and discussing global issues. He visited every country in Eastern Europe, except Poland and East Germany.” In 1984, Nixon received $1 million for another series of television interviews. In May of that year, he appeared before the American Society of Newspaper Editors and was received with applause.

His greatest journalistic triumph came in 1986. Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, which had done most to investigate Watergate, and about whom John Mitchell had uttered the imperishable words, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published,” decided, according to Aitken, to tell the editors of Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post Company, to do a major story on Nixon. He played hard to get. After refusing to cooperate, he agreed on condition that he should be the subject of a cover story. It appeared with a lengthy interview on May 19, 1986. The headline read: “He’s Back: The Rehabilitation of Nixon.” The article began by attributing Nixon’s rehabilitation to a previous scene six years earlier:

Suddenly he was in the room, and the conversation died. As Howard Baker tells it, Richard Nixon “looked like he was four feet tall, all shrunk up in himself and gray as a ghost.” It was January 1978, in Baker’s Senate office, where the notables were mustering for Hubert Humphrey’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. “Nobody would get near him. Nobody would talk to him. The hush lasted until President Jimmy Carter walked over, shook Nixon’s hand and welcomed him.

If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, that was it.

This turning point, as Nixon acknowledged, was not accomplished by chance. At his low point in 1975, he “decided that the key to structuring the comeback would have to be his acknowledged knack for geopolitics.” He was lucky in his successors, Ford and Carter, who made him look better by their own maladroitness. He worked incessantly to assert himself in the public consciousness as a geopolitical expert—travels, books, interviews, articles, private memos to those in or near the seats of power.

One of those memos has earned the distinction of being the subject of a book. In February and March 1992, during the presidential campaign, he sent a memo to fifty influential persons—it was reproduced or shown to many more—in which he made the success of a democratic transition in Russia the key to the fate of the world for the next fifty years. He called for all-out support of Boris Yeltsin as the only security against a catastrophic breakdown. Two sentences leaped out from his pages: “The hot-button issue in the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question of ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s.”11

This memo was leaked to The New York Times of March 10, 1992. It was interpreted by Thomas Friedman, who wrote the article, as a sharp criticism of President George Bush, as no doubt it was. Yet on March 11, Bush was prevailed on to speak at a conference in Washington, DC, on “America’s Role in the Emerging World,” sponsored by the “Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.” Nixon spoke first in behalf of his plan to save Russia from itself. Nixon introduced Bush, who praised Nixon effusively but mentioned how much money it was going to cost to carry out Nixon’s program. After Nixon’s grandiose vision, Bush’s tepid response was a letdown.

Nixon’s grandstand play gave him all the publicity he craved but changed little. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, paid lip-service to aiding Russia but neither was ready to do much about it. When Nixon visited Russia shortly before his death, he sought out Yeltsin’s ultra-nationalistic opponents for talks—as a result of which Yeltsin refused to see him. Nixon’s memo was a ripe example of pure Nixoniana. The dubious assumption behind the threatening slogan “Who lost Russia?” was that democracy in Russia could be won or lost in or by the United States. Nixon’s target was a Republican president who was embarrassed by an attack on his Russian policy. After Nixon’s return to the United States in March 1994 from another trip to Russia, he changed his line and urged Clinton to rethink the projected aid program to Russia. The entire incident reflected the adventurist streak in Nixon’s character, little chastened by his successful public rehabilitation and twenty years after Watergate.

Nixon’s last and tenth book, Beyond Peace, finished shortly before his death, also provides an insight into his makeup. It is in many ways a study in Nixonian fantasies. It begins with the words, “When I met with Mao Tse-tung for the last time in Beijing on February 27, 1976….” Name-dropping recurs throughout the book, almost on every page. One typical sentence reads:

During my last meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in the Crimea in 1974, I jotted down this note on a pad of paper: “Peace is like a delicate plant. It has to be constantly tended and nurtured if it is to survive. If we neglect it, it will wither and die.”

He even recalls a meeting forty years earlier with former British prime minister Harold Macmillan. He incidentally drops the revelation that De Gaulle told him to reestablish relations with China two years before he took office.

His most overworked words are “should” and “must.” The book is virtually made up of advice, instructions, and injunctions to countries throughout the world and finally to the United States on how to solve their problems, usually in a cliché. Japan is told that it “should use aid and investment to promote not just its narrow economic interests but also its broader national security interest in peace, economic progress, and political stability throughout Asia.” For the United States, he has this type of wisdom: “Idealism without realism is naive and dangerous. Realism without idealism is cynical and meaningless.”

In the end, his recipe for going “beyond peace” is something of a letdown: “The greatest challenge America faces in the era beyond peace is to learn the art of national unity in the absence of war or some other explicit external threat.” The book is constructed as if Nixon were President of the World, solving all its problems in a fantasy of superior wisdom and ultimate power.

What enabled Nixon to live down the disgrace of Watergate and rise again as an elder statesman and all-purpose sage? He certainly benefited from the fact that he had twenty years to remake himself. He conducted a deliberate, well-planned campaign of rehabilitation. We know why Nixon came back in public favor by what Nixon himself did. It is far harder to know why others were so receptive to his efforts. Was it patriotism to rescue the reputation of a tarnished American president? Was it guilt that he had been punished too severely for common political skullduggery? Was it respect for his own stubborn, awkward efforts to win back public favor? Was it a genuine admiration for his worldly knowledge and sagacity?

It was probably something of all these motives and incentives. As long as all the tapes have not been released, we have not heard the last of Richard Nixon.

This Issue

July 14, 1994