Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ambrose's Nixon: The Education of a Politician 21: What If?

In my latest reading of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, Stephen Ambrose speculates about what kind of President Richard Nixon would have been had he won the 1960 Presidential election.  Ambrose compares his scenario with how Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson governed, and also with how Nixon himself governed from 1969-1974.

In terms of how Nixon would have compared with Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Ambrose speculates that Nixon would have been much more aggressive against world Communism.  Nixon would have backed up the Cubans seeking to overthrow Fidel Castro with air cover and sent in bulldozers to tear down the Berlin Wall, and "Unlike Johnson, he probably would have carried the [Vietnam] war to the North Vietnamese, sooner and with greater firepower" (page 623).  Ambrose says that we don't know whether those policies would have worked or not, but, overall, the potential negative effects that Ambrose mentions do not strike me as a nightmare scenario: Ambrose says that there would have been no Cuban missile crisis, but that "the overthrown Castro would have been a supreme symbol to Communists not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America" (page 623), and that tearing down the Berlin Wall would have resulted in "a massive flight of refugees out of East Germany" (page 623).  That's not as bad as how Family Guy envisioned a Nixon Presidency had Nixon won in 1960, in "Road to the Multiverse": Nixon botched up the Cuban Missile Crisis and caused World War III! 

On how a President Nixon in 1961-1969 would compare with the President Nixon in 1969-1974, Ambrose speculates that a President Nixon in 1961-1969 would have been better (though, as we shall see, he then considers an alternative scenario).  A President Nixon in 1961 would have inherited the relative peace and prosperity that the Eisenhower Administration bequeathed to him, whereas Nixon in 1969 got stagflation, the divisive Vietnam War, and national turmoil (i.e., riots, assassinations, drugs, crime, campus demonstrations, etc.), which Ambrose calls "a great deal for the President to be paranoid about" (page 623).  Eisenhower was a fairly honest President whose Administration had few scandals, and that could have left a President Nixon in 1961 with a good example to follow.  Nixon in 1969, however, was preceded by a poor example of Presidential conduct, Lyndon Johnson, who "spied on people, kept secret tape recordings of their conversations, used the FBI for partisan purposes, treated men around him with contempt, bullied the legislative branch[,] manipulated his fellow politicians, and otherwise used every bit of power available to him to achieve his ends" (page 624).  A President Nixon in 1961 would probably have been advised by such establishment figures as Dwight Eisenhower and Thomas Dewey, as well as Eisenhower loyalists in the Administration and the Congress, whereas President Nixon from 1969-1974 drew more from the counsel of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who "had minor jobs in Nixon's 1960 campaign" (page 624).  Had Nixon won in 1960, he wouldn't have felt bitter that the Presidency had been stolen from him, nor would he have become alienated from the press during his 1962 run for Governor, for Ambrose notes that Nixon prior to 1962 had a fairly good relationship with the press.

But then Ambrose acknowledges that another scenario could have occurred had Nixon won in 1960.  Nixon as Vice-President was impatient with Eisenhower's conservatism, such as Eisenhower's restraints on the Presidency and compromises with Congress and on foreign policy.  Nixon himself in 1972 mused on what his Presidency would have been like had he won in 1960, and Nixon lamented that "we would have continued the establishment types in office too long and would not have done the job we should have done as far as the country was concerned" (Nixon's words, page 625).  That being the case, Ambrose wonders if a President Nixon in 1961-1969 would have sought out people like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Charles Colson, and Spiro Agnew.  Ambrose states that "If he had succeeded in finding them during his first term, and elevating their influence at the expense of the Eisenhower types, he might well have had a Watergate in 1965" (page 625).

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