My latest reading of Stephen Ambrose's Nixon: The Education of a Politician concerned Richard Nixon's stance on race during the 1956 Presidential election, and also his support as Vice-President for allowing more Hungarian refugees into the U.S., when there was concern that such a policy could bring spies into the country.
1. On the issue of
race, both the Democratic and the Republican tickets for the Presidency
could be praised and criticized. The Democrats in the 1956 platform
championed "equal opportunities for education", while criticizing the
Republican stance that segregation be "progressively eliminated" (the
platform's words). Yet, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson did not
fully endorse the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court
decision against the racial segregation of public schools, and
Stevenson's running mate was a pro-segregation Senator from the South.
Moreover, a Democratic victory in Congress would mean that southerners
would have clout in that body, and southern Democratic politicians
tended to be staunch segregationists.
Republican Dwight Eisenhower
also did not speak in favor of the Brown decision, and there were
Republicans who "wanted to make further inroads in the Deep South" (page
413). Yet, Nixon boldly spoke against racial segregation, and
he asked Father Francis Cronin (who was on his campaign staff) to
include more stuff, not less, on race in Nixon's speeches.
Nixon loved to talk about Nate George, an African-American athlete at
Whittier College who worked with young people in Los Angeles. Nixon
said that George and George's wife (a third-grade teacher) were "as fine
Americans as anyone could want to meet" (Nixon's words).
Ambrose states on page 413: "By the 1980s [when Ambrose wrote this
book], such words would sound condescending, but in the mid-fifties,
Nixon was almost the only prominent politician in the country saying
them, and certainly the only candidate for high office doing so."
I would say that, while Nixon's appeal to Nate George may sound
condescending, I think that one way to break down racial barriers is to
personalize the "other", as Nixon sought to do.
hope that African-Americans would be given the opportunity to develop
skills so they could contribute to America. But, according to
Ambrose, part of Nixon's reason for speaking so boldly on race was
political, for Nixon told Father Cronin that the Republicans would not
get the South, but there was a significant number of African-American
voters in states that had "heavy electoral votes" (Nixon's words).
what Nixon believed should be done on civil rights in the 1950's, that
is not entirely clear to me, at least in my reading of Ambrose thus
far. In 1952, Nixon was for progress in civil rights, yet he wanted it to be "at the state level and voluntary",
and he feared that "compulsive" federal legislation could "set back
race relations by fifty years" (Ambrose on page 269). Yet, Nixon
desired that segregation be banned in Washington, D.C., opposed the poll
tax, and favored anti-lynching legislation. In 1956, Nixon
criticized Stevenson for not affirming the Brown Supreme Court decision,
and Nixon as Vice-President strongly supported Eisenhower sending
federal troops to Arkansas to enforce school desegregation. That's not
exactly allowing progress in civil rights to be voluntary!
Nixon personally, Ambrose says on page 438 that "Nixon's daughters
attended an integrated school, and he had refused to sign a restrictive
covenant when he bought his new home" (page 438).
Hungary in 1956, there was an attempted revolt against the Communist
government, which the Soviet Union crushed. Hungarian refugees then
fled to Austria, but Austria's resources were limited, so it asked the
U.S. to help. In the U.S., however, the McCarran-Walter Act (which
Nixon as a Senator voted for) limited immigration to the United States.
Eisenhower and Nixon wanted for McCarran-Walter to be amended so that
the Hungarian refugees could come to the U.S. and stay permanently, but
Congress was resistant. There were a variety of good reasons to admit
the refugees: that the U.S. was obligated to do so because it encouraged
the Hungarian revolt then did not come to the Hungarian rebels'
assistance when they were in trouble; that the refugees were young and
educated and could contribute to the U.S.; and that it "would make good
propaganda" for the U.S. to admit them (Ambrose on page 423). But
there was fear among several Congressmen that allowing the Hungarians
to immigrate could bring in spies. Nixon sought to alleviate that
concern, saying that such was unlikely because the refugees "knew one
another well, and what each had done during the revolt" (Ambrose on page
425). But Congress did not budge. Ambrose on page 425 states:
"[Nixon] never said so publicly, but by now he must have regretted his
vote in 1952 to override Truman's veto of McCarran-Walter."
admired Nixon when I read this story on account of his compassion for
the Hungarian refugees, and also because he had the intellect to come up
with ways to answer objections against allowing them to immigrate.