Monday, September 2, 2013

Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full 9

For my blog post today about Conrad Black's Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I will use as my starting-point something that Black says on pages 311-312.  The topic is Vice-President Richard Nixon's impressions of foreign countries and leaders.

"[Nixon] said he was impressed by presidents Batista in Cuba, Cortines in Mexico, and Castillo Armas in Guatemala (who had recently replaced President Jacobo Arbenz Guzm[a]n, thanks to U.S. intervention disguised as a local uprising).  His description of Batista as an honest and socially progressive leader and a 'voracious' reader is not one that most Cubans would recognize.  His concern that the palace of the president of Mexico was more opulent than the White House, although people less than a tenth of a mile away from it 'lived in caves' was perceptive.  His belief that the United Fruit Company would see to the rising prosperity of Honduras was inexplicably foolish for such a well-qualified observer (that company had led the opposition to the former regime in Guatemala).  But his reservations about Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and about the desperate poverty of Haiti, were sensible, if not startling feats of observation.  He did advocate the gradual incentivization of more democracy in the region, and successfully advocate assistance for the Inter-American highway."

Richard Nixon's approach to foreign countries and leaders has come up often in my blog posts for My Year (or More) of Nixon.  There are times when Nixon appears to be quite progressive, empathetic with countries (particularly their problems with colonialism), and compassionate towards those impoverished by systemic injustice.  But there are also times when he is skeptical about democracy being the right system for every country right away, when he arguably treats the Third World as a battlefield for the Cold War while neglecting the problems of people in Third World countries, and when he has a belief (that some would call naive) that multinational corporations can save the day.  Like Black, I have the impression that Nixon's views on foreign countries and leaders were a mixture of idealism and realism.

There's also the issue of Nixon's admiration of leaders whom many would consider to be corrupt or repressive.  Black mentions Nixon's impression of Batista, the leader of Cuba who would be overthrown by Fidel Castro.  I think that the Shah of Iran is another example.  Nixon speaks highly of the Shah in his books.  He saw the Shah as someone who sincerely cared for Iran, highlighted the land reforms that the Shah helped to enact, denied that the Shah was particularly repressive, and affirmed that the Shah was an important bulwark against Soviet aggression in the Middle East.  When I watched the 2012 movie Argo and saw the brief documentary at the beginning about the Shah's repression, I wondered: "Man, is this the same guy Nixon was talking about, the humble gentleman Nixon was praising?"

It puzzles me how a leader can come across as an intellectual, as humble, as a visionary, as a reformer, and as one who cared about his nation, and yet be repressive and corrupt in his leadership.  And this does not just apply to right-wing leaders or dictators, for I have read about the same sort of thing when an American meets with a left-wing dictator with a reputation for brutality: the dictator actually is quite impressive, not the sort of person one would expect to be a horrible despot.  One could say that such leaders are merely putting on an act when they are meeting with American representatives, that they have the social skills to deceive and manipulate the big, strong Americans.  I'm sure that there's a lot of acting going on in these meetings, but I also think that, on some level, the controversial leaders are bringing who they are into their interactions with American representatives.  How, then, would I explain these leaders' insensitivity, harsh repression, and (in many cases) corruption, in light of their sensitive, intellectual side?  I don't know.  We are all mixtures of good and bad, of idealism and blind-spots.  Maybe that's what's going on.

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