Sunday, November 3, 2013

Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life 3

For my post today about Jonathan Aitken's Nixon: A Life, I'd like to comment on Aitken's treatment of Richard Nixon's 1946 congressional campaign and the Alger Hiss case.

1.  Aitken's biography is largely considered to be pro-Nixon, and I'd say that is mostly true in his narration of Nixon's 1946 race for Congress.  Aitken disputes that Nixon's campaign was heavily funded by wealthy special interests, for the Committee of 100 had a number of small businessmen; any oil or utility company donations to Nixon's campaign (if there were any) did not surpass $500; about a third of Nixon's $37,500 campaign budget was from the Republican National Commitee; and Nixon's budget amounted to "less than twenty cents per voter" in "an electorate of 205,000" (pages 130-131).  Aitken notes that Nixon's campaign did not "spend money on radio advertising" (page 130), and he states that, "Compared to the personally wealthy and politically well-connected Voorhis, Nixon only had shoestring campaign finances which grew to adequate but far from lavish levels" (page 131).  Against the possible charge that Nixon traded favors for contributions, Aitken states that "Indeed, there are old men living around Whittier and Alhambra who still complain about Nixon's lack of generosity to his supporters in the form of government contracts, appointments and political favours" (page 131).

While Aitken acknowledges that some right-wing rogues may have behaved irresponsibly in 1946, calling voters and telling them that  Nixon's Democratic opponent, Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, was a Communist, Aitken does not believe that Nixon was responsible for this, and Aitken states that "The evidence of these calls is of doubtful provenance, for they were never raised by an actual recipient, and only emerged as an issue some months after polling day" (page 132).  Aitken seems to imply that Nixon's charge that Voorhis was being endorsed by a Communist-infiltrated union was not particularly fair, for the hard-core leftists in the CIO opposed Voorhis due to his anti-Communism, and its sister-organization, the NC-PAC, which did endorse Voorhis, was "a milder coalition of non-union progressives with noticeably less Communist influence" (page 123).  But Aitken does not appear to buy into the prominent narrative that Nixon was exploiting fear of Communism for his political gain, for he states that Communism in 1946 was not particularly feared.  Aitken states that at the time "there was little anti-Russian hostility in the United States" and "Communism did not gain its connotations of treachery and espionage until the Hiss case of 1948 and the McCarthy era of the 1950s" (page 131).

As I compare Aitken's arguments with the narratives of Nixon critics such as Roger Morris and Anthony Summers, it is interesting to me that Aitken and Morris don't really disagree on how much Nixon spent on his campaign.  Morris states on page 337 of Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician that "Nixon backers would finally admit that the actual tallied contributions had been between $24,000 and $32,000"; Summers, however, thinks it may have been more than that, for Summers refers to a person he interviewed who claimed to have donated $10,000 to Nixon in 1946.  Contrary to Aitken's portrayal of Nixon as the financial underdog in the race, Morris notes that files in Sacramento indicate that Voorhis spent $1,928.  On the anonymous phone calls calling Voorhis a Communist, Morris refers to recipients of such calls who mentioned receiving them.  On whether Nixon traded favors for contributions, Morris highlights more than once that Nixon's political ideology and the policies that he supported were consistent with the agenda of the wealthy special interests, whether or not he gave specific favors (and those kinds of accusations----of special favors----would dog Nixon throughout his political career).

On whether or not Communism was feared in 1946, I can somewhat see Aitken's point, for America had just fought World War II alongside its ally, the Soviet Union, plus some of the events that would increase Americans' apprehension of Communism were yet to occur.  But I ultimately have a hard time accepting Aitken's argument, for it seems to me----from what I have read about the the 1946 campaign, from even Aitken's acknowledgement that there were businessmen who disliked unions because they saw them as Communist-infiltrated, from the existence of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and simply from the very fact that Nixon was making Communism an issue in 1946----that Communism was indeed opposed and feared as early as 1946.

2.  Aitken's discussion of the Alger Hiss case is so-so.  I was disappointed that Aitken did not (as far as I could see) address the argument that the typewriter that was said to belong to Hiss was manufactured after Hiss' wife had supposedly typed those documents that Chambers was to relay to the Soviets.  Roger Morris made that argument, and Morris is in Aitken's bibliography, so Aitken should have addressed it, rather than just assuming that the typewriter was a slam-dunk that revealed Hiss' guilt.

Where Aitken's contribution to the discussion about the Hiss case is salient is on the role of Father John Cronin.  Did Father Cronin feed Nixon information about Hiss before Hiss and Chambers appeared before HUAC, or is the opposite the case, as Nixon would claim in Six Crises?  I guess why this question is important is that, if Nixon were receiving information from Cronin, he had reason to be confident about Hiss' guilt from the beginning, and his story that he executed sound judgment when others were not and placed his political career on the line is not particularly credible.  In other books, I have read that Cronin for years claimed that he fed Nixon information prior to the initial appearance of Hiss and Chambers, yet Cronin would retract that claim in the 1990's.  My impression is that Cronin allegedly retracted his long-standing claim to Aitken.  (Anthony Summers wonders how Cronin even could have retracted it, for Cronin in January 1991 “was in a home for the aged, deaf, and…unable to hold a cogent conversation”; see here).

On page 155, Aitken quotes Cronin as saying to him in 1990: "The stacked deck remark was unfair.  Nixon might have read something about Hiss in my reports, I don't know whether he did or not, but we didn't discuss the case until after Hiss had made his public denial.  From then on I worked with Nixon a lot and gave him everything I had on Hiss.  He needed that help.  He was very unsure of himself at the beginning."

Aitken has other grounds for believing that Cronin and Nixon had not discussed the case prior to Hiss' first public denial.  If Nixon had information about Hiss during Hiss' initial appearance before HUAC, why didn't Nixon challenge Hiss on that occasion, especially when so many people----even people on HUAC----were believing Hiss?  On this, perhaps one could say that Nixon was playing it cool: that Nixon didn't want to reveal his cards all at once, but preferred to wait a while, to let others buy into Hiss' act so that he (Nixon) could later step forward and be the heroic exception.

On page 158, Aitken quotes Bill Rogers, who would later serve as Dwight Eisenhower's Attorney General and as Nixon's Secretary of State.  Rogers was on the scene during the Hiss case, and he said that Nixon was initially doubtful about the case against Hiss.  So there you have the eyewitness testimony of someone who does not think that Nixon was sure from the beginning.  One question that I have, however, is whether Cronin even had intelligence information that would have made Nixon absolutely certain about Hiss' guilt.  Cronin was working with Nixon after Hiss' initial appearance, according to what Cronin said in 1990, yet my impression (and I'm open to correction on this) is that Nixon even in that time was not completely certain about Hiss' guilt.  (Hiss first testified on August 5, 1948, and Rogers met Nixon five days later, which was supposedly the time when Nixon was unsure about the case.  I guess the question is when Cronin started to work with Nixon----was it in the five days in between?)

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