When Richard Nixon died in 1994, 20 years after he left office, I can recall how almost all the news stories about him in Washington were like a gigantic free pass. I suppose if you deserve a free pass, the time of your death would be the best time to get one. Out of respect, no one wanted to kick old Tricky Dick in 1994. All the positives seemed lined up at the ready. Didn’t you know how he was the guy responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency? Nixon was green before he turned blue.
Oh, and that Watergate deal. Nice hotel.
But now another 20 years have passed, a full 40 since Nixon left office, and here comes a truthier truth straight from the horse’s mouth.
As we all know, Nixon was an inveterate recorder/hoarder, and he audiotaped just about everything. In a modern context, this is worse than being hooked on “selfies.” Perhaps out of an egomaniac’s desire to feed his own legacy with truth, or to protect himself from lawsuits, or maybe to make sure he didn’t leave things to faulty memory or lousy press accounts, Nixon made his official “secret” tape recordings. But his mistake was not to burn them.
Now, on the same week that The New York Times comes out for legalizing marijuana, Nixon, the poster boy of the “Silent Majority,” comes back from the dead to blare out loudly like a blast from the past.
The transcripts of the recordings are being released this week in book form, and author/historian Douglas Brinkley is out making the rounds.
One of the most startling things to my ear is how racist Nixon, members of his cabinet, and American society really were at the time. It was less than ten years after the Civil Rights Act, and the tapes show how openly the white males in charge were so callous and pompous.
On CBS News, Brinkley said the bombshell revelation was that Nixon wanted to quit over Vietnam but decided he had to keep on bombing. In this clip, he sounds like he’s regretful of the decision to stay the course, as if he’d rather have given in to the pot-smoking protestors who were denouncing the war.
By Nixon’s way of thinking, anything to be seen as a hero coming out of the quagmire was better.
On Feb. 1, 1972, Nixon says: “We should have flushed it [Vietnam] down the drain three years ago, blamed Johnson and Kennedy…Kennedy got us in, Johnson kept us in. I could have blamed them and been the national hero! As Eisenhower was for ending Korea.”
“And it wouldn’t have been too bad. Sure, the North Vietnamese would have probably slaughtered and castrated two million South Vietnamese Catholics, but nobody would have cared. These little brown people, so far away, we don’t know them very well…”
Oh, those little brown people.
Hearkens back to American imperialism and how the Republicans referred to Filipinos as “little brown brother.”
Now we have the Vietnamese. They existed only for the paternal, condescending, and racist vanity of Nixon.
At least, he didn’t call them “gooks.”
We may not have known them well, but after these tapes, we do know Nixon better, and that does not do his legacy very well at all.
We already know how Nixon tried to botch President Johnson’s foreign policy by sending Asian American Anna Chennault to South Vietnam to convince the leaders there that they should resist making any deals until after the ’68 elections because Nixon would offer them a better deal.
How do we know that? Because President Johnson bugged Chennault and Nixon. He liked to tape record selectively. Johnson wasn’t above using the war to win elections for the Democrats. He called for a unilateral end to bombing days before the election–but he didn’t expose Nixon’s shenanigans. It didn’t matter. South Vietnam trusted Chennault. And enough Americans trusted Nixon over Humphrey.
And then Nixon continued bombing.
As the audio clip showed, he didn’t really care about the Vietnamese, North or South.
When Saigon ultimately fell in 1975, some 125,000 were airlifted by the U.S. from the south to refugee centers in Asia and then the U.S.
More came in 1978, after first spending time in Communist re-education camps and then finding their way as so-called “boat people” to America.
There was no surprise that the polls of the day showed that less than 40 percent of the public approved of the wave of Vietnamese immigration.
The “little brown people” never really had Nixon’s support. It was all about how it would make Nixon look historically.
Maybe the China parts of the tapes make Nixon look a little better.
But I doubt it.
I guess we’re better off knowing all this. Foreign policy has a tendency to be ugly, messy, racist, and venal.
It makes one wonder what the truth really is today in Gaza or Ukraine.
But the truth won’t really be known unless, like Nixon, the vain are so deluded that they tape themselves, proud even of their most grievous mistakes as their handiwork.
Nixon should be a lesson to all world leaders today. If I were Putin, Obama, Netanyahu, or leaders of Hamas, I wouldn’t want my finger near any red buttons.