Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts President Nixon’s Historical Legacy

President Nixon’s Historical Legacy

An address to the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace August 5, 2004, Yorba Linda, California Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation.


To help my thinking about President Nixon’s historical legacy, I accessed the Nixon Library’s excellent web site and reread the eulogies made at the president’s funeral. I was stunned to realize it’s been ten years already since that sad and glorious day. Yet the fact that thirty years have passed since Nixon’s resignation does not surprise me. The anxieties and crises of the 1970s seem distant because so much transpired since. Americans overcame Vietnam and Watergate, stagflation and oil shocks, Soviet threats and hostages in Iran. In the 1980s we recovered our strength, optimism, and prosperity, won the Cold War, and launched the computer revolution. In the 1990s, America displayed unprecedented might in the first Gulf War and rode the wave of globalization to unparalleled wealth and cultural influence. Finally, of course, 9/11 jolted America into a new protracted conflict more terrifying and challenging in some respects than the Cold War.

What connection, if any, remains between the Nixon presidency and those subsequent events? Is Nixon rightly viewed today as a period piece who left little legacy, and that negative? Or did his career have a good deal to do with later events, helping to shape the America and world we live in today? There are, I believe, at least three answers to those questions, suggesting that Nixon left a mighty legacy, but also that decades may pass before scholars, journalists, and politicians own up to the truth.

Just for fun, I pulled from my shelf some current textbooks to see how their authors assess Nixon’s importance in modern history.

The best of the lot, Palmer & Coulton’s History of the Modern World, mentions Nixon just four times: for visiting China; for Watergate and his resignation; for escalation in Vietnam despite promising peace; and for teaming with Kissinger for detente and arms control.

Prenctice-Hall’s Western Civilization mentions Nixon three times: for overthrowing Allende in Chile; for withdrawing from Vietnam without victory or honor while spreading the war to Laos and Cambodia; and for ending the military draft to quiet protests.

The Western Heritage, also from Prentice-Hall, mentions Nixon just twice, for Vietnamization and detente with Moscow.

The Longman text, Civilization in the West, contains exactly one mention of Nixon: his 1959 tour of Latin America, when he was pelted with eggs and rocks!

Western Civilizations, published by Norton, mentions Nixon for escalating the Vietnam war and provoking Hanoi’s counter-attack in 1972; for Watergate and resignation, and for being the president under whom Kissinger achieved detente.

The Western Perspective, a Harcourt-Brace textbook, makes no mention of Nixon at all, while the Knopf text, The Western Experience, mentions Nixon one time, in connection with— are you ready?— Soviet grain purchases from the U.S.

So much for Nixon’s place in world history in the views of my colleagues. How would I assess Nixon’s legacy?

First, I would argue that Nixon’s politics and diplomacy laid the foundations for victory in the Cold War. Nixon extricated the U.S. from the exhausting, divisive commitment of a half-million soldiers to a guerrilla land war in Asia. And even though the Paris Accords failed, for reasons we can debate, America’s alliances and posture in the world survived that defeat.

Indeed, Nixon left America in a far stronger geopolitical position thanks to his strategic alignment with China, which completed the encirclement of the Soviet Union and forced Moscow to deploy millions of troops on its eastern front even as it faced NATO in the West. The opening to China also ensured that after the Soviet Union collapsed, the result would not be new hot and cold wars in the Asia/Pacific, but stability and prosperity throughout the region.

Finally, Nixon transformed American politics by summoning to life the Silent Majority and capturing the working class vote for the Republican Party. Those patriotic, blue-collar, Catholic or Southern voters gave him his landslide in 1972, but more importantly, they formed the core of what became known as the Reagan coalition that won back the White House in 1980 and even the Congress by 1994.

To be sure, neither Nixon nor Kissinger could foresee that future. As my friend Harvey Sicherman, an Alexander Haig protege, puts it: statesmen tend always to back into the future. But Nixon’s maneuvers at home and abroad made the best of a bad situation, and so helped to make possible the later achievements of Reagan.

What of Nixon’s policies, as opposed to his politics? In 1994 a liberal feminist, Joan Hoff Wilson, shocked her fellow historians with Nixon Reconsidered. In that book Wilson accorded Nixon strange new respect for his many progressive policies. Under Nixon, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, including welfare and affirmative action, reached its fullest extent. The Justice Department carried out Court-ordered integration of schools and labor unions in the North. The Office of Economic Opportunity was founded, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Eighteen-year-olds got the vote and military conscription was abolished. The Supreme Court struck down state laws banning abortion. The federal government imposed wage and price controls to combat inflation. Not least, it was Nixon who pulled the dollar off the gold standard established at Bretton Woods in 1944.

Let me say a few words about that act of historic importance. Ever since World War II, the world’s leading currencies had been pegged to the dollar, which in turn was pegged to gold at $35 per ounce. But the dollar had not really been good as gold at least since 1960, by which time the dollar came under pressure because of a U.S. balance of payments deficit caused by European and Japanese economic recovery and by America’s overseas military commitments. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations were obsessed with this balance of payments crisis, but did nothing about it, even as foreign speculators made a killing by selling dollars short and hoarding gold. It took Richard Nixon to take responsibility and take the hit for facing up to reality. In 1971 he suspended gold payments and let the dollar float to its real value against the mark, yen, and other currencies. In the short run he was roundly attacked for economic nationalism. But in the long run his bold action liberated exchange rates, released international flows of capital, and laid the basis for the economic globalization of the 1980s and nineties.

Needless to say, most liberals give Nixon no credit, even for policies they applaud, while the best conservatives can say is that Nixon gave in to the Democrats on domestic issues so that he could pursue his ambitious foreign agenda. Hence, Nixon’s domestic achievements, whatever one thinks of them, do his image no good.

What image will posterity nurture of Nixon? The best analysis is David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, published last year. Greenberg describes five Richard Nixons that beguile and perplex the American people. First, Nixon the Villain, Tricky Dick, the devious politician who ruined himself through abuses of power. Second, Nixon the Victim, who won a landslide re-election only to be toppled in a coup led by liberals in the media and Congress. Having repudiated their own Vietnam commitment, liberals held Nixon to peacetime standards of ethics even though he was a war president. Hence, behavior that had been excused when FDR or JFK were in office was now judged an impeachable offense. Third, there is the image of Nixon as brilliant Statesman, maneuvering with Kissinger on the geopolitical stage. Fourth, there is Nixon the Populist, who bestrode national politics for a generation and ran on the Republican ticket five times! Nixon the Populist is the Nixon of the Silent Majority speech, Billy Graham rallies, and patriotic demonstrations by hard-hats. Fifth, there is Nixon the Liberal, as outlined above.

Which of these images best reflects his true legacy? All of them, Greenberg concludes, because Nixon was a complex personality leading a complex nation in a highly complex era. But his guess is that Nixon’s dominant image will always be Nixon the Villain for the simple reason that he is the only president obliged to resign the office.

I disagree— and not only because I believe Nixon’s role in U.S. and world politics stands on its own. I disagree because I suspect even Watergate will someday be understood as simply the most dramatic episode in a long-overdue rebellion against what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called the Imperial Presidency. The Democrats themselves forged the imperial presidency from FDR in the Depression and World War II, to Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson in the Cold War. But by the late 1960s, Democrats such as Senators J. William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, Frank Church, William Proxmire, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern reached the conclusion over these long emergencies that Congress had abdicated too much power to the White House. Nixon’s election in 1968 was their moment to strike. Freed from having to support their own president and war, Democrats began to hold hearings, sponsor legislation, leak secrets, and spin the media, all for the purpose of reining in the executive branch— even, or especially, in matters of national security. Between 1969 and 1980 a whole series of measures resulted, including the War Powers Act, investigations and restrictions on the CIA’s covert activities, denials of executive privilege, cutoffs of funding for military missions and foreign assistance, sanctions against allies on human rights grounds, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and Freedom of Information Act. Someday, after all those with a psychological stake in hating Nixon are dead, historians may come to see the impeachment proceedings as the ultimate check on the power of the president, indeed a president who had the audacity to achieve peace in Vietnam and the world despite Congress, then had the audacity to win 49 states.

Someday historians may also record that no president save Lincoln and FDR took office in more trying times. Nixon inherited a war his predecessor had no strategy for winning or ending. Nixon inherited a embattled army of 540,000 demoralized troops increasingly vexed by drugs, racial tension, and mutiny. Nixon faced a hostile Congress and media. Nixon led a society rent asunder by violent riots and protests. Nixon was obliged to call Americans to discipline, patience, and sacrifice even as the baby-boomers trumpeted civil disobedience, instant gratification, and all manner of self-indulgence. Nixon inherited an economy wounded by Johnson’s guns-and-butter policies and surging inflation. Nixon confronted a world in which the Soviet Union boasted of nuclear parity, China was implacably militant, the third world seemed ready to go communist, and even America’s allies had turned sullen or hostile. Indeed, Nixon deserves enduring credit just for being willing to serve as president in 1969, and enormous credit for achieving as much as he did.

In the end, Nixon faltered. But few men have ever been asked to carry so great a weight of responsibility, or for so long. That is why his best epitaph may be Henry Kissinger’s in his book Diplomacy. In retrospect, he wrote, the safest course of action for Nixon would have been to go to the Congress, early in his first term, lay out his strategy for de-escalating in Vietnam, and oblige members of Congress either to endorse his strategy or liquidate the war. But, Kissinger continues, Nixon rejected such advice because he felt that history would never forgive the appalling consequences of what he considered an abdication of executive responsibility. It was an honorable, indeed, a highly moral and intellectually correct, decision. But in the American system of checks and balances, the burden Nixon took on himself was not meant to be borne by just one man.

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