The Last Comeback of Richard Nixon

The day after Richard Nixon’s funeral, The New York Times editorialized that the White House-sponsored occasion was a "rite of reconciliation" that brought "to a fitting end his 20-year struggle to rehabilitate himself." Nixon’s eulogists went well beyond the civilities of final respects; those who came to bury Nixon praised him as well, calling him statesman, diplomat, and even hero.

The posthumous rehabilitators of Richard Nixon cast his regime as a flawed but ultimately triumphant presidency, touting in particular his foreign policy expertise, especially the reopening of China to the West. President Clinton urged the nation not to judge Nixon "on anything less than his entire life and career."

So what picture emerges from the totality of Nixon’s public life? The crux of his foreign policy was not China but Vietnam, where his legacy includes 21,000 names on the Vietnam memorial wall—as well as half a million additional Vietnamese deaths—while his "secret plan" stretched into five more years of war, distinguished by one of the most massive saturation bombing campaigns in history. His secret—and illegal—expansion of the war into neighboring Cambodia led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and resulted in the ascension of one of the century’s bloodiest despots, Pol Pot.

His policies in other spheres were no less destructive. Nixon authorized the 1973 CIA coup in Chile that left 30,000 dead; helped to poison American politics with his leadership in the red-baiting hysteria of McCarthyism; sanctioned COINTELPRO, the secret war against his domestic "enemies" including the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and others; introduced MIRVed missiles and other technical developments that sent the arms race mushrooming out of control; and set up illegal intelligence operations against his political opponents, of which the Watergate break-in was just the tip of the iceberg, that included burglaries, secret cash funds, extortion on a massive scale, perjury, and cover-ups.

In the end, all these atrocities are conveniently overlooked or justified in the name of a cynical realpolitik which tells us that great leaders must take into account loftier considerations than mere morality. But morality does matter, and there is no justification for the cynical abuse of power driven by naked ambition that was the hallmark of Nixon’s public career.

This latest round of revisionism by all these honorable men (and a few women) isn’t just about the reputation of one person, of course, but rather is an effort to endorse Nixon’s might-makes-right, end-justifies-the-means approach to politics. As such, it constitutes another round of the unending battle for hearts and minds.

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