The Nixon Vice Presidency, Setting the Historical Record Straight

In writing about Richard Milhous Nixon there is much out there that needs to be refuted because, for liberals, Nixon could do nothing right, even when he promoted programs they usually like.  Irwin F. Gellman, in his latest book, The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961, disproves the oft-repeated falsehoods in an even-handed, scrupulously researched, and fascinating narrative.

Having learned from the situation that the unprepared Harry Truman found himself in when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office, Eisenhower made Nixon, the second youngest vice president, an “apprentice,” especially in foreign affairs and civil rights.  Eisenhower continued to govern military style, “from the top,” and assigned Nixon big duties.  Nixon also found himself taking many on by necessity during the president’s hospitalizations, the most serious being his heart attack during the first term.  One result was that Nixon was “the most knowledgeable vice president in foreign affairs who ever reached the White House,” as Gellman deftly shows.  He unearths an incredible amount of evidence to reveal a young Richard Nixon meeting the challenges of his vice presidency with conscientiousness, fortitude, and bravery.

Gellman clears away the “fables” about Eisenhower’s “ambivalence, dislike, or even hatred of Nixon” perpetuated by historians, especially Stephen Ambrose, and then repeated by those like Taylor Branch and Elizabeth Drew.  They include “Eisenhower’s disgusted pencil jab as he watched the Checkers/fund speech” and “his nonexistent effort to dump Nixon from the 1956 Republican ticket.”

The animus goes back to Nixon’s successful days as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and prosecuting Alger Hiss, and then his effective campaigning. Unlike Eisenhower, the military hero who had not even voted, Nixon had risen as a regular party member and worked his way from the House, to the Senate, and then to the Vice Presidency.  Although a popular leader, Eisenhower was not a charismatic speaker and did not meet the GOP’s need for a national spokesman, so “Nixon filled this space.”  Nixon as political point man willingly received the brunt of the Democrats’ attacks and kept Eisenhower above the political fray.

One attack that serves as a shorthand slur comes from presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s alarmist foreshadowing of a “Nixonland.”  This became the title of a popular, but scurrilous, book, Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.

“Nixonland,” I learned from Gellman’s book, was a term of attack by Stevenson in the final, desperate days of the 1956 campaign. On October 17, he called Nixon “shifty,” “rash,” and “inexperienced,” while reminding his audience that seven presidents had died in office.  Nixon had been attacking Stevenson’s disarmament proposals as risky and stupid.  In the final week of October, Stevenson warned supporters about the potential for a nuclear war, if Nixon were in command.

At a San Francisco rally, Stevenson drew a scenario of a Nixon presidency:

“In one direction lies a land of slander and scare, the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving, the land of smear and grab and anything to win.

“This is Nixonland.  America is something different.”

The president kept Nixon on the ticket for the second term because Nixon improved his chances and because Nixon had performed the duties of his office exceptionally well.  He had “rallied the GOP faithful from apathy to activism and came to represent their soul.”  By the end of the first year, Nixon had “expanded the traditional duties of his predecessors.” Eisenhower put Nixon’s political knowledge and acumen to good use.  Nixon provided him with “crucial data” from the Senate and taught cabinet members how to deal with congressional committees.

Nixon also served in a critical capacity in foreign diplomacy.  In the first term, Nixon went to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and Brazil.  Nixon was sent south again in 1957, this time to Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.  In Venezuela, he was warned by the CIA and the Secret Service that a communist group had hired a triggerman, but the Nixons (his wife Pat often accompanied him) continued on.  They handled protestors throwing garbage and spitting at them with stoic grace, and then with courage when protestors attacked their stalled car with lead pipes and baseball bats.

Nixon’s trip to the Soviet Union (where high levels of radiation were discovered in the hotel room) and Poland was his “last and most critical foreign mission as vice president.”

His accomplishments in Africa have also been overlooked.  As these nations were throwing off colonial rule, and American blacks were demanding civil rights, Nixon played a crucial role.  He was in communication with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche, and was accompanied on his African trip by John Johnson, founder of the new influential black publications, Ebony and Jet.

Nixon shared the credit for Eisenhower’s accomplishments in civil rights, which vastly outpaced his two Democratic predecessors. Eisenhower used his executive powers to desegregate the capital, the armed forces, and the Veterans Administration; made an unprecedented number of black appointments; and established the President’s Committee on Government Contracts.  As chairman of PCGC, Nixon held meetings to publicize nondiscrimination clauses in federal government contracts and threatened enforcement.

While Eisenhower and Nixon today are cast as at best indifferent to civil rights, that was not how they were seen then.  Ralph McGill, the crusading editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, acknowledged after the reelection that Nixon had emerged as the “civil rights spokesman for the administration.”  Nixon earned the good opinion of such well-known African American figures as Jackie Robinson and Roy Wilkins.

Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, in fact, had negative words for then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson. While Eisenhower and Nixon pushed for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first law of its kind since 1875, Johnson’s “contribution was to help his southern colleagues eliminate the bill’s strongest provisions [Parts III and IV], and then to pass a watered-down bill through the Senate.”  The intricate machinations of Southern Democrats, under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, in using the filibuster to gut the bill are revealed.  The exposition of how the historical record on civil rights has been twisted and the contrasts, both politically and privately, between LBJ, and Eisenhower and Nixon, are worth the price of the book alone.

Gellman captures the human side of Nixon, emotional distress behind the famous “Checkers” speech as Nixon answered charges of campaign improprieties.  He methodically demolishes rumors about Nixon’s psychiatric care in the chapter titled “The Hutschnecker Fiction,” but shows the toll of the office as Nixon sought medication to help with sleep.  The last falsehood (perpetuated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and others) that is addressed is the charge that Eisenhower and Nixon were responsible for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in the early days of the Kennedy administration.

What emerges is a portrait of Nixon bearing challenges of his office not perfectly but admirably.  Politics is a dirty business and one expects that his opponents will be less than honest.  But in the ensuing decades Nixon has suffered the same treatment from historians.  This important book marshals the evidence to challenge the fables.  In fact, there is so much information that the index could not adequately cite all the names, as I noticed when I came upon an important black Nixon supporter.  But that only shows how much more the public needs to learn about Nixon.  There is such a wealth of history here that it cannot fit into a 14-page index.

Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically).  She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.