Richard Nixon’s Even-Darker Legacy

Exclusive: Richard Nixon, who was born a century ago, cast a long shadow over U.S. politics, arguably reaching to the anything-goes tactics of today’s Republican Party. His admirers want to reverse history’s negative judgment but perhaps the Nixon centennial can finally allow for recognition of Nixon’s dirtiest trick, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

This year’s centennial of Richard Nixon’s birth has brought some of his old guard out the shadows in what amounts to a last-ditch battle to refurbish his reputation by stressing the positives of his five-plus years in the White House. Thus, there is much talk of Nixon’s opening to China and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as favorable comparisons between the relatively pragmatic Nixon and today’s crop of ideological Republicans.

However, this rehabilitation  led by the likes of Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower ignores a darker side of Nixon’s legacy, how he helped shape the behavior of the modern GOP, bequeathing a win-at-all-cost ethos that still resonates, from the crypto-racism of his Southern Strategy to his dirty election tactics in both 1968 and 1972.

There is a direct lineage from the thinly veiled racism directed toward President Barack Obama today and Nixon’s coded appeals to unreconstructed white segregationists in the South four-plus decades ago and between Republican efforts at election rigging now and Nixon’s gaming the system through the sabotage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968 and the Watergate chicanery in 1972.

Simply put, some of the ugliest tactics of the modern Republican Party can be traced to Richard Nixon. Indeed, he could be viewed as providing the DNA for today’s GOP operatives who make quasi-racist appeals to white Southerners and who seek to suppress the votes of blacks and other minorities.

And arguably, the granddaddy of all electoral dirty tricks occurred in 1968 when Nixon’s presidential campaign went behind President Johnson’s back and got the South Vietnamese government to boycott Paris peace talks just as Johnson was on the verge of bringing the bloody Vietnam War to an end.

The evidence of this maneuver is now overwhelming, both from U.S. Archives and from personal accounts of South Vietnamese and GOP participants. Still, it remains one of those thoroughly unpleasant chapters of U.S. history that even Nixon’s critics in the mainstream media hesitate to mention.

Indeed, one of the remarkable elements of the mainstream treatment of the current Nixon rehabilitation campaign is how the Watergate scandal is raised briefly to counter the pro-Nixon spin but only in the most antiseptic ways.

It’s as if the declassified records from the past several decades never were released regarding Nixon’s 1968 caper and the fuller history of Watergate. We’re back to the narrow understanding of Watergate that prevailed at the time of Nixon’s resignation in 1974, that he had participated in the cover-up, but knew little or nothing about the actual crime.

For instance, the New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal reflected on the ongoing reconsideration of Nixon by writing that Nixon’s “achievements, and his liberalism by the standards of today’s Republican Party, may ultimately prove more significant than his failings.” Then, after ticking off the EPA and other progressive reforms, Rosenthal lamented that Nixon’s posthumous comeback would end like many of the failed rehabilitations during his lifetime.

Rosenthal wrote, “in the end, these achievements won’t really matter as far as Nixon the Historical Figure is concerned. His flaws and his dramatic downfall will forever reduce the importance of his positive traits. Yes, he was a great political analyst and promoted important social-welfare programs, but he also was a crook who was forced to relinquish the presidency. That is his legacy.”

But Rosenthal offered no fresh historical perspective on what kind of “a crook” Nixon was or what his full legacy entails. That topic is a focus of my latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, deriving from declassified evidence at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, and by piecing together other facts that have been known for years but never put into this new context.

The Missing File

For example, we now know that President Johnson ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the top secret file on Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks and that Nixon after learning of the file’s existence from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered Kissinger and White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman to conduct a search for this missing file.

Though Kissinger and Haldeman were able to recreate what was in the file, they failed to locate the actual file, a situation that grew critical in Nixon’s mind in June 1971 when he saw the impact of the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, which recorded the Vietnam War deceptions from 1945 to 1967, mostly by Democratic presidents.

But Nixon knew something that few other people did, that there was a sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a file containing wiretap evidence of what Johnson had called Nixon’s “treason,” i.e. the story of how the war was prolonged so Nixon could gain a political advantage over Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If the missing file surfaced prior to Election 1972, Nixon almost surely would have faced defeat if not impeachment.

So, according to Oval Office tape recordings released in connection with the Watergate scandal Nixon on June 17, 1971, ordered a renewed effort to locate the missing file. One of Nixon’s aides believed the file was hidden in the safe at the Brookings Institution, leading Nixon to order a break-in at Brookings to recover the file.

About two weeks later, Nixon proposed having ex-CIA officer E. Howard Hunt set up a special team to conduct the Brookings break-in, which apparently never took place although Hunt did organize a team of burglars whose political spying was exposed on June 17, 1972, when five of its members were caught inside the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex.

In other words, the two scandals the Nixon campaign’s 1968 peace-talk sabotage and the Watergate spying operation were linked. Nixon’s fear of exposure on the first led, at least indirectly, to the second. (Exactly what was the target of the Watergate break-ins in May and June 1972 remains something of a historical mystery. Participants offered different accounts, although the burglars seemed to be engaged in a general intelligence-gathering operation, looking for any information that might be helpful to Nixon’s reelection campaign, both what surprises the Democrats might plan to spring on the President and any insights into Democratic vulnerabilities.)

As it turned out, Johnson’s 1968 file containing wiretap evidence of the Nixon campaign’s appeal to the South Vietnamese government to torpedo the Vietnam peace talks remained in the possession of Walt Rostow who had no inclination to release it, at least not until after Johnson’s death. Even then, after Johnson died on Jan. 22, 1973, two days into Nixon’s second term, Rostow decided that the file should be kept secret at the LBJ Library for at least another 50 years.

It was not until the 1990s when the LBJ Library overruled Rostow and opened the file, which Rostow had labeled “The ‘X’ Envelope.” That began a long declassification process, which is still not complete. Though a few historians have touched on these documents in books about Nixon and the Vietnam War, the evidence of what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason” and its connection to Watergate have never penetrated Official Washington’s conventional wisdom regarding Nixon’s legacy.

Mainstream journalists and many historians still prefer to treat Watergate as something of a one-off affair driven by Nixon’s political paranoia, not from his understandable fear that his 1968 campaign’s actions, which extended the Vietnam War for political gain, might be exposed with devastating consequences for his reelection in 1972.

By June 1971, when Nixon ordered creation of Hunt’s team to search for the missing file, the war was ripping America apart as thousands of body bags with dead American soldiers continued to come back from Vietnam, as another million or so Vietnamese died, and as the war spread into Cambodia.

Perhaps, if nothing else, the centennial commemorations of Nixon’s birth on Jan. 9, 1913, will allow for this fuller and darker understanding of Nixon’s legacy.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




The Trickery of the Military Budget

A key federal budget trick is using words to confuse citizens, such as labeling U.S. military spending as “defense” though much is for “offense” and sliding costs for wounded soldiers under “veterans affairs” and nuclear bombs under “energy,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

As budgetary battles proceed with competing rhetorical salvos about what parts of government spending are unreasonably large, or are most out of control, or are the “real” reason for burgeoning deficits (actually, every part of the budgetary equation, on both the expenditure and the revenue sides, is just as real as every other part), one welcomes the occasional breath of fresh semantic air on the subject.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, using data compiled by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, observesthat the figures usually adduced to present spending on “defense” or “national security” understate by a long shot actual federal spending that is appropriately put under such labels.

The figure most often cited is the “base” budget of the Department of Defense, which was $535 billion for FY2012. But military and defense expenditures go well beyond that, including such things as the development of nuclear weapons, which is done in the Department of Energy, or training of foreign military forces, which come under the international affairs section of the federal budget.

Add in all those other things and the total is more like $930 billion rather than $535 billion. And that’s just current expenditures, not taking into account follow-on effects such as additional interest to be paid on the national debt.

Probably the most egregious bit of military-related budgetary legerdemain has been the practice of keeping the operational costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan separate from the main Pentagon budget, as if those costs should not count as much because they are, well, sort of temporary. And so the base budget figure continues to get cited as “defense spending” even though it excludes the main, and costliest, activities in recent years of the U.S. military.

This practice makes as much sense as if I were to calculate my health care costs and to exclude stays in the hospital, instead only including recurring expenditures such as dental check-ups.

There is, admittedly, a sense in which the Iraq War should not be counted as “defense” spending. The war was not an act of defense; it was offense. But that, of course, is not the reason for the practice (begun by the administration that launched the Iraq War) of separating costs of the war from the main defense budget. The reason had much more to do with wanting to understate the actual amount the United States spends on its military.

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown how the true total cost of an endeavor such as the Iraq War goes far beyond what shows up in the federal budget and includes various secondary economic effects. Even just sticking to the federal budget, there are very large costs that do not show up in any one year’s current budget.

A big part of the follow-on cost of recent wars is the long-term care of military veterans, especially grievously wounded ones. Such costs are proportionately greater than for previous wars. Thanks to body armor and a splendid military medical system, many who would have died in earlier conflicts instead survive, but they are still maimed.

Misleading budgetary labeling is by no means confined to military spending. Grouping some government programs under the label “entitlements”, which are programs or obligations where expenditures do not reflect specific congressional appropriations but instead are determined automatically by such things as how many people happen to qualify for a statutorily defined benefit, can be justly criticized on several grounds.

One is that there is wide variation among such obligations or programs, and no reason that a single standard with a single label should apply to all of them. Another is that “entitlement” is a loaded term that implies an agreed moral obligation even when there might not be one. The term also implies, especially when contrasted with other parts of federal spending, which bear the label “discretionary”, that Congress’s hands are tied in changing this even if they really aren’t.

George Will has said that all federal spending is discretionary other than interest on the national debt. In one legalistic sense he may be right, although if one accepts that position then the extortion-facilitating device known as the debt ceiling, which treats as an option non-payment of interest on debt already incurred, looks all the more foolish and unwarranted.

Applying a common moral sense of “entitlement” to federal expenditures does not produce a classification that corresponds to the budgetary categories of entitlements and discretionary spending. Wouldn’t we all agree, for example, that wounded veterans are entitled to government-paid long-term care? And yet medical programs of the Veterans Administration come under the “discretionary” label. (And that care constitutes a big chunk of the military-related expenditure that usually does not get included as “defense spending.”)

There also is wide variation in the amount of discretion entailed in different government activities that are on the “discretionary” side of the ledger, even without getting into the questions of political feasibility that inhibit changes to many of the “entitlement” programs. Much that is labeled “discretionary” is necessary for what has come to be widely expected as a function of government.

Elimination of some of these activities would immediately be seen as a crisis, e.g., the air traffic control system operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (which gets much of its funding from a trust fund based on taxing tickets for air travel but also draws money from the general treasury). And turning back to military matters, some of these civilian activities are far less discretionary than was that very expensive war of choice in Iraq.

Also back on military matters, we should note that “entitlement” is not the only loaded term when discussing budgetary categories. “Defense” and “national security” are loaded as well. They are labels that presume a priority and importance that things not bearing those labels are presumed not to have.

But the labels are affixed to some activities, including some very expensive activities, that are more offensive than defensive and whose contribution to the security of the nation is at best a matter of conjecture or debate.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)