Reflecting on the legacy of the 37th president.
On the final morning of his presidency, America’s 37th president spoke to a gathering of young White House staffers. It was the lowest point in his career—and arguably, his life—yet still Richard Nixon sought to impart one final piece of wisdom to those assembled:
It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
Today, the American people rightfully feel disappointed. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low, the economy seems stacked against the working man, and much of Washington refuses to listen. This has driven some policymakers to look for new paradigms in which to craft domestic and foreign policy. But as they do, it would behoove them to take a second look at the man who told Americans to always keep going.
Forty-nine years ago this month, Richard Nixon resigned. With him went one of the most successful presidencies in American history. But so too did his unique philosophy of government. Contrary to the progressive presidencies that came before him, like the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Nixon did not believe that government was the solution to every problem. But contrary to the Republican presidents—and their philosophies—which would come after him with the advent of Ronald Reagan, Nixon likewise did not believe that government was inherently a problem.
This is because Nixon saw governmental action, be it action taken domestically or abroad, as a tool. Like a hammer or a scalpel, it was not to be feared or loved; it simply existed for a purpose and could be used for that purpose when necessary. This made him a political realist, and as such he was never bound by a pure ideology. He had principles, to be sure: Over the course of his long career he identified himself as a conservative, sometimes as a progressive conservative. But beyond that, he had little time for clearly delineated ideology that necessitated certain responses. Preceding Reagan’s famous 11th commandment (“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”), Nixon had one of his own: “When saying ‘always’ and ‘never,’ always keep a mental reservation; never foreclose the unique exception; always leave room for maneuver.” It was clearly his guiding star, and it served him well.
It was also well received by Americans. Before Watergate, Nixon was extremely popular, winning forty-nine of fifty states in his 1972 win, while also setting the record for largest popular vote margin in American electoral history, a record that remains unbroken today. When his campaign would play “Nixon Now,” one got the feeling it was a demand reverberating across the country.
While Nixon is known today as more of a “foreign policy president” because of his opening of China, domestically he took bold action. It was under the Nixon administration where the first serious environmental protection legislation was passed, which included the National Environmental Policy Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a serious expansion of the Clean Air Act. Nixon’s administration also began America’s war on cancer.
Nixon’s administration was also famously serious about law and order. He was a supporter of “dissent,” believing that the allowance of it was what separated the West from the communist world. But he differentiated between peaceful protest and law-breaking and made clear his and his administration’s opposition to illegal activities. And there were plenty, as a result of fervent opposition movements: In 1971 and 1972 alone, there were some 2,500 domestic bombings by the likes of the Weather Underground and other groups. These now-forgotten bombings were taken seriously by the Nixon administration, which took actions against them to restore national peace.
When it came to healthcare, Nixon stood out from practically all preceding and succeeding administrations by putting forward a concrete plan—based around employer-mandated coverage—that would have essentially created a form of universal healthcare in the United States. Though Democrats opposed it, believing they could get more under a Democrat (Jimmy Carter turned out to be less than spectacular on that front), Nixon’s plan was a bold one that broke from the conservative movement’s growing fusionist orthodoxy of smaller government. But Nixon pushed his plan because he correctly understood that people would not be proud to be Americans if, through no fault of their own, they or their family members went into debt due to illness, saying, “the general good health of our people is the foundation of our national strength.”
And national strength was something Nixon took seriously, especially when it came to foreign policy. Guided by realism, Nixon opened the door to China and allowed for detente with the Soviets at a time when America, weakened from internal strife and economic issues, was in no position for a harder or hotter Cold War. Both of these immense victories were serious breaks from past Cold War policy.
Nixon’s approach to foreign policy also stood in stark contrast to the ideologically based foreign policy that would come to dominate both the left and right: the neoconservative desire to spread democracy by force and the Biden administration’s war on autocracy both are utterly opposite of Nixon’s pragmatism. Fusionists at the time loathed Nixon for his opening to China; William F. Buckley, Jr. had such distaste for the opening to China that he un-endorsed Nixon in 1972. But it was his policy of triangulation against the Soviets, while also cooling relations with the opposing superpower at a key moment, that put the United States on the correct path to ultimately win the Cold War 20 years later.
Nixon also ended the War in Vietnam, something that historians far too often fail to credit him for. He did not do so out of an isolationist impulse, nor did he do so out of a reflexive anti-war stance. He did so because, in his realist view of the world, the war was unnecessary and was causing unnecessary death; the Vietnamese themselves would ultimately have to decide their own fates in a policy Nixon called Vietnamization. This was itself part of a larger view of the world that came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine. While the doctrine made clear that America would honor its treaty commitments, it also made clear that the U.S. would expect countries that received American aid to do most of the actual fighting.
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Such policies would greatly serve America today. This is not to say that policymakers should copy and paste Nixon’s policies. Indeed, nothing would be less Nixonian than carrying on a policy simply because that is how the policy has always been done. But we can be inspired by his ideas. Domestically, conservatives should perhaps break new ground on ideas like wider healthcare coverage in recognition that, in order to have proud and strong Americans, they probably should not be afraid to go to the hospital or be punished if they develop cancer (half of all cancer patients go into debt).
In foreign affairs, substituting realism in place of ideologically motivated policymaking would likewise set us up much better for the coming 21st century challenges. Instead of threatening India, now the most populous country in the world, with sanctions over their internal politics, we should be actively attempting to strengthen relations. When it comes to China, a clear threat to the United States, we likewise should not allow them to overtake us—but should also not lose our heads and provoke an unnecessary war.
In using government as a tool, Nixon aspired to, as he put it in his resignation address, “put the interest of America first.” He did not bind himself with ideology, nor did he act without principle. He laid out clear principles, and then went about protecting his country as an optimist, always striving for the highest mountain. As Americans everywhere look for a path forward, and policymakers in Washington look for new inspiration, perhaps it is time for Nixon, now.