NIXON (1995)

Personal Soundbites

These soundbites were collected to reflect on Nixon's political personae as well as his legacy.  I wanted to capture the diverse ways in which the public understood Nixon and how this perception has been altered over the last few decades.  If you would like to contribute a soundbite to this section, please contact me at or the Site Editor at

Roger Simon, Professor, Lehigh University.

These are big questions for "sound bite" answers. [...] My opinion of Nixon and his administration at the time was very negative.  His cabinet was dominated by big business interests.  I despised John Mitchell even before Watergate; I thought him arrogant and self-important.  Nixon himself was detestable.  I remember him from the 50s and the 1960 presidential campaign.  He seemed paranoid and always tried to demonize his opponents.  He seemed so self-absorbed. He was right up there with McCarthy in calling opponents communists or "pink."  Watergate was an attempt to subvert the entire democratic process.  The opening to China was a positive development, but remember that it was RN, among others, who had made it so hard to deal with China over two prior decades.  As I saw it, he was only repairing some the damage he had done.  If a Democrat had gone to China, RN would have screamed "Commie sellout."  The overriding issue of those years was the Vietnam war.  He promised in '68 to end the war and didn't.  More Americans died there under RN than under Johnson.  My opinion has changed slightly over the years.  He did sign the Clean Air and Water acts and OSHA.  He streamlined many of the 60s social welfare programs without trying to destroy them.  He was a lot smarter and had a much better grasp of world affairs than the current president.  I think Dole's comment is ludicrous. Détente was an important development, but overshadowed by Vietnam.

Richard Tompkins, Computer Programmer, retired, Pennsylvania.

Mehnaz, you're testing our memory.  nixon got a lot of credit for world peace and probably, rightfully so.  he had a great member of his cabinet in henry kissinger and opened up communications with china.  his attorney general, john mitchell had wife problems, in that she was a little wifty.  but nixon's downfall was his paranoia.  he was involved in an election that he couldn't lose and still, i believe, had his minions checking on anything and anyone, thus causing watergate which was his downfall. sorry if this is too short but i hope it helps.  oh yes, the taping was another indication of his insecurity.

Barry Kroll, Professor, Lehigh University.

[...] I'm going to try to respond to your questions about Nixon, while I have a free minute or two.  As I've been mulling this over, I've worried about how much I remember about the Nixon presidency -- how much I truly "remember" and to what extent I've reconstructed my memory of what I felt in the 60s because of subsequent developments and revelations.  This is always a problem with memories.

But here goes.  My main set of memories has to do with Nixon and Vietnam.  He campaigned, I recall, on the promise to get American out of Vietnam, which had been a Democratic war to that point.  I supported that general goal.  But I had a complicated (maybe just confused) attitude about American in Vietnam.  I was a child of the cold war, having lived through the Cuban missle crisis, for example, and so I pretty much bought the idea that communism was the foe of American democracy.  It seems odd, now, to say this.  I think of Ronald Reagan and his "evil empire" simplifications.  But growing up in the 60s, I lived in mortal terror that my life would be snuffed out by a nuclear war, initiated by the Russian communists from someplace like Cuba.  I also bought the idea that American democracy, while far from perfect, was generally preferable to many other forms of government and that it gave me (at least) a rather amazing amount of freedom and prosperity, on the basis of which I "owed" something to both this country and the world.  I was raised to hear loud and clear John Kennedy's call to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  The ethic of service, based on the idea that something was owed.

So I was able to see the point that America's mission in Vietnam was about Kennedy-style service to the rest of the world.  Here was a country that was resisting evil communism, asking for our aid.  It made sense in the aftermath of Korea, in the context of Nikita K pounding his shoe and declaring "we will bury you."  It wasn't nice to fight, but if American didn't accept the role of protecting the little guy, who would?  Sometimes you had to look beyond your own back yard.  This was the kind of thinking that pervaded my youth---from parents, teachers, church, etc.

Nixon's strategy for ending the war was to go slow.  By the time I was in the military and heading off to Vietnam, a lot of my earlier idealism was under attack, but obviously I didn't doubt enough to desert or refuse to go.  The price tag for helping the little guy turned out to be too high.  And there were a lot of messy complications: did the South Vietnamese
government really represent the people?  Were Thieu (etc.) just a bunch of ruthless thugs, hungry for power?  But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese didn't seem like angels either.  Once in Vietnam, I was struck by how much all the Americans I met hated the Vietnamese.  And by how clear it was that no one at my level believed at all in the ideals of saving the country from communism.  This was quite disillusioning.  It became clear to me that America ought to get out of the war as quickly as possible.

But how quickly was that?  I had an experience that made me appreciate Nixon's strategy of slow withdrawal.  Although I mostly worked with Americans, for a short time I was involved in a logistics operation that entailed working closely with a Vietnamese man who ran a small trucking company.  I mostly talked "business" with him, coordinating schedules.  But once I asked him what he thought about the withdrawal of American troops.  I should say here that I was in Vietnam from July 69 to July 70, during the first major phase of "Vietnamization."  Mr. Nguyen hung his head and told me that he was very frightened, that he and his family had put their trust in America.  He knew that his government wasn't entirely "good," but as a Catholic he was terrified of the communists.  He truly believed that he and his family would lose everything and probably be put to death if the southern government fell.  It was clear that he felt betrayed by America and hoped that withdrawal would take place slowly.

This was an eye-opener for me, and it brought home on a personal, visceral level the difficulties that Nixon was trying to manage.  A lot of Americans were saying that we should just withdraw immediately and entirely.  But what about Mr. Nguyen?  What about all the Vietnamese who had trusted us?  In the end, I guess Nixon betrayed them slowly rather than quickly.  We gave them a couple of years of grace, but the fall was inevitable.

When I came back to the US I got out of the army and in some respects went underground.  I distanced myself from politics completely.  I felt I had done my duty.  I worried that I'd been duped.  So I figured that it was time to claim some time and space for myself.  I went back to grad school in fall 1971 and didn't reveal my veteran status to anyone for years.

So I lived through Watergate and its aftermath, but it didn't affect me deeply.  I was disappointed and depressed, of course, and I grew more cynical about trusting my leaders.  But I had already made the turn inward, to people and projects that interested me.  I disliked Nixon and was distressed about the things he did to protect his power, but I never came to loath him the way many of my contemporaries did. [...]

Colman McCarthy, Journalist, Peace Activist.

I was at The Post all during the years of the Nixon presidency, and saw up close the deceits and coverups of the Watergate crimes.  Nixon, the only president ever to resign from office, is a classic example of self-destruction.  He brought about his own downfall, as well as the downfall of people in his administration.  I forget how many went to prison but it was a fair number: Colson, Erlichman, Haldeman, Krogh, Liddy, among others.

Much worse, in my mind, was Nixon's militarism.  He prolonged the Vietnam war, was responsible for the massive bombing of North Vietnam, was viscious in his attacks on antiwar protestors, was a foul-mouthed bigot (check the Nixon tapes when he talks about Jews), and ran for the presidency in 1968 saying that he had secret
plan to end the Vietnam war.  He never did.  Dole's claim that Nixon was a peacemaker is little more than overblown fluff that is uttered at  funerals.  I know of no reputable historian who would agree.  Nixon did go to China and deserves credit for helping  end the decades of US-China mistrust.  He went, partly, because US corporations saw China as a potentially vast market for its goods and services.  Nixon had a nasty personality, one that he allowed to dominate his politics.  He left office as a pathetic figure, only to spend the years of his ex-presidency burnishing his image as a world statesman.