Yet Again a New Nixon

by Eqbal Ahmad


It is customary for the living to praise the dead. That is a harmless practice because the rights and wrongs of private lives do not normally affect the public interest. But to extend this courtesy to public figures is to distort history, and deny the benefits of truth and analyses to future generations. The death of Richard Nixon has provided a grist to the mill of right wing revisionists intent on putting the ex-president in the pantheon of this century's greatest statesmen.

Henry Kissinger leads the pack. In an eulogy published in hundreds of dailies the world over (see Dawn, May 3, 1994), he credited Nixon with: (i) ending the Vietnam war, (ii) initiating the peace process in the Middle East, (iii) starting negotiations and the process of arms control with the Soviet Union, (iv) resuming relations with China, and (v) contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. "Beyond all this", writes Kissinger "Nixon's most impressive accomplishment was as much moral as political: to lead from strength at a moment of apparent weakness; to foster the nation's resilience through the nightmare of Vietnam and thus to lay the basis for victory in the cold war."

Both the assertions and the sweeping prose are quintessential Kissinger. But how much truth is there? Whatever adjectives one may use to describe the remarkable career of Nixon the word moral is most unlikely. Richard Milhaus was a devious, venal, and violent man. He began his political career as a witch hunter, in 1946, falsely charging his electoral opponent Jerry Voorhis, a five term Democratic congressman, of being a communist sympathizer. His next quarry was Alger Hiss, a State Department official whom Nixon hunted in behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee. After purportedly discovering a hollowed out pumpkin containing microfilms of State Department papers, Nixon had himself photographed studying the films with a magnifying glass although it is impossible to read microfilms with magnifying glasses. Nixon manufactured an image to substantiate a false charge, an art he shall perfect in later years.

His career was built on red baiting and image making. During the 1950 congressional campaign he labelled his opponent Helen Douglas "the pink lady". She fought back with "Tricky Dick" which stuck forever. To Stephen Ambrose, historian of the cold war, Nixon "was a McCarthyite before McCarthy." He appealed to the dark side of the American psyche -- its capacity to be mobilized by the demons of manifest destiny and imagined menaces to life, liberty, and property. Nixon fed also on what Richard Hofstadter has described as the paranoid style in American politics. The cold war, with its facile bipolar division of the world between the evil empire and enlightened free world, provided fertile soil for his brand of politics.

The Vietnam war broke the spell of the cold war in America. It exposed anti-communism to be a cover for imperialism; as such it brought forth some of the liberal and the humanist in American culture. Richard Nixon was the first victim of this change just as Jimmy Carter was its first undeserving beneficiary. The connections between Vietnam and Watergate -- the extra-legal habits associated with covert and illicit war making, the paranoid view of domestic opponents which led to illegal break-in and wiretaps, the chickens of counter-insurgency returning home to roost -- were close and, in some respects, direct. Nixon's conduct had been unbecoming of a politician in a democracy ever since he entered politics in 1946. But it became intolerable only in the 1970s because Vietnam exposed him full blown to a critical public. He lied, manipulated, cheated, played dirty tricks, broke laws, obstructed justice, created the first constitutional crisis in the U.S. since the civil war, and became in 1973 the only President in American history who resigned in order to escape impeachment.

It is obscene to credit Nixon -- or Kissinger -- with ending the Vietnam war. The war ended long after Nixon had resigned and only because the Vietnamese won and Americans lost it. To claim anything else is to do injustice to the dead and wounded. If justice were to prevail both Nixon and Kissinger would have been tried under the Nuremberg Laws for crimes of war and crimes against humanity. Nixon campaigned for President in 1968 claiming that he had a "secret plan" for peace. He continued, rather escalated the war on becoming president. Under Nixon and Kissinger's government alone the American war machine used on Indo-China more TNT than the total expended during world war 11. Their excessive violence included the secret bombings and invasion of Cambodia, the mining of Haiphong harbor, the indiscriminate and unbelievably heavy Christmas bombings of North Vietnamese cities and villages, and repeated attempts at nuclear black mail. Millions perished. Anthony Lake, now the national security advisor to President Clinton, was an aide to Kissinger at the time. When he and a colleague protested the illegal attacks on Cambodia, security taps were put on them. They resigned.

This is not the first time Henry Kissinger has claimed for himself and Richard Nixon the kudos of initiating the Middle Eastern `peace process'. Nothing is farther from the truth. What they did do was to transform Israel from an ordinary client state into a strategic ally in the Middle East. American arming of Israel began under them. From 1949 to 1968 total U.S. arms flow to Israel was just below $500 million. Between 1969 and 1976, Israel had received from America a whopping $22 billion worth of sophisticated arms. In the largest logistical operation in history, Washington air lifted $1.5 billion in arms to Israel during the most crucial week of the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973. Israel felt free thereafter to proceed with its ambition of colonizing parts and dominating all of the Arab world. The nearly total dispossession of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the multiple invasions and occupation of Lebanon, annexation of Golan and Jerusalem, expulsion and incarceration of thousand upon thousands of hapless people had for the coming decades the full material support of Washington. With such a `peace process' who needs peace?

The claim that Nixon and Kissinger initiated a process of arms control is not new. Both men asserted it repeatedly and assigned it a name -- detente. In fact, the process began earlier under Dwight Eisenhower. Summitry was already a feature of U.S.-Soviet relations when Nixon became President. What he and Kissinger did was to give detente a high profile and, under its cover, escalated the arms race. It was under them that the American nuclear doctrine shifted from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to Flexible Targeting Options. The shift signalled a race on the one hand for first strike capabilities (counter-force weapons) from B-1 bombers to Strategic Defence Initiative (star wars) and, on the other hand, battle field weapons -- tac-nukes, mini-nukes. The escalation in the arms race had an unintended consequence: it put additional burdens on both the strong American and weak Soviet economies; gradually the one slid into a protracted recession and the other fell in virtual depression. It is only in this context that one may credit Nixon's policies with the collapse of USSR, and also with America's economic decline. And yes, Nixon and Kissinger did finally end America's irrational boycott of China. For that, all the donuts they want!

Given his administration's criminal record and the harm his policies did especially to the muslim world, it is amazing how widely Nixon was praised in our media as a statesman and friend of Arabs and Muslims. One after another columnists and editorialists in Pakistan have mentioned his support for them specially with reference to his professed pro-Pakistan "tilt" during the East Pakistan crisis in 1971. Beyond repeating whatever Kissinger and Nixon conveyed through calculated gestures and leaks such as the Anderson papers, none of the commentators offered any evidence of Nixon's lasting friendship toward Pakistan.

In fact, during the East Pakistan crisis Nixon and Kissinger played a sickeningly manipulative game with Pakistan's deluded leaders. They withheld from Pakistan significant material support, but with their verbal tilt fed the worst illusions of Yahya Khan and his generals. For months in advance, they knew of India's plan to invade; two weeks before the invasion, they even knew its timing and did nothing to prevent it. When the deluge came, Pakistan's foolish leaders waited for the Seventh Fleet to rescue them. But the Enterprise did not sail until the Pakistan army had surrendered in Dhaka. Washington then claimed that it had saved West Pakistan from being conquered by India. Unbelievably, there are still Pakistanis, educated ones, who believe this falsity to be the truth.

Hegemony entails the dominance of a given discourse even among those who are not its beneficiaries. It is the cultural arm of imperialism. Nixon's passing brought, as the London weekly Economist put it, "the first revisionist phase of Nixonology to its climax." It would be a shame if it is perpetuated by the very people -- Vietnamese, Cambodians, Arabs, Pakistanis -- who were victims of Nixon's and his deputy's immoral and inhuman `grand design'.

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