The Hubris of a President

by William L. Shirer, January 22, 1973


Selections from
The Nation magazine

edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper


William Shirer, a foreign correspondent in Europe for two decades, was reporting in Berlin during the time he recalls in this piece. The best known of his many books are Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Though Richard Nixon does not have the dictatorial power of Adolf Hitler-at least, not yet-he has shown in Vietnam that he has the awesome means, unrestrained by any hand, and the disposition to be just as savage in his determination to massacre and destroy the innocent people of any small nation which refuses to bow to his dictates and which is powerless to retaliate.

And apparently the majority of the American people, like the Germans under Hitler, couldn't care less. While Nixon was celebrating the festivities of the Prince of Peace by his reckless, bloody, paranoiac bombing of Hanoi, our Godfearing citizens were preoccupied with the Washington Redskins and the Miami Dolphins fighting their way to the Super Bowl, and seemed unmoved by the barbarism of their President and its horrible consequences for his victims.

I lived through a similar barbarism in Germany, when Hitler unleashed his terror bombing to force certain foreign peoples to do his bidding. I never thought it could happen here at home-even under a Nixon. No one of any consequence in Nazi Germany publicly protested, but at least the Germans had some excuse. To have spoken out might have cost a man his head-or at the very least the horrors of a concentration camp. But no American, watching the results of this President's violence over the Christmas holidays, viewing on his TV tube the shattered hospital in Hanoi, reading in his newspaper of the devastation Nixon was unleashing on the homes and streets of peaceful citizens, could have been restrained by such fears.

Yet, who, at no personal risk, denounced the monstrous crime? Not a single official in government, very few in the Congress, a few from labor and no one from big business, and not one notable churchman, Protestant or Catholic. There was not a peep from the President's friends among the clergy: no sound from the Rev. Billy Graham, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, or Cardinal Cooke (not even after the Pope had raised his voice against the bombing).

Perhaps this unconcern is due in part to the peculiar luck of Americans. Unlike the inhabitants of every other major country and scores of small ones, we have never been bombed, and hence cannot feel in our own flesh and minds the suflferings of those on whom our President wreaks his vengeance. As one who experienced to some extent in Germany the bombing by the British, and later in England the bombing by the Germans-it was minor, compared to what we have done in Indochina-I rejoiced that Americans had been spared that ordeal.

But no longer. It now occurs to me that, until we go through it ourselves, until our people cower in the shelters of New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere while the buildings collapse overhead and burst into flames, and dead bodies hurtle about and, when it is over for the day or the night, emerge in the rubble to find some of their dear ones mangled, their homes gone, their hospitals, churches, schools demolished-only after that gruesome experience will we realize what we are inflicting on the people of Indochina and especially what we did over Christmas week to the common people of Hanoi.

Does one American in 1,000 or in 100,000, realize that, whereas the Germans dropped 80,000 tons of bombs on Britain in more than five years of war (and we thought it was barbaric), we dropped 100,000 tons on Indochina in the single month of last November, when Nixon restricted the bombing because of the Paris "peace" talks; and that under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon we have dropped a total of 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos- vastly more than we and the British let loose on Germany and Japan together in World War II? It was done in the name of "a just peace," of course. Has not Nixon said it dozens of times, his face on the TV screen frozen in unctuousness, as he sent his troops to invade a new country-Cambodia, Laos-or as he ordered his bombers to resume unloading tens of thousands of tons of more lethal bombs on a country which had no Air Force with which to defend itself?

Hitler, a bully also, mouthed the same hypocrisy. As Francois-Poncet, the French ambassador in Berlin, remarked after the Fuehrer sent his warriors out on the first of his conquests at the very moment when he was showering Europe with a new offer of peace: "Hitler struck his adversary in the face, and then declared: 'I bring you proposals for peace!'

Is that not what Nixon has done in Vietnam? Where else, since Hitler, has the head of government of a supposedly civilized people declared through a spokesman to his own people (on the eve of an election, to be sure) that "peace is at hand," that 99 per cent of the issues have been negotiated and that only three or four more days of talks are needed to tidy up the agreement, and then (after he is elected) struck the people he has been negotiating with "in good faith" with the most savage bombing in history-and put the blame on them?

I said that after experiencing at first hand the Nazi terror toward others, it never occurred to me that it could happen at home. Has it? To a certain extent? Just a beginning perhaps? Has Nixon shown that you don't need a totalitarian dictatorship like Hitler's to get by with murder, that you can do it in a democracy as long as the Congress and the people Congress is supposed to represent don't give a damn?

It can be extremely misleading to compare the Nazi regime in Germany with our own situation today. We are not a totalitarian dictatorship. The press, despite the Administration's assaults upon it, is still relatively free. Dissent, despite all the attempts of Nixon and his aides to silence it, is still heard. This article could never have been published under the Fuehrer. Nixon is no Hitler, though with his Christmas bombing he acted like one. The Americans could have thrown him out of office in November. The Germans, after the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, were stuck with Hitler. They had had a parliament, the Reichstag, which, if its members had showed any guts or wisdom, might have restrained him or even overthrown him in his first months of power in 1933, before he tricked it into committing suicide. We have an elected Congress, which had the constitutional power to prevent our Presidents from taking the nation into war in Vietnam and the power to take it out quickly. It abdicated that power. Like the Reichstag, its members were partly tricked (by such things as the Tonkin Gulf frame-up and other Presidential deceits) and like the Germans parliament its members have thus far lacked the guts or the wisdom to exercise the power the Constitution gave them.

Here begin the similarities. Are there others? One, I think, is in the attitude of Nixon toward the people. "The average American," he told a Washington Star reporter on the eve of his re-election, "is just like the child in the family." The implication was that the average citizen could easily be manipulated by Papa. It is, of course, a form of contempt for the common people. Disraeli, to whom Nixon compared himself in the same interview, had it, but surely the great Presidents-Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, even Eisenhower-did not. Hitler, for all his professed love of the German people and his attempt to make of them the Master Race, had a profound contempt for them. He thought they were simpletons, at least politically-you could do anything with them. He called them, as Trevor-Roper has pointed out, Dickshaedel, Querschaedel, Dummkoepfe-blockheads and ninnies without political sense. But he would add: "Even stupid races can accomplish something, given good leadership." Once at a Nuremberg party rally, when asked to explain why the German masses became so delirious at these pageants, especially when he spoke, Hitler told a group of American correspondents-off the record-in words almost identical to Nixon's, that it was because' they were children at heart. "What luck for rulers," he exclaimed on another occasion, "that men do not think!"

And in these days I cannot help recalling an opinion vouched by one of Hitler's woman secretaries after his death. "Though Hitler," she recalled, "ranged over almost every field of thought, I nevertheless felt that something was missing.... It seems to me that his spate of words lacked the human note, the spiritual quality of a cultivated man. In his library he had no classic work, no single book on which the human spirit had left its trace."

There were other things in Nazi Germany which recent happenings in this country have forced me, at least, to recall:

(1) Justice and the courts. One day in 1936 Hans Frank, the Nazi Minister of Justice (who was later sentenced to death at Nuremberg and hanged), called in the members of the bench and gave them a little advice: "Say to yourself at every decision that you make: 'How would the Fuehrer decide in my place?'" One wonders sometimes-I mean no disrespect to our judges-if some of the eminent jurists appointed by the President, especially those on the Supreme Court, do not at the moment of decision say to themselves: "How would President Nixon decide in my place?" Nixon's Front Four on the High Court, Burger, Blackmun, Rehnquist and Powell-joined often by "Whizzer" White, Kennedy's only contribution to that bench-have shown a teamwork that must be the envy of Coach Allen's fearsome Front Four, and they have used it increasingly to limit freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment, to take but one example. In doing so they cannot have failed to please Nixon. Did he not boast that he appointed only those who shared his philosophy? Most other Presidents have been proud of trying to keep a balance on the Court.

(2) Assaults on the freedom of the press, First Amendment guarantees, dissent. Obviously we have not fallen as far as Nazi Germany, but are we not on our way? Have not Nixon and his minions carried on for four years an assault on our press freedoms and on the right to dissent-and not without success? They have intimidated the networks, threatened TV station owners with loss of their licenses if they do not, in effect, censor network news critical of the Administration, and successfully gone to court to induce the Supreme Court to rule by 5 to 4 that the First Amendment does not give reporters the right to protect their confidential sources-a telling blow to our press freedoms. On the other hand, the Administration, by propaganda, deceit, evasion, playing favorites, and by expert use of the power of the White House to make news and control it, has done very well in putting its own story over in the press. But this has not satisfied Nixon.

I sometimes wonder if he, and Klein, would envy the way the press was handled in Berlin in the days when I was working there. Every morning the editors of the capital's newspapers and the correspondents of out-of-town German journals were made to assemble at the Propaganda Ministry and told by Goebbels or one of his aides what news to print and what to suppress, how to write the news and headline it, and what editorials were to be written that day. To avoid any misunderstanding, a daily written Directive was furnished at the end of the oral instructions. For smaller provincial papers and periodicals without representatives in Berlin, Directives were sent by wire or mail. Radio (there was no TV then) was handled separately but similarly. Every editor, reporter, newscaster and commentator knew each day exactly what to write or say, and did it. Very simple and effective. Nixon's task obviously is more difficult, but he keeps plugging. As one of our great historians, Henry Steele Commager, wrote recently: "Never before in our history . . . has government so audaciously violated the spirit of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press."

(3) Terror bombing, "targeting military objectives only," and the lies about them. Here we come closer to the Nazi example. Hitler invented terror bombing (unless you count Mussolini's puny effort in Ethiopia), starting with Guernica in Spain and going on to Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry. Nixon has been an apt pupil, increasing the terror by more and bigger bombs, but sticking to the same lies about "targeting military objectives" and the same denials of damage to nonmilitary objectives. Nixon's aides, Ronald Ziegler at the White House and Jerry Friedheim at the Pentagon, seem more adept at this business than even Joseph Goebbels. More adept and just as arrogant.

Ziegler, speaking for Nixon, offered two justifications for the Christmas resumption of the bombing-both offensive to the truth and to an American's intelligence. First, he linked the bombing to the threat of another Communist offensive: "We are not going to allow the peace talks to be used as a cover for another offensive." But he offered no evidence of an offensive, and the American Command in Saigon admitted it knew of none pending, nor did anyone in Washington. Next, Ziegler, speaking for his silent boss, declared that Nixon was "determined" to continue his bombing until Hanoi decided to resume negotiations "in a spirit of good will and in a constructive attitude." In the Hitler-Nixon double-talk that meant, "until Hanoi agrees to accept a peace that we dictate."

Jerry Friedheim at the Pentagon was worse-he was pure Goebbels. Twice, on December 27 and 29, he denied that we had damaged Hanoi's Bach Mai Hospital and attributed the reports to "enemy propaganda." The effrontery of this staggered a man who had listened to Goebbels' lies time after time. That was because, two days before the first denial, Telford Taylor, a distinguished lawyer, a retired brigadier general and our chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, had cabled The New York Times from Hanoi an eyewitness description of the bombed-out hospital. Moreover, millions of Americans had seen on TV Japanese and Swedish films of the hospital's devastation. Even when Friedheim finally admitted, on January 2, that "some limited accidental damage" had been done to the hospital, he suggested that it might have been caused by "North Vietnamese ordnance or aircraft."

I say Friedheim was pure Goebbels (and like him probably Iying at the master's orders) because, after a German submarine had torpedoed the British liner Athenia on the first day of World War II, I heard Goebbels, first at a press conference and then over the air, deny categorically that the Germans had sunk the boat and then accuse the British of having done it. I will pass over Friedheim's bland assertion that if an American POW camp had been hit, as reported, Hanoi would be held responsible-"under the Geneva Convention." But it did remind me of Hitler's declaration on the mornings he attacked Norway, and later Holland and Belgium, that if they resisted they would be held responsible for the bloodshed. After Friedheim's performance, according to The New York Times of January 5, he was awarded the Defense Department Medal for Distinguished Public Service, with the citation: "He has provided with faultless professionalism clear, concise, accurate and timely information concerning the worldwide activities of the Department of Defense."

Did the President become enraged when Henry Kissinger returned from Paris without the agreement he had demanded and in his fury ("You can't do that to Richard Nixon!") order the resumption of the murderous bombing-Christmas or no? We do not know for sure, and probably never will, though Washington seethed with rumors, unconfirmed, that such was the case. Perhaps "high-ranking U.S. officials in Saigon," as an A.P. dispatch called them, were, for once, telling the truth when they said, according to the news agency, that "the ultimate purpose of the bombing was to punish Hanoi," and that "President Thieu had been told that President Nixon's strategy is to devastate North Vietnam."

It recalled a scene, which was confirmed, on the night of March 26, 1941, when news reached Hitler that the pro-Nazi government of Yugoslavia had been toppled and replaced by one that might not do the Fuehrer's bidding. The news, according to some of those present in the chancellery, threw Hitler into one of the wildest rages of his life. He took it, they said, as a personal affront-you couldn't do that to Hitler. He called in his generals and ordered them "to destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a nation"-a stenographer noted down his words. "Yugoslavia," he added, "would be crushed with unmerciful harshness." He ordered Goering to "destroy Belgrade in attacks by waves" of bombers. That was done; the town was razed. Like large parts of Hanoi these past days.

It could have been, of course, that Nixon made his Yuletide decision to devastate Hanoi in a completely different mood-in a moment of icy calculation. Hitler was in that kind of mood on September 29, 1941 as his armies neared Moscow and Leningrad. His Directive to his army commanders that day began: "The Fuehrer has decided to have Leningrad wiped off the face of the earth. The intention is to raze it to the ground by artillery and continuous air attack. The problem of survival of the population (3 million) is one which cannot and should not be solved by us." He issued a second Directive to the same effect for Moscow. Is it possible that Nixon issued a similar Directive for Hanoi in the same cold-blooded mood? The A.P. report from Saigon indicates the possibility.

(4) Hitler got by with murder because there was no restraining hand upon him-from any source. Did any hand in Washington try to restrain Nixon when he ordered the invasion of Cambodia and Laos, and especially when he ordered the devastating Christmas bombing of Hanoi? We do not know. But we know he did not consult the Congress. He did not confide in it or in the people.

Perhaps we are experiencing here what the Greeks called hubris, the sin of overweening pride. It has brought the downfall of so many conquerors-of the Greeks themselves, the Romans, the French under Napoleon, the Germans under Wilhelm II and then Hitler. And we are seeing in Washington what I saw in Berlin in the Nazi time-how power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Selections from The Nation magazine,1865-1990

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