Richard Nixon’s Real Motive Was Tyranny

“We have been in danger of remembering Nixon as just another crooked office-seeker in the long gray line. He was, however, the first American president who ever harbored despotic ambition”


Despite all the Watergate disclo­sures, despite the now-public re­cord of perfidy, crime, and repres­sion, we have not yet taken the measure or Richard Nixon’s vil­lainy. In an odd way, the Water­gate scandal, in the very process of exposing that villainy, diminished and domesticated it. What, after all, was Nixon’s intention when he covered up the Watergate burgla­ry — to safeguard his reelection, a political motive so commonplace that the very people who hated Nixon the longest were the least moved by his Watergate doings. They saw no essential difference between the young Nixon who red-­baited an election rival and the president who committed a number of crimes to avoid losing a number of votes. We have been in danger of remembering the first American president who ever harbored despotic ambition as just another crooked office-seeker in the long gray line. If so, the danger is past, thanks to a 32-year-0ld New Yorker staff writer (and native New Yorker), Jonathan Schell.

In THE TIME OF ILLUSION (which Knopf will publish early in January — it first appeared as a six-part article in the New Yorker, last summer) Schell, the author of two books on the Vietnam war, has done what no Watergate expositor has done or could do. He has shown for the first time that the story of the Nixon administration, told fully from start to finish, from Judge Carswell to Judge Sirica, is nothing less than the tale of a tyrant’s rise and fall. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon. It is not the least merit of this powerful and perceptive book that we learn why Nixon thought he was telling the truth.

In January, 1969, when the 37th, president of the United States took his solemn oath of office, the American Republic presented a spectacle which filled him with personal loathing and high stra­tegic fears. Nixon believed, or eagerly chose to believe, that the United States was in dire peril, its security radically impaired, its defense against Communist aggression perilously weak. Nixon’s fears were not based on anything either Russia or China were doing or threatening; both had been not­ably docile for years. Nixon’s fears, according to Schell, were entirely theoretical. They were based on an elaborate strategic doctrine first espoused by Presi­dent Kennedy and distinguished both by its rigorous internal logic and its complete want of common sense. It is known, says Schell, as the “credibility doctrine” and Nixon’s adherence to it was immediately attested by his appointing its chief intellectual sire, Dr. Henry Kissinger, as his chief foreign policy adviser.

According to the credibility doc­trine, the only way the United States can forestall world-wide Communist domination without resort to nuclear warfare is to present to the totalitarian enemy an “image” of national “toughness” so ruthless and frightening that the masters of the Kremlin will think twice about reaching for global hegemony, thus sparing the human race from nuclear destruction. The price for this would be trifling — the occasional “limited war” in remote places to demon­strate America’s “determina­tion,” its “will and character” as President Nixon was to put it.

By the time Nixon was elected, however, the credibility doctrine had developed a serious hitch. Be­sides omitting all human experi­ence except the 1938 Munich Pact, the doctrine had overlooked two salient domestic truths: (1) that the American people were not as “logical” as Dr. Kissinger, and were unwilling to offer up their sons’ lives indefinitely so that America might look “determined,” and (2) that the American people still had a voice in their own affairs. Specifically, as Schell rightly emphasizes, the American people wanted out from Vietnam, and by 1968 had proven themselves powerful enough to prevent a war president from seeking reelection and to exact from the new incumbent a hedged-about pledge to get us out.

In voicing their opinions and exercising their liberties however, the American people had committed the gravest of offenses in Nixon’s eyes: They had undermined America’s “credibility.” How would America project an image of toughness and determination when the body politic was corrupted by antiwar sentiment, by “neoisolationism” and war-weariness in general? How could America prove its credibility as the foe of totalitarian designs when the electorate was not only weak­-kneed and corrupted, but free to express its views? “It was Ameri­cans, not Russians or Vietnamese, who aroused the bitterest hatred in the administration. There might be foes abroad, but the ‘vultures’ and ‘eunuchs’ were all at home.”

Given the new president’s ad­herence to the credibility doctrine, given his absolute faith in its logic, Nixon felt compelled, in Schell’s words, to “make war against the American people” and against their ancient liberties in order to save America from Americans. This is Schell’s brilliant and fruitful thesis. At one stroke, all the deeds and misdeeds of the Nixon administration, its public policies and private machinations, its siege mentality, its secrecy, isolation, and obsessiveness, and, above all, its despotic ambitions, fall into place as intelligible elements of a consistent, compulsive strategy: to force a war-weary people to appear as ruthlessly tough and bloody-minded as the credibility doctrine required them to seem.

How an American president and his henchmen waged war against their fellow citizens is the story Schell unfolds, and no brief sum­mary can do justice to Schell’s skill and intelligence in telling it. Consider, for example, what the White House conspirators re­ferred to as the “Presidential Offensive.” This was the bitter assault on the peace movement which the administration launched in late 1969 and conducted with increasing frenzy through the 1970 elections. At the time, the cam­paign alarmed and puzzled the commentators and since they could imagine no motive for dubi­ous presidential deeds save cheap electioneering, it was taken for granted that Nixon was simply trying to pull together an alleged “Republican majority” (in the 1970 elections Republicans lost 11 governorships). In fact, as Schell shows, the “Offensive” was dictat­ed, not by election tactics, but by Nixon’s overall credibility strategy, that of recreating the national image of toughness.

Knowing he could never hope to revive prowar sentiment, Nixon was attempting, with all the massed power of his office, to arouse what might be called anti-antiwar sentiment. Exploiting and provoking every rancor and re­sentment infecting American hearts, the administration un­leashed them like firebombs against the organized peace movement, which was variously held to be the advance guard of foreign Communist governments, of “rad­ical-liberals,” of the Democratic party, of a sinister “Establish­ment” and by the time of the 1970 elections, of nothing less than our entire corrupt “permissive soci­ety.” By silencing vocal antiwar critics Nixon hoped to repair somewhat the prevailing image of national weakness; by creating an atmosphere of rancor, hostility, and “hard-hat” nastiness, he hoped to arouse a kind of left-­handed support for terror-bombing, “incursions,” and nastiness in general. As Schell very shrewdly points out, even Nixon’s appoint­ment of Judge Carswell to the Supreme Court was part of his campaign of rancor. By deliberately provoking the Senate to re­ject a southern appointee, Nixon intended to fire the wrath of the South and so pump sectional bitterness, too, into the general emotional tumult.

The Presidential Offensive proved a limited success. Only a totalitarian dictator, wielding the weapons of terror, is powerful enough to make white appeal black by fiat. The more Nixon tried to turn America into the appanage of the credibility doctrine, the more impotent he felt himself to be, the more obsessed he became with his “enemies” the more se­cretive and lawless grew his tactics. “The most powerful men in the country — men armed not only with the great, unimpaired constitutional powers of their offices, but with an awesome array of new powers — had, in their own minds maneuvered themselves into the position of victims, whose rights were menaced by usurpers in television studios, rambunctious citi­zens in the streets, upstart congressmen, and saboteurs in the federal bureaucracy.” The more Nixon felt his “rights” being infringed, the more he was determined to concentrate all national power in the bunkers of the White House.

What Nixon ultimately sought, says Schell, was power so great that he and he alone would repre­sent America. His power would be such that his own ruthless will would be the nation’s one will, his “toughness” the sole image of the national character. Congress, the press, the people, all the institu­tioos of a free republic were to be cowed or corrupted into silence and impotence, capable no longer of marring the image on which national survival ostensibly depended. At the end of Schell’s long and complex narrative we know beyond all doubt that this was Nixon’s mad final ambition, and that he had almost achieved it when the Watergate scandal broke and turned his ambition to dust.

One difficult and nagging ques­tion only does Schell leave unresolved in his narrative. The question, to put it starkly, is this: Did Nixon aspire to a presidential dictatorship because of his fanati­cal devotion to an abstruse stra­tegic doctrine or did he cling to that doctrine, with all its despotic implications, because he harbored despotic ambition? At first Schell gives an equivocal answer: “When President Nixon arrived in power, it seemed, he entered a realm of complex and demanding global military strategy … It was as though there were an isolated world of cold, abstract strategic theory which endured unimpaired from administration to administration.”

Well, is there or isn’t there? The Founding Fathers, who took poli­tics more seriously than theories, would not have equivocated this way. Here was an American ruler willing to destroy liberty in Ameri­ca in order to avert a danger which was entirely theoretical and, at best, remote. Indeed, the enemy was so far from our gates that Nixon visited their capitals to swap toasts, compliments, and trade agreements. Here, moreover, was a ruler who amply revealed a despot’s passion to control every­thing in reach (including the dura­tion of applause at the 1972 Repub­lican Convention) quite apart from any “global military strategy.” The Founding Fathers, I believe, would have concluded in a trice that Nixon’s tyrannical ambition was primary and that the credibil­ity doctrine, consciously or semi- consciously, provided the fuel upon which it fed. Of course Nixon would see himself as the national savior. Does anyone suppose that any man would lay siege to a 200-year-old republic armed with anything less than a savior’s pre­tensions?

While reading The Time of Illu­sion I wondered why Schell had hedged. I thought perhaps he was reluctant to unsettle his narrative with that harsh, half-forgotten po­litical truth which the founders never forgot for a moment: that the love of lawless power is a genuine passion of the soul and though it appears in many guises — nation-saving is the gar­den-variety — it requires no politi­cal explanation, least of all by dubious talk of an “isolated world theory.” Then in a final chapter devoted to the credibility doctrine Schell cleared up the puzzle in a manner I can only describe as astonishing.

In this chapter, a sort of appendage to the book, Schell comes to the defense of the credibility doctrine. It is, he says, the first and only “sustained, intellectually co­herent attempt to incorporate the implications of nuclear weaponry into national policy.” He believes that the rulers who adopted it­ — Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon­ — were honestly, responsibly, and courageously groping for a means to stop communism without re­course to nuclear war. He believes further that if these three ruled in isolation from the people it was because the people, wallowing in consumer pleasures, lacked their leaders’ courage to stare mega-death in the face.

What is astonishing in this is its sheer credulity. Schell is ready to admit that the credibility doctrine is flawed even “on its own terms.” He grants that much of it is “pure guesswork.” But his criticism is mild and his heart is plainly not in it. Understandably so, for if the doctrine is flawed on its own terms, if its arguments consist largely of guesses, why on earth does he think Nixon was compelled to believe it. There is nothing compelling about a syllogism with a hole in it or an argument propped up with conjecture.

The truth is, the credibility doc­trine is scarcely more than a concoction of begged questions, official effrontery at its worst. Its essential ingredient is not, as Schell supposes, the fact of nuclear weapons, but the old tattered Cold War assumptions about America’s need to stop a Communist drive for world domination, a mouthful of begged questions if ever there was one. Masked behind its fancy verbiage, the credibility doctrine lays d0wn the ridiculous proposi­tion that the only way America can show its will to fight for its vital interests is to show its eagerness to fight for nothing. The credibility doctrine did not provide Kennedy with a rational means to avert nuclear war. It provided him in 1961 with a handy rationale for reviving armed intervention and for fabricating endless foreign “crises” (“tests of will” as Ken­nedy called them) at a time when the old Cold War ideology was crumbling and Cold War passions waning. What “credibility” pro­vided Richard Nixon the reader of Schell’s book can judge.

Here, in all fairness to Schell, I must cease and desist. The final chapter of The Time of Illusion forms no essential part of the story he tells. He is rather like the author of a first-rate novel who foolishly appends to his narrative an afterword stating his “credo.” Such being the case, we ought to follow D. H. Lawrence’s advice about Tolstoy: “Trust the tale and not the teller,” for no one has told the story of the Nixon years with a tenth part of Schell’s intelligence, penetration, and eloquence. ❖

Walter Karp is author of “Indispensible Enemies,” an analysis of American politics.  

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 18, 2020