On some of these tapes, Nixon clearly identified many of those enemies as liberal American Jews who supported his opponents, and he tended to lump all Jews into that category with the exception of a number of Jewish aides and advisors whom he appointed to high positions in his administration and White House, including Henry Kissinger, Leonard Garment, William Safire, Arthur Burns, Herbert Stein and others.
This is one of the reasons why the rise and fall of Richard Nixon remains one the great enigmas of 20th century American history. His long political career is a fascinating study in contrasts and contradictions, rises and falls.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Nixon was elected to Congress from his home district in California in 1946, and rose to national prominence by exploiting the fear of communist infiltration which ruled the country during the early days of the Cold War. He won a bitter race for the Senate in 1950 by accusing his Democrat opponent of being a communist sympathizer. Starting in 1952, he spent eight years in political limbo as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, waiting for his turn to run for president.
He was narrowly defeated by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 race, trailing him by only 120,000 votes in the nationwide popular vote. There are those who claim to this day that Nixon was robbed of victory by Democrat manipulation of the vote count in Chicago, but he accepted the loss without protest, and returned to his native California.
A PREMATURE RETIREMENT FROM POLITICS
When he ran and lost the race for governor of California in 1962, he held an impromptu morning after news conference in which he announced his retirement from electoral politics, and bitterly condemned the media for its role in his defeats. He famously told the press that “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
But the announcement proved premature. Two years later, the Republican Party was badly beaten under the leadership of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Soon thereafter Nixon’s political star began to rise once again as the national party turned to him as its most prominent moderate leader.
Nixon won the presidency in 1968, running as a symbol of stability in an era of domestic upheaval over the Vietnam War. He defeated his Democrat opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose candidacy was wounded by the bitter divisions within his party over the war, and his identification with a highly unpopular president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon won the election by 500,000 votes nationwide, and then, during his first term, focused on foreign affairs, and trying to wind down the US military involvement in Vietnam.
This is where the old controversy over whether or not Nixon was a bitter anti-Semite or reliable ally of Israel, or possibly both at the same time, begins.
Our view of Nixon is colored by his often crude and insulting comments about Jews, blacks and other ethnic groups during his informal discussions with top aides and his personal secretary that were recorded in the Oval Office.
ANTI-SEMITIC COMMENTS IN THE OVAL OFFICE ON TAPE
In the latest batch of 265 hours of Oval Office tapes released last week by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, it was clear that his bias was not reserved for Jews.
“I’ve just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits,” said Nixon during a Feb. 13, 1973, conversation with his special counsel, Charles Colson.
After cataloguing the main shortcoming of the Irish and the Italians, Nixon said,”The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”
During another conversation with his personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon argued that Jewish people tend to be insecure.
“Basically, Rose, most of our Jewish friends . . . they are all basically people who have a sense of inferiority and have got to compensate,” Nixon said.
Nixon was good at hiding his antipathy towards world leaders whom he considered to be members of inferior races. The newly released White House tapes record his changing attitudes. On the afternoon of March 1, 1973, Nixon warmly welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, to the White House, and graciously accepted Meir’s effusive thanks to him for the friendly way he had treated her and Israel.
Moments after Meir left the Oval Office, Nixon and his Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger brutally rejected requests from Jewish leaders that Nixon press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon agreed. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Later, when the White House was besieged by requests from prominent American Jews for an invitation to the state dinner the White House was giving for Meir, Nixon carefully instructed his secretary, “I don’t want any Jew at that dinner who didn’t support us in that campaign. Is that clear? No Jew who did not support us.”
While Nixon valued the advice of many of his top Jewish advisers, he suggested that they and other Jews were overachievers who shared a common trait, the need to compensate for an inferiority complex.
“What it is, it’s the insecurity,” he said. “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.”
But his trust of even his closest Jewish American advisors was limited. Nixon ordered his aides to exclude all Jews in his administration from policy-making activities relating to Israel. Notes taken by his then-chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman during a meeting in July 1971 quote Nixon as saying, “No Jew can handle the Israeli thing.”
That stipulation included Nixon’s then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Haldeman’s notes include a specific instruction regarding policymaking with regard to Israel, to “get K. out of the play – [let] Haig handle it,” he said, referring to his then-aide Alexander Haig.
In an interview last week, Kissinger said he does not doubt that Nixon issued such an order, but denied that he was ever excluded from any policy-making discussions on Israel.
“I would know if they were discussing things I wasn’t involved in,” Kissinger said. “It would have been impossible. All the cables went through my office.”
ISRAEL’S FRIEND IN NEED
Nixon may have bought into the negative stereotype of Jews that was socially acceptable in pre-World War II American society, but he openly admired Israel as a small anti-communist country that was also a democracy and ready to take on its dangerous enemies.
Israel was caught by surprise when the Arabs attacked on two fronts at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. At that crucial moment, Nixon proved that his friendship for the Jewish state, which he saw primarily in strategic terms as a US ally in the Middle East, was genuine. Israel’s losses during the early days of the war depleted its stocks of ammunition and decimated the planes in its air force. When it asked for US help, Nixon approved sending planeload after planeload of American arms to resupply Israel’s military stocks, even when that meant sending Israel planes and equipment out of the active duty inventory of the US military.
According to one report written by a US Army colonel, US aircraft flew 815 missions to bring Israel 27,900 tons of munitions and supplies. On Nixon’s orders, the US flew 56 US combat aircraft to Israeli air fields while the war was still in progress.
That is a crucial act of kindness which the members of Golda Meir’s Labor government at that time never forgot. Whatever else he may have said or done before or after that time, they considered Nixon to be a true friend whose place of honor in the history of Israel will forever be secure. Golda Meir described Nixon in her autobiography as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. Yitzchak Rabin also held him in the highest regard.
CREATING THE US-ISRAEL ALLIANCE
Nixon was also the first American president to reach out to the organized American Jewish community. One of Nixon’s closest supporters was Max Fisher of Detroit, who was a leader of the national Jewish Federation and the UJA. Nixon also was the first US president to grant extensive White House access to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, helping it to become the official voice of American Jewry. According to author J. J. Goldberg, “It remained for Richard Nixon to create the now familiar US-Israel alliance.” Nixon also made Israel the largest single recipient of US foreign aid and initiated the policy of unlimited US weapons sales to Israel. Nixon was also the first US president to support Israel because he saw it as a strategic asset to the United States.
Nixon provided crucial support for the freedom for Soviet Jewry movement. While he and Kissinger opposed the Jewish community’s support for the Jackson-Vanick amendment which linked US trade tariffs on the Soviet Union to the level of Soviet Jewish emigration, in the end, they went along with it. According to Fisher, Nixon and Kissinger thought they could win the freedom of more Soviet Jews by using personal diplomacy, freeing possibly as many as 40,000 a year.
However, in the summer of 1971, Nixon blamed “the Jews” for his falling popularity due to the leaking of the secret history of the Vietnam War and rising unemployment statistics.
Nixon told Colson that many of the young Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden in those years to escape the draft were Jews, and called them “deserters.” He also said he saw too few Jewish names on the lists of US soldiers returning from Vietnam.
NIXON’S IMAGINED JEWISH ENEMIES
As for his unemployment problems, Nixon once went into a tirade over the Jews working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who he believed were out to get him.
Nixon demanded the ouster of the director of the bureau, Julius Shiskin, and asked Colson, to investigate the ethnic background of the rest of the officials in the agency.
“They are all Jews?” Nixon exclaimed on one tape when Colson reported back. “Every one of them,” Colson replied. “Well, with a couple of exceptions. . . . You just have to go down the list and you know they are out to kill us.”
Nixon then ordered another one of his White House aides, Fred Malek to make a formal head count of the Jewish employees at the bureau, which resulted in the demotion of at least two of them. Seventeen years later, when Malek was working on George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, the revelation of his role in the purge at the Bureau of Labor Statistics forced Malek to resign from the campaign.
In another tirade, Nixon complained to Haldeman that, “The Jews are all over the government,” and that it was his belief that, “most Jews are disloyal.” His solution to the problem was to put someone “in charge who is not Jewish” in key government agencies.
When the IRS launched an audit of one of Nixon’s favorite supporter, the evangelist, Reverend Billy Graham, Nixon told Haldeman that it was the work of all the rich in the IRS, and the “rich Jews” who hated Graham.
WAS NIXON’S ANTISEMITISM POLITICALLY MOTIVATED?
Nixon assumed that virtually all American Jews were liberal supporters of his Democrat opponents, and it is often difficult to distinguish whether the primary motive for his outrageous anti-Semitic statements was political or religious bias.
In September 1971, Nixon urged the IRS to investigate the wealthy Jews who contributed to Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential election, and former Maine senator Edmund Muskie. Nixon told Haldeman, “please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats.”
Sometimes, in conversations on the tapes, Nixon simply grouped all Jews together, as when he said that all supporters of the arts were left wing Jews. At other times, his hatred was more explicit, such as when he called his longtime supporter, Robert Vesco, “a cheap [Jew].”
Ironically, Nixon denied more than once on the tapes that he was an anti-Semite.
NIXON THROUGH THE EYES OF HIS JEWISH AIDES
But perhaps the most interesting view of Nixon was through the eyes of the Jews who worked for his administration.
William Safire, who was later to become the main conservative columnist on the op-ed page of the New York Times, got his start in Washington as a Nixon White House speechwriter. Safire admitted that when Nixon was first elected president in 1968, a general feeling existed “Nixon just doesn’t like Jews.”
Nixon made an exception for the Jews who worked for him, claiming that they had earned his trust. However, in an offhand comment to Halderman, Nixon said of Jews, “generally speaking, you can’t trust [them]. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right?”
Haldeman wholeheartedly agreed, saying, “their whole orientation is against you. In this administration, anyway. And they are smart. They have the ability to do what they want to do–which is to hurt us.”
Many of the Jews who worked in the Nixon White House knew that he would often use anti-Semitic slurs, but sought to excuse it. Kissinger used to point to the large numbers of Jews who worked in the Nixon White House to prove that he wasn’t anti-Semitic.
Leonard Garment, who served in various capacities in the Nixon White House, including counsel to the president, wrote in his memoir that he did not think that Nixon was an anti-Semite. Garment claimed that Nixon sided with the more pro-Israel elements in his administration, and even undermined the pro-Arab Middle East peace plan that was promoted by his own Secretary of State William Rogers.
Garment insisted that when Nixon characterized Jews in hostile and derogatory terms in angry private staff meetings, he was just blowing off steam at people he saw as his political enemies. On the other hand, Garment argued that Nixon “was the opposite of an operational anti-Semite in his public appointments, speech and behavior and, most importantly, his presidential decisions.”
A MIXED PICTURE
Nixon’s longtime liberal enemies say that evidence of his anti-Semitic tendencies go back to his early days in politics. Al Barkan, the late director of the AFL-CIO’s political committee during the 1960 presidential election, told one reporter years later that during that campaign, he had unearthed the contract that Nixon had signed when he first bought his Virginia home. It included a restrictive covenant stating that the home could not be resold to Jews or blacks. Barkan’s political committee reprinted the contract and used it against Nixon in the campaign.
One day, Barkan said, he received a visit from an FBI agent who said that the Nixon campaign folks were complaining about the reprinting of the contract. When Barkan asked the agent if what he had done was illegal, the FBI agent answered, “No.” This confirmed that the FBI agent had been sent to try to intimidate Barkan and his operation. Then, while on his way out, the FBI agent flashed the JFK pin he was wearing under his coat lapel, and told Barkan, “keep it up, you’re killing them.”
Nixon was like that, he inspired loyalty or hatred. He will be viewed by history either as a great American statesman, or an unscrupulous, paranoid, and vindictive dictator. He will be remembered by Jews as an anti-Semite, or as Israel’s best friend, or as all of these things.