Officials at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., have invited John Dean to speak there on the 37th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, slapping the faces not only of those sympathetic to the former president but, more important, history itself.
More than 3 1/2 decades have passed since the break-in triggered a vast array of accusations, known collectively as “Watergate,” against former President Richard M. Nixon. Now a refreshing breeze of detachment from the heated atmosphere of 1973-74 is in the air.
Publications on the subject are being scrutinized, and when findings are contradicted by fact, they are being corrected, suggesting a truly scholarly era for Nixon studies is on the horizon. This is a time for academic celebration, not for reviving the partisanship of the past. History has important lessons to teach, but it must be truthful and exhaustive if it is to save future generations from the dangers and traps encountered by previous ones.
Mr. Nixon’s archives span the entire period of the Cold War, from 1946 to his death in 1994, and are a treasure trove of data recording in depth and detail the struggle of freedom against totalitarianism. They also chronicle his considerable role in defending and extending individual liberty at home and abroad.
As the former archivist of Mr. Nixon’s private papers, I witnessed the beginnings of this new era of detachment in research. During that time, more than 98,000 private Nixon papers and materials were fully cataloged, and five books were published along with numerous articles written by those who studied the original sources at the library. These gave the public new insights into the man — his naval service in the South Pacific during World War II, his strong advocacy of civil rights — and the first and widely acclaimed volume of Irwin Gellman’s biography of the former president.
With this documentary record at hand, it is a wonder Nixon Library officials deemed it in the interest of the public to promote a man who joined in the fray to dishonor Mr. Nixon and whose role in Watergate is under scrutiny for duplicity. Surely library officials know the president’s praiseworthy contributions to American history.
Mr. Nixon may, in fact, have been the last chief executive to formulate and supervise his own foreign policy because of his extensive personal experience and expertise and his close ties to world leaders dating back to 1953. As president, he brought about a period of detente with the Soviet Union, providing an opportunity for Soviet Jewry to emigrate; he opened the door to China with care to preserve America’s official ties with Taiwan; he came to the rescue of Israel when the Soviet Union, believing him weakened by Watergate, fostered an attack on Israel on two fronts; and, though it is largely forgotten, he concluded the Vietnam War honorably in January 1973 and secured the release of American prisoners of war, only to have his opposition in Congress snatch defeat from the mouth of victory by refusing to fund the force necessary to ensure implementation of the peace accords.
This was the first time in American history partisan politicians put desire for power before welfare of country and the freedoms for which that country stood as a beacon of hope to the world.
Mr. Nixon won a resounding re-election victory in 1972. Yet less than 21 months later, he was forced to resign. A very vocal, hostile and determined minority, which had opposed the war for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, made him the first victim of the modern “politics of personal destruction.”
But truth cannot be destroyed, and thanks to Mr. Nixon’s voluminous archives, scholars with a better understanding of the man and his career-long struggle to advance freedom over tyranny on the one hand, and with considerably more data regarding the congressional investigations directed against him on the other, may well begin to wonder who was the real Machiavelli in Watergate - the president or his accusers. If the latter, the lessons of that crisis have enormous relevance for us today - and for freedom-loving people everywhere and at all times.
This is a time for fact, not a time for malicious fancy. It is a time for Richard Nixon, not John Dean.
Nixon Library officials should have assisted the new spirit of objectivity by having Mr. Nixon speak on June 17 through a screening both in the library’s theater and on the foundation’s Web site of his unedited copy of the Nixon-Frost interviews. At least that decision would have corrected the fiction of a recent motion picture.
The question, though, nags: Why promote John Dean? Why does hostility toward Mr. Nixon continue unabated on the left?
Whittaker Chambers, whose endeavor to expose Alger Hiss as a communist spy in the State Department Mr. Nixon successfully championed when he was in Congress, may have answered it best. In a telegram sent to Mr. Nixon at the time of the 1952 fund crisis, Mr. Chambers wrote, “[The] Attack on you shows how deeply the enemy fears you as he always fears and seeks to destroy a combination of honesty and fighting courage. Be proud to be attacked for the attackers are the enemies of all of us. To few recent public figures does this nation owe so much as to you. God help us if we ever forget it.”
Has the president’s own library forgotten it?
Susan Naulty was archivist at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Whittier, Calif., from 1991 to 2003.