THE PRESIDENT AND THE APPRENTICE: EISENHOWER AND NIXON, 1952-1961
By Irwin F. Gellman
Yale University Press, $40, 791 pages
The liberal-left war on Richard Nixon’s reputation and accomplishments, waged relentlessly since his unmasking of Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy and given new ammunition by Watergate, has showed signs of abating.
Part of the reason is the difficulty in clearly articulating what Watergate was actually all about, or why it justified the removal of a president. And part of the reason is that no matter what the Watergate fallout, Richard Nixon’s achievements as president outweigh the damage, as is increasingly apparent to a new generation of historians and writers unsinged by old ideological firefights.
And now, thanks to this thick, tightly written and magnificently researched volume by Irwin F. Gellman, 20 years in the making and rendering further studies of the subject redundant, Richard Nixon’s eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president are up for reexamination.
As the Eisenhower presidency is increasingly seen as one of the most successful of the last century, and President Eisenhower rises steadily in historical esteem, the “Madly for Adlai” critics who once loathed the general are running low on ammunition, leaving his relationship with his vice president one of the few areas allowing for negative analysis and commentary.
Because that relationship is central to his study, Mr. Gellman finds it necessary to dispel the myths and misrepresentations that surround it.
One of the myths is that Eisenhower never trusted his vice president after the televised Checkers Speech of 1952. In fact, as Mr. Gellman shows by reprinting the seven pages of notes that Eisenhower made while watching the speech, he found it convincing and applauded Nixon for having the courage to give it.
“I’ve seen brave men in tough situations,” Eisenhower wrote. “None ever came through better.”
Another myth centers on an alleged indifference to civil rights. The Eisenhower administration, not the Truman, desegregated the military; and it was not Lyndon Johnson, but the Eisenhower administration, with Richard Nixon as the president’s “principal civil rights advocate,” that pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate.
It’s a matter of record, Mr. Gellman points out, that the leading civil rights leaders of the day, among them Martin Luther King Jr., appreciated Richard Nixon’s efforts in helping to further their cause.
On the personal level, there were differences in ages, experience and personal tastes — Richard Nixon would never be a fly fisherman, nor Dwight D. Eisenhower a bowler. Nevertheless, they developed a cordial personal relationship that would culminate in the union of their families. (By far the best book dealing with the relationship is “Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969,” by David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower)
President Eisenhower took office at the height of the Cold War, ending the Korean conflict and refusing to send American troops to Indochina. “Under his watch,” writes Mr. Gellman, “with the exception of sending troops into Lebanon, the United States did not fight in any foreign wars.” This was the template that shaped Richard Nixon’s worldview. As an increasingly trusted adviser on foreign affairs and as the president’s emissary to governments around the world, Richard Nixon’s “diplomatic training during his vice-presidential tenure provided the experience that would later serve him as a foreign policy expert.”
By assigning him a central role in implementing foreign policy, President Eisenhower “fundamentally changed the role of the vice presidency.” The vice president, in turn, “served the president well, and in the process Nixon became the most knowledgeable vice president in foreign affairs who ever reached the White House.”
But the problem was in the timing. As Mr. Gellman writes, “Nixon evolved into one of the president’s chief advisers. As a result of this long and profitable relationship, the Eisenhower presidency gained stature. Ike was pleased, and Nixon hoped to expand on that record by moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1961. That was the beauty of their relationship.”
And in 1960, had votes for president been counted honestly in Illinois and Texas, it might well have worked, with Richard Nixon building on the achievements of an administration that had brought the country two terms of peace and prosperity.
There would have been no Bay of Pigs, no Diem assassination, no Gulf of Tonkin resolution, no massive and open-ended troop commitment, no violent domestic protests of an apparently endless war that couldn’t be won.
And ultimately, since the badly mismanaged war in Vietnam was at the root of most of the decade’s national ills, no Watergate.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).