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Book: Was Richard Nixon A Thoughtful Pragmatist In Years As Vice-President?

September 13, 2015

From the book section of The New York Times comes another volume on Richard Nixon.  This has been a good year for new reads about a very complicated man.

I have long felt Nixon needed to create a political balancing act of ‘riding the bull’ when it came to making sure his conservative bona-fides were secure with his base so to be able to pursue his larger foreign policy goals.  I form part of this argument with how Nixon dealt with international needs on the Herter Commission, what would become the Marshall Plan during the Truman Administration.   How he learned the facts, spoke of the needs, and presented to his constituents the role this nation needed to provide to Europe showcases his pragmatic best.    On the flip side his work on HUAC presented the other darker side of Nixon.

In a fascinating chapter on Nixon’s health, Gellman breaks new ground in understanding the man. Nixon’s trusted doctor Arnold Hutschnecker turns out to have been a Dr. Feelgood. Starting in 1952, Nixon sought help from Hutschnecker for a series of stress-induced ailments, and the doctor prescribed a medicine-­cabinetful of barbiturates and sleep aids (Seconal and Doriden), tranquilizers (Equanil) and “uppers” (Dexamyl), a potentially addictive, mood-altering cocktail that Nixon apparently took throughout the 1950s and possibly thereafter. We can now reconcile assertions by Nixon’s defenders that he drank little with evidence of strange late-night calls, slurred words and incoherence. As Gellman writes, “At the height of the Cold War, both the president and the vice president could easily have been simultaneously incapacitated, leaving no one responsible for governing.”

Like many Nixon scholars, Gellman believes that there were two Nixons. His private Nixon was a thoughtful pragmatist. The demagogy was political theater. “Nixon,” Gellman writes, “the inflexible ­anti-Communist in public, was far more flexible in private.” Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on the consequences of Nixon’s cynical use of anti-Communist rhetoric for the country, Gellman focuses on the cost to Nixon’s reputation. Had historians and the news media been allowed to sit in on Eisenhower’s national security meetings, he argues, they would have seen the real, nonideological Nixon. Nixon’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the opening to China a decade later, would not then have so shocked Nixon watchers. “The roots of Nixon’s thinking about East Asia,” he asserts, “go back to his vice-presidency.

  1. Amy permalink
    April 18, 2018 11:12 AM

    Just another good book you have mentioned on your blog. The Gellman approach to Nixon is one that makes one wonder if more of the medical background of president’s should be examined.

  2. October 4, 2017 10:44 AM

    Ted ,

    You also then might like “Being Nixon” by Evan Thomas as it is truly a balanced perspective. Written from a point of view not done by hardly any other historian about RN.

  3. ted permalink
    October 4, 2017 4:47 AM

    Read this book over summer and found Gellman gave Nixon fair treatment which is not always what comes across in books about him. Would recommend it to others.

  4. July 16, 2017 1:53 PM

    Trump is not aware of anything of substance when it corms to policy. He has no convictions, or knowledge of history. .

  5. Pauline permalink
    July 16, 2017 2:50 AM

    Can you imagine how Nixon would feel about the way foreign policy is mis-handled under this current administration?

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