50 years on: Richard Nixon, America’s previous dogmatic leader

It is 50 years since Richard Nixon, who career was already dogged with antisemitism allegations, became President of the United States


Until Donald Trump entered the White House last January, Richard Nixon was the most controversial — and divisive figure — to sit in the Oval Office.

The only president so far to resign from office under threat of impeachment and removal, Nixon was elected in a closely fought contest 50 years ago this week. His great talents and huge flaws were evident long before he left office.

But unlike Mr Trump, whose tweets lift the lid daily on his prejudices and hatreds, the darkest side of Nixon’s character only begin to trickle out with the recordings of the Oval Office outbursts, rants and scheming that he secretly taped.

Nixon’s political career had long been dogged by murky allegations of antisemitism; the tapes seemingly confirmed that the president held a decidely dim view of Jews.

Those allegations stemmed back to his early congressional campaigns.

In 1950, for instance, he ran as a young congressman against a liberal Democrat, Helen Gagahan Douglas, to represent California in the Senate. While disavowing the support of antisemites who took against the fact that his opponent was married to the Jewish actor Melvyn Douglas, Mr Nixon occasionally slyly referred to her as “Helen Hesselberg” — Douglas’ original surname — before swiftly correcting himself as if it was an inadvertent slip.

Such were the concerns about how Mr Nixon’s reputation might play on the national stage that when Dwight Eisenhower picked him as his running mate in 1952, Republicans scurried to clean up his image. The victorious Eisenhower-Nixon ticket made substantial in-roads into the solidly Democrat Jewish vote, winning the highest share in more than three decades. Nixon himself managed to equal that strong performance 20 years later when he secured a landslide re-election victory, and won the support of more than one in three Jewish voters.

They may not have been so willing to give Nixon a second term had they been able to eavesdrop on some of the conversations the president had with aides in the Oval Office.

In 1971, the president read an official in the Bureau of Labor Statistics described a drop in unemployment as a statistical fluke. Discovering the civil servant was Jewish, Nixon ordered a review of the “sensitive areas where Jews are involved”. He vented: “The government is full of Jews. Most Jews are disloyal”.

Such denunciations became a running theme as, according to notes taken by his chief of staff, Nixon identified his administration’s enemies as “youth, black, Jew”.

The federal bureaucracy and courts, his political opponents’ donors, big business; Mr Nixon seemed to detect the nefarious hand of the Jews wherever he looked. And then, of course, there was the president’s particular bête noire: the liberal-leaning media.

Nixon and his close friend the Revd. Billy Graham whined together about a Jewish “stranglehold” of the media and Hollywood. Even at moments of great statesmanship, he could not rise above his petty prejudices. “Are there any non-Jews here?” he asked while looking at a list of reporters due to accompany him on his historic trip to China.

His defenders argue Nixon was a product of a time when such attitudes were common: Harry Truman was not above casual antisemitic epithets.

It is also true that Jews were hardly excluded from Nixon’s administration: his chief economic adviser Herb Stein; speechwriter William Safire and Leonard Garment, his chief counsel, were all Jewish. Nixon also appointed Arthur Burns to head the Federal Reserve.

Most famous, of course, was America’s first Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who was responsible for some of the triumphs — and the appalling excesses — of the president’s foreign policy. The two had a complex relationship and Nixon would occasionally taunt his key foreign policy aide. Once, after hearing Mr Kissinger’s analysis of the situation in the Middle East, he asked: “Now can we get an American point of view?”

Garment believed that his boss’ attitude towards Jews was “better than most, worse than some, much like the rest of the world”, while Burns phlegmatically suggested that the president “did not have much love for humanity. So why should he love Jews any more than Japanese or Irish or Catholics?”

The president also believed that American Jews were more loyal to Israel than their own country — a curious view, given Nixon’s own strong affinity for Israel. The president, according to Burns, had “great admiration” for Israelis’ “energy, enterprise and patriotism”.

That support was critical when, in October 1973, Israel faced its greatest existential threat. Despite being consumed by Watergate, and in the face of warnings that the Arab states would choke off the US’s oil supply, the president knew America must resupply Israel’s desperately depleted armaments. Told that the Pentagon had authorised only three transports because any more would “cause problems” with the Arabs and Soviets, Nixon told Mr Kissinger: “We’re going to get blamed just as much for three planes as 300.” In two weeks, the US flew more tons of equipment and ammunition into Israel than during the Berlin airlift of 1948-9.

This act saving the Jewish state ensured that, at the bitter end of his presidency, one of Nixon’s last and most vehement defenders was Rabbi Baruch Korff. Through his National Committee for Fairness to the Presidency, Korff — “my rabbi,” as the president labelled him — campaigned vigorously against Nixon’s impeachment.

There was, Rabbi Korff declared, “not an ounce of prejudice” in the president. That was palpably untrue, but his reasons for standing by Nixon were not without merit.

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