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Summer 2015

Complicating the Nixon Story

book cover imageThe President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952–1961
by Irwin F. Gellman.
Yale University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 791 pages, $40.

Francis P. Sempa

The historical demonization of Richard Nixon usually proceeds from his supposedly red-baiting campaigns for the House and Senate, to his alleged participation in the McCarthyite “witch hunt” for communists, to the wiretapping of suspected leakers in his administration, to the “illegal” military incursions into Cambodia during the Vietnam War, culminating in the Watergate scandal, where political espionage and dirty tricks were inflated to “high crimes” deserving of impeachment and resignation.

Sometimes the demonization storyline also includes a version of Nixon’s relationship with President Eisenhower, with whom he served as Vice President for eight years, that is at odds with the historical record. The conventional history is that Eisenhower disdained and distrusted Nixon, attempted to force him off the ticket in the 1956 election, and had little good to say about his role in the administration. Irwin F. Gellman, in The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961, persuasively contends that Eisenhower viewed Nixon as one of his most trusted subordinates; delegated important and substantive policy missions to Nixon, including in the area of civil rights and international diplomacy; valued Nixon’s political advice and knowledge of the inner workings of Congress; and mentored Nixon to be well-prepared to lead the country as President in the event of Eisenhower’s disability or death.

This is Gellman’s second book about Nixon; his first, The Contender, dealt with Nixon’s early political campaigns and his years in the House and Senate. Gellman has also authored three books on aspects of FDR’s foreign policy. He is currently working on a third volume about Nixon.

Gellman spent twenty years researching and writing this book—the endnotes run to more than 130 pages and include numerous references to the Eisenhower archives in Abilene, Kansas, which house Eisenhower’s official files, diaries, and minutes of his legislative and Cabinet meetings. The evidence of the trust and respect that Eisenhower had for Nixon is, and has been, there for all to see, but it conflicts with the conventional narrative of Nixon as evil and, therefore, has been downplayed or ignored by many historians and the legion of Nixon-haters.

Indeed, one does not even have to delve into the Eisenhower archives to find evidence of Eisenhower’s high regard for his Vice President. In Mandate for Change, the first volume of Eisenhower’s memoirs, the former President recalled that Nixon topped his list of possible running mates in 1952. “I believed,” Eisenhower wrote, “that his political philosophy generally coincided with my own.” He described Nixon as “young, vigorous, ready to learn, and of good reputation.” Eisenhower expressed his admiration for the dogged but fair way that Nixon pursued the Hiss investigation. He also recalled that after suffering a heart attack in late 1955, he directed that Nixon chair the meetings of the Cabinet and the National Security Council in his absence.

In the second volume of his memoirs, Waging Peace, Eisenhower wrote of his “high regard” for Nixon, and noted the “effective work” Nixon had done at the President’s request, including important and substantive fact-finding and diplomatic missions abroad. Nixon was Eisenhower’s “troubleshooter in politics and in civil rights,” and demonstrated a “special talent for understanding and summing up the views of others.” Eisenhower went so far as to write that he “believed Nixon to be the best prepared man in government to take over [the President’s] duties in any emergency.”

Gellman cites example after example of Eisenhower’s praise of Nixon. During the 1952 campaign after viewing the now famous “Checker’s speech,” Eisenhower remarked, “I have seen many men in tough situations. I have never seen any come through in better fashion than Senator Nixon did tonight.” Nixon, he said, was a “courageous and honest man.”

In December 1953, at the end of his first year in office, the President described Nixon to one of his close friends as one of his “trusted political advisers.” After listening to Nixon’s detailed report to the National Security Council about his lengthy trip to Asia, Eisenhower called it “one of the most outstanding presentations he had ever heard.” The President also wrote a letter to Nixon upon his return from the trip in which he noted that, “All the principal figures in the Administration have missed your wise counsel, your energetic support and your exemplary dedication to the service of the country.”

In a May 1955 telegram, Eisenhower told a Republican fundraiser that Nixon “worked as hard as any man I have known in this whole Executive Department.” During the 1956 campaign, after Nixon delivered a series of hard-hitting political speeches around the country, Eisenhower wrote to him that, “Good reports have been reaching me from all parts of the country as a result of your intensive—and I am sure exhaustive—speaking tour.” The President explained that, “These burdens I impose upon you [are] the penalty for being such an excellent and persuasive speaker.”

In January 1956, at a morning press conference, Eisenhower told reporters that he had “admiration, respect [and] deep affection” for the Vice President, who, he noted, had attended “every important meeting” of the administration. In March 1956, the President wrote to a supporter and former adviser that, “No previous vice president had been kept so well informed, so busy, so usefully employed—and … has in the broadest sense developed such a splendid understanding of contemporary government and the possibilities in it—as Dick Nixon.” After their successful reelection by a landslide in November 1956, Eisenhower wrote to Nixon that he had “brought to the office of the Vice President a real stature that formerly it had not known; you have proved yourself an able and popular Ambassador to our friends in many other parts of the world and you have worked tirelessly and effectively to interpret to the people of America—and to forward—the policies if the Administration.”

Actions, of course, speak louder than words. Gellman recounts the many ways that Eisenhower used Nixon to further the goals of the administration. In politics, he used Nixon as a mediator with the more conservative elements of the GOP; as a sounding board for relations with Congress; as a vehicle for assisting the downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy; and as an aggressive campaigner on behalf of GOP congressional candidates and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket.

In policy matters, the President made Nixon his point man for Civil Rights; deployed Nixon on several trips abroad (fifty-four countries on six continents) to engage in fact-finding and to promote the administration’s foreign policies; dispatched Nixon to the Soviet Union to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and to Poland where Nixon presciently reported that the Polish people were the Achilles heel of the Soviet empire; and kept Nixon informed and listened to Nixon’s advice at Cabinet meetings and meetings of the National Security Council. In Eisenhower’s absence, it was Nixon, not Sherman Adams or John Foster Dulles, who chaired the meetings of the Cabinet and the NSC.

Gellman is careful not to overstate his case. He does not claim that Nixon was personally close to Eisenhower or that he was as influential in policy matters as, for example, John Foster Dulles, Sherman Adams, Allen Dulles or Andrew Goodpaster. What he does claim and prove was that Eisenhower and Nixon “respected and trusted each other,” that Nixon “was deeply involved in many far-reaching [administration] initiatives,” and that Nixon as Vice President “emerged as one of the most important presidential advisers.”  

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

Posted: August 30, 2015

Did you see this one?

A Forward-Thinking Conservatism
Gerald J. Russello
Fall 2012

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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