by James Petras
Since the end of the Viet Nam war, US military ‘interventions’ have become wars of long duration. These have cost millions of lives overseas, tens of millions of refugees and scores of thousands of American soldier deaths, permanent injury and serious mental and neuropsychiatric damage. There is no ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, to quote the US General William Westmoreland.
In retrospect, and after 50 years of decline, the much-maligned Presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon now stands out as a golden age of social, environmental and inter-racial advances, as well as an era of successful peace negotiations and diplomacy. President Nixon, never an ideologue, accepted the reality of a multi-polar world.
Of course, the Nixon Presidency was characterized by serious crimes against humanity, such as the CIA-sponsored coup d’état against the democratically elected Chilean President Allende, the bombing of Cambodia and the genocidal invasion of the newly independent country of East Timor.
Today, he is best known for the far-less consequential events around the ‘Watergate’ scandal and related domestic civil rights abuses and corruption. It was the mass media and Democratic Party politicos who have grossly inflated the election campaign chicanery, leading up to the bungled break-in of the Watergate Hotel headquarters of the Democratic Party, which led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. To today’s media spin-masters, ‘Watergate’ was the defining event of President Nixon’s Presidency.
Ironically, after Nixon resigned from office even greater disasters occurred. This paper will enumerate these and compare them with the Nixon presidency.
Far from pursuing diplomacy and peace, subsequent presidents, both ‘liberal’ Democrats and ‘conservative’ Republicans, invaded Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, and Angola and initiated a dozen other highly destructive and economically devastating wars. The two oligarchic parties took turns in shredding Nixon’s comparatively peaceful legacy.
President Nixon, under the advice of National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, supported Israel’s invasion of the Arab countries in 1973 as well as the bloody Chilean military coup in 1973.
President Nixon cynically designed the ‘Southern Strategy’, which transformed the Democratic Party-controlled racist fiefdoms of the US South into racist Republican-controlled states.
Progressives, liberals and self-styled democratic-socialists have played a leading role in ignoring Nixon’s ‘golden years’ in terms of domestic and international policy achievements. Instead they focused on inane and infantile name-calling, like “Tricky Dick”, to describe the man. By doing so, they have failed miserably to discuss national and international issues of historic importance. They have deliberately fabricated a distorted picture of the Nixon era to cover-up for the gross failures of subsequent Democratic Party controlled Congresses and Democratic Presidents.
In this essay, we will briefly outline Richard Nixon’s policies and executive initiatives, which justify our designation of the Nixon’s ‘golden years’, especially in comparison to what has followed his era.
President Nixon: The Great Leap Forward
In the sphere of political, economic and social life, President Nixon pursued policies, which ultimately advanced peace in the world and social welfare in the United States.
In foreign policy and diplomacy, Richard Nixon ended both the draft of young Americans into the armed forces, as well as the decade-long US military occupation of Indo-China, effectively ending the war – and acknowledging the hard victory of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The war had cost millions of Southeast Asian lives.
Nixon visited Beijing and recognized the ‘existence’ of the People’s Republic of China, effectively ending a quarter century of economic blockades and military threats against the billion-plus population of the PRC under three Democratic (Truman, Kennedy and Johnson) and one Republican (Eisenhower) Presidential Administrations. He established full diplomatic relations with China.
Nixon initiated the Security Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements with the USSR and developed diplomatic policies, which recognized the possibility and necessity of peaceful co-existence between different social systems.
On the domestic front, President Nixon established the Clean Water Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with a Federal Government mandate to fight polluters and hold them accountable for the ‘cleanup’ of the environment.
Nixon proposed a National Health Insurance Program – an expansion of Medicare to cover the health needs of all Americans. This radical proposal (a version of ’single payer’) was attacked and defeated by the Democratic Party, led by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy who was backed by ‘Big Pharma’, the AMA and the growing corporate ‘health’ industry.
Nixon imposed price and wage controls that constrained inflation and price gouging and actively punished commodity ‘hoarding’. This was a time of rapid inflation and shortages due to the ‘Oil Embargo’. With these measures, he incurred the wrath of Wall Street, big business and the financial press.
Nixon promoted consumer rights, supplemental legislation to expand Social Security, especially for the handicapped, while defending the retirement age for pension eligibility.
Under Nixon, union membership rose to 30% of the workforce – its high point before its precipitous decline to 12% under subsequent US Presidents.
Nixon increased salaries of federal employees and real wages rose. In the following half-century real wages have declined to only 10% of their Nixon era value!
Nixon indexed Social Security to the real rate of inflation.
The Nixon Presidency initiated the Affirmative Action program and used the Federal Government to push for the desegregation of schools, leading to the first large-scale integration of public education in the South. President Nixon created the Office of Minority Business Enterprises (OMBE); the Occupation Safety and Health Agency (OSHA); and the Legacy of Parks Programs.
Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual wage for American workers, which both Democrats and Republicans rejected and defeated! He promoted Keynesian industrial policies against the financial elites with their mania for speculation.
President Nixon appointed four Supreme Court Justices during his term. Three of his appointees supported the groundbreaking ‘Roe versus Wade’ decision protecting women’s reproductive rights.
Under Nixon the voting age was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen years – giving millions of young Americans a greater political voice.
When Nixon spoke in favor of gun control, both the Republican and Democratic Parties opposed his proposals.
President Nixon supported the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Endangered Species Act, which have remained critical to social and environmental justice.
Richard Nixon was not a ’single issue’ President. The span and depth of his progressive agenda, included fundamental changes in favor of environmental and racial justice, working class economic security and broad-ranging health issues, peace and co-operation with China and the USSR, women’s rights through Supreme Court decisions; pensioners’ rights, and animal rights advocacy. He reduced economic inequalities between the richest 1% of capitalists and the working class. Under President Nixon inequality and the concentration of wealth in the US were far less than they became with subsequent US Presidents and especially during the Obama Administration.
No President, with the possible exception of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Great Depression Era legislation, even remotely achieved Nixon’s domestic socio-economic successes. President Roosevelt, one must not forget, operated under the immense pressure of massive working class strikes and in preparation for World War II, while President Nixon achieved his policy advances during a time of relative ‘peace’.
The Post-Nixon Bi-Partisan Regression
In the 41 years since Nixon’s resignation (1976-2017) there has been a systematic rollback of virtually all of the Nixon agenda. Congress, the liberals, the mass media and Wall Street immediately switched from denigrating Nixon, to praising Democratic President ‘Jimmy’ Carter’s reversal of Nixon’s foreign policy achievements.
Contrary to his media-polished image as a ‘Bible-thumping champion of human rights’, President Carter dismantled Nixon’s policies promoting peace with the USSR and China, especially when he appointed the rabidly anti-Russian, anti-communist Zbigniew Brzezinski for National Security Adviser. The duet created the public image of Carter mouthing human rights rhetoric while Brzezinski formulated a policy of backing dictators and funding Islamist (jihadi) terrorists to undermine Soviet allies. The two-faced ‘Evangelical Christian’ Carter sent confidential letters of US support for the brutal dictator Somoza to prevent the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, while issuing platitudes about peace in Central America.
Carter worked closely with the military dictatorship in Pakistan and the ‘head chopping’ monarchs in Saudi Arabia to launch the bloody forty-year war in Afghanistan, a Soviet Ally. The Carter-Brzezinski-promoted mujahidin war against secularism in Afghanistan led directly to the rise of Islamist terrorism, the Taliban and al Qaeda. Carter’s ‘freedom fighters’ systematically massacred secular schoolteachers for ‘the crime’ of educating Afghan girls in the countryside.
In order to undermine the USSR and other socialist or independent secular countries with Muslim populations, the Carter-Brzezinski duet financed and trained the Saudi-indoctrinated Al-Qaeda terrorists. They were delighted when it spread its poison across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Balkans and the Soviet Union promoting separatism and ethnic cleansing. Their cheers ceased somewhat on 9/11/2001.
Domestically, Carter’s deregulation of price controls led to double-digit inflation and set in motion the long-term decline in wages and salaries, which still plagues the American lower middle and working classes.
Carter appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, who implemented draconian anti-inflationary ‘austerity’ policies reducing domestic consumption and opening the way for the de-industrialization of the economy.
The seismic change in the US, the ‘financialization’ of the domestic economy started under Jimmy Carter and was deepened and expanded under the subsequent Presidents Ronald Regan, George H W Bush, Sr., ‘Bill’ Clinton, George W. Bush (Jr) and Barack Obama. Poverty and permanent unemployment followed.
With deindustrialization, labor union membership declined from 30% of the private labor force under Nixon to less than 7% today. Organizing workers was no longer a priority: The AFL-CIO leaders were too busy chasing after the Democrats for handouts (and get-out-of jail passes).
After Carter, the Republican President Ronald Reagan doubled military spending, brutally broke the strike of the Air Controller’s union by jailing its leaders, whipped up the revival of US interventionism by invading Grenada and sending Special Forces to join the death squads murdering tens of thousands of peasant activists in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
President Reagan’s ‘free market’ polices encouraged US multinational corporations to relocate their factories overseas to Mexico, the Caribbean and Asia, costing millions of US workers well-paying jobs and reducing the number of unionized jobs. The stock markets and profits rose while the ‘American Dream’ of lifetime stable employment in industry began to fade.
Reagan’s threats and his huge military build-up forced the USSR to overspend in arms and strangle its growing domestic consumer economy.
The Reagan-Thatcher (British PM) era marked the demise of social welfare. They imposed the doctrine of ‘globalization’ – in essence, the bellicose revival of Anglo-American imperialism and the end of domestic industrial prosperity.
George HW Bush ‘negotiated’ with Russian President Gorbachev the break-up of the USSR. Despite Bush’s promises not to place US-NATO forces in former Soviet-allied countries, the following period saw the huge US-NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Baltic states. President Bush (Sr.) invaded and savaged both Panama and Iraq, restarting the epoch of permanent US wars.
President George HW Bush promulgated the unipolar doctrine of US world domination, known as the ‘Bush Doctrine’.
The Reagan-Bush regimes emptied the content of the Nixon-era progressive agencies in terms of civil rights, consumer and environmental protection, and wage protection. Unionization declined by over a third.
After ‘war-monger’ President ‘Papa’ Bush, the Saxophone-playing President ‘Bill’ Clinton was elected. While crooning the words, ‘I feel your pain’ ,to American workers and racial minorities, Clinton unleashed Wall Street, ending regulation of banks and investment houses. He re-appointed Alan Greenspan to head the Federal Reserve, a proven master of grotesque financial speculation and the godfather of economic crisis (2007-2009).
President Clinton, passions aroused by the animal spirits on Wall Street (and inside his White House office), launched a vicious assault on the social welfare state, and in particular, low-income working families, single parents and African-Americans. Clinton’s promotion of “Workfare” forced single mothers to accept unsustainable minimum wage jobs under the threat of ending any welfare support, while not providing any mechanism for child care! This one policy savaged hundreds of thousands of vulnerable families. Under Clinton, the prison industry exploded as a multi-billion dollar business.
During the 1990’s, Clinton backed the most retrograde pro-business, debt-ridden regimes in Latin America. Hundreds of billions of dollars of Latin American wealth was transferred to the US. Clinton’s ‘Golden Years for Wall Street’ were a decade of infamy for Latin Americans and led directly to major leftist revolts by the end of the Clinton era.
President Clinton deepened and widened the US military drive for domination in Europe and the Middle East. Clinton bombed and invaded Yugoslavia, especially Serbia – destroying large parts of its capital Belgrade. He bombed Iraq on a daily basis and increased the starvation blockade of that nation. He invaded Somalia and backed Israeli land grabbing-settlement expansion in Palestine. He supported the Israeli savaging of Lebanon. He committed treason by submitting to Israeli blackmail over his sex-capers with Monica Lewinsky and trying to release Israeli spy-US Naval analyst Jonathan Pollard. It was only after an open threat of wholesale resignations by the CIA and other security agencies that Clinton withdrew his proposal to free the traitor Pollard.
Finance capital flourished as Clinton repealed the venerable Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 against bank speculation. He promoted the hugely unpopular NAFTA, (North American Free Trade Agreement) leading to the loss of over two million industrial jobs, as US multinationals absconded to Mexico, where wages were less than one-fifth of the US. NAFTA’s savaging of the Mexican agricultural sector and massive bankruptcies of small producers led directly to the flood of desperate Mexican migrants looking for work in the US.
The Georgetown-Harvard-Oxford trained ‘Bill’ Clinton was the grand wizard of talking like a ‘black preacher’ in southern churches while smoothly pursuing the ‘big bucks’ on Wall Street.
After Clinton, regressive policies increased sharply: President George W Bush (Jr), ‘First Black President’ Barack Obama and ‘First Billionaire President’ Donald Trump all supported the most virulent imperial war policies.
The two terms of President George (Jr) Bush (2001 – 2008) saw unending multi-trillion dollar-wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have destabilized two continents. Junior Bush presided over the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. His anti-Muslim ‘global wars on terror (GWOT)’ was launched under the influence of ‘Israel-First’ militarists who had inundated the Defense Department, National Security staff and Middle East policy and advisory staff in the State Department. Meanwhile, GW Bush deepened unemployment and allowed the mortgage foreclosure on millions of homeowners. The domestic economy was in severe crisis.
By the end of the George W. Bush Presidency, reinvigorated anti-war and social justice movements were gaining strength throughout the country. Arriving on the scene of growing social unrest and with perfect timing, the ‘community organizer’ presidential candidate Barack Obama won the presidency by promising a progressive agenda to undermine the mass popular radicalization against Bush’s unpopular wars, growing inequalities, endless bank swindles, foreclosures and blatant racist policies against Afro-Americans and Hispanics.
Once elected, the ‘First Black’ US President Obama immediately increased Bush’s militarism and handed the criminals on Wall Street a record two-trillion-dollar bailout, ripped out of what remained of public social programs. Elected on a pledge to overhaul the ridiculously inefficient, pro-profit, private health care system, Obama gave the electorate a program of greater complexity and rapidly increasing insurance premiums (’Obama Care’ or the ‘Affordable Care Act’), which ended with a negative impact on the nation’s health.
Under Obama, life expectancy, as well as, the income gaps between the rich and the poor grew at an alarming rate. Inequalities increased with a historic shift of national wealth to the top 1%. The class and health apartheid sharpened in the US. The transfer of jobs abroad accelerated. Multinational corporate tax evasion rose by hundreds of billions of dollars. The gap between African-American wages and white workers increased. Obama deported more immigrants, especially workers from Mexico and Central America, than all four previous presidents combined!
Elected on a pledge to ‘bring the troops home’, President Obama broke the record for waging simultaneous wars of all previous presidents! Obama launched or backed US wars and coups (’regime changes’) in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Honduras and Somalia. After receiving the Nobel ‘Peace’ Prize, President Obama provided advanced weapons to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Obama financed and armed tens of thousands of mercenary terrorists who savaged the secular multiethnic Syrian republic. Furthermore, his administration cynically backed the separatist Kurds occupying Northern Iraq.
Hawaii born and bred, Harvard-educated President Obama had mastered the deep-voiced Southern preacher rhetoric to corrupt the leadership of the social justice and anti-war movements. He coopted the leaders of the mass popular movements to their eternal shame and the movements died. Even the short-lived anti-Wall Street ‘Occupy Movement’ received Obama’s expressions of ’sympathy’ as he backed the unleashing of police dogs and tear gas on the activists!
Obama’s reactionary military encirclement of Russia and China influenced the foreign policy views of a majority of US liberals as well as the mass media – turning them into ‘humanitarian interventionists’ and tools for empire.
Ever duplicitous, Obama signed a ‘unilateral nuclear disarmament agreement with Iran’ and then immediately broke the agreement by imposing new sanctions on Tehran’s banking and oil transactions.
There was great media fanfare when Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba. This move facilitated the entry and funding of pro-imperialist NGO’s committed to ‘regime change’ along the same line as other ‘color revolutions’. Despite the photo-ops with the Cuban leadership, the US trade embargo against the Cuban people remained in place.
Obama’s State Department and Treasury were tasked with sabotaging and overthrowing the elected Chavez-Maduro governments in Venezuela promoting acts of violence, which have thrown the country into chaos. His Secretary of State Clinton orchestrated the violent removal of the presidents of Libya and Honduras and the installation of rabidly reactionary governments whose policies have created hundreds of thousands of refugees and the assassinations of tens of thousands of citizens, human rights and environmental activists.
Obama’s much-promoted corporate for-profit health program brought some degree of insurance coverage to just half of the uninsured poor within its first year. However, after the first year health premiums rose by 25% while deductibles increased beyond the capacity of many working families. Since then, premiums have risen astronomically and coverage is unaffordable or unavailable in many areas of the country. The debt burden of ill health or a sudden medical emergency has increased for the middle and working class under Wall Street’s ‘First Black’ President. No demographic measures of improvement, in terms of life expectancy or life quality, have been documented since the implementation of ‘Obama Care’. Indeed, these public health measures have deteriorated with an epidemic of suicides, opioid-related deaths and premature deaths of all types among the working and rural classes.
After 8 years, the core of the nation, the so-called ‘Flyover States’, where the downwardly mobile working and lower middle class white majority live, was fed up with Obama’s cant and blatantly elitist policies. In was in this context that the distasteful billionaire buffoon Donald Trump capitalized on mass popular discontent and rallied a populace in revolt against the previous ‘war and bankers’ presidents, by promising to end corporate export of jobs, Wall Street corruption, ‘Obama Care’, competition for jobs with undocumented cheap labor and endless overseas wars. Trump hit a raw nerve among scores of millions of voters when he accused the earlier Bush Administration of fabricating the pretexts for the invasion of Iraq as well as for security failures in the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
Within weeks after taking office President Trump gracefully performed an Obama-style ‘about-face’ and emerged a re-anointed warmonger of the Hillary Clinton variety: He celebrated his transformation by bombing Syria, Afghanistan and the defenseless, starving people of Yemen. He sent warships off the coast of North Korea, placed advanced missile installations in South Korea and threatened nuclear war in Asia.
Trump miserably failed to ‘reform’ the corporate health plan concocted by his smirking predecessor. He shed his promise to seek peaceful relations with Moscow and embraced the policies of the worst anti-Russian liberal warmongers groomed by Clinton and Obama. Obama’s overt war posturing had so deeply influenced African-American politicians that they loudly accused Trump of being ‘too soft on Russia’! Former civil rights leaders-turned politicians were calling for greater US military interventions – a spectacle what would have made our sacred civil rights martyrs rolling in their graves.
Trump, building on the immense power already entrenched in Washington, reinforced and expanded the role of finance capital and the Pentagon in determining US policy. Trump pledged to exceed Obama’s arrest and expulsion of immigrants – from 2.5 million workers in eight years to an additional 5 million in his first four-year term.
The US corporate mass media and the liberal left have been pushing the pro-business President Trump even further to the right – demanding the US escalate its nuclear threat against North Korea, mount a full invasion of Syria (for its ‘crimes against humanity’) and, above all, ‘tighten the military noose’ around Russia and China.
By any measure, the policies of President Richard Milhous Nixon were more socially progressive, less militarist and less servile to Wall Street than any and all of the subsequent US Presidents. This assessment is heresy to the current historical narratives promoted by both political parties and the corporate media-academic nexus.
But even during the Nixon Presidency there were already signs of an allied liberal-rightist attack on his progressive ‘conservative’ agenda. Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy blocked Nixon’s proposal for a universal national health system built on an expansion of the highly successful ‘Medicare Program’. Nixon’s proposal (a ‘Medicare For All’) would have been far more comprehensive, effective and affordable than the corporate boondoggles cooked up by the Clinton and Obama Administrations.
What accounts for the dramatic shift from the center left to the far right among US Presidents after the 1970’s? What explains the rise and demise of ‘Nixonian’ progressivism and the great leap backward in the subsequent four and half decades?
Personality and personal background are not irrelevant: Nixon’s class and work background and personal experience with the Great Depression framed some of his outlook despite his ‘conservative’ credentials. However, the social and political balance of forces played the decisive role. Richard Nixon came to national attention as a rightwing militarist and aggressive attack dog for Senator Joesph McCarthy during the 1950s and at the beginning of his Presidential term in the late 1960’s. However, the reality of the multi-million-person anti-war movement challenged American society and influenced the armed forces from within. Even sectors of the mass media became highly critical of the permanent war state. This movement filled the streets, divided families and influenced the institutions and communities leading to a dramatic change in Nixon’s politics toward peace and even toward social and racial justice. Nixon truly became a ‘realist’.
In those days, the industrial trade unions were powerful. Manufacturing formed the basis of the economy and determined the direction of the banking-finance sector. Wall Street played ’second fiddle’ to production.
Fed up with the lack of social progress and opportunity in their communities, African American revolts in the streets were far more effective than the tame black Democratic Party politicos in Congress.
The decline of the social movements and militant labor unions, as well as the retreat to electoral politics among the African American and anti-war movements, ended the independent popular pressure and facilitated the rising power of the pro-war, Wall Street-controlled parties linked to money and speculation. Labor unions became the fiefdoms of corrupt millionaire union bosses who bought protection from prosecution with multi-million dollar campaign donations to both Democrats and Republican politicians. They discarded the Nixon’s social agenda, using the ‘Watergate Scandal’ as a pretext to dismantle his advanced programs.
Presidents and Congresses became beholden to the bankers. The rise, dominance and deep corruption of the Wall Street speculators realigned the economy away from domestic manufacturing to international finance – leading to the great relocation of US factories abroad and the permanent marginalization of the once-organized American working class.
Voters were marginalized as active participants in their own public affairs. They alternated their disaffection between parties and candidates, between big and small spenders, indicted and unindicted swindlers, and exposed and unpunished perverts.
The domestic changes in the economy and social structure were the direct outcome of these shifts in the social and political struggles and organizations.
There is a dialectical relationship between socio-economic changes and the rise and fall of socio-political struggles.
These domestic shifts of power and policy were influenced by the major changes in global power, namely the demise of the USSR, the decline of secular-nationalist regimes in the Middle East, the defeat of the left in Latin America and, above all, the rise of the US imperial doctrines of unipolar power and the globalization. The ‘changing times’ explains everything and nothing! While the objective world determines politics, so do the subjective responses of Presidents.
President Richard Nixon could have escalated the Vietnam War up to a nuclear attack on Hanoi: This is what the current Obama-Trump militarist advisors now recommend for the North Koreans. Nixon could have followed the rightwing ‘free market’ ideology of the Republican-Goldwater faction. However, Nixon took a pragmatic, peace and social reformist position – which have brought us some of our most cherished programs – EPA, OSHA, SALT disarmament, relations with China, even Roe versus Wade, and an end to the military draft.
Subsequent Presidents, faced with the shifts in political, social and economic power, chose to re-direct the nation toward greater militarism and the domination of finance capital. They have systematically attacked and dismantled the social welfare programs, environmental protection, pro-industry legislation, diplomacy and peace pacts initiated by Nixon.
The aphorism, ‘man makes history but not of his own doing’, is central to our discussion of the Nixon legacy. The process of regression is a cumulative process, of leaps and steps. In recent years, regression has accelerated with devastating results for the domestic and world populations. Social power, concentrated at the top, weakens but also alienates power at the bottom and middle. The current configuration of power and policies cannot be permanent, even if the trajectory so far has favored the elite. Social classes and groups are not fixed in their orientations.
Twice in recent years, significant majorities voted for jobs, justice and peace (Obama and Trump) and instead got charlatans bringing greater inequality, injustice and endless wars.
Deception and deep commitments to reactionary politics have penetrated widely among the ‘discontented classes’. African-American political leaders and pundits now demand war against Russia following the pronouncements of their ‘Black President’, Barack Obama. Poor marginalized white workers still support their billionaire leader Donald Trump as he waltzes down Wall Street and into possible nuclear war.
The dialectic of discontent and resentment can lead to progressive or reactionary political and social alignments, even, or especially, in the face of history’s great leap backwards!