August 9, 1974 is one of my favorite days in history. On that day, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency of the United States. He only did so because he knew he was facing certain impeachment and a probable conviction on at least some of the charges he was facing. The look of despair obvious on his face during his last speech from the White House was enough to make anyone who had opposed his rule almost believe that there was such a thing as earthly justice. Of course, Nixon never had to answer for his crimes. Indeed, when he died in April 1994, anyone listening to the speeches at his funeral would have thought he was an honorable man, a great world leader and a statesman.
Richard Nixon was a crook. He was also a war criminal and mass murderer. He surrounded himself with other men who shared a similar worldview as he did. In other words, he surrounded himself with men who did not believe in democracy but understood what compromise might be required to maintain and consolidate power. His circle of cronies were, like Nixon himself, paranoid, often petty and infinitely capable of surprising the somewhat naïve population of the United States with the callousness of their words and the Machiavellian nature of their deeds. Among those deeds was the manipulation of white America’s racial fears to get elected not once but twice. Another highlight on this list would have to be the creation of the secret police-like Plumbers unit whose work it was to bring down Nixon’s political enemies by any means necessary (legal and otherwise). Yet another was the invasion of Cambodia in spring 1970; an action that was followed by a nationwide rebellion that resulted in the murders of six college students by the forces of law and order and remarks by Nixon that essentially blamed the students for their own deaths. A couple more highlights on this list are the Christmas bombing of 1972 and the 1973 CIA-ITT-Anaconda Copper military coup in Chile.
I could go on, but the point, I believe, is made.
There is an opinion that occasionally pops up among today’s liberals, progressives and even leftists that Richard Nixon was more progressive than Barack Obama. As proof, this argument cites Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, support of Clean Water legislation, his establishment of OSHA, his support of federal affirmative action and his endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment as a constitutional amendment. These things happened in spite of Nixon and his crew of megalomaniacs, not because of them. On top of that, argue those with a truly warped grip on history, he ended the US war on Vietnam. This opinion is nonsense and historically ignorant. The way Nixon ended the war was by killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, at least 20,000 more US troops, and having his henchman Henry Kissinger ultimately sign a peace agreement with conditions almost exactly the same as those that could have been reached with the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front of Vietnam in 1969 when he was inaugurated. In other words, close to a million more people died before Nixon realized that the US would not win the war. As far as the environmental, affirmative action and women’s policies are concerned, Nixon was just reacting to the groundswell of almost universal support for this legislation. Indeed, the underlying reason Nixon did anything progressive was because there was a popular and militant leftist movement in the United States at the time that constantly pushed the political conversation leftward. Nixon, being a shrewd politician and determined to save capital for his masters in the war industry and on Wall Street, used his immense power to push through certain aspects of the liberal/progressive agenda as a means to placate the more moderate populace and to insure capital’s continued hegemony.
This is not to defend Barack Obama. He has been anything but progressive, despite the fact that he campaigned as if he would be. I believe this is why he provokes the angry response that he does from so many of those who voted for him. These voters actually believed that Obama would change the system that he rules over. I had thought Richard Nixon and his successors would have removed such naiveté from the US voting booth forever. After all, Richard Nixon certainly made a good part of my generation very cynical about politics, politicians, and government in general. Perhaps that will be Obama’s legacy for this generation.
Richard Nixon expanded the police state. Despite the investigations by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church in 1975 (The Church Committee) and others in and out of Congress, that police state never really went away. In fact, it has continued to expand to the point it is today. The National Security Agency was spying on US citizens in the 1970s and it’s spying on them now. The FBI and numerous other police agencies were waging counterinsurgency operations against leftist, third world, and anarchist organizations then and they are now. It was under Nixon that these and numerous other authoritarian tactics intensified and became common practice. Obama is just continuing the tradition. It was also Richard Nixon who established the Drug Enforcement Agency, the most draconian, paramilitary and covert of all police agencies funded by US taxpayers. He started the destruction of our civil liberties and civil rights known as the War on Drugs and made the use of racial code words to hide what were blatantly racist policies when put into practice in this and other government programs.
One of my favorite moments in television history remains the few minutes that were shown live the morning after Nixon resigned. Unfortunately, when he waved goodbye, it wasn’t forever. Even worse, the mess he left behind is now business as usual. We are not better off because of that.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.