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Must Read for Any Historian Interested in the Nixon Presidency
on January 31, 2012
Joan Hoff's purpose in, Nixon Reconsidered, is to reassess the Nixon presidency by removing Watergate from the analysis. Hoff carries out this reevaluation by relying chiefly on newly released archive materials from the Nixon White House and interviews with Richard Nixon and many officials in his administration. Although she does mention Watergate, she states that her focus is on Nixon's domestic and foreign policies. Hoff's central thesis is that Nixon's presidency should be remembered first for domestic policy, next for foreign policy, and last for Watergate.
An empirical methodology is employed throughout this monograph. As such, it is no surprise that Hoff spent ten years consulting both primary and secondary source materials. Most of the primary sources came from government archives, but she was also able to gain access to the personal files of several key members of the Nixon administration. Hoff organizes this book into ten chapters divided in three parts. In Part I, Hoff reevaluates Nixon's domestic policy, in Part II, she examines his foreign policy, and in Part III, she discusses Watergate. Hoff uses no graphic aids in this text, but she does include a comprehensive bibliography, index, and abbreviation list.
To support her assertion that Nixon's domestic policy overshadowed his foreign policy, Hoff focuses on four separate domestic issues. These issues include environmental legislation, Native American policy, New Federalism, and civil rights. In regards to the environment, the Nixon administration has a successful and progressive record of accomplishments. For instance, the Nixon administration oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and federal regulation concerning "oil spill cleanup, pesticides into the ocean, noise pollution, and state coastal zone management." However, like many of Nixon's domestic policy accomplishments, these achievements are often ignored.
The Nixon administration's policy towards Native Americans was also progressive and successful, according to Hoff. The essential element of this policy was that Native Americans should have control over the decisions that affected them. This policy took form in the appointment of several tribal members to key positions in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Another example can be seen in the Nixon administration's advocacy for the land rights of Native Americans. For instance, this administration drafted legislation that returned sacred land around Blue Lake, New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo tribe. These actions made Nixon very popular among Native Americans.
Next, Hoff examines Nixon's "New Federalism." This domestic policy was an ambitious effort to change the structure of the federal government. The results of this effort can be seen in the reorganizing of the executive branch to mirror a corporation. New Federalism also changed the structure of the federal government via the 1972 State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act. This Act created the very popular revenue sharing program by which the federal government gave money directly to state and local governments with very few strings attached. Essentially, this act transferred power from the federal bureaucracy to state and local governments. In this way, Nixon's New Federalism marked a significant change in the way that the federal government operated.
Hoff asserts that Nixon's policy on civil rights is equally important. For instance, the Nixon administration oversaw the desegregation of Southern schools, expanded equal opportunity, and supported legislation aiding minority owned business. So, in these four areas, of environmental legislation, Native American policy, New Federalism, and civil rights, Nixon's domestic policy was both successful and ambitious. Hoff writes, "Ultimately, these domestic programs may be remembered longer than his currently better known activities in the realm of foreign policy."
In Part II, Hoff reevaluates Nixon's foreign policy by examining "Nixinger" diplomacy, détente, and Vietnam. Hoff argues that each of these areas show that "Nixon's diplomatic legacy is weaker than he and many others have maintained." For example, "Nixinger" diplomacy refers to the process by which Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon would formulate foreign policy. Hoff argues that this system was seriously flawed. Hoff writes, "instead of compensating for each other's weaknesses and enhancing strengths, Nixon and Kissinger shared their worst characteristics." One of those bad characteristics was an extreme distrust of the bureaucracy that created and implemented foreign policy. The result of this flaw, Hoff argues, was that during the Nixon administration, the White House served as the State department. Hoff goes on to explain the two most important foreign policies that resulted from Nixinger diplomacy: détente and Vietnamization.
Hoff also faults détente, the Nixon administration's policy of liberalizing relations with the Soviet Union, for two reasons. First, since agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union were made in secret, the Nixon administration had to constantly contend with diplomatic initiatives in the senate that would undercut these agreements. Second, this method of negotiation made the personal relationships between Nixon and Kissinger and their Russian counterparts instrumental to accomplishing foreign policy objectives. So, after Nixon resigned, détente was much less effective. For these reasons, the significance of détente n in American foreign policy was short lived.
Hoff concludes Part II with a discussion of the failure of American foreign policy in Vietnam. Hoff's primary argument is that in the pursuit to achieve "peace with honor," via Vietnamization, Nixon prolonged and widened the scope of the war. This occurred for several reasons. First, Nixon's theory that bombing Cambodia would increase pressure on the Vietnamese to negotiate a settlement was not sound. This bombing also increased opposition to the war in the United States. Second, Nixon's argument that the war was justified on moral grounds did not ring true in light of the carnage caused by the war. Third, and perhaps most importantly, these policies destabilized the entire Indochina region. Thus, the failure of "Nixinger" diplomacy, seriously undermine the legacy of Nixon's foreign policy.
In Part III, Hoff examines the legacy of the Watergate scandal using a computer analysis of the transcripts of the White House tapes. One important point that she makes about here is that Watergate established a double standard. To put it plainly, high government officials can get away with crimes that the individual would not. As evidence of this, Hoff cites George Bush's "midnight" pardons of the men involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Another important point that Hoff makes is that none of the Watergate reforms have resulted in a safer political system. Hoff writes, "Watergate is more than Nixon because the potential for future Watergates is as great as ever." Essentially, Hoff is arguing that Watergate was an aberration that skews scholarly understanding of the Nixon administration.
This book has both strengths and weaknesses. One strength of this book is its heavy reliance on primary source documents. On the other hand, one significant weakness is that Hoff does not achieve her aim of analyzing the Nixon administration by removing Watergate from the analysis. In reality, Watergate is mentioned in every chapter and the entire third section of the book discusses different aspects of the scandal. So, she makes a much better case that Nixon cannot be evaluated without an understanding of the Watergate scandal. Nonetheless, because of Hoff exhaustive research and use of primary sources, this book could still prove useful for an individual interested in this topic.