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By Jim Kempton
Richard Millhouse Nixon was a controversial American political figure. Was he a liberal? Maybe.
Consider this: Facing many of the same problems of America today, Nixon negotiated with enemies, committed to environmental protection and brought American troops home from a long, frustrating war.
He made a peace pact with our arch-enemy, China. The fact that Beijing was openly shipping arms to the North Vietnamese who were killing thousands of American soldiers at the time did not faze the opposition or his own party. That the Chinese were fomenting uprisings in Peru, installing communist dictatorships in Tibet and selling weapons in Uganda were not obstacles to forging a major treaty. The People’s Republic of China (an atheist, nuke-toting, terrorist-supporting communist state) soon became our largest trading partner and the looming world conflict that had been predicted seemed to evaporate.
Nixon instituted a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union. No one accused him of caving to a sworn enemy, (the U.S.S.R.) who’s anti-Semitism, dislike of Israel and aggressive expansion policies were openly flaunted on the world stage. Unlike today, assisting Kenya with overthrowing the government, training terrorists in Cuba, or supporting anti-Americanism in Egypt did not come up for debate while détente was being reached. Though imperfect, the nuclear deal he hammered out with the Kremlin allowed Russia and the USA to enjoy an eight-year truce, lowering the hair-trigger brinkmanship that had existed for decades. Would the Chinese and Russian deals he made be similar to our current deal with Iran?
Early on in his administration Nixon instituted strong environmental policy. He considered civil rights as an important achievement of his administration, which included Title IX equal rights for women. His welfare and health care programs, (which were in many ways more liberal than those of the current administration) were shot down in Congress, but he still signed the Clean Air Act of 1970. Then in the face of major rivers catching fire from chemical dumping and the Bald Eagle nearing extinction from DDT he established the Environmental Protection Agency. There were no “deniers” for this effort.
Far from restricting voter registration, Nixon opened the voting age to 18—at a time when most 18-year-olds would have voted against him. Additionally he took the surplus military budget (as Vietnam wound down) and used it for wars on cancer and hunger, improved social welfare services and support for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And for the only time since the 1800s, he spent more money on social programs than on defense. Unlike the current political opposition, nobody claimed these policies were trying to ruin Americans way of life.
The reminder of Nixon’s achievements is not an apology for his misguided attempt to thwart the legal election process and break dozens of laws that would eventually force his resignation. But the response to his efforts at international diplomacy and environmental protection contrasts so starkly with the current response to America’s leadership in global challenges that it seems sometimes almost surreal.
What his policies illustrate is how far our great nation has swung, when a staunch, unabashedly conservative leader like Nixon looks downright left-wing in today’s America.
Jim Kempton is a surfer and writer from San Clemente who hopes diplomacy will once again be given at least a chance to prevail in global policy. But he knows all too well that Americans’ favorite icons are the Bronc-buster, the bunker buster and the filibuster, not necessarily in that order either.