Politics & Policy

Nixon, Kissinger, and the Times

A newspaper’s long struggle against its bête noire.

It ill behooves the New York Times to become quite so sanctimonious about the latest Nixon tapes, which reveal some comments by the former president and Henry Kissinger about Israel, Russia, the Jews, and other groups. The Times comes to the subject of Nixon and Kissinger, and to the status of Israel and the Jews in the world, with hands that have rarely been clean for many decades. Kissinger stated, during the controversies in the early Seventies over encouragements to the Soviet Union to permit Jewish emigration (which in practice included a great many people whose rabbinical connections were tenuous), that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”


This was a regrettable comment by a man who was a Jewish fugitive from the Nazi atrocities, and an unbecoming sentiment for the president’s principal foreign-policy collaborator. But the conduct of those trying to tie Jewish emigration to every aspect of the Soviet-U.S. relationship was exceedingly irritating, and it was counterproductive, as the Nixon administration secured a vast increase in the numbers of such emigrants when it ceased to be a matter of direct disagreement between the two countries. Dr. Kissinger spoke with no knowledge of being recorded and was strictly correct that Jewish emigration from the USSR was not a primary U.S. foreign-policy objective.


Those who know Dr. Kissinger know his addiction to hyperbole — in professions of undying loyalty, in declarations of the unacceptability of courses he is recommending against, and in advocacy of his preferred methods of action. It is all part of his formidable personality, shaped by his talents as a survivor, not just of the persecutions of the Nazis, but of many public-policy controversies, and as a noted commentator on world affairs more than 35 years after he retired from high public office. These may not be attractive traits, and may sometimes justify acute personal disappointment, but they are well within the range of foibles permitted to talented men who have rendered important service. Dr. Kissinger has certainly earned that indulgence.


This brings us to the qualifications of the New York Times to be quite so unctuous. The Ochs and Sulzberger families that have controlled the newspaper for 114 years ceased many decades ago to construe their Jewishness as a distinction that separated them from American Christians any more than Presbyterians are separate from Episcopalians. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it does imply some surrender of the right to separate Jewish wheat from Jewish chaff. In the autumn of 1938, President Roosevelt famously declared, in reference to Nazi Germany, “There can be no peace if national policy adopts as a deliberate instrument the dispersion all over the world of millions of helpless and persecuted wanderers with no place to lay their heads.” A few weeks later, the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms against the Jews of Germany caused Roosevelt to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Berlin, and Hitler withdrew his from Washington just before Roosevelt ordered his departure. The then publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, great-grandfather of the present Times publisher, called on Roosevelt a few weeks after that to ask that distinguished Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter not be asked to replace the deceased Supreme Court justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, as it might be deemed to underrepresent the West and overrepresent the Jews on the high court. Roosevelt ignored this and Frankfurter joined Justice Brandeis as the second Jewish member of the Court without significant opposition.

The Times has never been in the vanguard of any Jewish causes, domestic or foreign, and was no Rock of Gibraltar in the appeasement and rearmament crises of 1936–41. Its status as an upholder of Israel is at best unexceptionable, but certainly not such as to confer upon it the legitimacy that courage, farsightedness, and consistency, alone, can bestow. And its record as a chronicler of the career of Richard Nixon is almost unrelievedly scandalous. On the last Sunday before Mr. Nixon’s inauguration as president in January 1969, Tom Wicker, then the chief Washington correspondent, wrote in the Times that Mr. Nixon might quite likely blow up the world.


To his credit, Mr. Wicker, clearly having conscientious pangs that have never been pandemical at his former employer, wrote a book about Nixon 20 years ago, titled One of Us, that was a tolerably creditable effort to point out that Nixon had been unfairly demonized. So he had been, perhaps most conspicuously by the Times. In the 1972 election campaign, the Times gave Nixon minimal credit for extracting the U.S. from Vietnam, opening relations with China, negotiating the greatest arms-control agreement in history with the USSR, ending school segregation while avoiding the chaos of forced busing, proposing to end the draft, and founding the Environmental Protection Agency; and it urged the election of George McGovern, even though McGovern was proposing a Vietnam peace more onerous to South Vietnam and the United States than the North Vietnamese were seeking, as the Times itself remarked.


The Times was co-conductor of the lynching orchestra in the Watergate upheaval, covered itself in laurels for successfully urging the severance of treaty-bound, Senate-ratified assistance to South Vietnam after it was invaded again from the North after the peace, and has never ceased to claim as a badge of honor its role in the destruction of a distinguished presidency, the enslavement of Indochina with millions of resulting deaths, and the utter humiliation of the United States. The Nixon administration brought much on itself in the tawdry Watergate affair, but it did not deserve to be assassinated by such Pharisees as the Times. And even in its editorial comment of December 17, the Times refers to Nixon as an “omni-bigoted, hard-wired” anti-Semite. Richard Nixon was a Quaker who had African-Americans home to dinner as a child, who famously befriended them all his life, who was a civil-rights advocate long before the voting arithmetic of it achieved the grace of conversion for the Kennedys. Nixon fought hard as vice president, against Eisenhower and Speaker Sam Rayburn, for aid to the Hungarian refugees in 1956. He resented that the great majority of American Jews voted against him, but his ethnic slurs, on Jews and others, were not as severe as those of Harry Truman (who was instrumental in founding the State of Israel) or other presidents speaking about non-WASP groups. Richard Nixon saved Israel by virtually giving it a new air force in the midst of the Yom Kippur War, and went to a state of war alert with the Soviet Union to do it, during the greatest crisis of his political career.


The Times’s latest attack on him as a racist is a far more shameful and contemptible, public and premeditated falsehood and defamation than anything Nixon or Kissinger said on the Oval Office tapes. And Henry Kissinger should not imagine that the Times would not have pulled out all the stops against him too, if it did not suit their convenience to be comparatively gentle with him, in order to preserve the ne plus ultra of pathological abomination for Richard Nixon. This abuse of the moral stature of the New York Times, so sanctimoniously and relentlessly pursued for so long, has had a great catalytic effect on the new talk-show and blog media that serve the scores of millions of Americans who believe the mainline national media let down, and even betrayed, the country.


— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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