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Nixon’s vice-presidential years are arguably the least well known of his long political career. It has been over 20 years since Stephen Ambrose wrote the first and until now only major book to focus on Nixon’s vice presidency. Much has since been released about the Eisenhower administration, and Ambrose’s own research methods have been called into question. But the reason Nixon’s activities between 1952 and 1961 are comparatively little understood also relates to a problem inherent in studying vice presidencies. Big decisions emanate from the White House, not the vice president’s office (though Dick Cheney may have broken the mold). Furthermore, the most influential vice presidents know to keep their advice confidential.
With the publication of “The President and the Apprentice,” Irwin F. Gellman hopes to fill that void. He is a prodigious researcher, who made his name with fine books on Franklin Roosevelt’s Cuba policy and on Sumner Welles. “The Contender,” his first book on Richard Nixon, covered the congressional years, and made the case that other historians had missed the Nixon behind the redbaiting.
In this long-awaited second volume, Gellman continues trying to set the record straight. He sees far less animosity in the peculiar political marriage between Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower than did Jeffrey Frank in his elegant and indispensable “Ike and Dick.” Gellman agrees with most historians that Eisenhower was prepared to drop Nixon from the ticket in 1952 over allegations about a secret fund set up by Southern Californian businessmen. Gellman, who has found the notes Eisenhower made while watching Nixon give the so-called Checkers speech, concludes that the general gained new respect for his running mate. Persuaded that Nixon was being honest, and impressed by his savvy and political courage, Eisenhower started to groom him for the presidency.
Although Nixon is clearly the “apprentice” of the title, what Gellman describes is more like a symbiotic relationship. Young enough to be Eisenhower’s son, Nixon traveled around the world for the president, serving as his eyes and ears. Presidential cynicism played a role in these assignments. Eisenhower exploited Nixon’s unassailable anti-Communist credentials to defend his policies abroad. At home, Eisenhower used Nixon to rally the Republicans’ restive right-wing base, occasionally wincing when Nixon verged on charging Democrats with treason but never ordering him to curtail his Reds! Reds! Reds! roadshows.
In a fascinating chapter on Nixon’s health, Gellman breaks new ground in understanding the man. Nixon’s trusted doctor Arnold Hutschnecker turns out to have been a Dr. Feelgood. Starting in 1952, Nixon sought help from Hutschnecker for a series of stress-induced ailments, and the doctor prescribed a medicine-cabinetful of barbiturates and sleep aids (Seconal and Doriden), tranquilizers (Equanil) and “uppers” (Dexamyl), a potentially addictive, mood-altering cocktail that Nixon apparently took throughout the 1950s and possibly thereafter. We can now reconcile assertions by Nixon’s defenders that he drank little with evidence of strange late-night calls, slurred words and incoherence. As Gellman writes, “At the height of the Cold War, both the president and the vice president could easily have been simultaneously incapacitated, leaving no one responsible for governing.”
Like many Nixon scholars, Gellman believes that there were two Nixons. His private Nixon was a thoughtful pragmatist. The demagogy was political theater. “Nixon,” Gellman writes, “the inflexible anti-Communist in public, was far more flexible in private.” Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on the consequences of Nixon’s cynical use of anti-Communist rhetoric for the country, Gellman focuses on the cost to Nixon’s reputation. Had historians and the news media been allowed to sit in on Eisenhower’s national security meetings, he argues, they would have seen the real, nonideological Nixon. Nixon’s crowning foreign policy achievement, the opening to China a decade later, would not then have so shocked Nixon watchers. “The roots of Nixon’s thinking about East Asia,” he asserts, “go back to his vice presidency.”
Gellman’s case for Nixon’s foreign policy pragmatism this early on is not persuasive. There is nothing in the book to suggest that Nixon was inclined to think a two-China policy possible. Nixon returned from a 1953 meeting with the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek singing his praises, despite the fact that the delusional Chiang was lobbying for support of a 600,000-man army to invade the mainland and topple Mao. More important, Gellman tends to play down the scattered but unmistakable evidence that Eisenhower and Nixon disagreed on how cold the Cold War should be. Eisenhower, for example, wanted to expand East-West trade as a way of forcing the Soviets to be better players in the game of nations; Nixon thought this a bad idea. Nixon favored American armed intervention to help the French win their war in Indochina in 1954. Eisenhower wisely disagreed. In sum, when Eisenhower deviated from hard-line Cold War policies, at least in his first term, Nixon was uncomfortable.
It is on the explosive issue of race where pragmatism may be the best explanation for Nixon’s vice presidency. Nixon was Eisenhower’s personal representative to the civil rights community, and “The President and the Apprentice” provides a thorough accounting of his activities. Gellman rightly points out that the Eisenhower administration’s record on civil rights was as significant as the Truman administration’s. And Nixon was comfortable among African-Americans to an extent not shared by Eisenhower or Truman. African-American leaders like King took notice.
Gellman is convinced that Nixon was a sincere advocate of civil rights. “Fighting for racial justice,” Nixon wrote privately in 1958, “is for me a moral as well as a legal obligation.” As a result, Gellman sees Nixon as unfairly tarred with racism. “During my 20 years of Nixon research,” Gellman says, “I have not found him uttering any racial slurs.” He then cites another scholar, Luke Nichter, to demonstrate that even on the infamous tapes, where Nixon revels in using every other dirty word, the N-word does not escape his lips.
People of good faith can debate whether in fact they hear that word on the often muddy recordings, but racism is not exclusively the use of an epithet. In two chilling conversations with Daniel Patrick Moynihan in October and December 1971, Nixon discussed the implications for federal social policy of “science” allegedly showing that the Negro race was genetically inferior. Nixon, at least as president, believed that race largely determined I.Q.
Although Gellman’s research is extensive and his work on Nixon’s well-being is essential reading, this book is like a feast that leaves one hungry. A bit too quick to distance himself from the most single-minded of Nixon’s critics, Gellman provides an equally simplistic theory for what lay behind the actions of a publicly loyal vice president. His Nixon is a little bland: loyal, eager and, though politically cynical, deeply misunderstood. As vice president, Nixon clearly did not have the power to be “the most dangerous man in America.” That power would come later.
THE PRESIDENT AND THE APPRENTICE
Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961
By Irwin F. Gellman
Illustrated. 791 pp. Yale University Press. $40.
Timothy Naftali, clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University, is the founding director of the federal Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
A version of this review appears in print on September 13, 2015, on page BR26 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Unlike Ike.
In Nixon’s Gamble, set to be published Oct. 1 by Lyons Press, USA TODAY editor Ray Locker examines how the secret government established by President Richard Nixon ultimately brought down his administration.
In an exclusive excerpt below, Locker looks at how Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were alarmed in May 1969 by the number of leaks coming out of the government about Nixon’s foreign policy. The president and Kissinger were particularly incensed by a May 9, 1969, story in The New York Times about U.S. warplanes bombing targets in Cambodia, which was then a neutral country. They asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to help them find the leakers, and Hoover proposed having William C. Sullivan, the FBI’s longtime intelligence division, supervise wiretaps on government officials and journalists to see if they could determine who was leaking to the press. They found almost nothing, but Sullivan’s participation meant that the crafty longtime FBI official knew one of Nixon’s biggest secrets.
Sullivan, the man on whose shoulders rested the responsibility for the wiretaps, was known to friends and enemies alike as Crazy Billy. The taps would become a few more extra secrets for a man immersed in them. Sullivan looked little like the crisply dressed, white-shirted agents with neatly combed hair who dominated Hoover’s inner circle. Short and pugnacious, Sullivan’s clothes were often rumpled and baggy, a fashion statement his superiors often noted in his annual reviews. His office overflowed with papers, and while Sullivan looked like an absent-minded professor, he sounded like a raspy-voiced Boston street cop. He had grown up on a farm inBolton, Massachusetts, thirty-five miles west of Boston, gone to American Universityin Washington, and then returned home to work as a high school teacher and principal. After four years as an Internal Revenue Service agent, he joined the FBI in 1941 shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His superiors quickly saw promise behind his atypical appearance. He tracked suspected subversives in Milwaukee and then moved to El Paso, where he was mentored by Charlie Winstead, the agent who had gunned down notorious bank robber John Dillinger. By 1944, Sullivan had returned to Washington as an intelligence division supervisor. Hoover put him on his most sensitive investigations; in late 1945, Sullivan fed Bureau files about State Department official Alger Hiss to Father John Cronin, a fervent anticommunist. Three years later the information Sullivan passed to Cronin would end up in Nixon’s hands as he led the case against Hiss.
William Sullivan, the former intelligence chief of the FBI. (Photo: FBI)
Sullivan spent the coldest years of the Cold War spying on suspected Soviet agents and tracking Americans helping the Soviet Union. Communists were Hoover’s obsession. The Bureau developed its own counterintelligence program spying on Soviet and other agents in the United States. As deputy to Assistant Director Alan Belmont, who led the Bureau’s Domestic Intelligence unit, Sullivan started his first operation against suspected communists inside the United States in 1956. His performance reviews noted his avid study of communism. President Eisenhower and other officials desperately wanted to know more information about Soviet intentions. Their ardor only increased when the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957 and scared Americans about their head start in the space race. In some years, Sullivan gave more than sixty lectures around the country on the threat of communism, earning plaudits from civic and law enforcement groups.
Sullivan’s counterintelligence agents used the same techniques on suspected communists that they used during the war on Nazi and Axis operatives. They broke into homes and offices, tapped telephones, and mailed threatening letters to the wives and colleagues of members of groups agents wanted to destabilize. They created suspicions about disloyalty or infidelity by posing as cops who called targeted organizations to make them suspect each other was an informant. They sought less to build criminal cases but to destabilize and weaken their targets until they no longer posed a threat. Eventually, however, their focus changed from known communist groups to those with rather ephemeral connections to communism, such as the NAACP or local Boy Scout troops. It was, as Sullivan would tell a Senate committee almost twenty years later, a “rough, tough, dirty business and dangerous,” but one Hoover, his agents, and their clients thought they were winning. They had few, if any, regrets. These programs, operating under the designation COINTELPRO, were some of the FBI’s biggest secrets.
By 1961, Sullivan had become director of the Domestic Intelligence division and the FBI’s representative to the US Intelligence Board, a joint panel whose members included the heads of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. That put him at the heart of deliberations for national intelligence estimates ranging from the Soviet Union to China to nuclear proliferation. Hoover cared little about these meetings, which enabled Sullivan to build relationships with other intelligence chiefs, including CIA directors John McCone and Richard Helms. Eventually Sullivan concluded the United States needed a more integrated intelligence system in which agencies collaborated instead of fighting each other. Helms, in particular, agreed. He and Sullivan cooperated behind Hoover’s back often, including during the 1965 US occupation of the Dominican Republic, when Hoover sent FBI agents into what Helms considered a CIA operation. Sullivan knew Hoover would have fired him if he had learned what he and Helms were doing. Sullivan did it anyway.
William Sullivan helped send FBI information to opponents of former State Department official Alger Hiss, a suspected communist. (Photo: Associated Press)
Sullivan developed a band of eclectic friends beyond those of the typical FBI agent from Hoover’s closed circle. He became close to those at the heart of the Kennedy and Johnson Pentagon, particularly Haig. He got to know Kraemer on the anticommunist lecturing circuit, and they had a relationship in which the Pentagon strategist felt comfortable enough to drop into Sullivan’s office and accuse McGeorge Bundy, John Kennedy’s national security adviser, of being a “Fabian Socialist” who viewed nuclear war as “unthinkable.” He traded suspicions of domestic intelligence threats with James Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief who grew increasingly paranoid after he was burned by his friendship with British spy and traitor Kim Philby. Vernon Walters, Nixon’s former translator and later the deputy director of the CIA, was another with whom Sullivan would discuss how to improve the nation’s domestic intelligence network. Sullivan also befriended and influenced a generation of young reporters who would mature to become some of the nation’s most influential, such as columnists Robert Novak and Jack Anderson and a former navy lieutenant turned Washington Post reporter named Bob Woodward. Starting in 1969, Novak said, Sullivan provided him with a steady stream of tips about subversive groups operating in the United States.
The Bureau’s counterintelligence operations expanded greatly during Sullivan’s tenure as FBI intelligence chief, and fell under the umbrella known as COINTELPRO. First, because Hoover suspected communist manipulation of the civil rights movement, Sullivan started a program against Martin Luther King Jr. and other movement leaders. Despite the lack of evidence, Hoover believed that King would emerge from his cloak of nonviolence and suddenly embrace an angry, violent brand of Black Nationalism. Agents tapped King’s home telephone and the many hotel rooms in which he stayed while on the road. Eventually they gathered enough recordings to create a “sex tape” of King with other women. Sullivan authorized sending the tape to King’s home with a letter calling King an “evil beast.” The FBI’s intimidation never worked with King, who only fought harder. Although it never uncovered anything remotely close to communist manipulation of King, the Bureau continued spying on King until his assassination in April 1968. No matter what Sullivan said or what the evidence showed, Hoover never stopped trying to destroy King. After King’s death, the Bureau spied on his widow, Coretta Scott King, and kept on digging up what it considered incriminating information on King’s successor at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, until the COINTELPROs were stopped in 1971.
William Sullivan developed a close relationship with CIA Director Richard Helms in the 1960s. (Photo: NONE, XXX ABC)
Sullivan was an equal opportunity secret policeman. While he hounded King and the civil rights movement—at Hoover’s insistence, Sullivan would later claim — he also led the Bureau’s successful penetration of the racist Ku Klux Klan in 1964. FBI agents and informants destabilized the white hate group at the peak of its fight against the civil rights movement. They created bogus Klan chapters run by informants and sent anonymous letters to Klan family members, much as they did to King, aimed at breaking up their marriages. By the end of the 1960s, they had broken the Klan, Sullivan bragged.
From the Klan, the FBI’s COINTELPROs moved to more aggressive black groups, such as the Black Panthers, and then to what the FBI called the New Left, a grab bag of student groups focused mainly on their opposition to the Vietnam War. Sullivan knew they posed no real threat. Most of them just wanted the United States to get out of Vietnam, particularly if it meant they would be drafted and sent there to fight. Sullivan still gave COINTELPRO all he had and held little back. His FBI record teems with his memos to Hoover and other officials about the aggressiveness of intelligence and counterintelligence activities at home and abroad. He vigorously carried out Hoover’s paranoid vision. There was a reason Sullivan was the one subordinate Hoover addressed by his first name.
Throughout it all, Sullivan developed a reputation as the FBI’s liberal house intellectual with his dark, horn-rimmed glasses and Democratic leanings. Sullivan had also mastered the Bureau’s Byzantine politics. He burned, as former associate and rival Cartha DeLoach said, with “more ambition than sense.” His rivals and friends considered Sullivan passionate and unpredictable. His subordinates adored him, because he favored action against the enemy within, be they Soviet spies, civil rights leaders, Klansmen, or student radicals. Those instincts brought Sullivan into greater conflict with Hoover, as Sullivan thought Hoover had lost his nerve and wanted to do too little, especially when it came to cooperating with other agencies. Hoover wanted to preserve an FBI monopoly on intelligence; he bitterly fought the creation of the CIA and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. He punished those who cooperated with anyone.
Hemmed in at the FBI, Sullivan turned increasingly to his friends at the CIA. Angleton’s doubts about FBI intelligence assets infected Sullivan. He, too, began to wonder if Soviet bloc operatives were playing the FBI. If Hoover would not allow a stronger FBI, Sullivan believed, he would have to find a way to bring the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies closer together. The US intelligence community was not reaching its potential, Sullivan told Helms in October 1968. They needed to find a better way to move “ahead of the winds of change instead of being blown by them later on willy-nilly.” Nixon’s call for wiretaps and a crackdown on leaks could not have found a more willing collaborator.
Locker is the Washington enterprise editor of USA TODAY and author of Nixon’s Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration, to be published Oct. 1.