Commentary Magazine


An Appointment With Watergate

As the witnesses testified before the Ervin Committee, one could hear the rustling of a two-hundred-year-old American ghost. The Watergate affair, standing as it does for the whole bag of “White House horrors,” was not just the creation of evil men; it was the symptomatic rumbling of a deep strain in American society, of which Richard Nixon has come to seem the almost perfect embodiment. To characterize the behavior which has emerged as “dirty tricks” is to minimize it. To characterize it as “fascist” is to evade its specific American meaning. The United States, and the Nixon administration, had an appointment with Watergate. The form this appointment has taken is significant because of its similarity to certain episodes in America's past; and also significant because of the ways in which it departs from those characteristic episodes.

Watergate begins with the idea, first expressed in the testimony of James McCord and Bernard L. Barker, that the people involved were engaged in a holy mission to combat the secret internal enemies of the United States. Throughout the testimony before the Senate Committee, there runs a self-justifying description of the background of the Watergate horrors: disruptive demonstrations, violence, trashing, bombings, burnings, civil disobedience—much of it conducted by shadowy figures who were never apprehended. And against that background, there was the failure, as the Watergate conspirators saw it, of large segments of the American public to understand the danger fully and the frustrating need this bred, to submit to constraints in fighting it.

John Mitchell, who had come to volunteer nothing, said that the Nixon mission was so important that Mitchell would have done anything “short of treason and high crimes” to insure the President's reelection. Jeb Stuart Magruder, who had come, clean-cut, to volunteer everything, was more explicit. He said that “because of that atmosphere that had occurred, to all of us who had worked in the White House, there was that feeling of resentment and frustration at being unable to deal with them on a legal basis.” And about the clandestine activities of various members of the Nixon team—the break-in and bugging which gave Watergate its name, the Ellsberg break-in, the proposed raid on the Brookings Institution, the “enemies list,” the plans for a new intelligence unit, and so forth—he said: “. . . Although I was aware they were illegal, we had become somewhat inured to using such activities in accomplishing what we thought was a cause, a legitimate cause.”

There is a direct line between the rhetoric of the Watergate conspirators and the statement in 1799 of a prominent Bostonian, Jedediah Morse, who said that the new country had internal

enemies whose professed design is to subvert and overturn our holy religion and our free and excellent government. . . . Among those fruits of their endeavors may be reckoned our unhappy and threatening political divisions; the increasing abuse of our wise and faithful rulers; the virulent opposition to some of the laws of our country; and the measures of the Supreme Executive; . . . the industrious circulation of baneful and corrupting books, and the consequent wonderful spread of infidelity, impiety, and immorality.

But what links Jedediah Morse to Jeb Stuart Magruder is more than a matter of conspiracy theory. It is also a matter of circumstance. In detail, of course, the circumstances of 1799 were different from those of the late 1960's, but their essential nature was remarkably similar, just as both were similar to those of the 1920's. In each case, an important segment of the American population felt that it was being displaced in power and status; in each case this feeling generated a cultural and moralistic “backlash” among the segment in question; and in each case a conspiracy theory was developed to provide ideological justification for the backlash.

_____________

The Backlash of the 1920's

American history is rich in examples of movements fostering some complex conspiracy-theory explanation for the subversion of American morals and institutions by a foreign-linked cabal. These include the anti-Illuminati agitation of the 1790's, the anti-Masonic party of the Jacksonian era, and assorted anti-Catholic movements such as the Native Americans and Know Nothings of the pre-Civil War period and the American Protective Association of the 1890's.1 In trying to understand Watergate, however, it is especially instructive to look at the backlash of the 1920's which was not only typical of such episodes in American history but also had a direct relationship to current events.

In 1920 the Census Bureau reported that, for the first time, urban population was larger than rural population. The metropolitan areas, which were becoming the power sites of the nation, were numerically dominated not by Protestants, but by immigrant Catholics and Jews. And even among the Protestants of the city, those denominations which formed the backbone of the traditional Protestantism of the small towns and rural communities of the Midwest and the South—the Methodists and Baptists—were poorly represented.

For this population the shift of power and status was symbolized and dramatized by defections from the “traditional way of life.” The Scopes trial held the old-time religion up to national ridicule, and the rise of “modernist” morals and manners seemed to signal an even larger cultural decline. In response, Henry Ford's anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent flayed away at those who were undermining the morality of the country by the spread of pornography in Hollywood, the corruption of baseball by gambling, and the deafening cacophony of jazz. In addition to individual efforts like Ford's there also developed a substantial backlash organization, the second Ku Klux Klan. Like its older namesake of Reconstruction days, this KKK was certainly racist, but promoting racism was not its primary purpose. As one historian has pointed out:

The 1920's meant “modernism.” And “modernism” among other things meant the waning of church influence, particularly over younger people, the breaking down of parental control, the discarding of the old-fashioned moral code in favor of a freer or “looser” personal one, which manifested itself in such activities as purchasing and drinking contraband liquor, participating in ultra-frank conversations between the sexes, wearing skirts close to the knees, engaging in various extreme forms of dancing in smoke-filled road houses, and petting in parked cars. A host of Americans were unwilling, or unable, to adapt themselves to this postwar culture. In the Klan they saw a bulwark against the hated “modernism,” an opportunity to salvage some of the customs and traditions of the old religio-moralistic order.

At its height this KKK had a membership of somewhere between three and six million. Some historians estimate that it included a quarter or more of the adult male Protestant population. At various times it virtually ran a number of states, including Oregon and Indiana.

The KKK clothed its cultural backlash with a rich conspiracy theory. Secret collusion and conspiracy are of course a constant in political life, but conspiracy theory goes far beyond the perception of that simple truth. It is comprehensive in nature. It posits a broad network of conspiracy—and it holds that the conspiracy is decisive in shaping the course of history. Several decades after the KKK, and a century-and-a-half after Jedediah Morse, Senator Joseph McCarthy restated the basic assumption of conspiracy theory, which rejects the possibility of honest error and disregards the independent effect of social change on history:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence.

And finally, conspiracy theory holds that the conspiratorial forces are secret because they are evil, and would lose if they fought out in the open. As one post-World War II conspiracy theorist, William Guy Carr, put it:

History repeats itself because there has been perfect continuity of purpose in the struggle which has been going on since the beginning of time between the forces of Good and Evil to decide whether the Rule of Almighty God shall prevail, or whether the world shall literally go to the Devil. The issue is just as simple as that.

_____________

For the KKK, the sources of the Great Conspiracy were “. . . Bolsheviks . . . Foreigners . . . Jesuits . . . and descendants of Abraham.” But the KKK was a fairly loose organization, and different branches would emphasize different centers of conspiracy. The most prominent Northern KKK leader, a former Socialist party organizer named D. C. Stephenson, argued that the Jewish international bankers were responsible for World War I and the deterioration of America. Others made the Jews responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. The Searchlight, the national organ of the KKK, suggested that a secret Catholic army was preparing to take over the country. KKK spokesmen contended that Warren G. Harding had been murdered by Catholic plotters. (Similar charges had been made by earlier extremist movements concerning the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.) And some Klan leaders specifically proposed that the Catholics and Jews were united in the Great Conspiracy.

However, it is important to note that this ethnic bias was a subsidiary element of the conspiracy theory of the 1920's which, like all modern right-wing conspiracy theories, had a more basic and universal “enemy” at its center: the “intellectuals”—writers, journalists, professors, college students, and the educated class in general. (Even the ethnic targets of the KKK were made to fit this basic image of the enemy as intellectual; hence the emphasis on Jesuits and Elders of Zion.)

The intellectuals were secretly conspiring to steal the country from its rightful owners and rulers, and the rightful rulers were fighting back. Thus Hiram Evans, the Grand Wizard of the KKK, expressing a 1926 version of the Middle-American backlash:

We are a movement of the plain people, very weak in the matter of culture, intellectual support and trained leadership. We are demanding, and we expect to win, a return of power into the hands of everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizens of the old stock. . . . This is undoubtedly a weakness. It lays us open to the charge of being “hicks” and “rubes” and “drivers of second-hand Fords.” We admit it.

But if there is a hidden conspiracy, if the enemy is winning by not playing fair, if indeed, he has subverted the very weapons of persuasion, then the ordinary rules of fair play must be broken in fighting him. As one KKK leader put it (prefiguring Barry Goldwater's “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice”):

In a nation, toleration becomes a vice when fundamentals are in danger. . . . The American liberals . . . have extended their liberality till they are willing to help the aliens tear at the foundations of the nation. They have become one of the chief menaces of the country, instead of the sane intellectual leaders they should be. . . .

The backlash of the 1920's, accordingly, was marked by severe violations of democratic procedure. A restrictive and racist immigration law was passed. A General Intelligence Division was established in the Attorney General's office to investigate domestic radical activities. It gathered and indexed the histories of 200,000 people for its suspect files, while the Department of Justice conducted raids which resulted in the arrest of 10,000 people. All this was done without benefit of supporting legislation by Congress. Then state and local governments followed suit, as did private vigilante groups which hounded prostitutes and adulterers as well as political offenders. Some were lynched; many others were tarred and feathered.

_____________

Nixon as Provincial

The displacing developments of the 1920's were interrupted by the Depression and the war, but galloping megalopolization brought them back in the 1960's, and in force. In addition, of course, those who had previously been ruled out of America's “achieving society,” the blacks, now declared themselves in. America's closed frontiers were closing in even further with the evident decline of American power and expansion abroad. Huge, highly-taxing welfare programs were concocted in Washington. The still resentful non-metropolitans, the entrenched labor forces in the cities, the postwar nouveaux riches, all began to feel insecure about their old or newly-won power and status.

This feeling was reinforced and given body by all those activities of the late 1960's ticked off by the Watergate witnesses: disruptive demonstrations, riots, violence, bombings, flag-burnings, civil disobedience. The attack on the culture was made explicit by the drug revolution, the sexual revolution, the gay revolution, and so forth. The moralists of the 1920's had complained bitterly about knee-length skirts; how were their descendants to feel about another eight inches of elevation? And most humiliating of all was our inability to defeat a small and underdeveloped Communist enemy in Southeast Asia. How was all this possible except as a consequence of demoralization and betrayal in high places?

When George Wallace received the support of a quarter of the American people in the opinion polls, he was clearly expressing the virulence of their backlash sentiments. Nevertheless, while everybody (including Henry Kissinger) waited, breathlessly anticipating a repressive right-wing movement like the KKK of the 20's, no such movement ever developed. Instead of the KKK, we got Watergate. Why? The answer to that question lies to a considerable extent in the political career of Richard Nixon and the complex relation of that career to America's backlash tradition.

It has often been pointed out that Nixon was originally the product of provincial America. He was raised in the backwater environments of Yorba Linda and Whittier in the 1920's, an area in which the Klan was relatively strong. Of course, most people in the area did not support the KKK, but they were affected by the same anxieties of displacement which lay behind the Klan. In a latter-day TV interview, Nixon himself said that the fundamental cause of unrest in this country is not war, poverty, or prejudice but “a sense of insecurity that comes from the old values being torn away.” And not only did Nixon grow up in this area; it was also here that he first ran for political office immediately after World War II.

The backlash “package” of the 1920's included anti-radicalism; and after World War II, with the quick outbreak of the cold war, the revelation of widespread Communist espionage, and then the Korean war, militant anti-Communism became a leading backlash staple. Since almost all Americans were anti-Communist in one degree or another, and since there was a real Communist threat in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Korea, China, and Western Europe, it is perhaps more accurate to say that anti-Communism was often used as the centerpiece of a backlash syndrome. Thus, to many on the political Right, Communism was made to symbolize the immoralities of “modernism” in general. As Senator Joseph McCarthy put it: “The great difference between our Western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political . . . it is moral.”

In this environment Nixon ran against Jerry Voorhis for Congress; and a few years later, against Helen Gahagan Douglas for Senator. In the Voorhis campaign he charged that his opponent had the support of radical groups, and that a vote for Nixon was a vote “to preserve the American way of life.” To an American Legion post he declared that “the infiltration of Communists into public office is part of a design to impose a Communist form of government on the American people.” This kind of public antagonism to Communism was a standard part of the temper of the times; indeed it was Jerry Voorhis himself who had authored the law requiring Communists (and any other left- or right-wing subversive group) to register with the Department of Justice. The fact that Nixon could attack the author of such a bill as soft on Communism helped give him his reputation as “Tricky Dick.” And it also began Nixon's identification with the ideological backlash syndrome.

Nationally this identification was established for Nixon by his prominent role in the Congressional investigations and especially in the prosecution of Alger Hiss. In that role, he conducted himself with dogged persistence, but without any marked McCarthy-like excesses. Nevertheless he was pictured as the heavy villain by everyone who refused to accept the fact that Hiss was guilty. Nixon himself, in his Six Crises, pointed to the underlying support for Hiss as

the symbol of a considerable number of perfectly loyal citizens whose theaters of operation are the nation's mass media and universities, its scholarly foundations, and its government bureaucracies. . . . They are not Communists, they are not even remotely disloyal. . . . But they are of a mind-set, as doctrinaire as those on the extreme Right, which makes them singularly vulnerable to the Communist popular-front appeal under the banner of social justice. . . . As soon as the Hiss case broke and well before a bill of particulars was even available, much less open to close critical analysis, they leaped to the defense of Alger Hiss—and to a counter attack of unparalleled venom and irrational fury on his accusers.

By becoming an enemy to this group, Richard Nixon became a hero to the backlash ideologues—a position he consolidated by conducting a slashing anti-Communist campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the Senate in 1950. To be sure, her own Democratic opponents in the primary had referred to her as one of a “small subversive clique of red-hots conspiring to capture, through stealth and cunning, the nerve centers of our Democratic party,” and the like. But Nixon did no less, distributing the famous Pink Sheet handbills which pointed out that Helen Gahagan Douglas had voted 354 times the same way as the Communist party-liner Vito Marcantonio. Most of those votes, of course, had nothing to do with any Communist-related issues, yet such, again, was the temper of the times that Helen Gahagan Douglas ended up publicly accusing Nixon of giving “aid and comfort to the Communists. On every key vote Nixon stood with party-liner Marcantonio against America in its fight to defeat Communism.” In any case, Nixon won and in the process earned additional love from the Right and additional hatred from the Left.

_____________

Nixon as Cosmopolitan

However, if Nixon's reputation as a prime defender of Americanism, the old American virtues, sat well in his Orange County constituency, in the nation's other backlash regions, and in his own mind as a winning political stance, he was also a flawed defender in the eyes of backlash extremists like the leaders of the John Birch Society—flawed by a tendency to cosmopolitanism. In the first place, he had always been an internationalist. From the beginning of his Congressional career, he was deeply committed to and gratified by his work on the Herter Committee which set up the first foreign-aid plans, even though the concept of foreign aid received a negative poll in his own district. Worse still, he argued during the age of Mc-Carthyism that the Republican party must avoid extremism, a position which he expressed later in these words:

It is as wrong for the Republican party to become a far-right party as it is for it to become a radical party. As a matter of principle it can never look back and it must never put itself in the position of dividing Americans into classes. To take the far-right viewpoint would destroy it as a national party.

Of course, this attitude was partly a function of political acuity. But cosmopolitanism among political conservatives is, in general, just that: a function of acuity, of enlightened self-interest based on a history-wise understanding of the necessity not just to “look back,” but to accept and even promote certain types of social change. The “Eastern Republican establishment,” often the educated descendants of the old robber barons, became increasingly cosmopolitan on precisely that basis. Moreover, the cosmopolitan understands that political victory cannot be won in America by a fringe party or an ideologically pure faction, and he understands that majorities only accrue to coalition parties which can engage in political enterprise, which can deal comfortably with some element of change (or with some element of resistance to change, as the case may be: the cosmopolitans in the Democratic party saw that when the McGovern provincials took over from them; and the cosmopolitans in the Republican party saw it when the Goldwater provincials took over from them).

Conspiracy theories and their attendant political implications are obviously not in the cosmopolitan style. Political cosmopolitans usually know that most grand conspiracy theories have, in fact, been old wives' tales. (Some become so “sophisticated” that they resist accepting even routine little conspiracies when they are proved, such as the Communist party spy rings in Washington which were related to the Alger Hiss case.) They know too that history is being changed by social forces which are not in any prime way subject to manipulation, let alone dependent on conspiratorial master-direction. And they know that the kind of departure from democratic process encouraged by extremist thinking is dangerous and normally does not serve their enlightened self-interest.

To be sure, none of this has prevented cosmopolitans from aligning themselves temporarily under certain circumstances with extremist movements and tendencies. During the early 1950's, for example, just such a marriage of convenience took place between establishment Republicans and Joseph McCarthy, although they always basically disapproved of his extremist provincialism and the methods which flowed therefrom.

Nixon was among those who disapproved. Apparently making a distinction between the way he himself conducted electoral campaigns, and the way he conducted government business, Nixon in office constantly pulled back from McCarthy-like statements. Even when armed during the Hiss investigation with clear evidence that high Democratic officials had, for various political reasons, failed to act on information of espionage activities, Nixon said: “There are some who claim that Administration officials failed to act because they were Communist or pro-Communist. But the great majority of our officials were not in this category, and I cannot accept this accusation as a fair one.”

It was in fact Nixon who as Vice President finally engineered the confrontation which sank Joe McCarthy. With the Republican party now in power, McCarthy had, of course, become an embarrassment to it, while Nixon had become a full-fledged member of the cosmopolitan Eastern Republican establishment which had chosen Eisenhower over Taft and had (if somewhat reluctantly) accepted Nixon as Eisenhower's running mate. The result was that Nixon now became an object of attack by the extreme ideologues of the backlash.

Commenting on Nixon's bid for the Presidency in 1960, Robert Welch, the head of the Birch Society, explained that “the Insiders [the conspirators] think they can accomplish far more for the Communist movement, far more safely, with an Eisenhower-type administration, this time under Richard Nixon, than they would with a Kennedy or a Humphrey as President.” When Nixon met privately with Nelson Rockefeller in the latter's Fifth Avenue apartment on the Saturday before the 1960 Republican convention, Phyllis Schlafly, a leading Goldwater pamphleteer, denounced him for making “himself acceptable to the New York kingmakers.” Goldwater himself predicted that the alliance between Nixon and Rockefeller, who seconded Nixon's nomination at the convention, would “live in history as the Munich of the Republican party.” Later, in the California campaign, Joseph Shell, Republican leader of the California Assembly, charged Nixon with being “soft on Communism.”

For his part, Nixon denounced the Birch Society, and seemed to settle down as part of the cosmopolitan Republican establishment. He was booed by the California Young Republicans when he said he wanted to study an anti-Communist proposition before endorsing it, and told them: “The American Constitution has to apply even when you're fighting Communism.”

_____________

Toward Watergate

For all this, however, Nixon never quite lost his favorable reputation among the ideologues of backlash. To many of them he was a strayed soul, perhaps reclaimable, rather than an ancestral enemy. Conversely, to many cosmopolitan Republicans, he remained suspect for the same reason—in addition to remaining subject to the normal dosage of snobbery against the provincial from Whittier, the same kind of snobbery which some of the Democratic elite directed at Lyndon Johnson.

But most important of all in affecting his future role was the fact that while at his cosmopolitan peak, Nixon suffered two demoralizing defeats: for President in 1960, and for Governor of California in 1962. At the end of that last disaster, he gave vent to one of the least controlled outbursts of his public life, possibly his most quoted words:

. . . as I leave the press, all I can say is this: for sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you've had a lot of fun . . . you've had an opportunity to attack me . . . I leave you gentlemen, now, and just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore. . . .

That speech had been festering for a long time. Once, during his campaign for Vice President, when a heckler shouted something about the “secret fund” story which had just broken, in another unprepared outburst, Nixon heatedly replied:

You folks know the work that I did investigating Communists in the United States. Ever since I have done that work, the Communists, the left-wingers have been fighting me with every smear that they have been able to. Even when I received the nomination for the Vice Presidency, I want you to know—and I'm going to reveal it today for the first time—I was warned that if I continue to attack the Communists and the crooks in this government they would continue to smear me. . . .

But the forces he saw unfairly arrayed against him were not restricted to Communists. “The Hiss case,” he later wrote,

brought me national fame, but it also left a residue of hatred and hostility toward me—not only among the Communists but also among substantial segments of the press and the intellectual community . . . who have subjected me to a continuous utterly unprincipled and vicious smear campaign.

Nixon's ultimate triumph, his election to the Presidency in 1968, occurred in a sequence of events which could only have served to reinforce his sense of the power of his interlocking opposition. When Hubert Humphrey left the disastrous Chicago convention, he was 16 percentage points behind Nixon in the polls, in a three-candidate race. Yet by election day, the gap had closed spectacularly, and Humphrey's popular vote was almost equal to that of Nixon. Since polling began in 1936, no Presidential candidate had ever experienced such a precipitous decline. Just as in 1960—so it must have seemed to Nixon—the liberal establishment had again demonstrated its marvelous ability to turn public opinion against him. Little wonder, then, that immediately after taking office in 1969 the administration's chief ideological spokesman, Spiro Agnew, undertook to attack the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” and to complain about news commentators and producers who “to a man . . . live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms the ‘most unrepresentative community in the entire United States.’” The depth of sentiment in high White House circles was expressed even more strongly when Attorney General John Mitchell, after complaining in a press interview in September 1970 about the “stupid kids,” feelingly said: “The professors are just as bad, if not worse. They don't know anything. Nor do the stupid bastards who are running our educational institutions. . . .”

_____________

Thus while Nixon stood against and resisted blatant backlash extremism, and while he repudiated comprehensive conspiracy theories such as were held by the KKK and then by the Birch Society, he did have a markedly adversary relationship to those elements which have always formed the central core of conspiracy theories: the “intellectual community,” the journalists, the Ivy League elite, the “liberals.” Furthermore, Nixon explicitly put these elements together into a connected network, which he had indicated was hostile toward him and toward traditional American values. It was ironic that this man, one of whose main political purposes was to contain the excesses of right-wing extremism which he saw as inimical to the Republican party and to his Presidency, should have carried the atmosphere and the logic of that very extremism right into the White House and into the heart of the Republican establishment. Once in the White House, however, it became easy for the logic of that extremism to unfold, especially given the circumstances which the Nixonites found in Washington.

For the Washington they entered was still a Democratic town. Democrats not only held a majority in Congress, they clearly retained the sympathies of the potent civil service, including its upper echelons—not to mention the press corps, particularly those representing the most influential papers and the national TV news programs. The bulk of consultants were heavily liberal, as were the largely government-financed “think tanks,” from Brookings to Rand. (Brookings was to be the target of a planned break-in, and Henry Rowen, the then president of Rand, appeared on the enemies list.) And then the evidence began to pile up, in the form of leaks and pilfered documents, that persons in high places in government were in collusion with this elite to expose and frustrate the new administration. As John Erhlichman described the way the administration people saw their situation:

There were a number of holdovers in the executive branch who actively opposed the President's policies. . . . These people conducted a kind of internal guerrilla warfare against the President during his first term, trying to frustrate his goals by unauthorized leaks of part of the facts of a story, or of military and other secrets, or by just plain falsehood. The object was to create hostility in the Congress and abroad and to affect public opinion.

Meanwhile, outside government, there was the anti-war movement. Even though the New Left was obviously exhausted, even though the campuses had begun to quiet down by the fall of 1969 in response to troop withdrawals and the disappearing draft, many in the White House, finding confirmation in the May 1970 demonstrations on Cambodia, persisted in believing that the same “extra-parliamentary” forces which had destroyed Lyndon Johnson would, if left unchecked, destroy Richard Nixon too.2

_____________

It was also believed in the White House that the disruptive forces were being supported by foreign funds. When the FBI and the CIA reported that they could unearth no evidence of significant foreign involvement in the domestic New Left or in the anti-war movement, the White House staffers concluded that a new intelligence operation, controlled by the White House itself, was needed. Arguing for such an operation which would include proposals he himself described as “clearly illegal,” a young White House aide, Tom Huston, wrote in a September 1970 memo to Haldeman:

The biggest risk we could take, in my opinion, is to continue to regard violence on the campus and in the cities as a temporary phenomenon. . . . I believe we are talking about the future of this country, for surely domestic violence and disorder threaten the very fabric of our society. For eighteen months we have watched people in this government ignore the President's orders, take actions to embarrass him, promote themselves at his expense, and generally make his job more difficult.

The original plans, though initially approved by the President, were killed by the opposition of J. Edgar Hoover, who apparently saw the scheme as reflecting a negative evaluation of the FBI by the White House. And he was correct in this.

For now even Hoover was suspect. Huston told Haldeman in August 1970 that Hoover “has become totally unreasonable and his conduct is detrimental to our domestic intelligence operation.” He particularly singled out FBI campus coverage as inadequate. And in March 1973, Nixon apparently reiterated to Richard Moore the curious myth which had become the in-house explanation, that Hoover could not be relied on to investigate Daniel Ellsberg properly since Ellsberg's father-in-law was a friend of Hoover's, a statement which, though also spread by Ehrlichman and others, was false.

To be sure, the situation with the FBI is clearly complex. Given the enormous number of terrorist bombings and other illegal acts in the late 60's and early 70's, there can be little doubt that the FBI and the assorted state and local police groups which sought to deal with them were largely unsuccessful. Few of the guilty were apprehended. Rarely did the law-enforcement agencies give advance notice of terroristic acts. As compared, for example, to the Israeli secret police, Shin Beth, which seems to know everything about Arab terrorism, the Americans were a failure. And this fact seemingly justified administration proposals to change proceduces, and even to create new agencies, the secret domestic intelligence evaluation group, under Robert C. Mardian, located in the Justice Department, and the covert “special investigation unit,” under Egil Krogh, in the White House.

Placing blame on the FBI or other investigative agencies for failing to uncover the terrorists, however, ignored the nature of the protests of the 1960's. Unlike the Communist party of earlier decades, or the Arab terrorists today, both with centralized leadership, the recent American “Movement” was composed of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of separate, independent “cells,” many bitterly hostile on ideological grounds to one another. There were few national organizations. Most of those which existed—the SDS, the Young Socialist Alliance, the Progressive Labor party, the Spartacus League—did not take part in terrorism, either for ideological or practical reasons. The bombings, the arson, the raids on government offices, were largely conducted by small local groups, often comprising a handful of people. It was quite impossible for the FBI or even the local police to penetrate these cells. And most of them evidently were clever enough not to let anyone in the above-ground anti-war organizations know who they were.

There was, then, no single large conspiracy, there were thousands of small conspiracies. Few of those were in a position to secure foreign funds or help, although some probably did. Alien subversive forces would have had as little luck in locating the American terrorists as did the FBI; and Mardian and Krogh were later equally unsuccessful in finding them. Hence, both the CIA and the FBI were undoubtedly correct in reporting to the White House that foreign-supported conspiracies did not explain the continuation and spread of terrorism.

But such reports did no good, for conspiracy-theory logic had enveloped the White House. Much as extremists, both of the Left and of the Right, found it impossible to accept the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was a loner linked neither to the CIA nor to Castro, so the White House could not accept a non-conspiratorial interpretation of Daniel Ellsberg's turn-about. Faced with the “betrayal” of a once-trusted supporter of the Vietnam war, they refused to see Ellsberg as a man who has always shown a need for passionate commitment, who, in the words of the CIA psychological profile which they rejected, had always been “either strongly for something or strongly against,” and who had now reached a time of life when many men, especially very ambitious ones, “come to doubt their earlier commitments, and are impelled to strike out in new directions.” The CIA profile asserted that “There is no suggestion that [Ellsberg] thought anything treasonous in his act. Rather, he seemed to be responding to what he deemed a higher order of patriotism.” But in the White House view Ellsberg had to be part of a broader conspiracy, and anyone who doubted this—even the CIA or so reliable an ally as J. Edgar Hoover—must either have been misled or somehow corrupted.

_____________

The Two Sides of Watergate

In short, the behavior summed up in the name Watergate was typical, at least in form, of American backlash extremism. But if this is so, two important questions still have to be answered. First, how did this syndrome get seated so directly in the White House and in the Republican establishment? There had been other backlash administrations in Washington, but such administrations had usually taken care to separate themselves from extremist behavior while sympathizing with or tolerating it. Even after World War I, when the U.S. Attorney General's office was directly involved in a Watergate-type pattern, the activist-extremist centers like the KKK or the American Defense League were outside the government exerting pressure. Here the activist extremist center was the White House itself, and it was evidently self-starting. But secondly, why, emanating as it did from the highest places, should Watergate have been so pale and tepid an expression of extremist action?

The first question seems troubling, the second comforting—but they are both finally the same question, and the answer to both lies in Richard Nixon's remarkable personification of the American split: convincingly enough provincial, convincingly enough cosmopolitan. Because for enough people he stood for the backlash, while for enough people he stood for the resistance to factional extremism, he managed to reach the White House, and he also managed to prevent the formation of a classic extremist movement. He certainly defused George Wallace, who complained bitterly about it many times. Wallace told a national television audience: “I wish I had copyrighted or patented my speeches. I would be drawing immense royalties from Mr. Nixon and especially Mr. Agnew.” In order to defuse the backlash, however, Nixon had to represent it himself, and it was this that brought the extremist syndrome right into the White House. Yet at the same time the “cosmopolitan” climate in which the backlash now had to operate also blunted and made it relatively ineffectual. After World War I Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer set up an extra-legal intelligence agency, and promptly swept many thousands of people into jail. Nixon's first attempt to set up an extra-legal intelligence agency was shot down by a cross word from Hoover, and he fell back to a “plumbers” operation which was neither massive nor very efficient. Second-story men all over the nation must still be chuckling over the ineptitude of the Watergate break-in itself. The plumbers found out nothing in the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and indeed managed only to guarantee Ellsberg's acquittal. Enemies lists were prepared, but for the most part they ended up in John Dean's files without being acted on. The proposal to deny government research grants to MIT because of the objections of its president, Jerome Wiesner, to administration military and foreign policies was never carried through, apparently because of opposition from the Pentagon and other government agencies. In order to harass people through their income tax, White House staff had to resort to sending anonymous “citizens” letters to the IRS, with scarcely impressive results. They bugged the wrong phones. They tried to “get something” on Daniel Schorr of CBS, but succeeded only in alerting him. Nor did they have a “chilling” effect on anyone, in the way that Joseph McCarthy so often did with an essentially one-man operation.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of these activities, nor to dismiss them as merely inept. Presumably, with more practice, the Watergate group could have improved its skills. In any case, a botched burglary is still a burglary, an unsuccessful assault on constitutional liberties is still an assault. But the point is that the Watergate horrors were perpetrated covertly, in the dark of the night, whereas in the 1920's, the illegal activities of the government were carried out in the open, and apparently with the overwhelming approval of the American people. In the Nixon administration, by contrast, the most elaborate operation was the cover-up, which is itself a measure of the restraining power of the cosmopolitan climate not only within the administration but in the nation at large—in, that is, the growing cosmopolitanization of the American people.

Thus, as compared with the 1920's, for example, the American people today are more willing to accept cultural and political differences. All three Presidents of the 1920's—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—publicly expressed themselves in racist terms. Harding supported the immigration restrictions on the basis of inherent “racial differences” and the unassimilability of anyone but Northern Protestants. Coolidge, in an article in Good Housekeeping, argued that “biological laws show us that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Herbert Hoover declared that “immigrants now lived in the United States on sufferance . . . and would be tolerated only if they behaved.” Today no major party politician or officeholder could possibly air such views, and racists who hope to be elected are forced to mute their appeal.

On another front, the public receptivity to charges that liberals are “soft on Communism” has declined considerably, and even during the Vietnam war—a war, after all, against Communism—various restrictions of the rights of Communists were struck down by the courts, by universities, and by trade unions, without a serious murmur from the public. Perhaps the best indication of the growth in cosmopolitanism has been Nixon's foreign policy and its acceptance by the bulk of the American population. A quarter of a century of cold-war anti-Communism in which Richard Nixon himself played a key role simply went out the window in the face of its failure to meet the test of reality in Vietnam and in connection with Sino-Soviet relations.

None of this means that fanatical anti-Communism or bigotry has disappeared. What it does mean is that more and more Americans have learned to lace their biases with democratic restraint. That is the nature of the cosmopolitan impulse, and its growth in the past fifty years seems to be related to the spread of formal education. The 60's taught us that education can breed a cultural intolerance of its own, but for people coming out of a traditionally anti-modernist milieu, education is still likely to encourage a greater readiness to accept diversity, if only on grounds of enlightened self-interest. On that score, of course, the difference between the American population of the 1920's and that of the 1970's is statistically spectacular. Between 1920 and 1970 the proportion of the college-age population enrolled in higher education jumped from 8 to almost 50 per cent. There were 600,000 college students in 1920; there are 9 million today. College professors alone now constitute a major occupational group, over half-a-million, almost as many as there were students in 1920.

_____________

But democratic restraint is not an absolute commitment. It describes a threshold, which in turn relates to level of provocation, level of desperation. Political extremism may be more difficult to make overt than it was in the 1920's, but the dynamic is always there, never expunged. Massive unmet aspirations on the Left—or, as has more often happened in America, unattended status backlash on the Right—can obviously overwhelm democratic restraint under certain conditions, and thus a major function of pragmatic politics in America has always been to prevent those conditions from prevailing. This is why the possibility of a more narrowly ideological national politics seems so ominous.

What Watergate suggests is that just such a withdrawal from cosmopolitan politics may be in store for America. The electorate in general has grown more cosmopolitan largely because of education, but education has also helped to create more ideological fervor at both ends of the political spectrum. According to a study by Everett Ladd, college-educated Democrats are more ideologically liberal and college-educated Republicans are more ideologically conservative than less educated party partisans. And abundant data indicate that well-educated ideologues are the most likely of all to be active in party affairs and to vote in primary elections. When the conservative ideologues captured the Republican party in 1964, the mass of Republicans was in effect disenfranchised, as was the mass of the Democratic electorate when the liberal ideologues captured their party in 1972. To imagine an entirely disenfranchised electorate, we need only imagine a Goldwater-McGovern contest for the Presidency. Watergate has now revealed that we were much closer to such a situation than many thought. McGovern, like Goldwater before him, lost by a landslide because he was seen as a factionalist, an extremist. Nixon, on the other hand, was perceived as a former factionalist who had turned into a pragmatist, a coalition leader, a cosmopolitan. To some extent, this was certainly true of Nixon, but we now know that the provincial, factional, ideological, extremist element in Nixon was also still alive, restrained by his cosmopolitan side but clearly not squelched.

If, then, American society, torn between provincialism and cosmopolitanism, indeed had an appointment with Watergate, it could scarcely have chosen a more likely person to keep that appointment than Richard M. Nixon. The corrolary is that if American society is to avoid backlash extremism in the future, it will have to find ways of preventing the disenfranchisement of the electorate by ideological factionalists, and of making the politics of pragmatism and democratic restraint prevail once again on the national scene.


Footnotes

1 No better analysis of these movements has ever been written than the late Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter should have lived to interpret Watergate for us.

2 As noted earlier in S. M. Lipset's Rebellion in the University, surveys of college students in 1969 indicated that “a majority accepted the new Nixon administration policy of Vietnamization as a means of getting out. The administration was able to co-opt some of the campus opposition. Thus a Gallup survey of college students taken in May 1969 reported that when asked: ‘Do you approve or disapprove of the way Nixon is handling his job as President?’ 57 per cent approved, 37 per cent disapproved, and 16 per cent had no opinion. A second Gallup national student poll taken in the fall found that students were seemingly losing interest in protest, though they remained heavily against the war. Newsweek, in reporting the survey, concluded that ‘the mood of the American campus is apparently undergoing a striking change: militancy and violence are in good measure giving way to passivity and personal introspection, and the revolutionary impulse seems—for a while at least—to have largely spent itself.’”

This situation changed drastically, of course, during the Cambodian events of May 1970, which stimulated the largest wave of student protest ever. But summer vacation and the withdrawal of American troops from Cambodia ended the demonstrations. The fall of 1970 witnessed a quiet campus, and surveys taken indicated a drop in support for radicalism. Increased campus conservatism was suggested in surveys taken in the spring of 1971.

Participants in the “Movement” agree with the import of these surveys. The high point in membership in SDS occurred in 1968-69. By the summer of 1969, it was a bitterly divided, shrunken organization. And the decline in SDS and other New Left groups continued from then on, the Cambodian protest interlude apart. The FBI reported these changes, noting that the anti-terrorist Trotskyist Young Socialist Alliance, with a few thousand members at most, had become the strongest radical youth group.

Thus those in the White House concerned with evaluating the strength of the “extra-parliamentary” opposition misread the signs. They thought the revolutionary “conspiracy” was growing at the very time their policies were undercutting the appeal of the radicals. They were, of course, not alone in this misjudgment. George McGovern's campaign was also premised on the assumption that the “revolution” of the 60's was continuing and even escalating.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.