[This book review was published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 450-455.]


Book Review


Nixon’s White House Wars

Patrick J. Buchanan

Crown Forum, 2017


          It’s likely that when most people look back on the presidency of Richard Nixon what they think of almost exclusively is the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.  Nixon’s first term (from 1969 to early 1973) is largely overlooked.  Patrick Buchanan, however, calls that first term a time of “extraordinary accomplishment” (even though Buchanan, a conservative advisor to Nixon, opposed much of what was done).  Nixon won reelection in 1972 by carrying 49 of the 50 American states, and in January 1973 polls gave him a 68 percent approval rating. 

          Buchanan points out that by the end of his first term Nixon had completed one of the primary goals of his presidency – successfully to extricate American forces from Vietnam: “the last US ground troops were leaving Vietnam, the POWs were coming home, [and] every provincial capital was in Saigon’s hands.”  (Buchanan ascribes the Communist victory two   years later to Congress’s loss of will, with a resulting failure to continue supporting South Vietnam.)  Nixon’s other actions included the negotiation of two major arms limitation treaties, visits to Moscow for détente and to Mao in China, ending the draft, signing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, setting up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), starting revenue sharing with the states, and much more.    

          In our reviews of Patrick Buchanan’s many previous books (he has twelve before this one), we have found him one of the most insightful commentators both domestically and on the world scene.  His books are of such value that we have reviewed several of them.[1]  Philosopher, historian, political tactician, 1992 presidential candidate, combative public commentator – Buchanan is all of these.  When now he adds a book about his years working inside the Nixon administration, he provides a first-hand account which must in itself (like the memoirs of anyone who has been directly involved in important events) qualify as an historic document.  Readers will find that Nixon’s White House Wars serves a dual purpose: it is an insider’s day-to-day narrative of the thinking and actions at the heart of the Nixon White House, and it is a personal memoir about Buchanan himself. 

Incongruously, his life story mixes oil and water: the detachment of honest, profound historical scholarship combines with a life spent engulfed in the (at least partial) amorality of rough-and-tumble political involvement.  His personality facilitates this; he has an unusual ability to articulate strong convictions while working cooperatively with others who have differing views.  Nixon staffed his White House with people of all stripes, with Buchanan as the steady conservative voice among dedicated liberals such as Patrick Moynihan, Leonard Garment, Bill Safire and Ray Price; “ideological agnostics” such as Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; and brilliant egos like Henry Kissinger. 

The duality in Buchanan’s life provides an explanation for a reader’s inevitable question: “What caused Buchanan to adhere closely to so pragmatic a man in such a setting?”  Buchanan was a man of principle, true; but at the same time he wanted to be “in on the action.”  He “dreamed of working in [Nixon’s] White House.”  The resulting long-term relationship was an interesting amalgam.  Buchanan constantly laid serious intellectual content and political options before the president, preparing his daily news summary, briefing books, answers to expected press conference questions, and over 1,000 memoranda.  That Nixon took them seriously is evidenced by his frequent marginal notes and comments.  Many of Buchanan’s memos must rank among the more philosophical and politically acute writings of any type.  Just the same, this did not cause Buchanan to hold more than partial sway; Nixon, who Ehrlichman said didn’t have a philosophy, wanted “to be with the conservatives, but not of them,” keeping them “at a respectable distance.”  Much of what Nixon did in office was not conservative.  Buchanan was most able to give rein to his conservatism when he wrote speeches for Vice President Spiro Agnew (the most articulate opponent of the 1960s American Left, but who dropped precipitously from the scene when caught in a pay-off scandal), and later for President Ronald Reagan.

Nixon’s aspiration on entering office, Buchanan says, was “to bring America and the world together, and enter history as the Peacemaker President.”  He was not a “small government” libertarian, or even at odds with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  The other side of the coin, of course, was that the Left had hated him since the time when as a member of Congress he had caused the criminal conviction of Soviet spy Alger Hiss; and in the fevered ideological swamps of the late 1960s Nixon stood athwart the anarchy that came so close to tearing the country apart.  These things in themselves gave him a conservative dimension that helps explain Buchanan’s and other conservatives’ friendly disposition toward him.  The strong bond between the two men lasted from the time Buchanan joined his staff in 1965 until Nixon’s death in 1994.  (The bond was almost broken in 1973 when Buchanan came close to quitting, disgusted by Nixon’s obsequious behavior while visiting Mao in Peking.  Buchanan stayed on because he “could do more good” by remaining, but Buchanan’s resilience was such that the disgust didn’t lead to a long-term loss of respect and friendship toward Nixon.)

When Buchanan tells us his reaction to Nixon’s trip to see Mao, he answers a question this reviewer had in mind while anticipating this book.  Would Buchanan, a conservative, join in the well-nigh universal praise given, then as now, to the “historic trip”?  He asks, “When all is said and done, what did we gain from the China trip?” and gives this assessment: “[After] four decades… thanks to $4 trillion in trade surpluses Beijing had been allowed to run at the expense of the United States – China had become a mighty economic and military power… While the regime is not so malevolent as Mao’s, it remains a brutalitarian communist dictatorship… For all of the years since that trip I remained skeptical of its wisdom.  I opposed ceding Most Favored Nation trade status to China, and deplored the hollowing out of American industry.”  In 1973, Mao was in the middle of his murderous Cultural Revolution, and Buchanan shares the sentiment expressed by William F. Buckley that when Nixon toasted Mao “we have lost – irretrievably – any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.”  The toast in effect destroyed the moral case for resisting Communism in Vietnam and elsewhere.[2]   It is significant that Buchanan has nothing to report about the trip’s having helped the United States in Vietnam.  At the very least, a consequence that had greatly concerned Buchanan did not occur: “Those of us who feared that Taiwan had been thrown to Maoist wolves soon to be devoured were proven wrong,” since Taiwan continues and has even “steadily become more democratic, prosperous, and free.”

As one would expect, Buchanan’s memoir runs chronologically, so it isn’t until near the end of the book that he gives us his insider’s view of the Watergate scandal.  This was the scandal that began when in June 1972 “an ex-CIA operative and security man at the Committee to Re-Elect the President led four Cubans in a midnight break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee – to fix a listening device they had planted on DNC chairman Larry O’Brien’s phone.”  Although Buchanan says “Nixon did not know in advance of the break-in,” he is critical of Nixon’s not having led the way in uncovering it.  Instead, Nixon sought to “control” the aftermath.  Eventually, tape recordings made of White House conversations showed that Nixon did know of the cover-up efforts. 

Nixon had been enraged by Daniel Ellsberg’s theft and leakage to the New York Times of the top-secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War.  Instead of relying on the FBI to investigate this “massive breach of security,” Nixon set up a White House investigative unit called “The Plumbers.”  Buchanan turned down a request that he head the unit, which under Bud Krogh went on to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (resulting in “Ellsberg walking free and Bud going to prison”).  When Nixon thought FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was less than diligent about the Pentagon Papers theft, Nixon created yet another “off-the-books investigative unit in the White House.”  This resulted in the Watergate break-in.  Buchanan believed the president should instead have ordered the FBI to press the investigation, and that setting up the ad hoc unit was “terrible judgment.”

Much of 1973 and 1974 was taken up by the burgeoning Congressional and media outcry, which slowly rose to a crescendo.  What ultimately brought Nixon down was the revelation that the White House had a voice-activated  (and therefore non-selective) taping system and that the tapes contradicted “the President’s unequivocal denials of any knowledge of what was being done to cover up Watergate.”  Buchanan had urged Nixon to destroy the tapes while he was still legally free to do so, but Nixon followed others’ advice not to.  In Buchanan’s estimation, “Nixon’s acceptance of [that advice] cost him his presidency.” (In a memo to Nixon, Buchanan said the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator George McGovern, had committed “a far more serious crime, the leaking of top secret documents, wherein he personally encouraged Ellsberg to take them to the Times.  This points to the double standards that held sway in a highly partisan atmosphere.  The New York Times was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for accepting the leak and publishing the Papers.  For his part, Buchanan remained a loyal friend to the man he had served so long.)

We are writing this review in June 2017, and so have no idea how matters will have progressed for Donald Trump’s presidency by the time this is published.  Although it isn’t our intention to draw any parallel to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall, we can’t help but note how similar the atmosphere of 1973-4 was to that of early 2017.  Buchanan points to the strident opposition by “the press and the intellectual and cultural elites [who] loathed Nixon,” and to how the “bureaucracy was hostile.”  He wrote a speech for Vice President Agnew in which he “indicted the networks for biased and irresponsible stewardship of their power over American public opinion.” 

There has for many months been a daily string of “gotcha” stories attacking Trump, including one that charges him with calling all illegal Hispanic immigrants “rapists” when he speaks of those who are.  This comes to mind when Buchanan tells how Nixon was condemned in Life for having cast aspersions on “students of all kinds” when he called those setting off bombs on college campuses “bums.”  In a memo Buchanan sent to Nixon, he spoke of “this daily dribbling of stories – when the picayune is equated with the monumental in headlines in the Times and Post.  In a memo sent in November 1971, well before the Watergate episode, Buchanan wrote that in the aftermath of the 1970 mid-term elections “the national media – television and the national press -- …were bent on the destruction of this Administration.”

The American Left has been loath to accept the 2016 election of Donald Trump.  It reminds us of David Broder’s column “Breaking of the President” years ago in which Broder wrote of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations as “in a fundamental way, an effort by the intellectual elite to obliterate the 1968 election.”

When Buchanan mentions that in Nixon’s day the Supreme Court was led by Nixon’s “old nemesis from his California days, Earl Warren,” it brings to mind how Trump’s moratorium on travel from six countries (which had been designated by the Obama administration as exporters of terror) was blocked by the most left-oriented of the federal Courts of Appeal.   

One of the more striking parallels comes from the deluge of leaks under both presidencies.  Unauthorized revelations from anonymous sources constantly undercut Nixon, just as they have Trump.  Candid expressions of opinion by advisers within the White House became political liabilities, such as when Buchanan’s memo to Nixon highly critical of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was quickly leaked to the press.  In early 1970, Patrick Moynihan sent Nixon a memo arguing that “the time has come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect’… We need a period in which… racial rhetoric fades.”  This, too, was leaked.  Buchanan points out how the New York Times, which published the leaked Pentagon Papers, had denounced a leak about the position taken by Adlai Stevenson during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Times had asked quite sensibly, “How can advisers to the President be expected to give advice freely and easily and at all times honestly if they have to worry about what their arguments will look like in print?”  (This is a point that has importance beyond the subject of leaks.  It goes to the heart of why the confidentiality of communications within the White House is vital to the public interest.  A claim of “executive privilege” is not just an unworthy ruse.)      


There is much more in Nixon’s White House Wars than we have been able to mention here.  Readers will find it a gold mine factually and intellectually.  Like those who build a cairn of rocks on the top of a mountain, we have piled up one favorable review after another of Patrick Buchanan’s writing.  May he long allow the cairn to grow taller.


Dwight D. Murphey



[1]   Readers of the present review may especially like to read our review of Buchanan’s preceding book, which is a memoir giving the details of Nixon’s comeback that led to winning the presidency.  The review of The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority was published in our Winter 2014 issue, pp. 541-548, and appears as Book Review 181 on the website www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info.  Our other coverage of Buchanan’s writing appears on the site as Article 98 and Book Reviews 147, 114, 101, 89, 68, 54 and 48.

[2]   It is worth keeping this in mind when the eventual Communist take-over of South Vietnam resulted from a “lack of will” by the American Congress to continue its support.  Buchanan saw that if virtually everyone (except the likes of Buchanan and Buckley) was agreed that “resisting the spread of Communism” was no longer important, the rationale for American sacrifice disappeared.  Such a moral collapse was, of course, not exclusively the fault of Nixon’s détente with Moscow and obsequiousness toward Communist China.  A consistent, deeply felt opposition to Communism has never been universal on the American scene.  During the course of the Vietnam War, various reasons were given for the American role, and resisting Communism was only one of them.