Richard Nixon’s tapes and the psychology of division

New tapes from the Nixon White House were recently released. For many observers, the tapes are old news. Nixon’s racism, and particularly his anti-Semitism, was an open secret through most of his political career. The bits and pieces released from his White House tape recordings over the years have only added more and more to this record. So why should we care?

The politics of Richard Nixon are still very much with us in the not-so-subtle racist sentiments of the Republican right, rooted in the “Southern strategy” and appeals to prejudice and fear as the basis for creating a “new Republican majority.” So it is of value to see Nixon through these tapes, with help from Sigmund Freud and Jean Paul Sartre.

First Nixon, in conversation with his aide Charles Colson (who later served prison time for Watergate) “deals” with Irish Americans and Italian Americans. The Irish, Nixon pontificates, are mean violent drunks, especially “the real Irish” (whatever that means).

Freudian psychology uses the concept of “projection,” that is, individuals, especially disturbed individuals, project onto others their own desires and fears and then scapegoat others for having such desires and fears. As a historian, I know that Richard Nixon was a mean drunk – someone who often expressed his deep contempt for his fellow man and woman when he was drunk.

Nixon then goes on to say that Italian Americans “don’t have their heads screwed on.” Many of course came to that conclusion about Nixon.

Later Nixon tells his secretary, Rosemary Woods, that William Rogers, his secretary of state, has a “blind spot on the black thing … because he’s been in New York” (the evil den of liberalism, I guess). Rogers, according to Nixon, believes that African Americans are good for the country because “they are physically strong and some of them are smart.” Nixon feels this might be true in “500 years,” but not in “50 years.” He says, “What has to happen is that they, frankly have to be inbred … that’s the only thing that’s going to do it.” What he means by this in unclear – in earlier releases from the tapes Nixon, campaigning publically against abortion, did say privately that abortion was justified in two instances – when the mother’s health was at risk and when the child was “interracial.” The statements are the essence of racist thought.

Nixon’s anti-Semitism goes back at least to the 1940s when he found himself in conflict with Jewish American progressives. There was often an anti-Semitic subtext in his red-baiting campaigns. But there are some new revelations here.

First, Nixon muses to Colson that Jews have aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious personalities. This is Freudian projection in the extreme, since most of Nixon’s enemies and even many of his supporters came to that conclusion about him.

When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier visits for a state dinner, Nixon tells Rosemary Woods that it is the “Jewish dinner” and leaves orders that “no Jew” who didn’t support his re-election campaign should be invited.

Nixon of course supported Israeli policies strongly in the region and a launched a major air lift in 1973 to assist the Israelis in the fourth Arab-Israeli war. Why? Israel had become the U.S.-NAT0 bloc’s military middleman in the region to protect the oil, something that none of the Arab states could do, either because they were in opposition to the U.S.-NATO bloc at the time (Egypt and Syria) or because they were too weak militarily (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states}

But there may be another reason. In the 1970s the argument was made by certain Europe ultra-rightists that one could support Israel and be anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitic because “the Jews” stood for liberalism, humanism, socialism, integration and cultural pluralism – everything that the right hated. And support Israel because it stood for unrestrained use of military power, was an outpost of “Western civilization” in the Middle East, and finally represented a kind of self-segregation and rejection of cultural pluralism – everything that the right loved. For Nixon then, and for rightist U.S. supporters of Israel’s right-wing policies now, this may very well apply.

There is one new grotesque revelation, though, which gives us insight into the world of imperialist power politics.

Nixon and Henry Kissinger (whose family were German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany) are discussing the question of Soviet Jewish immigration to the U.S. 

Here the statements are on the surface confusing. U.S. policy sought to encourage Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel over Soviet protests, and portrayed the Soviet Union, which had played the leading role in the defeat of Hitlerism and the saving of European Jewish lives, as the world’s leading exponent of anti-Semitism. In this conversation, however, Nixon and Kissinger make it clear that they have no interest in Soviet Jewish immigration to the U.S. Kissinger tells Nixon, “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union it is not an American concern. Maybe a human rights concern?” Nixon agrees.

“Maybe a human rights concern?” Readers should stop and think about that statement. Henry Kissinger survived Watergate and all subsequent attempts to find some way to punish him for his Cold War crimes and crimes against humanity in Vietnam, Chile, former East Pakistan and Africa. His attitude here is a perfect expression of what “human rights” means to those who advance imperialist policies.

Nixon’s anti-Semitic ranting goes on – the Vietnam War “deserters” are disproportionately Jews (a lie which for Nixon is a self-delusion). He even says that “the Jews'” personality problems are rooted in insecurity, a comic expression of Freudian projection

In “Anti-Semite and Jew,” the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre made the point that anti-Semitism (and one might say all forms of racism) is always about the racist, the problems he has, not the group for whom his bigotry creates problems.

Marxists would agree but add that capitalist society fosters racism as a politics of division. It rewards those who practice racism, sometimes in crude, more often in subtle, ways as it rewarded both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Also, capitalism as a system, whatever reforms it enacts to survive in the face of working class struggle , constantly seeks to revert to an economic jungle, to take away all forms of economic and social security working people have gained  And societies which are economic jungles at their base must develop superstructures that are social jungles, filled with racism, sexism, national chauvinism. That is the lesson progressives can learn from Richard Nixon – to continue the fight for economic and social security and justice for all people, the struggle to create societies which will not produce and reward Nixons and Kissingers in the future.

Photo: Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers watch as President Richard Nixon talks with French President Charles DeGaulle, 1969. White House Photo Office Collection, National Archives, via wikimedia.



Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.