Nixon's Obituaries Will Be Kinder in Europe

April 25, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--Throughout his political lifetime Richard Nixon was a figure of bitter controversy and passionate emotion among Americans, and a cause of misunderstanding between Americans and foreigners. The misunderstanding abroad existed among those who admired him as well as those who hated and feared him.

At the start of his career, his reputation in Europe was generally that of a villain, which he was not. Now he is generally considered abroad to have been a major statesman, and the victim of political conspiracy; but that is not true either.

In his early political career, as a young congressman in the 1940s and the early 1950s, he was visible abroad only in connection with the Alger Hiss case, in the context of the wave of congressional investigations of the real and alleged Communist and fellow-traveling links of officials and prominent persons that today is given the summary, if inexact, designation of ''McCarthyism.''

In Western Europe the Communist parties and Soviet propaganda agencies described McCarthyism as the rise of fascism in America. Richard Nixon acquired the reputation abroad of a disreputable and dangerous right-wing politician, harbinger of an American-style Nazism. This reputation accompanied him even after Dwight Eisenhower made him his vice president.

It derived from a misunderstanding both of McCarthyism and of Richard Nixon. McCarthyism was a revival of an old-fashioned American style of populist xenophobia, in the tradition of the anti-Bolshevik, anti-anarchist and implicitly anti-Semitic hysteria that followed the first world war, and the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements of the 19th century. It had no connection to fascism. There has never been an American fascism.

The difference between Richard Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was that the Hiss case involved serious and partially substantiated accusations of espionage, although Mr. Hiss eventually was convicted only of perjury. Mr. Nixon's political exploitation of the affair was crude, pitiless to his Democratic opponents, but in his pursuit of Mr. Hiss he dealt with real issues, which was not the case for Senator McCarthy.

What became known as McCarthyism was the demagogic harassment of large numbers of people who had signed manifestos, joined demonstrations, belonged to Communist-front organizations, or to the Communist party itself, during the years when to do all of that was not only perfectly legal but politically correct in the U.S., as in Western Europe.

Mr. Nixon's period as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president caused foreign observers to take a second look at him, as Eisenhower was all but universally admired abroad for sober and responsible conduct of American foreign policy during difficult years. It did not have the same effect in the U.S., since Eisenhower's endorsement of his vice president's candidacy for the presidency in 1960 was so lukewarm as to amount to a disavowal. The glamour of John Kennedy's three years in the White House, ending with murder, eclipsed Richard Nixon.

He was elected president in 1968 because, in the midst of the great and decisive American national crisis provoked by the Vietnam War, Mr. Nixon promised a way out -- and because he was a conservative, he seemed capable of providing that way out, which his rival, Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, did not.

The doubts that persisted abroad about Mr. Nixon's judgment and political morality were not really dissipated, however, until the beginning of the 1970s, late in his first presidential term. The causes for this change were his policy of detente with the Soviet Union and his arms-control agreements with Moscow, his opening of U.S. relations with Communist China and his withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam.

The last was no victory, but was seen abroad as a reasonably adroit disguise for inevitable defeat. This was the exact contrary to what Mr. Nixon, and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, claimed was the case. Their denials were taken abroad, mistakenly, as subtlety. Many were also ready to accept Mr. Nixon's argument that domestic critics had decisively undermined the United States' position in Vietnam.

Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger said that by changing the terms of the American relationship with Moscow, and by establishing relations with China, they were conducting a classic politics of power balance. The reality was that China played the American link against its Soviet rival, to no profit to the United States. However, the opening to Moscow would have been much more difficult for a Democratic administration, and it contributed to the ferment in Soviet political circles that eventually produced glasnost and perestroika.

Mr. Nixon's downfall in the Watergate scandal was generally misperceived abroad as the result of a political plot. The significance ordinary Americans attached to his violation both of the law and of his constitutional position was not generally understood. Wiretapping and burglary of a rival party's premises seemed in many West European and Asian political circles to be deplorable but unsurprising forms of political conduct. Americans were thought ''puritans'' for becoming so excited about it.

Thus the 37th president was seen abroad, when his political career ended, as more victim than wrongdoer. His subsequent rehabilitation in American opinion as a foreign-policy wise man owed much to the fact that, abroad, he had never lost that reputation.

His obituaries in the overseas press are likely to be much more favorable than in the United States, where memories of him are more complex, and the emotions he provoked are still unquiet.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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