(W)Archives: Nixon’s Advice to Reagan…and Today’s GOP
Shortly after the 1980 presidential election, former President Richard Nixon sent an eleven-page memorandum to then-President-elect Ronald Reagan. While the memo’s main thrust was dedicated to staffing recommendations, it demonstrated, once again, Nixon’s Machiavellian approach to international, bureaucratic and domestic politics. The memo, obtained from the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, also has echoes in today’s Republican foreign policy civil war. Its central insight—the need to strengthen the “home base” as a prerequisite to a strong foreign policy—is often called “ isolationism” in today’s Republican Party, a label that would surely surprise Nixon and Reagan both.
Nixon wrote that “decisive action” on domestic issues, such as inflation, was “by far the number one priority.” While he was most interested in the foreign policy aspects of Reagan’s campaign against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, the disgraced president knew that economic issues had the “greatest voter impact.” Besides, according to Nixon’s memo, unless Reagan was “able to shape up our home base it will be almost impossible to conduct an effective foreign policy.” Nixon wanted those difficult economic decisions made early so their election impact would be felt in 1981 rather than 1982 or 1984.
Nixon also wanted Reagan to leave foreign policy to his cabinet, at least initially. Aside from the State Department and the Pentagon, Nixon recommended Reagan avoid “Nixon-Ford people” in favor of “new people” in the top posts. Al Haig, Reagan’s future and short-tenured secretary of state, received a hearty endorsement. But Nixon did not believe Haig’s ultimate replacement George Shultz had the “depth of understanding of world issues generally and the Soviet Union in particular” needed “for this period.” Outside of foreign policy, Nixon stated coldly that those who served in the most recent Republican administrations were, in a line taken from Disraeli, “exhausted volcanoes.”
Nixon himself, however, was far from “exhausted.” The memorandum appears part of Nixon’s effort, code-named project “Wizard” and recently chronicled by journalist Elizabeth Drew, to “become a respected figure” again. But contrary to Drew’s assertion that Nixon made a hard play for a “high-level position” in the Reagan administration, Nixon wrote in the memo that he did not “seek any official position.” Instead, he wanted to “provide advice in areas where I have special experience.” Nixon told Reagan, “I am yours to command,” just as he explained former President Dwight Eisenhower had said to him in 1968. (As with all Nixon matters, this memo must be taken with a grain of salt. It does not disprove Drew’s assertion: he may have been making other, less direct appeals or using the memorandum to officially withdraw his name.)
It is easy to over-state the memo’s impact, though according to Reagan chronicler Lou Cannon it was in line with Reagan’s pollster’s recommendations, and the president-elect took to quoting it in the days after its receipt. But the memo, from someone whose Washington experience Reagan respected, helped reinforce the incoming president’s early predisposition to focus on domestic issues and leave the foreign policy to the cabinet agencies. That early modus operandi had fateful repercussions: Haig’s short, tumultuous stay as secretary of state; historic interagency conflicts; and a laissez faire White House approach to the interagency process that included deliberate downgrading of the National Security Advisor and NSC Staff positions. The ensuing dysfunction encouraged the sort of freelancing that led to the Iran-Contra Affair that almost brought down the Reagan presidency.
The memorandum also has implications for today’s fight for the Republican foreign policy soul. Time and again, prominent Republicans have labeled those in favor of curtailing foreign interventions “neo-isolationist.” Others have begun working to target the “neo-isolationism” taking hold in the party. Nixon and Reagan were the leaders of the two opposing camps of a long-ago Republican foreign policy rivalry; but they both agreed in 1980 that for the nation to play a robust role abroad, it needed to shore up the “home base.” Neither would have called that “isolationism.”
John A. Gans Jr. is a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and an instructor in the University’s Advanced Academic Program. His dissertation reviews the NSC Staff and presidential decisions—including those of Nixon and Reagan—in war.
Photo credit: Seth Anderson (adapted by WOTR)