A Morality Lesson From Richard Nixon

In April of 1961, John F. Kennedy gave the green light to “Operation Zapata” in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro and his Communist regime in Cuba.  The plan was for 1,400 exiles from Cuba to be ferried by the CIA to the shores of the island under cover of darkness, establish a beachhead, and then, advance upon Havana after the US Air Force took out the Cubans’ meager air capabilities.   Tragically, it quickly became clear that the plan was ill-conceived and doomed to failure.  When the exiled forces landed at the Bay of Pigs, they were met by 15,000 Pro-Castro troops.  The secrecy of the mission had been compromised.  Then, to make matters worse, the air support from the US never materialized, so the Cuban Air Force mercilessly attacked them from above.  When they tried to retreat, they realized that the escape route that the CIA had mapped out for them was a death march through 80 miles of swamp and mountains.  The results were predictably devastating — most of the insurgents were slaughtered by Castro’s forces.  The rest were captured.

The Kennedy Administration watched as this giant tragedy unfolded before them.  Faced with the reality that the exiles’ mission could not succeed on its own, many in the Government wanted US troops to invade the island to support the effort and insure Castro’s demise. This seemed like the humane course to take given that we had planned the attack and recruited the Cuban exiles that were now perishing in the Bay of Pigs.  Kennedy, however, rejected that argument and, instead, made the difficult decision to let the mission fail, knowing that by doing so, he would avert heightened aggression with the Soviet Union.  He was concerned that a US invasion of Cuba would be met with condemnation from the world community and, more importantly, would give license to further Soviet aggression within Europe — including their taking of West Berlin from the allied forces.  His decision was costly.  He sacrificed the lives of a lot of people on that day – and doing so tormented him.  He had relied on his advisors to craft a plan to remove Castro and the plan had utterly failed. He knew that the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion would be hung around his neck like a rotting albatross by his political enemies for all the country to see.  He was, mostly, right.

Many of his political opponents, including former President and World War II Hero Dwight Eisenhower, began castigating his decision-making skills as Commander-in-Chief in speeches throughout the Country.  They called into question his youth and inexperience and wondered if he was simply his father’s son – Joe Kennedy had been a major proponent of appeasement of the Nazi’s in the late 1930’s.  They speculated that he didn’t have the backbone to stand up to the new international threat to freedom – the Communists.  Yet in the midst of this tumult, a quiet meeting occurred that simply defied political logic.  Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s chief political rival and defeated election foe, agreed to meet with the President.  The 1960 Presidential campaign had been a hard fought, harsh, and contentious battle – and an extremely close one, as well.  Nixon lost by the thinnest of margins and the loss devastated him.  Thus, Kennedy’s botching of the Bay of Pigs, less than four months into his Presidency, could have been political gold for Nixon.  He could have easily used the debacle to publicly catapult himself ahead of the pack for the 1964 Election by loudly banging the drum that Kennedy was inexperienced, weak-willed, and a Communist Appeaser.  But the curious thing is: he didn’t.  Instead, Richard Nixon met with Kennedy, offered his condolences for the failed operation, and his advice on how to fix it.  And then, after the meeting, he did something truly extraordinary – he showed mercy and grace to a political opponent.  He told his supporters, “I saw a crushed man today.”  But instead of grinding the crushed man further into the dirt, he instructed his Republican friends to resist taking any easy shots at the demoralized President.[1]

Richard Nixon, in the face of easy political gain for himself and his party, resisted attacking his chief political rival because he knew how much the loss of life hurt him and he understood that Kennedy made his decision, rightly or wrongly, because he was weighing bigger issues related to the Cold War.  And even though he disagreed with Kennedy’s position, he understood that keeping a publicly united front in America was extremely important to our foreign policy goals – our enemies could not see us accusing each other of ill motives or incompetence.  It was a decidedly decent act by a man who has since become synonymous with indecent politics.  Fascinating.  I never thought I would write the following statement, but, here it goes: we could learn a lot about decency in Politics from Richard Nixon’s response to the Bay of Pigs.

I shudder to think what Republicans would have said about Barack Obama if he had been in Kennedy’s shoes.  I can only imagine the horrific allegations of treason that would have been thrown at him from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world.  Given that many Republicans have repeatedly called him a communist, a Nazi, a traitor, and anti-American, even as he has had many foreign policy successes — I can only imagine what they would have said if he had approved a failure like the Bay of Pigs.   Of course, recent history gives us an example of how harsh the political rhetoric can be in the face of foreign policy failure.

George W. Bush led the US into war with Iraq based on evidence that Saddam Hussein had already stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and was building more – a position that he inherited from Bill Clinton’s administration and a belief that, in 2003, Democrats and Republicans both shared.  Yet, when no WMDs were found, the attacks he endured from Democrats in America showed no trace of “Nixonian Decency.”  His political opponents used it as an opportunity to savage his character.  Many claimed that he had purposely lied to the Country and had fabricated evidence of WMDs out of his personal hatred for Hussein because Hussein had tried to assassinate his father, George H. W. Bush.  Even more scurrilous, many asserted that our President had led our nation to war simply because he wanted to line the pockets of his friends in the oil business – essentially, an allegation of treason and war profiteering by a sitting President.  The truly absurd thing about these attacks was that many of them came from people who had, themselves, voted for the war against Iraq.   Political opportunity trumped decency.  The results of the next election trumped statesmanship.  Democrats at home fostered a view of America that our enemies willingly embraced – that we went to war for profit and vendetta and not for freedom and national security.

I am concerned that we have become a nation where no honor, no grace, no mercy, no benefit-of-the-doubt, no decency is ever bestowed upon our political opponents.  I fear that we have become a nation where good, decent, and kind citizens think that it is acceptable to “check their goodness and kindness at the door” when they enter a political discussion or listen to a political talk show or make a political decision.  I fear that we have become a nation where we see our political opposites not as opponents who have different ideas for America but, rather, enemies who are bent on destroying America.  I fear that we have lost our desire to discern propaganda from policy.  The net result of these positions is that our political leaders and pundits will make any accusation that will crush their political enemies – even if the accusation increases the hatred of America overseas or damages the faith of Americans in their institutions at home – merely to win the next election.  As absurd as it may seem given his later actions as President, we could all learn a lesson from Richard Nixon – sometimes political victory is not worth the cost incurred by political attack.



[1] This account is relayed in the excellent book about John F. Kennedy by Chris Matthews called, Jack Kennedy: elusive hero, (Simon and Schuster, 2012).

About David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

David Davies is the Editor-in-Chief of Media Rostra. He is also a lawyer and a licensed minister, so he is basically distrusted by everyone on some level. He received his Political Science degree from the University of Tulsa and his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas. He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arkansas, a former "good athlete for his size," and current owner of The Law Offices of David Davies, PLLC -- an Estate Planning and Elder Law firm that has offices in Arkansas and Tennessee. He co-authored, with fellow editor, Aaron Brooks, the article entitled: “Exploring Student-Athlete Compensation: Why the NCAA Cannot Afford to Leave Athletes Uncompensated," in the University of Notre Dame’s Journal of College and University Law.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “I am concerned that we have become a nation where no honor, no grace, no mercy, no benefit-of-the-doubt, no decency is ever bestowed upon our political opponents.  I fear that we have become a nation where good, decent, and kind citizens think that it is acceptable to “check their goodness and kindness at the door” when they enter a political discussion or listen to a political talk show or make a political decision.  I fear that we have become a nation where we see our political opposites not as opponents who have different ideas for America but, rather, enemies who are bent on destroying America.  I fear that we have lost our desire to discern propaganda from policy.” David Davies, “A Morality Lesson From Richard Nixon” […]