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So which American president wrote this in a letter to his future wife? “Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.” And also wrote this about New York in a letter to his cousin? “This town has 8,000,000 people, 7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelitish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.).”
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It turns out to be one of our greatest civil rights presidents, Harry Truman. The first is an extract from a letter proposing to Bess Wallace. The second is from a letter to his cousin, Mary Noland. They are quoted in a book called “Truman and Israel,” by Michael Cohen. Your editor first wrote about them in 1991, during a controversy over claims that America’s state secretary, James Baker, was an anti-Semite, and a tumult over President George H.W. Bush’s nomination to the United States Court of Appeals of a judge who belonged to a country club with few, if any, black or Jewish members.
The point then — and we’ve made it on a number of occasions since — is that the thing to focus on is not on whether our public officials hold private prejudices. All sorts of people hold private prejudices, including African Americans and Jews. The thing to focus on is what our officials do in their public lives — a point that comes to mind with the latest disclosures from the archival crypt in which the Nixon tapes are stored and out of which the ghostly words of the 37th president occasionally waft, leading the writers of the New York Times to rush out yet another story on how Nixon was a racist and an anti-Semite.
We don’t, just to be clear, blame the Times. The quotes the Gray Lady has come up with are real doozies. Nixon is quoted as telling one of his aides that he himself was not prejudiced but: “I’ve just recognized that, you know, all people have certain traits. The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish. The Italians, of course, those people course don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but . . .”
Here the Times relates that a moment later he came back to the Jews: “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.” The Times quotes Nixon voicing what it characterizes as “sharp skepticism” of the views of his state secretary, William Rogers, in respect of African Americans. “Bill Rogers has got — to his credit it’s a decent feeling — but somewhat sort of a blind spot on the black thing because he’s been in New York,” Nixon said.
Rogers, remarks Nixon, “says well, ‘They are coming along, and that after all they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart.’ So forth and so on. My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years. I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have be, frankly, inbred. . . .”
The report in the Times uses the word “complex” to describe Nixon’s “relationship with Jews,” citing a tape that captures Prime Minister Meir, in March 1973, offering what the Times calls “warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.” Yet it reports that moments after she left, Nixon and his state secretary, Henry Kissinger, were “brutally dismissive” of requests that America “press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.”
It quotes Mr. Kissinger as saying that the emigration of Jews from the Soviet is not an objective of American foreign policy, adding: “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” To which Nixon is captured on tape as responding: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
At one point, Nixon was caught on tape discussing what Jews to invite to the state dinner for Meir — namely, those who had supported Nixon during the campaign. “Is that clear? No Jew who did not support us.” Then Nixon discussed what the Times characterizes as the “inferiority complex” that Nixon perceived among the prominent Jews among his top advisers, who included Mr. Kissinger and William Safire.
The Times reported that he argued that Jews needed to compensate for their insecurity complex. “What it is, is it’s the insecurity,” Nixon is quoted by the Times as saying. “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.” The Times also quotes Nixon as speaking of how he didn’t “notice many Jewish names combing back from Vietnam” but that those who deserted to Canada and Sweden were “very disproportionately Jewish.”
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The question is what to draw from all this. Harry Truman, despite his private views, emerged as one of our greatest civil rights presidents, integrating the Army and recognizing the Jewish state. Nixon himself was, despite whatever private views he held, a liberal on racial matters, a point that was, earlier this year, underscored in, among other places, an interview Shelby Steele conducted with Nixon’s erstwhile labor secretary, George Shultz. Nixon included a number of high profile Jewish Americans in his administration, elevating them to some of the most important offices. It is true that Nixon opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment aimed at liberating Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, a policy that stemmed, we suspect, not from hostility to Jews than but from enthusiasm for détente. It was, in any event, an error that would not really be rectified until the rise of Reagan. After Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur in 1973, though, Nixon did scramble the American military to resupply — and save — the Jewish state. He had been practically endorsed by a celebrated Israel envoy in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. Is one supposed to like Nixon more or less because to do all this he overcame his private prejudices? Is it better to have a president who loves African Americans and Jews and disappoints them strategically? Or one who privately voices prejudice but defends their rights and supports them strategically?
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Editor’s Note: This editorial was updated to touch upon the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act.