Bookmark and Share

“‘Winning an election is terribly important, Henry’: Thinking about Domestic Politics and U.S. Foreign Relations”

Thomas A. Schwartz's 2008 SHAFR Presidential Address

In his presidential address to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Thomas A. Schwartz referred more than once to Luke Nichter's Nixon tapes research. Schwartz's address at the 2008 SHAFR annual meeting, held June 26-28, 2008 at The Ohio State University, focused on the links between foreign and domestic politics, citing Nichter's original tape research on the subject of the collapse of Bretton Woods in August 1971. 

With the recent publication of Schwartz's president address in the April edition of the scholarly journal Diplomatic History, scholars now have the opportunity to more fully examine his thought-provoking thesis related to the at times intractable links between domestic and foreign policymaking. In addition, Melvin Small of Wayne State University recently reviewed Schwartz's address in-depth for H-Diplo (pdf, 219k).

President Richard Nixon's unilateral actions in knocking down the international monetary system that had been in place since 1944 ultimately decoupled the link between gold and the dollar, resulting in a worldwide float that began in 1973 which has continued to the present day. The episode played a major role in U.S.-European relations and contributed to the eventual deterioration in Nixon era transatlantic relations.

The following is an excerpt from Schwartz's address that refers to Nichter's Nixon tapes work. 

Schwartz noted:

"With Richard Nixon, memories of his 1960 electoral defeat were haunting him, especially after the Republican Party’s losses in the 1970 midterm election. Oddly enough, Nixon’s decision to begin taping in February 1971 coincides with the intense concerns the President had during that year to avoid becoming a one-term President. Consider the August 1971 decision to end the Bretton Woods system and break the tie between the price of gold and the dollar, beginning the system of flexible exchange rates which remains such an important feature of the international economy. Historians, political scientists, and economists have endlessly debated these decisions, and their significance for changing the global economic system – and marking an important turning point in postwar international history – is widely acknowledged." 

"Yet the decision making, as Luke Nichter’s recently completed dissertation makes clear, was fundamentally domestic, an outgrowth of Nixon’s own belief that Eisenhower’s acceptance of a brief recession in 1960 – in part for international economic reasons – had doomed his earlier presidential bid. (Or as Nixon put it, the Fed “already screwed him once,” and he wasn’t going to let it happen again.)  Nichter’s work involves a detailed examination of the Presidential tapes for the August 1971 decisions, and reveal Nixon’s obsession with political dimensions of any steps he would take. As he emphasized repeatedly to Treasury Secretary John Connally – a man who was similarly steeped in the politics of the matter and shared Nixon’s feelings – “our primary goal must be a continued upward surge in the domestic economy. And we must not, in order to stabilize the international situation, cut our guts out here.” (Nichter, p.123)  

"In dealing with a more skeptical Arthur Burns, Nixon assured him that while he would rely on his technical advice, politics was another matter. “I would be the last to know what the hell this is all about,” Nixon told Burns, “the price of gold, of exchange, two tiers, and SDR, etc. etc. etc. I’m going to have to rely on you … as to what the technical things are.” But then came the kicker, as so often was the case in Nixon conversations: “On the other hand, between now and the election in November, there must be one paramount consideration. And that paramount consideration is not the responsibility of the US in the world, it isn’t outgoing policy, it isn’t the fact that in foreign policy we’ve done this, that, or the other thing, the main thing is that we have to create the impression that the president of the United States, finally, at long last, after 25 years with blood, sweat, and tears is […] looking after [America’s] interests.” The Churchillian rhetoric aside, Nixon made it clear later in the same conversation: “Arthur, the stakes are too high here.  We cannot elect, we cannot elect, and I’m going to say quite candidly, some of those irresponsible people that are running around the country now. We inherited a hell of a lot of hard problems and we’re trying to handle it as well as we can. And that means, frankly, playing this international thing to the hilt politically.”

To listen to the complete conversation referenced above between President Nixon, Arthur Burns, and John Connally, click here. (mp3, 43m)  

To listen to Schwartz's complete presidential address, click here. (mp3, 43m)

For the complete text of Nichter's dissertation, which received the history dissertation prize from Bowling Green State University and is now undergoing revisions for publication, click here.

For more information on SHAFR, click here.



Copyright 2007- |