Tag Archives: Cold War

This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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This Day in History 11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thefalloftheberlinwall1989The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.

Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders.  The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.

Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War.  Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold.  For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.

For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever.  If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games. 

 I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist.  Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained.  When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room.  I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship.    No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE). 

Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.

Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace.  They were there, and they we there to stay.  As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist.  It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.” 

Then I heard about what was happening in Poland.  Yes, I was a wierd kid: the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa fascinated me. 

I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union.  A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime.  The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982.  Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.

The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power.  By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up.  Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost).  On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted.  There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.

The result was a flood of anger and resentment.  Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc.  The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.

Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down.  And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west.  That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.

As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now.  Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad.  But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget.  Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.

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A Long-Winded History of Presidential Addresses to Congress

ObamaSpeechThe Presidential address to Congress is the “After School Special” of American politics.

In the course of over two centuries of representative government, the President sometimes summons both houses of Congress to deliver an address that contains a “very special message.”  It usually involves a “national crisis” or an “urgent threat” which “imperils our national character.”  At the same time, the President asks to “stop bipartisan bickering” in order to “find a solution” so that “America can be strong again.”

In the end, we all learned an important lesson (cue the Full House moral music).  Both sides decide to settle their differences.  More often, they wait until the President stops spouting and continue business as usual.  Besides, everyone hated that “Just Say No” episode of Punky Brewster, anyway.

I was thinking about these addresses as I was reading about the hubbub from President Obama’s recent address to Congress concerning health care reform.  You would think that such an address would be effective, considering the exalted office and the rare instance of both houses sitting together.

History has proven otherwise.

Giving speeches to Congress is one of the few tasks of a President that is spelled out specifically in the Constitution.

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” – United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 3, Clause 1.

The “State of the Union” is the only speech the President has to do by law, and he doesn’t even have to show up.  Notice that the Constitution doesn’t say “give a speech”, but rather “give to the Congress Information…”  Thomas Jefferson thought giving a speech from the “Throne” was too much like the British monarch opening Parliament, so starting in 1801, he wrote his address to be read by clerks.  This practice continued until Woodrow Wilson reverted to speechmaking in 1913.   

Presidential addresses to Congress apart from the “State of the Union” were extremely rare.   According to the clerk’s office of the U.S. House of Representatives, the President has only addressed both houses 61 times in American history.  60 of these speeches were given after 1913.   

The first joint-session address was John Adams’ address of May 16, 1797.  He addressed the legislature about the worsening relations between the United States and Revolutionary France.  Since many of the legislators were pro-French, the address fell on deaf ears.  This would not be the first time.  Between 1797 and 1913 not a single speech was made by a sitting president to a joint session of Congress.  Not even Abraham Lincoln—although the guy was painfully shy, so he gets a pass.

The real maelstrom of hot air begins in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  The guy had it all: bookish snobbery, rabid racism, and a dipstick diplomacy that opened up for a second world war.  Oh how he shared his book learning with the world: his 18 speeches before Congress is still a record, and it doesn’t even include his State of the Union addresses.  He touched on everything: tariffs, currency reform, Mexican relations (before WWI, the Mexican Revolution was a big problem.  The 1914 message was probably about Pancho Villa alone.), railroad disputes, and of course, that little problem out there called World War I.

Chief executives have been comparatively mum since old Woody left us in 1921.  The following are some important Presidential speeches since 1913.  You can judge how effective they are.

April 2, 1917 – Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war against Germany.  On December 4th, just for good measure, he sneaks a war declaration against Austria-Hungary into his State of the Union address.  You know, in case Germany felt lonely.

January 8, 1918 – Wilson again, this time at his dipstick best.  Here he outlined his plan for peace in postwar Europe: his famous “Fourteen Points.”  When the final treaty came up a couple years later, the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected it.  This was probably the last time a Massachusetts senator voted against a Democratic President.

February 7, 1923 – Warren Harding addresses Great Britain’s mounting indebtedness to the United States.  This is unremarkable, except to remind Americans when our money was actually worth something.

December 8, 1941 – Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war on Japan following Pearl Harbor.  This time, Germany decides to jump the gun and declare war on us.  You know, in case Japan felt lonely.

March 1, 1945 – Roosevelt delivers the results of the Yalta Conference, where FDR feebly called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” while Uncle Joe molested his nephews by keeping Eastern Europe for himself.

November 17, 1947 – Harry Truman outlines US aid to postwar Europe.  Postwar Europe responds by purchasing tight-fitting sweaters, smoking filterless cigarettes and developing an anti-American attitude that would make Uncle Joe proud.

March 17, 1948 – In his address about European security, Truman told a packed House chamber: “Uncle Joe took WHAT??!!”

January 5, 1957 – Dwight Eisenhower delivers speech on the state of the Middle East.  He says two words: “Fucked up.”  He then corrects himself, “Sorry.  Fucked up royally.”  Ike makes his tee time at Congressional with time to spare.

May 25, 1961 – in his only non-State of the Union speech, John F. Kennedy addresses a host of “urgent national needs,” such as foreign aid, national defense, civil rights and the space race.  He urges speedy resolution, as he senses he’s “on the clock.”  In fact, he’s just being fellated by a stewardess under the podium.

March 25, 1965 – Lyndon Johnson addresses Congress on the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Southern legislators put fingers in their ears, pretending not to hear.  An hour with Huey Newton and a ball-peen hammer makes them whistle a different tune—and it ain’t “Dixie.”

June 1, 1972 – Richard Nixon reports on his trip to Europe: “Yep, they still hate us.”  Continues covering up Watergate.

October 8, 1974 – Gerald Ford speaks on the economy, learning the hard way that oil-rich Arab sultans do not accept mood rings as collateral.

April 20, 1977 – Jimmy Carter pleads with America to conserve on energy.  Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda are the only ones who listen.

February 18, 1981 – Ronald Reagan wants to talk about economic recovery, but can’t remember.

April 28, 1981 – Reagan remembers what he wanted to talk about in February, inflation.  His solution involves inflating Moscow with radioactive waste.  Tip O’Neill chuckles politely.

September 11, 1990 – George H. W. Bush addresses Congress and the nation about the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  Bush can’t stand letting that precious crude go to waste.  September 11 passes insignificantly for another 11 years.

March  6, 1991 – Bush comes back to announce that the war is over: he got his crude back.  Good boy, Schwartzkopf. 

September 22, 1993 – Before both houses of Congress and with the economy in the shitter, Bill Clinton takes a stab at health care reform.  America goes ballistic and elects its first Republican Congress since the Truman years.  Bill sticks to riding the coattails of a surging tech bubble.  He also keeps his stabbing to young interns from now on.

September 20, 2001 – George W. Bush addresses a shocked nation reeling from the horrors of 9/11.  He announces the creation of a “Director of Homeland Security.”  At first, he wasn’t sure what this meant.  After reading up on Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo, Dick Cheney got the hint.  He then filled in the boss with the details.

September 9, 2009 – Barack Obama takes another stab at health care reform, with an economy in the toilet and Americans disgruntled at his policies.  Sounds a lot like 1993, doesn’t it?

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