Media Beat, Apr. 27, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Press Tributes to Nixon Dishonor the Dead

Don't speak ill of the dead.

It's an accepted custom - one that's been shaping media reminiscences of Richard Nixon.

But the rule against speaking unkindly of the deceased is no license to distort history. That dishonors other dead - including those who lost their lives because of Nixon's policies.

The conventional wisdom in the press is that Watergate tarnished a presidency characterized by foreign policy triumphs.

To make the case for Nixon as foreign policy master, unwanted historical facts have to be shuffled, shrunk or ignored.

Virtually every media retrospective hails Nixon for opening U.S. relations with China in 1972. Yet - if it was "genius" to begin dialogue with the state that governed almost one-fourth of the human race - what brand of folly was it to have spent most of the previous 20 years demonizing other Americans who proposed just such a common-sense move?

Nixon had been a charter member of the "China Lobby," which reacted to the Maoist revolution by initiating purges in Washington against diplomats who had "lost China." Policy debate on China was stifled for nearly two decades.

Vietnam was another of Nixon's "foreign-policy accomplishments of historic proportions," in the words of the New York Times: "After at first broadening and intensifying the conflict in Indochina, he ended U.S. involvement in the fighting there."

Nixon didn't end "U.S. involvement in the fighting." He prolonged it. Over 25,000 U.S. soldiers and a half-million Vietnamese - most of them civilians - were killed as President Nixon pursued the war, despite opposition from increasing numbers of Americans.

United States military advisers were still backing a corrupt South Vietnamese government until it fell in April 1975 - eight months after Nixon resigned. He hardly deserves praise for "ending" the war.

One country neglected in news accounts praising Nixon is Cambodia. A focus on his Cambodia policy - which was illegal and deadly - would undermine portrayals of Nixon as a foreign policy whiz.

In March 1969, two months after taking office, Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia in pursuit of Vietnamese communist bases. In the next 14 months, the United States flew 3,630 bombing raids over Cambodia - whose neutrality in the Cold War and the Vietnam War infuriated Washington. Military records were falsified to hide the bombing from Congress.

In March 1970, Cambodia's neutralist Prince Norodom Sihanouk was neatly ousted in a military coup that was smiled on by the Nixon administration. The next month, the United States widened the Indochina War by invading Cambodia - causing massive numbers of civilian casualties and refugees.

The Nixon intervention plunged a once peaceful, neutral Cambodia into chaos, war and dislocation that led inexorably to the victory of the murderous Khmer Rouge in 1975. On the eve of their seizure of power, Republican Rep. Pete McClosky declared that what the United States had done to Cambodia was a "greater evil than we have done to any country in the world."

In recent days, almost every media review of Nixon's life has politely ignored a five-letter word: Chile. Although an obsession for his administration, that country is not cited as one of Nixon's "foreign-policy achievements."

Nixon and top adviser Henry Kissinger did achieve their objective in Chile, which was to prevent the elected president - democratic socialist Salvador Allende - from serving his six-year term. They ended up destroying one of Latin America's oldest parliamentary democracies, replacing it with a brutal military dictatorship that ruled for 16 years.

(While media reports have noted that Watergate brought words like "coverup" and "stonewalling" into the lexicon, they didn't mention that Nixon's effort to subvert Chilean democracy introduced another word: "destabilization.")

As documented in U.S. Senate reports, Nixon administration operatives and the CIA undermined the Chilean economy, sabotaging loans and fomenting strikes. They bribed journalists in Chile to lie about Allende and incite chaos. They plotted the murder of the Chilean Army's commander because he was loyal to democracy. And they pushed the military to stage a coup.

After three years of such destabilization, a military junta struck, dropping bombs on the presidential palace. Allende died inside. Thousands of Chilean democrats were executed.

Pardon us if we seem to be violating the rule against speaking ill of a recently deceased U.S. president. But we keep thinking of that other president, Salvador Allende, who didn't live to see the age of 81.

Richard Nixon's foreign policies were often deadly. When news reports obscure that reality, terms like "coverup" and "stonewalling" are quite apt.

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