Another Nixon Pardon
When will scholars get the chance to legitimately assess his legacy in Vietnam?
As Cornell's Fredrik Logevall noted, the relative paucity of scholars, coupled with their relegation to the first panels, held on a Friday afternoon, leaves the impression that these academics are there for respectability—to be seen and not much heard. Deborah Leff of the Kennedy Library argued to me that putting the historians first was only logical. But compared to the original event, their role has undeniably been diminished. (In talking to me for this article, Weinstein said he still hopes more historians might be included in the upcoming conference.)
The problems are compounded, as Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra University put it, by the inclusion of policy-makers such as Kissinger and Al Haig, which raises questions about the dedication to pursuing historical truth. All policy-makers are inclined to offer self-serving remarks (as Al From, among others, showed at a recent Clinton conference); but for this war and this era, the credibility of government officials is a central, unavoidable issue. Spotlighting Kissinger takes it off the table; it presumes that he deserves the stature that should be debated.
A case can be made, of course, for including even officials with dubious reputations. But they ought to share the stage with panelists who can offer informed accounts that are based on documentary evidence—and who can question the officials directly. Kissinger and Haig are insulated on a panel with no journalists or historians.
To my mind, the worst result is that going forward in this way sweeps under the rug last year's Nixon conference fiasco. It implies that the cancellation of the conference carries no censure, that no amends need to be made. In fact, questions remain about whether the Nixon Library, as it enters the presidential library system, will live up to National Archives standards. As we hear news reports of Gerald Ford growing ill in his twilight years, it's hard not to think of him in this context. For, in a small way, Richard Nixon seems to be getting pardoned all over again.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Richard Nixon by Gene Forte/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images.