A Personal Reminiscence: Richard Nixon Twice Had Mideast Peace in His Grasp

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A Personal Reminiscence: Richard Nixon Twice Had Mideast Peace in His Grasp

By Richard H. Curtiss

"The Rogers initiative...was the first American step on the correct path...There were two factions in the U.S. who had sponsored the initiative: Rogers and a group of State Department experts who were fully convinced of the need to establish peace in the area in order to safeguard American and Western interests. There was, however, an opposing faction led by Henry Kissinger which believed that it was in the interest of the U.S. to support Israel totally...Kissinger was able to persuade Nixon to adopt his views under the pretext of confronting Soviet infiltration in the area. This was the real beginning of the failure of the initiative."

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister

Mahmoud Riad, 1981

My first newspaper job after army and college papers was in Whittier, California, Richard Nixon's home town. My editor was one of the Republican citizens' committee members who had selected Richard Nixon in 1946 from a bumper crop of young returnees from World War II to run against a well-entrenched Democratic congressman--and win. During my year in Whittier, from 1949 to 1950, the same committee members were working hard in Nixon's successful 1950 senatorial campaign against actress and congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.

I didn't have a horse in that race. My own candidate and hometown neighbor, publisher Manchester Bodie, lost the Democratic primary to Douglas. By general election time in the fall, the Korean war was underway and I was in Los Angeles trying to decide whether to go to Asia with my new employer, United Press, or the brand-new State Department program that evolved into the U.S. Information Agency.

So I voted for Richard Nixon for the only time 22 years later, in the fall of 1972, via absentee ballot from overseas. That was the year of the break-in at Democratic campaign headquarters in Washington, DC's Watergate complex. I was aware of the "third-rate burglary," which seemed an extraordinarily dumb thing for a president's staff to undertake, but it didn't deter my belated enthusiasm for Richard Nixon.

I was aware that he'd come close to achieving Middle East peace early in his first presidential term, with the "Rogers Plan," named for his secretary of state. I was sure he wouldn't let it get away during a second term, when domestic politics would be less intrusive. And, after meeting him in the Middle East toward the end of his presidency, and communicating a little with him since we both "retired," I'm absolutely certain he would have succeeded--except for Watergate.

To understand what went wrong, in a presidency shadowed at every turn by the Israeli-Arab problem, you have to go back to that campaign of 1950. It left deep wounds festering among friends of his defeated rival and her actor husband, Melvyn Douglas. Nixon hit hard from the time he entered Congress. I hadn't realized, until I read his Six Crises, that in his epic public duel with former State Department counselor Alger Hiss in congressional committee hearings in 1948, Richard Nixon's reputation was very far out on a limb.

The whispered charge of anti-Semitism dogged Nixon's political footsteps.

If he hadn't pounced on a seemingly minor inconsistency in Hiss's testimony--which no other member of the committee noticed--instead of Hiss being convicted of passing U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, the aggressive young congressman would eventually have been tried in the court of public opinion and dismissed as a red-baiting demagogue in the mold of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In the rough campaign of 1950, Hollywood friends of the Douglases were convinced that Nixon was painting his opponent and her Hollywood backers red, or at least parlor pink. This was in the interval before Soviet tanks suppressed Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956, when a lot of film industry figures seemed to retain a rosier view of Josef Stalin's tyranny than did the American mainstream. …