Richard Nixon – A Great American Progressive? (Part One of Two)


Disclaimer: This two-part article uses the term progressive in the way it’s used in the American political lexicon, which is basically just a synonym for left wing.


 Leave behind us, Footprints on the sands of time” – Longfellow, Psalm of life


This poem by Henry Longfellow was a favourite of Richard Nixon’s during his humble and troubled youth. Nixon in his presidency left many ‘footprints’, however several of these footprints have over time obscured his other presidential footsteps; said hidden presidential footsteps in fact would undoubtedly put Nixon on the progressive/liberal side of the mainstream American political spectrum today.

That’s right, ‘mad dog’ Richard Nixon, the bomber of Cambodia, supporter of the Pinochet coup, recorded homophobic racist, starter of the disastrous and draconian war on drugs,  and of course the star of Watergate, is in fact one of the most progressive presidents in American history. Here are several of these footprints:

The Establishment of the EPA

Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 via executive order to relieve federal government, passing its responsibilities onto a new independent agency more effective in addressing this public concern, overturning the temporary NEPA predecessor agency.

The EPA would then go on in 1972 to pass the clean air act (an act Nixon enforced publicly). Nixon also created a cabinet committee called the Council on Environmental Quality to advise and aid him in developing environmental policy. Nixon’s 37-point environmental action plan made federal agencies for the first time properly consider environmental factors alongside the usual economic factors in their decision making.

Tackling Racism  

Despite espousing some racist views (the Nixon tapes revealed such), Richard Nixon’s administration actually made great strides towards reaching racial equality. He increased the budget for civil rights programs, as it went from $75 million in 1969 to over $600 million in 1972.

Notably Nixon was also the president who finally managed to get schools in the south desegregated, a contentious issue that still haunted American life at the time,  despite the supreme court classifying the enforcement of the dual schooling system to be unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown vs Topeka board of education case. Nixon stood up and publicly declared the system to be wrong in both constitutional and human terms, and then launched a dialogue based campaign to rectify it, in doing such going against the Southern Strategy, as well as his vice president Spiro T Agnew who refused to lead the cabinet committee which co-ordinated the bi-racial committees set up in the states they were challenging.

Tom Wicker a former columnist for the New York Times (Nixon considered him both a critic and an enemy at the time, but would most likely retract such now if he saw what Wicker writes now about him) in his book on Nixon declared that ‘it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived, orchestrated and led the administration’s desegregation effort’.

In an attempt to contain the Black Panther Movement, Nixon also started and encouraged the Black Capitalism Initiative. This is a key part of black liberation, since as Malcom X proclaimed in his 1964 the Ballot or the Bullet speech, ‘our people not only have to be re-educated to the importance of supporting Black business but the Black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business’.

Finally Nixon was behind the revised Philadelphia Order, which made it illegal for government contractors in Philadelphia to not hire African American workers. The law in both its original and revised forms garnered controversy as its opponents said it was making affirmative action quotas – which were banned – legal. Nixon put his weight fully behind the law in congress and managed to successfully defend it against much attack, he eventually reverted on this law a year later after notable industrial action from white steel workers, but he still deserves some credit.

Expanding welfare

Richard Nixon also re-ordered spending priorities, making it so that in the fiscal year of 1971 for the first time in two decades the government was spending more on human resources than defence. Under Nixon The Great Society domestic programmes, which were established under Lyndon B. Johnson to fight poverty, were further expanded. Nixon also endeavored to reform healthcare  with his multiple rejected Nixoncare proposals strongly resembling a more liberal version of Obamacare  decades before the latter’s genesis.

Nixon also raised the minimum wage in 1973 after five years of the wage not rising, but in a cautious manner (he had previously vetoed it in its provision free form). In my previous article I laid out the first part of my case for a citizens income. Nixon was pushing for a guaranteed minimum income even back then, making a compelling case for his Guaranteed Annual Income policy in this 1969 speech.

He also supported the foundation of the Legal Services Corporation (which provides civil legal assistance and aid to the poor and disadvantaged),  broadening nutritional assistance initiatives (i.e food stamps), supplementing the incomes of the elderly/ disabled and providing a tax credit to low and middle income earners. Nixon also signed into law a mechanism that made benefits adjust in line with the then rising cost of living. 

Diplomacy and Détente 

The position of liberals on foreign policy has certainly shifted more to Nixon and Kissinger’s realism over the last decade. After the disastrous intervention in Libya, and the botched post invasion occupation of Iraq (i.e the sectarianism promoted by un-restrained former primer minister Maliki and his collusion with Iran) a thanaopsis for left wing hawks has loomed, Hollande’s relatively successful intervention in Mali being the only positive example left wing hawks have had in recent years.

Nixon’s iconic policy of foreign policy realism was called détente. Its key achievement came to be immortalised by John Adams in his brilliant opera Nixon in China, which chronicled Nixon’s historic re-establishing of diplomatic relations with Communist China via his unexpected week long visit in 1972.

During this visit, he met and spoke with China’s leader Mao Zeodong, in such continuing the diplomatic thawing instigated by ping pong diplomacy a year before. The détente policy extended to cold war rival Russia too. When he was vice president in 1959, Nixon gained recognition from many Russians when he took part in the impromptu and iconic Kitchen debate against Khrushchev.

Nixon was undoubtedly a staunch anti-communist (he launched his congressional career by pushing for the indictment of alleged soviet spy state official Algier Hiss). Yet, despite this he was committed to relieving tensions between the US and USSR.

Three American-Soviet Summits were held under Nixon’s presidency. The first and most significant occurred in 1972, it took place in Moscow and was concluded by Nixon and Brezhnev after eight days. This summit resulted in numerous hallmark bi-lateral agreements, including arms/missile restrictions, measures to reduce and prevent the escalation of incidents between the two superpowers at sea, environmental protection and even measures that paved the way for the Apollo- Soyuz test project (the first joint American and Russian spaceflight). Nixon also saved Israel through aid when the country bore a surprise attack by a coalition of Arab Nations during the sacred Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

Today China is an emerging superpower: it’s OBOR infrastructure scheme is the new Marshall plan, it explores space through its Taikonauts and Shezou Programme and it’s AIIB is a rival to the World Bank. Nixon’s leadership helped bring China out into the open in a geopolitical sense, a change that we still feel to this day.



Second year English and History student. Other spots:

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