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Preface to 1968 edition of Six Crises: "Lessons of Crisis"

January 01, 1968

This book was written between defeats. The 1960 presidential campaign was history, and I was soon to lose the 1962 campaign for Governor of California.

At that point I retired from politics, moved to New York and entered the private practice of law. For the first time, I was able to provide for the future of my family. And with no political future of my own, I was able to reflect about and comment on the American political scene with complete objectivity.

"No political future" was a fair statement. As a lawyer, I had a good career ahead, but as a political force, as I said at my "last press conference" in 1962, I was through.

I wish I could analyze the workings of American democracy and the mystery of public opinion that took a man from "finished" in 1963 to candidate for the Presidency in 1968. I cannot. Not even a statesman who was also a great historian — Winston Churchill — could adequately explain why, after a decade in political eclipse, he was the one called upon to lead his nation in a time of crisis.

There is no doubt, however, about what was not the reason for my candidacy today: it was not by dint of my own calculation or efforts. No man, not if he combined the wisdom of Lincoln with the connivance of Machiavelli, could have maneuvered or manipulated his way back into the arena.

Sometimes a nation is ready and a man is not; sometimes a man is ready and a nation is not; sometimes a nation decides that a man is ready for leadership and his is the right kind of leadership for the time. Only time will tell what course destiny will take in this watershed year of 1968.

Crisis is a recurring theme in American history. In 1776, Tom Paine titled a series of pamphlets The American Crisis, and every schoolboy is familiar with its most famous line: "These are the times that try men's souls."

Not every schoolboy is familiar with another line from The American Crisis: "Not a place upon earth might be so happy as America." That counterpoint of sacrifice and optimism is built into the discussion of every crisis in this book, and every crisis America faces today.

Six Crises was intended to be, and is, a personal memoir and not a history of the Fifties. I wrote in 1961 about the moments of tension and drama that were closest to me, with no presumption that they were the most important events of the time.

How are these personal crises in one man's life relevant to Americans in 1968? Perhaps in these ways:

The number of crises a man has been through is relatively unimportant; what counts is what he learns from them and how he applies what he has learned in one to the next crisis.

The major crises of John F. Kennedy's administration are a case in point. During the Bay of Pigs disaster, the new President learned about the dependence of expert advice, the need to exercise enough power to guarantee success, and the requirement of leadership to assume responsibility for failure.

At the next major crisis, the Cuban missile confrontation with Khrushchev, the lessons of the Bay of Pigs served him in good stead. The President's ability to understand the proper use of power learned tragically at the start of his term led to what was undoubtedly his finest hour in turning back an unacceptable threat to our security.

The crises of the Eisenhower years, and of the Kennedy administration, were on the whole short-term moments of tension; they were resolved one way or another with national leadership strengthened.

But with the Johnson-Humphrey administration, the nature of crisis has changed. The remarkable characteristic of the crises of today is their continuity — they have moved in, it seems, to stay. Let us examine some of them:

1.  The continuing crisis in Vietnam. The decision to rise to this crisis was, in my view, the right decision; the method of meeting it was wrong. We frittered away our power through piecemeal escalation that locked us in a long land war in Asia; we had no global strategy to induce the Soviet Union to stop making it possible for the war to go on. And so that crisis has dragged on for years.

2.  The crisis of the American city. A welfare philosophy tuned to the Thirties that overlooks the need for human dignity, combined with the frustration of unfulfilled promises, has led to riots and sustained civil disorder. The two-day crisis of a riot led to the summer-long crisis of 1966 and 1967 and to the year-round crisis of today.

3.   The crisis of the American dollar. A policy of heavy government spending has led to runaway inflation, which in turn has led to a worldwide loss of confidence in the American dollar — endangering jobs and hurting most those on fixed incomes. And this crisis is not being resolved, as the cost of living rises at an ever-faster rate.

4.   The crisis of crime. As the forces of justice were hampered by court decisions that put the scales of individual liberty and public protection out of balance, crime in America has increased by 55% — and this crisis is getting worse every day.

Add to these the growing crises of housing, of pollution, of inadequate education, and a picture emerges of government by crisis, of "crash programs" that only lead to crashing hopes.

The next President cannot be expected to lead an administration of serenity and calm, of no crises. Too many events press in upon us from abroad to hope for that; the momentum and ferment of change at home clearly means that the "revolution of rising expectations" will cause crises for us at home as well.

But something can be done to alleviate the continuity of crisis, the atmosphere of crisis, that pervades American life today.

We need not wait for explosions in our cities to begin realistic programs that restore self-respect to the poor and open up opportunity for the jobless man who wants to work. We need not wait for infiltration and invasion abroad to practice the kind of preventive diplomacy that averts crisis rather than responds to crisis; we need not wait until inflation backs us to the wall to start to get our economic house in order.

Some crisis is unavoidable, and proves a test for leadership; some crisis is healthy, when it snaps us out of our lethargy; but crisis cannot be allowed to become the American way of life.

A national crisis is a shock to the body politic. Too many shocks, especially long-sustained shocks, drain a nation of its energy; it can cause a national punchiness, and even worse, cause a rebellion against creative change and progress.

There are more than enough "natural shocks that flesh is heir to" — crises that cannot be avoided — for us to add to them by lack of foresight or a willingness to act in time. This may disappoint those who are attracted by the excitement of high drama, but the best way to meet a crisis is to anticipate it and avoid it. Those who ignore impending crisis are condemned to live through it.

(Preface to 1968 edition of Six Crises)

APP Note: This document is not dated in the publication in which it was obtained by The American Presidency Project. The date January 1, 1968 was used because the book was published in 1968.

From section seven of the volume "Nixon Speaks Out" titled, "In the Arena".

Richard Nixon, Preface to 1968 edition of Six Crises: "Lessons of Crisis" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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