Robert H. Ferrell (ed.): Inside the Nixon Administration. The Secret Diary of Arthur Burns, 1969-1974, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas 2010, XV + 140 S., ISBN 978-0-7006-1730-2, USD 24,95
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The German zeal for editing and publishing documents has never quite caught on in the United States, at least among practitioners of contemporary history. The State Department's series Foreign Relations of the United States stands alone; cabinet papers are not routinely published in annotated volumes, and neither are the deliberations of the Democratic or Republican Congressional caucuses. Among 20th-Century presidents, only Woodrow Wilson's life has been covered exhaustively in a critical edition (spanning 69 volumes). Primary sources on American politics are published on an ad hoc basis: here a transcription of tape recordings from the Cuban Missile Crisis, there a three-volume collection of correspondence between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Robert H. Ferrell, editor of the present volume, is exceptional for many reasons. He has been writing on U.S. foreign relations for more than six decades. During that long span he has turned repeatedly to the editing of Presidential documents - the private papers of Harry Truman, the diaries of Dwight D. Eisenhower. This time around, Ferrell's subject sat at greater remove from the Oval Office. Arthur Burns may have been a personal friend of Richard Nixon, but the latter's behavior in the White House caused Burns grave concern. From his vantage-point as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Burns jotted down personal impressions of the president's inner circle with a sharply pointed pen. Those notations, held at the Gerald Ford Library and released to the public in 2008, form the basis of this short book.
Burns comes across in this diary as a figure indelibly marked by the Eisenhower years; he had served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the 1950s and aspired to a similar style of leadership on economic policy in the Nixon administration. Throughout 1969, he did in fact enjoy a White House role - charged with the hopeless task of rationalizing domestic policymaking. Even after switching over to the Fed in January 1970, Burns still weighed in on White House concerns such as taxes and fiscal policy. His voice was that of a fiscal conservative: he derided anti-poverty programs as fiscally irresponsible and warned that a national health care scheme would have unhealthy inflationary consequences. Surprisingly, Burns was also put off by the radical free-market perspectives of administration stalwart George Shultz (105). In Burns' view, a modern economy required government intervention, which explains his backing for Nixon's program of wage and price controls. It is hard to dispel the impression that the diarist did not really trust anyone's economic judgment besides his own. In many White House conversations he felt he was "the only one there with any knowledge of the subject" (66).
Readers hoping for insights into monetary policy will come away disappointed. Burns reveals little here about the mechanics of the Federal Reserve or the contents of his meetings with European central bankers. He does provide an account of the notorious Camp David weekend of August 13-15, 1971, when Nixon resolved to close the "gold window" in a defiant unilateral gesture; henceforth U.S. dollars would no longer be convertible into gold. Burns' entries make plain his opposition to floating exchange rates and his eagerness to see the U.S. cooperate in rebuilding the international monetary system. He expresses horror at Treasury Secretary John Connally's callous, dismissive attitude toward foreign leaders, and even manages to convince the President that Connally's "free-wheeling" demeanor was breaking a lot of porcelain overseas (60). Yet nothing really changed: the forceful Texan Connally was still insisting in January 1972 that "he would not make one cent available out of our international reserves to enable the IMF to function" (72-73).
The real fascination here lies in tracking Burns' progressive disillusionment with Nixon. In January 1969, Burns emerged from a meeting convinced that "with average luck, he will make a very good President." (3). Yet it did not take long for Burns to detect a streak of hyper-partisan bias in Nixon's decision-making. He also found himself bullied by an "amoral" White House team that used calculated leaks to keep him in check. By January 1971, Burns had concluded that "the President will do anything to be reelected." (33, 38) The most vivid passages in this diary describe Nixon's manic-depressive behavior in striking, almost lyrical detail (21-22, 44-48).
As with any opinionated observer, Burns' judgments are sometimes convincing and sometimes off the mark. Paul Volcker is described as "an indecisive man, full of flaws, and anxieties" (sic; 62), which is hard to square with Volcker's later performance at the head of the Federal Reserve. Early on, Burns harbored suspicions about George Shultz's personal integrity - an opinion that he had evidently reversed by 1973, when the two are seen cooperating in a plan to salvage public confidence after the Watergate cover-up had been exposed. More embarrassingly, Burns writes naively in September 1972 about Vice President Spiro Agnew as an "honest man" with "plenty of guts and good sense." (76) One year later, Agnew was indicted for corruption.
For diplomatic historians, this publication does offer a few novel perspectives on National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who confided in Burns quite often as the Nixon administration ran aground. The two spoke frankly about Nixon's anti-Semitic outbursts, which Burns witnessed on at least one occasion (97-98). Burns' entries confirm what historians have long suspected about Kissinger's "Year of Europe" initiative in 1973 - namely, that it was a deliberate effort to "throw a monkey wrench into the Common Market machinery" (94). In April 1974, Kissinger asks Burns what the Federal Reserve could do to "cause economic trouble for the French." Afterwards, Burns jots down: "I'm troubled by his egomaniacal approach." (124) Such passages will, no doubt, be cited eagerly by scholars in the years to come.
If the diary has its memorable passages, Ferrell's editing is not, alas, very satisfactory. Rather than using footnotes, Ferrell includes an explanatory paragraph following some diary entries. These comments are uneven and woefully incomplete; more often than not they merely convey the editor's personal views. The principal function of an editorial apparatus - the clarification of the text - comes up short. For example, when Nixon tries to get Burns to back "SST," Ferrell identifies SST as an "economic white elephant." (39) But what was it? (The answer appears to be "Super-Sonic Transport.") Later Ferrell misconstrues Burns' reference to "Hjalmar Schneider." That was not the name of Germany's finance minister - though it seems to imply a sarcastic comparison between Hitler's rearmament czar (Hjalmar Schacht) and the actual finance minister (Helmut Schmidt). Or did someone simply make an error in transcribing Burns' handwritten diary entry? Only a reference to the original source material will resolve this question. On balance, one can hope that historians of U.S. foreign relations will take up the editing of historical sources - but that they will do so with greater care.
William Glenn Gray