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How to Govern a Divided Country

March 12, 1970
Memorandum for Mr. H. R. Haldeman

For about a year now, I have been keeping a file and thinking to send you a memo on the subject of terrorism. The time has come. …

The level of political violence has been escalating steadily for the past two to three months. In the last week, bombs have been exploding up and down the Eastern Seaboard. …

Political violence is not new to the nation. We are alone among the “stable” democracies in the number of presidents we have had assassinated. Our early labor history was singularly violent. And into our time, whites have ruled over blacks in the South with the threat and the use of violence. (Think what you will of the Black Panthers. They still haven’t blown up any children in church.)

But I do believe the present situation is different. What we are facing is the onset of nihilism in the United States …

The “culture” is more in opposition than at any time in history.

July 24, 1970 Personal & Confidential Memorandum for
John D. Ehrlichman
H. R. Haldeman

Over last weekend I found myself thinking about our brief discussion of the difficulty the administration seems to have in linking up with competent, respected conservative thinkers. I had not the time, as they say, to write a brief memorandum, and so I send you this, as I felt both of you were interested in the subject. You should be: The presidency is at stake.

… In the best universities, the best men are increasingly appalled by the authoritarian tendencies of the left. The inadequacies of traditional liberalism are equally unmistakable, while, not least important, the credulity, even the vulgarity of the supposed intellectual and social elite of the country has led increasing numbers of men and women of no especial political persuasion to realize that something is wrong somewhere.

These persons are the president’s natural allies. They can be of help to him, and to the country. But I do not see them brought into our counsels. Mostly, if I am right, because of a sense of inadequacy hereabouts. Better stick with Kate Smith and the Silent Majority. They aren’t very smart, but then neither are we.

As I say, I feel this is wrong, and that something of importance is at issue. Moral authority and political power. Pragmatism is a noble political tradition. It is vulnerable, however, to a form of oversight which can be calamitous. The pragmatic mind in politics tends to underestimate, even to be unaware of, the importance of moral authority. … What is to be done? This first thing to be clear is that our own power to influence events is limited. America has developed, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “an adversary culture.” I wrote of this in a memorandum to the president on January 3, 1969 …

The “culture” is more in opposition now than perhaps at any time in history. The president will have to live with it permanently, I should think. We can’t change this. … But in the meantime, it is within our power to make matters worse. We have shown that we can do so. I would argue that in such circumstances the first [rule] of patriotism is the willingness not to worsen things, even when the provocation is outrageous, even when there may appear to be a short-term advantage to be gained. This is not just the measure of patriotism, it is the measure of prudence as well. I would hope the events of the past winter will have demonstrated how extraordinarily weak we are. When attacked, nobody defends us. No one in the Congress, certainly no “liberal” Republican helps us. No one writes articles for us, much less books, or plays, or folk songs. …

I have spent eighteen months in this building pouring gin into various newspapermen, and I can attest that it is possible to get them to consider the possibility that what I say might be true. But I can’t do it anymore. It needs to be done by real Republicans.

… I have troubled you with all this because I am conscious that my time hereabouts is fast running out. I feel deeply about this matter. I don’t yet feel others feel deeply enough. By which I mean, I feel that much of the trouble we are now somewhat unceremoniously trying to dig our way out of could have been averted had we kept in mind the precariousness of the president’s—any president’s—position in America at this moment. I restate it now in the thought that if anything is to be done there would still be time for me to be of some possible help.