The First Nixon Library
Summer 2009, Vol. 41, No. 2
By Paul Musgrave
Except for its name, there was little remarkable about the modest library that stood in the neighborhood of Yuen Long on the outskirts of Hong Kong from 1954 until 1977.
It held only a few thousand books and employed just one librarian, and its patrons were mostly schoolchildren, farmers, and shopkeepers. Nevertheless, the humble building was a monument to Richard Nixon.
The library was also a relic of the creation of Nixon’s reputation as an expert in foreign affairs, the cornerstone of his campaigns for the White House and his defenders’ view of his administration. It began in large measure with his world travels as Vice President, including infamous trips to Latin America in 1958 (where he faced violent pro–Communist mobs) and the Soviet Union in 1959 (where he dueled with Nikita Khrushchev). Those trips, however, might not have happened without his first, successful tour of Asia and the Middle East in 1953–a story told in the records at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Just 40 years old, Nixon had been Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President for only a few months when, at a National Security Council meeting in March 1953, Eisenhower asked him to take a major trip through Asia later that year. Decades later, Nixon implausibly asserted that Eisenhower sent Nixon instead of going himself because the President knew little about the region. At the time, he declared instead that the President intended to show Asian leaders that the new administration took their concerns more seriously than had Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state. More persuasively, Stephen Ambrose, a biographer of both Nixon and Eisenhower, argues that the President wanted his Vice President to be "publicly associated with something other than Red-baiting."
Changing Nixon’s image would be a challenge. He owed his extraordinary political climb from freshman congressman to Vice President in six years almost entirely to his aggressive anticommunism. He had won his seats in the House in 1946 and the Senate in 1950 by charging that his opponents were soft, at the very least, on Communists, and he had become nationally prominent in 1948 through his public investigation of former FDR aide and alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss. But, as Nixon must have recognized, presidential candidates needed to be associated with more substantive matters.
The trip offered Nixon a chance to reinvent himself as a statesman. Just as important, it would allow him to transform the position of Vice President–long regarded as a political dead end—into a high-profile post. His plans for the trip were accordingly ambitious. Starting on October 5, he and his party, which included his wife, Pat, would spend more than two months abroad and visit 19 countries, as well as Hong Kong (then a British colony) and the U.S.-administered Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, none of which had ever received a visit from an American President or Vice President before.
The announcement of the tour triggered a flood of invitations, including one from Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales, an ethnic Portuguese businessman who was president of the Hong Kong Junior Chamber of Commerce. Nixon accepted, partly because he was a former Jaycee himself (indeed, he made a point of including Jaycee representatives in many of the countries he visited) but more importantly because the club, composed of civic-minded businessmen, would be a safely pro-American audience.
Nixon used invitations like Sales’s strategically. He would later boast that he had forced the State Department to schedule events where he could meet "as many different kinds of people as possible"—students, workers, and intellectuals as well as politicians and government officials. In practice, the events ran more like campaign rallies than state visits. At one point, halfway through the trip, a frustrated Nixon instructed his administrative assistant Rose Mary Woods and other aides in his party that "I want crowds at the airports—want the schedules to be printed in the newspapers—insist on this!" He took an intense interest in the media as well, requesting special arrangements for a Life magazine photographer so that he could take pictures "which will properly characterize the trip" and telling his aides to let the press know that the locals had been impressed that Nixon shook hands with them. (The latter effort succeeded: Time soon printed a glowing quote from an "accompanying official" explaining that Nixon "create[d] a sensation" when he shook hands with "dumbfounded spectators" along his parade routes.)
There were few causes for such complaints in Hong Kong. Nixon’s arrival on November 5 was dramatic—indeed, spectacular. His Air Force Lockheed Constellation was escorted by 12 Royal Air Force Vampire fighter jets as it approached the runway of Kai Tak Airport, which jutted into Victoria Harbor. At the airport, the Americans received a 19-gun salute and an official greeting. Nixon broke away briefly from the official itinerary to shake hands with some members of the public who had come to greet him.
Hong Kong was not the most prominent stop on Nixon’s trip; he had far more important diplomatic errands to attend to on other legs of his journey (including delivering messages from Eisenhower to South Korea and Taiwan to refrain from unilaterally starting wars), and his words in other cities would attract much greater media attention (including those from his brief layover in Hawaii, where he made a strong statement in favor of statehood for the territory).
But Hong Kong’s status as a British colony and its sheer proximity to mainland China made it inherently significant.
The combination of those issues made for a knotty diplomatic problem. As Nixon moved through his schedule on November 5 and 6, he heard criticisms of the Chinese Communists, but he also faced complaints about the American ban on trade with the People’s Republic of China, which had crippled Hong Kong’s economy. Strong statements by Nixon against the "Peking regime" could thus backfire, as the capitalists in the colony strongly hoped to hear that they could resume their historical role as the front door to the Chinese markets.
Such concerns weighed on Nixon’s mind on the morning of November 7 as he prepared his remarks for that day’s Jaycee luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel, which had become the venue for what was billed as the major policy address of his visit. He surely discussed the dilemma with the colony’s governor, Alexander Grantham, in a private meeting that morning. Sometime that morning, either as a result of his talks with Grantham and others or as a product of his own substantial political instincts, Nixon hit on a formula to paper over the difficulties. He delivered it at the luncheon before an audience of 500. After an introduction by Sales, Nixon took his audience on a tour d’horizon of American foreign policy, arguing that its foundation was "peace" and that Washington must maintain a leading role in the United Nations. Essential to the success of that policy and the victory of the free nations was the strong alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom, which was helping to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms. The other half of the Nixon formula was simply to ignore the trade issue. It was not the subtlest solution, but the American consul general wrote in his official report that the largely British audience almost universally accepted it anyway—and that Nixon’s conversation with Grantham had a calming effect on the governor’s later public statements about the embargo.
As a good host, Sales had arranged for gifts for the Vice President (an ivory elephant) and Mrs. Nixon (an embroidered dress length).
As he presented them to the Nixons, Sales announced that the Vice President had just given him permission to have the Jaycees’ next children’s library named after him. The library, under construction in Yuen Long, was the 11th to be built by Jaycees, which had made a project of providing for underprivileged children around the colony. Nixon could hardly have refused the offer, since during the speech he had praised the Jaycees and the Rotarians (who were cosponsoring the luncheon) for their local projects helping young people, which he said contributed to international peace.
The Nixons left the luncheon and spent some time traveling around the colony before an evening reception. They left the next morning and rejoined the rest of their tour, which had more than a month left to run and which included meetings with, among others, the emperor of Japan, the prime minister of India, and the shah of Iran. They returned to Washington on December 14 to an elaborate welcoming ceremony at National Airport, followed by a formal call on President Eisenhower at the White House.
The press reaction was all that Nixon could have hoped for. The favorable editorials around the country filled two folders in his files and included positive comments from the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Star, and New York Herald Tribune, which wrote that Nixon’s trip proved that he "could speak with knowledge and precise familiarity with the President’s ideas and projects" because "no previous Vice-President has been brought so intimately into the highest counsels of the administration in power."
Nixon topped off the rounds of congratulations a week later with a television and radio address. He talked about American interests in the region, not least the Korean peninsula, and the importance of American diplomacy, instead of American military power, to making progress with the peoples and governments of the countries he had visited. The core of his argument was that the United States had to continue to resist the expansion of Communism, especially that of the Chinese Communists, whom he called "the basic cause of all of our troubles in Asia."
Back in Hong Kong, work proceeded on the addition to the building in Yuen Long that was to hold the future Nixon Library. It was dedicated on February 28, 1954, and Nixon sent Sales a telegram to be read at the ceremony: "There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to have my name associated with your new children’s library. . . . I can think of no factor more important to a free, independent, and prosperous Asia than the opportunity for the youth of Asia to learn the truth, untarnished by Communist propaganda."
A local notable named Tang Kin Sun and a volunteer named Snowpine Liu, a Nationalist refugee from the mainland, took over the library’s fundraising and operations. Liu, who had attended American universities and had taught in Chinese schools, asked Nixon for help in obtaining a visa to the United States. There is no response to that request in the files, but Nixon’s office corresponded with Liu over the next decade. From time to time, Nixon made small but significant financial contributions to the library, which (with the Richard Nixon Elementary School in his hometown of Yorba Linda, California) was one of the few institutions to bear his name. He also sent the library a copy of a biography, This Is Nixon, by reporter James Keogh, who later became President Nixon’s head speechwriter.
After losing the 1960 presidential campaign to John Kennedy and the 1962 California gubernatorial election to Pat Brown, Nixon moved to New York City to become the lead partner in a major law firm. Part of Nixon’s work with the firm involved traveling around the world to meet with clients, a convenient reason for the former Vice President to keep himself in the public eye by making pronouncements on foreign policy at home and abroad. He made several such passes through Hong Kong, meeting with Liu on three occasions and visiting the library himself in 1966.
In February 1969, just three weeks into Nixon’s presidency, Liu called on the President in the Oval Office, where they met and talked about the library’s future. Liu proposed raising funds to expand the library and give it a permanent, independent home. Nixon was noncommittal, but Liu enthusiastically began soliciting donors by telling them the President supported the plan, which alarmed lower-level officials. The U.S. Information Agency, which had informally supported the library for some time, argued instead for moving the library into the Yuen Long town hall, then under construction. Such a move, USIA director and longtime Nixon associate Frank Shakespeare argued, would bolster American standing in Hong Kong while also denying "a high visibility target five miles from the Chinese mainland for Leftist [protesters]." The State Department later chimed in with its own concerns that Liu had been seeking donations from individuals tied to the Nationalist government on the island of Taiwan, which the department worried could cause "very considerable embarrassment" to the United States by politicizing what had formerly been a politically neutral cultural organization.
In classic Nixon administration style, the issue was staffed out, and the unlikely bureaucratic vehicle for resolving the controversy over the future of the reading room was the National Security Council under the direction of Henry Kissinger. In an April 1969 memorandum, Kissinger summarized the options: leaving the library in place, providing funds to transfer it to the Yuen Long town hall, or committing the U.S. government to raising $100,000 to build the new, independent library building. Kissinger, echoing the State Department and USIA, recommended moving the library to the town hall; President Nixon agreed, and directed that USIA inform Liu of his decision. (Ironically, Kissinger later complained that bureaucratic politics tended to produce options papers that narrowed the scope for presidential decision-making by presenting "two absurd alternatives as straw men bracketing [the bureaucracy’s] preferred option—which usually appears in the middle position.") Liu backed off from his independent proposal, and the library was moved into the Yuen Long town hall.
In June 1971, Shakespeare met with Nixon in the Oval Office and discussed an inspection tour of USIA facilities in East Asia. During the meeting, which was captured on the Nixon taping system, Shakespeare told Nixon that he had visited the Nixon Library. "I went in there and there must have been 150 young children quietly reading," Shakespeare told the President. "You know, if you went to a library where there are American kids, there’s always that little hubbub of noise and students shooting spitballs. Those Chinese kids are amazing. They sat there and you couldn’t hear a sound. . . . It’s attractive, it’s well decorated, it’s light, it’s airy, and it’s very well used." Nixon murmured his approval.
Soon thereafter, the administration—engrossed successively by the opening to mainland China, the reelection campaign of 1972, and then the mounting pressures of Watergate—could no longer afford the luxury of taking an interest in the Hong Kong institution. The library’s end came, unnoticed, in 1978 when its collection was transferred to the Yuen Long municipal government and became the core of the Yuen Long Public Library. At the same time, Nixon was drafting his memoirs and preparing to embark on a broader project of rehabilitating his reputation based on his mastery of foreign affairs, a topic he discussed in the memoirs. It was as a result of the 1953 trip through Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, Nixon wrote, "that I knew that foreign policy was a field in which I had great interest and at least some ability."
Note on Sources
The principal sources for the linked stories of the Nixon Library in Hong Kong and the Vice Presidential career of Richard Nixon are the pre-presidential files in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. The vice presidential trip files and correspondence files, including many otherwise difficult-to-find media clippings (such as the JCI World, a newsletter of the international Jaycees), document Nixon’s relationship with Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales and Snowpine Liu in the 1950s as well as visits to the library by Nixon associates, such as Henry Kearns, assistant secretary of commerce for Eisenhower and later Nixon’s head of the Export-Import Bank. Newspaper and magazine coverage of the 1953 trip includes Time, "Names Make News," November 16, 1953, and "By the old Pegu Pagoda," December 7, 1953; "Good Will in Asia," Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15, 1953; "Here Comes the Traveler," Washington Star, December 15, 1953; "Mr. Nixon Reports," Washington Post, December 25, 1953; and "Mr. Nixon Returns," New York Herald Tribune, December 15, 1953. Other sources include Tzu Jan Jih Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper whose coverage of Nixon’s trip, along with other papers’, was translated by the State Department and included in the trip files.
The newly processed "Wilderness Years" collection, also in Yorba Linda, are indispensable for tracing the reconstruction of Nixon’s political career and reputation as a statesman during the years between his defeat by Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial race and his triumphal victory in the 1968 presidential campaign. The file includes other clippings on Nixon’s trips, including "Get to Know the U.S. Better, Nixon urges" from the Hong Kong Standard.
The construction of Nixon’s image as an expert in world affairs is treated by his biographers, including Stephen Ambrose in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913–1962 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) and David Greenberg in Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003). Nixon’s memoirs (RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon [New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978]) cover his relationship with foreign policy and with Eisenhower while Henry Kissinger’s reflections on his time with Nixon (White House Years [Boston: Little, Brown, 1979]) offer an insider’s selected views on the foreign policy machinery of the administration. The administration’s files on national security and foreign policy are virtually all, for the moment, in the Nixon Library at College Park, Maryland; much of the material on the Hong Kong Nixon Library and Snowpine Liu, including copies of State Department, National Security Council, and U.S. Information Agency memoranda, is available in the formerly confidential special files. The taped conversation between Nixon and Frank Shakespeare is number 527-8 from June 22, 1971. The proceedings of the Hong Kong Legislative Council are available online at www.legco.gov.hk/; the reference to the consolidation of the Nixon Library with the Yuen Long town hall comes from the question time of Wednesday, January 25, 1978.
Paul Musgrave is special assistant to the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, and a Ph.D. student in government at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.