Postcards from Nixonland: Reagan and Nixon Discuss the Utility of the United Nations

On October 26, 1971, California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Nixon to offer some foreign policy advice: get the United States out of the United Nations. The day before, you see, the General Assembly had voted to give mainland China (The People’s Republic of China) the Chinese “seat” at the UN. This was held previously by United States’ anti-communist ally, Taiwan.

The US Ambassador the UN at the time, one George H.W. Bush, tried to rally support against the General Assembly vote. He was unsuccessful, in part because the Nixon administration was simultaneously was preparing a rapprochment with the PRC.  (Nixon would visit China six months later.) Reagan, of course, would have had no way of knowing this so he called up Nixon to vent. 

The audio of that conversation is now available.  What is so striking to me is the extent to which it parallels contemporary debates about the UN.  One side sticks to emotional pleas and sloganeering to argue that the United States should withdraw from the UN. The other side offers coolly rational explanations about why sticking it out at the United Nations serves American security interests.

Reagan was clearly pursued by the former. He called the UN “morally bankrupt” and argued that pulling out of the UN would make for good domestic politics ahead of the 1972 elections. Reagan was so dedicated to this idea that he even said he would unsign a Gubernatorial proclamation for “UN Week.”

Nixon saw the bigger picture. To a certain extent he tried to placate Reagan (who, by then, was a rising star), but suggested that the United Nations was still an important entity to advance American foreign policy interests. In particular, he cited India-Pakistan. Said Nixon:

“Let me give some thought to the whole thing. It’s a tough one, as you are aware. We got some fish to fry on India-Pakistan — we are trying to avoid a war there, and the UN may have to play some damn role there, because we don’t want to get involved in that miserable place.”

The audio of this exchange, which I discovered via Dave Noon, is well worth 12 minutes of your time.

Relatedly, Gallup has been gauging Americans’ opinion about the United Nations since the early 1950s.  You can see that the UN’s favoribility ratings remained fairly steady until a slump during the Reagan years. It then peaked when his VP and former UN Ambassador became president in 1988. Americans’ perception of the UN, it would seem, can be influenced by the tone set by the president. 


H/t to Attackerman and Rick Pearlstein for the title.