Thursday, July 02, 2009

The First Nixon Library

The current issue of Prologue has an article in it about the first Nixon library - a little library in Hong Kong that was named for then Vice President Richard Nixon!
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.

The article goes on to talk about Nixon's trip in detail and then tells about the how the library came to be named after Nixon:
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 article then goes back to Nixon and his use of the trip, but we also hear what happened to this little library:
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."

This article also has a lot of good information on the political aspets of this trip for Nixon and his career, but I enjoyed the story of the library.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to a Chinese article about the Tang family of Yuen Long, Tang Kin sun was actually a classmate of Nixon at Whittier College although I haven't found any document which verify that. Tang also built the first English school (named after his father Pak Kau) and movie theater in Yuenlong and was chairman of Heung Yee Kuk in the 1950s.