Ahead of the July 18-21 Republican National Convention meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, Donald Trump emerged as the GOP’s presumptive nominee after winning the Indiana primary on May 3. The effort to stop Trump, however, persists with some party insiders and disgruntled conservatives insisting they will contest rules on the convention floor and strive to steal the nomination, or mount a third-party bid threatening party unity in a manner not seen since Republicans gathered in 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri, to nominate their candidate for that year’s election.
The head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, has warned fellow Republicans that any third-party bid would be a “suicide mission” that could wreck the United States for generations to come. The choice for Americans voting in November to elect their president will be stark between Donald Trump and the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the consequences of who gets elected as the 45th President of the United States will not be confined for Americans only, it will also be far reaching for the rest of the world.
As Republican delegates and party officials headed for Cleveland in July debate among themselves before the voting begins and the nominee with his running mate for the presidency is announced, they might well reflect upon how immense was the consequences of the choice made for America and the world that summer of 1976 in Kansas City forty years ago. It was a vigorously fought convention between the supporters of the White House occupant, President Gerald Ford, and two-term former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Ford, as President Richard Nixon’s Vice President, became the 39th President when Nixon resigned in August 1974 due to the Watergate scandal. As president, Ford used his office to extend full and unconditional pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while serving as president. Ford’s pardon was controversial and it would trail him in his bid to retain the presidency.
Reagan, as his biographers have written, had liked Ford. In her biography of Reagan, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (2001), Peggy Noonan wrote that Ford “seemed a living antidote to the strain and trauma of Watergate.” But a year into the Ford presidency the administration, as Reagan watched from California after he had left the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento, appeared to be the continuation of the Nixon presidency without Nixon. Ford had kept most of Nixon’s men around him, principally Henry Kissinger as his Secretary of State, and selected Nelson Rockefeller as his Vice President.
For the conservatives, or right wing Republicans, the Ford administration became increasingly unacceptable with its leftward drift as the election year approached. Reagan had spoken out against the policies of Nixon bent toward accommodating the Soviet Union and sold to Americans by the Nixon-Kissinger team as détente. With Kissinger at the State Department, Ford and Rockefeller were similarly committed to détente with the Soviet Union. Ford’s domestic policy also appeared as a less doctrinaire version of the Democratic policy of deficit spending to wrestle with the twin problems of unemployment and inflation.
As 1976 approached, the mood of Americans was rather despondent. Ford was uninspiring as president and leader. America’s war in Vietnam had divided the country, and its end was humiliating. Nixon’s Watergate scandal and his resignation had added salt to the wound of a divided America. On November 20, 1975 Reagan announced at the National Press Club in Washington that he was a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1976.
Reagan’s insurgency bid was a challenge for President Ford seeking election on his own term as an incumbent. The primaries were hotly contested. Reagan questioned the drift of American foreign policy and the weakening of America, while the Soviet Union went ahead with its own arms build up. He spoke about the expansion of the Soviet power around the world, and scorned the foreign policy of Kissinger for diminishing America’s global influence.
Reagan found an ally in Jesse Helms, an outspoken conservative and Republican Senator from North Carolina, who never missed an opportunity to speak out against the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford foreign policy. Helms suspected the Ford administration was negotiating the return of the Panama Canal to Panama, and railed against it. Reagan followed Helms and began speaking against the Panama Canal “giveaway.” It struck a chord with Americans. He won the North Carolina primary, and this gave his insurgency campaign momentum all the way to the floor of the convention.
Both Ford and Reagan arrived in Kansas City short of a majority of delegates in their respective columns. Reagan’s recent biographer, H.W. Brands in his account Reagan: The Life(2015), writes:
“By the time the primaries, conventions, and caucuses had been completed, Ford held a modest lead in delegates over Reagan. The numbers were imprecise, given the diversity of rules determining whom the delegates were bound to, if bound at all. Each side publicly interpreted the imprecision in its favor. Each spoke of covert supporters who would surface at the decisive moment of the convention. But impartial estimates gave Ford around 1,090 delegates and Reagan about 1,030. Ford needed roughly 40 delegates to claim the convention’s majority; Reagan some 100. In the scrapping for those delegates, the president’s institutional heft would surely work in his favor.”
The “institutional heft” of the presidency was the combined weight of the Republican Establishment, the party insiders in Washington, and those who worked the party machinery in the states and across the country, which won Ford his nomination. Reagan had needed 1,140 votes to win. The final count was: Ford won with 1,187 votes; Reagan lost with 1,070 votes.
Reagan was an outsider from the West coast. He had supported the candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona for the 1964 election, and campaigned for him. But Goldwater’s bid for the presidency went down in a landslide defeat to Lyndon Johnson.
Reagan came out of that campaign, however, with a loyal following of Republicans on the West coast excited by his rhetorical style, his infectious optimism and his views about limited government, individual freedom, and commitment for a robust defense and foreign policy. With that band of loyal supporters he went on to win California’s gubernatorial elections of 1966 and 1970. Then that band of former Goldwater loyalists and West coast conservative Republicans brought Reagan just short of 70 votes to deny a sitting president nomination of his party. Senator Goldwater, however, voted with the Republican insiders for Ford at Kansas City.
The Nixon pardon, as much as the legacy of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, damaged Ford going into the November election against the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. The 1976 election was the bicentennial year election, and Ford lost to Carter, a relatively unknown former Governor of Georgia.
But Carter’s presidency failed, and he was defeated in 1980 by Reagan as the Republican nominee. Reagan is now revered as one of America’s great presidents. In looking back, however, there looms the haunting “what if” in history, for if Reagan had been the Republican nominee in 1976 and gone on to win the presidency then the future for America and the world, and our present, might have been dramatically different than what came about with Carter in the White House.
Reagan, if elected in 1976, would have had to deal with the troubles in the Middle East that Carter confronted. We know now Carter’s embrace of human rights as a foreign policy goal was seized by America’s enemies to undermine America’s allies. It was in Iran under the rule of the Pahlavi monarch Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-80) that Carter’s ideals collided with the forces of the anti-Shah movement that overthrew a key American ally on the Persian Gulf.
It is likely the Reagan administration would have responded much differently than did the Carter administration to the situation the Shah confronted in 1978. For one, there would not have been pressure brought upon the Shah to liberalize his regime in the midst of the growing unrest of those pushing for his overthrow.
The Shah dithered over the use of force, unsure of support from Carter, while the disparate elements of opposition gathered strength around him. Abbas Milani, author of The Shah(2011), in describing the “perfect storm” that brought down the Pahlavi monarchy has written:
“It is hard to pinpoint the moment at which the unwieldy coalition that eventually overthrew the Shah began to coalesce. One thing is certain: Carter’s human rights policies had an impact in reinvigorating the dormant democratic movement.”
When the Shah left Tehran for the last time on January 16, 1979 he left behind a void that was swiftly filled by militant supporters of the radical cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, returning to Iran from exile. The fall of the Shah was eclipsed by the triumph of radical Islam, or Islamism, and the establishment of a clerical based reactionary regime in Tehran bent upon exporting its brand of “jihadi” ideology laced with anti-American and anti-Israel hatred to neighboring countries.
The year 1979 was a fateful year in contemporary history. It began with the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran and ended with the Communist leadership in Moscow sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan. Those two events together combined to unravel the Middle East as the appeal of radical Islam, or Islamism, proliferated across the region, and as wars and terrorism destroyed the norms of a traditional culture already greatly weakened by the pace of change brought from the outside.
The takeover of Shah’s Iran by the fanatical followers of Khomeini was the first victory of Islamism in its long march to impose a totalitarian version of Islam on Muslims inside Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) in contemporary modern history. And it was an open declaration ofjihad (war) against America and Israel described tauntingly by Khomeini as the “Great Satan” and the “Little Satan.”
Reagan in the White House would have meant support for the Shah and his men when they needed it most urgently. Reagan would have instinctively understood that any accommodation by the Shah of the pro-communist rabble-rousers in the streets and the fanatics of radical Islam in the mosques would only embolden them in their quest for power.
The Shah was no different in his authoritarianism than any other Muslim despot across the Middle East and North Africa. However abhorrent these regimes were in terms of human rights violations, the alternatives from the left and the right were worse. And those Muslims who pined for some kind of liberal democracy, while wishing for modernist reform in moving their societies in the direction of the West, were a hopelessly insecure minority threatened on all sides either as class enemies or heretics.
Reagan’s support for the Shah would likely have saved Iran from the takeover by Khomeini. Consequently, the subsequent history for the region and the world would have been much different and relatively better.
Saddam Hussein would not have been confronted by a fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran opposed to the status quo in the Persian Gulf region and, thereby, posing an immediate threat to his tyrannical rule over a Shi’ite majority population in Iraq. The enmity and border disputes between Baghdad and Tehran during the Shah’s rule did not escalate into an open warfare between the two countries. The Shah was authoritarian, but not expansionist or belligerent against his neighbors.
Khomeini’s provocations tempted Saddam Hussein to go to war against Iran in September 1980 with the objective of toppling the clerical regime in Tehran. It became the longest conventional war fought between two countries in the last century. The inconclusive end of the war in August 1988 set in motion Saddam Hussein’s dispute with Kuwait resulting in the Gulf War of 1991, and it pulled America to slide ever deeper into the vortex of regional politics and Islamist violence with no end in sight 25 years later and counting.
The fall of the Shah removed the peg that held in place the structure of the Middle East as post-World War I settlement by Britain and France as victors. Shah’s Iran was also the lynchpin of the Central Treaty Organization (also known as the Baghdad Pact) devised during the Eisenhower presidency in 1955 as a mutual defense pact among the four regional states (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey) with Britain as a signatory. This arrangement was meant to insulate the region on the southern perimeter of the Soviet Union from communist threats, and deter any Soviet ambition to extend Moscow’s influence down to the Persian Gulf region and its oil resources.
Iraq left the pact following the 1958 coup, which deposed the Hashemite monarchy and installed a republic patterned after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. In 1979 the pact would be formally dissolved. But Reagan, in adhering to the precedent set by Eisenhower before him, would not have allowed under his watch the Shah’s Iran to fall.
If the Shah’s regime had survived the political unrest of 1978 most, if not all, of the events that followed after his departure from Tehran would not have occurred. These events were not predetermined and fixed; they came about as unintended consequences of the Shah’s failure to resolutely defend his regime and the Carter administration’s inability to imagine the costs of such failure by not supporting him as imperatively as needed.
With the Shah secure in Tehran, there would not have been American hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, or the Gulf War. A secure and stable Iran would have likely deterred Moscow to send occupying forces into Afghanistan and, consequently, no dragon seeds of “jihadism” would have been planted there in de-stabilizing the region and in exporting terrorism to the West.
Islamism, or the rot inside the body politics of the Muslim world, would remain a nuisance and it would be dealt with as needed by security forces of the Middle East rulers. The problem of Palestinians would continue to impede any final resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it could be contained within the dynamics of regional politics. Similarly, failed states, such as Somalia, would pose a challenge to regional order but their threats could be managed with assistance delivered through the UN.
In the 1976 Republican primaries Ronald Reagan ran as an outsider. Peggy Noonan recalled Reagan’s theme: “I’m an outsider, not part of the status quo, not a member of the Washington establishment. I am a choice, not an echo.”
Republican establishment and insiders in Washington closed ranks to deny Reagan the nomination, while they went with Ford despite his uninspiring record and the shadow of Nixon lingering over him. A few more votes in Reagan’s column, a few more Republicans breaking ranks from the pressures of the establishment members, held the possibility of a significantly different history for American politics at home and abroad.
It is not that we do not know the eventual cost of Reagan losing the Republican nomination by seventy votes forty years ago in Kansas City. The Iraq war of 2003-10 alone — not counting the loss of American lives and the cost to the economy on 9/11, and the cumulative cost of the unending war against radical Islam — has cost America over $2 trillion with some 4,500 soldiers dead and over 32,000 wounded. The cost for Iraqis in dead and wounded exceed half million, and it is far from over for them and for the rest of the people in the Middle East.
In Cleveland Republicans will nominate Donald Trump, despite the efforts of the #NeverTrump activists, as their nominee for the general election in November. Trump not unlike Reagan is an outsider to the Republican establishment and the Washington insiders. But unlike Reagan in 1976, Trump has prevailed over the party establishment’s preferred candidates. He needs to unify the party around him if he is to win in November.
The differences between Trump and his opponent, Hillary Clinton or if by some unexpected machination Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, will be stark both for Americans and the people in the Middle East. And whoever becomes the 45th President of the United States will still have to wrestle with the unintended consequences of the choice made at the Republican convention in Kansas City four decades later.