What Daniel Patrick Moynihan Actually Thought About Race

A reader pushes back on the notion that Moynihan was “quiet” in the face of Richard Nixon’s racism.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Richard Nixon
Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Richard Nixon (Corbis Historical / Getty)

Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation With Richard Nixon

This summer, the National Archives released audio of a 1971 conversation between President Richard Nixon and then–California Governor Ronald Reagan. The tapes, Tim Naftali wrote in July, reveal that both men subscribed to the racist belief that Africans and African Americans are somehow inferior.

Naftali also cited an earlier conversation between Nixon and the Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who had briefly served in his administration) in which Nixon explained his attraction to the idea of racial hierarchy. “Nixon’s racism matters to us because he allowed his views on race to shape U.S. policies—both foreign and domestic,” Naftali argued.

Many thanks to Professor Naftali for bringing Ronald Reagan’s explicit racism to public attention.

As I am currently writing a book on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I would like to point out one inaccuracy in Naftali’s narrative. Regarding the secretly taped conversation on racial aptitudes between Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which took place on October 7, 1971, Naftali describes “a quiet Moynihan” listening to Nixon’s rambling lecture on racial abilities. While it is true that Nixon dominated this conversation—indeed, Moynihan could hardly get a word in edgewise—Moynihan did make a few brief comments. He joined Nixon in depicting African leaders as “children.” Later in the conversation, he agreed with Nixon that black people are at an intellectual disadvantage “when you get to some of the more, shall we say, some of the more profound, rigid disciplines, basically,” as Nixon put it. When asked about this conversation years later, Moynihan claimed that he could not recall it.

This is a significant omission because it continues, inadvertently, the decades-long practice of not examining how Moynihan actually thought about race.

Professor John Hoberman
University of Texas
Austin, Texas

Tim Naftali replies:

I agree with John Hoberman that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s role in the conversations with Richard Nixon about IQ and race needs scrutiny. In seeming to elide Moynihan’s comments in the October 7, 1971, phone call (one of two recorded conversations he had with Nixon on this matter), I may have suggested that he wasn’t complicit in this troubling exchange. I am glad that Hoberman pointed out the omission and that I have the opportunity to make clear my understanding of Moynihan’s role in this disturbing presidential seminar.

Prior to the October 7 phone call, Nixon received a memo from Moynihan, who had left the administration as a domestic adviser in late 1970 to return to teaching at Harvard. The document, which makes for unpleasant reading, lays bare that Moynihan shared the view that intelligence was something that could be measured with a single number (a theory that has been disproved by the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, among others), and that he took seriously a genetic “ranking” of races.

“Psychologists now think they know something of the ranking of the major races,” Moynihan wrote to Nixon. “Asians first; Caucasians second; Africans third. This latter point is not settled. It is an inference from the testing of persons of African descent in Caucasian settings.” Moynihan, it turns out, was actually the immediate source of Nixon’s later taped blathering, though no doubt Nixon only saw the theory as confirmation of what he’d long assumed.

Moynihan was an influential thinker on race and social policy, and he later became a Democratic senator representing New York. He was a member of the generation of liberals who turned on the claims of the Great Society and became labeled as “neoconservatives.” As he explained in a letter to the novelist John Updike in 1992, Moynihan believed he had found evidence in new empirical studies disproving that social policy based on social science had any impact on social change.

The memo and the ensuing conversation happened because Nixon had asked Moynihan for comment on the Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein’s article, “I.Q.,” in the September 1971 Atlantic. “Herrnstein is, of course, very much worth reading,” Moynihan explained in his memo. “The findings of intelligence testing, which he summarizes, have profound implications for social policy.”

In his article, Herrnstein argued that IQ is the dominant factor in social, academic, professional, and even sexual success. He  prophesied a scary “meritocracy” determined by IQ, with people locked into genetic subclasses: “When people can freely take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, virtually by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.”

Herrnstein argued for the predominance of nature over nurture in the debate about what determines human intelligence, but he was careful in The Atlantic not to take a side when discussing the controversial subject of racial difference in IQ (though he did encourage its continued study). But in his summary of the article, Moynihan confidently assured Nixon that his Harvard colleague agreed with the notion that IQ was sorted by race (a theory put forward by the UC Berkeley professor Arthur R. Jensen in 1969):

For many years it has been recorded that American Negroes score, in the aggregate, a little more than one standard deviation behind American whites on intelligence tests. In the period, say 1930–1960 it was held that this was the result of environmental deprivation, and had no genetic basis. In the course of the 1960s an increasing number of studies, culminating in Arthur Jenson’s 1969 article in the Harvard Education Review, contended that the black/white difference is genetic in origin and cannot be overcome by environmental change. Herrnstein does not say so in his article, but he believes Jensen is right.

On paper, Moynihan is cautious not to embrace this pseudoscientific racism fully, cautioning the president that it is not necessarily fact, but he doesn’t warn off Nixon from considering the patently fallacious view that African Americans are somehow genetically inferior. Just the opposite. Moynihan freely admits to Nixon that he took these ideas about a connection between race and IQ so seriously that they had influenced his advice to the president in 1969 and 1970: “Just about every social program I proposed to you in those two years had as one of its objectives either disproving Jensen or minimizing the consequence of his turning out to be right.”

Moyhihan also reveals to Nixon that, although the president himself had not yet read Herrnstein, his administration’s domestic legislative program already reflected Herrnstein’s (and by extension Jensen’s) thinking about IQ as a key predictor of performance in American society:

My further contention is that you have a legislative program—I could go on to list a dozen other items—which constitutes a viable response to the challenge presented by Herrnstein’s article and the material on which it is based. This is not a lucky accident. It was put together that way, with that precise objective in mind.

Moynihan did warn Nixon not to admit publicly that they were having this kind of discussion. “Finally, may I plead that you say nothing about this subject, nor let anyone around you do so,” he wrote. “There is no possibility of your concern being depicted for what it is, a desire to respond to knowledge in a responsible and prudent manner.” In particular, Moynihan feared that Nixon would tell the crudely bigoted Spiro Agnew: “In the bowels of Christ I plead with you not to let the Vice President say anything.”

Despite Moynihan’s efforts to deep-six this troubling discussion, his memo to Nixon and the follow-up taped conversations should be essential materials for all students of U.S. social policy. Moynihan’s memo chillingly makes clear that discreditable theories about the importance of IQ and its relationship to race were considered in planning modern U.S. social policy.

For Nixon, as the taped conversations with Moynihan demonstrate, racism that came with a Harvard stamp of approval was welcome confirmation of deeper stirrings. For Moynihan, it appears, the reality of social performance was more complex, but the ease with which he accepted, and acted on, this racist pseudo-science is deeply troubling. As Hoberman noted, little attention has been paid to Moynihan’s race-and-IQ tutorial for Nixon and its implications for social policy. Neither Nixon’s most recent biographers nor Moynihan’s main biographer mention these conversations, or the subject of Nixon’s pseudoscientific racism.

The one possible benefit of the otherwise disastrous Trump years is that, through his narcissistic meanderings, the president is forcing a national conversation about our myths about the presidency and ourselves. Unlike his relevant predecessors, Trump seems uninterested in hiding the darkness in his soul that others thought wise to keep hidden. As he forces an unpleasant reckoning with the fallacies of the powerful, it would be both healthy and intellectually vital to shine an equally powerful light on the fallacies that divided us as a nation in earlier times, especially regarding race. A thoroughgoing explication of Moynihan’s views on race is also timely now given that in late 2020 a major public-works project bearing his name—New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall, part of an expanded Penn Station complex—is projected to be inaugurated.