Billy Graham, the influential evangelical pastor, is being praised in death at 99, but during his life he was a right-wing zealot, who once advocated the death of millions of people in what would have been a crime equal to the Nazi atrocities in Holland during World War II.
During his life, Graham was a sycophant who clung to the rich and powerful. He’s praised for praying with Presidents, but his anti-Semitism and disdain for the poor, and the rights of LGBTQ citizens were a scourge on the country.
The low-point of Graham’s zealotry was his position on the Vietnam war and his unabashed support for President Richard Nixon.
In an indication of his dark impulses, Graham wrote a secret letter to Nixon at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969 urging the president to bomb dikes in North Vietnam. More than one million people would have been killed, according to Nixon’s own estimates.
The bombing, Graham wrote, “could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam.”
Of note, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi high commissioner of Holland, was sentenced to death for war crimes at Nuremberg for taking the same action during World War II.
Fortunately, not even Nixon would go there.
Graham’s unabashed support of Nixon and his policy in Vietnam, undoubtedly helped prolonged the war, causing the deaths of thousands of Americans.
Graham dodged scrutiny for his actions because the letter was kept secret for 20 years after the war. It was released to little fanfare in 1989.
Nixon was obsessed with Jews and believed they controlled key institutions in the United States, including the media and Hollywood. Graham fed into Nixon’s paranoia by sharing his views in a private conversation. Nixon cautioned during the meeting that the subject was something “we can’t talk about it publicly.”
Graham’s venal feelings, expressed under secrecy, again, may have been lost to history, except for Nixon’s infamous taping system, which captured and preserved his words.
During the 1972 Oval Office meeting, involving Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Graham agreed that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the media.
“This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” Graham asserted.
“You believe that?” Nixon says.
“Yes, sir,” Graham replies.
“Oh, boy,” replies Nixon.
“So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it,” he said.
“No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” Graham encouraged.
“And they’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” Graham volunteered.
During the depths of Watergate, when Nixon was facing certain impeachment for obstruction of justice and other crimes, Graham never wavered in his support.
Graham closely tied his fate to Nixon’s re-election. He said it was paramount both for the fate of the country and the success of Graham’s evangelical movement, Haldeman recalled in his private diary, portions of which were made public.
Among other things Haldeman revealed that Graham was intimately involved in White House policy debates and constantly provided Nixon with political intelligence gleaned from his crusades.
Graham strongly believed that homosexual behavior was a “sinister form of perversion,” and fought gay marriage and gay inclusion in the church throughout his life.
During the 1950s, Graham believed in racial segregation and refused to let minorities into his crusade meetings. But later he had a change of heart. He embraced the civil rights movement and supported Rev. Martin Luthur King Jr.
But he came late to the game. He only dropped his segregationist views after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Graham also once acknowledged that Jesus was likely a black man.
During his lifetime, he pioneered televangelism. He hosted his first radio show in the 1930s and believed that any means possible needed to be used to promote the Bible.
Oddly, many evangelicals looked on him as the “anti-Christ” because of his ecumenicalism.
There’s no question over the course of his career that Graham had a major impact on the world and that, publicly, his messages were full of hope and positivism.
But the dark side of his career affected millions of people as well, and must be part of his legacy, too.