iberal historians have begun waxing nostalgic about past Republican presidents, extolling them as presenting a stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House. Consider Ronald Reagan. Deemed a heartless and dangerous conservative in the 1980s, he is now being lionized by progressive scholars like John Patrick Diggins, who depicts him as a worthy successor to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps the most interesting rehabilitation has been that of Richard Nixon. His image has gotten periodic makeovers since his resignation from the presidency in 1974 until his death in 1994, when he was hailed as an minence gris of American politics. Nixon was a wise realist in foreign affairs, we are often told, who reached out to the Soviet Union and China. At the same time he instituted environmental reforms and pushed affirmative action on the domestic front. The moral seems simple enough: Bush represents a dangerous deviation from the sensible Republican presidents of yesteryear.
But as Robert Dalleks marvelous new book, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, demonstrates, the reality is much more complicated. Dallek, who has previously written critically acclaimed biographies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, is a seasoned historian who follows the Plutarchian model of letting the evidence speak for itself. From the tens of thousands of pages of newly available documentsincluding Nixon tapes, Kissinger telephone transcripts, and national security filesDallek offers a potent reminder of the widespread and oft-deserved loathing that Nixon and Kissinger inspired. Many stories of Nixons perfidiousness are fairly well known, but Dallek does a commendable job of amplifying previous judgments with new material he has unearthed. What emerges is a portrayal of Nixon that can hardly compare favorably to George W. Bush for the simple reason that Nixon comes off as so much like George W. Bush.
Nixon in particular broke new ground as a polarizer. He wanted to turn his domestic critics into the functional equivalent of traitors; the antiwar college kids, whom he loathed, were supposed to serve as a kind of domestic Fifth Column, like the communists of the early 1950s, that could shore up the Republican base and stigmatize the Democrats in the eyes of the Silent Majority he felt he represented. In 1970, for example, Nixons press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler read a statement of Nixons after the shooting of students at Kent State which declared that it should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy. It almost seemed that the president of the United States was blaming the students for their own deaths. According to Dallek, nothing shook Nixons conviction that he needed to wage warfare on his opponents. Despite his landslide election victory in 1972, Nixon was, Dallek writes, almost morbid, convinced that his adversaries in the Georgetown salons and elsewhere were already plotting to undo him. Indeed, he saw the price of reelection as a fresh round of conflict with domestic enemiesread liberal elites.
Like George W. Bush, Nixon worked overtime to portray himself as a populist battling effete elites intent on subverting the American way. There are other similarities: the White Houses obsession with secrecy was the precursor of the Bush administrations penchant for running roughshod over the nations laws. The parallels between the Vietnam War and the Iraq Warthe official lies, the pretense of victory, the misuse of the military, the disdain for democracy, the bogus patriotism, and the contempt for civil libertiesare inescapable. And the longer the war continued, the more it corroded Americas domestic liberties. Public opposition to the war led Nixon and Kissinger to approve gross abuses of civil liberties, including wiretapping their own subordinates, in the name of national security. They were contemptuous of public debate, congressional input, and professional diplomats. Instead, they wanted to operate on a loftier plane free of the constraints of a democratic government. Sound familiar?
Nixons paranoia about liberals showed most unpleasantly through his dislike of Jews. Though Nixon had Jewish advisersincluding, of course, Henry Kissingerhe clearly saw Jews as a group as a leading enemy of his. Nixons antipathy toward Jews is hardly a secret, but Dallek suggests that it reached pathological proportions. No doubt Nixons hatred of the press corps, particularly the New York Times, was largely rooted in his sense of aggrievement and loathing of Jews. The truth was that anti-Semitism played well on the right for many decades; historian David Greenberg has noted that in Nixons early campaigns, anti-Semitism was a latent theme.
In essence, Nixon had the worldview of the classic anti-Semite: he saw Jews as having innate (and unpleasant) group characteristics rather than viewing them as individuals. Again and again, he blamed Jews for his difficulties. When the My Lai massacre was revealed, for example, Nixon knew who was at fault: Its those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it, he told his aides. He also enjoyed deriding Jews in front of Kissinger: Isnt that right, Henry? Dont you agree? Kissingers response was downright creepy: Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and then there are Jews.
Kissinger was intent on maintaining Nixons goodwill. Uneasy with his own Jewish identity (his family had emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1938), which he sought, as far as possible, to suppress, partly by identifying himself with the WASP establishment, Kissinger never dared remonstrate with Nixon about his crudity. And Nixon never let an opportunity slip to administer a verbal slap to his aide. Once, after Kissinger expressed a view on the Middle East at a National Security Council meeting, Nixon said, Now can we get an American point of view? And after aides informed Nixon that Vice President Spiro Agnews rhetoric was prompting an increase in newspaper articles suggesting Agnew was responsible for an increase in anti-Semitic hate mail, Nixon wrote, Keep it up.
What, then, prompted Nixon to hand Kissinger the job of national security adviser in the first place? One reason was that they were both realists in foreign policy. They viewed talk about human rights as sentimental claptrap. Another was that they saw eye to eye about the liberal establishment. Nixon may have resented the establishment because he could never penetrate it; Kissinger, by contrast, saw it up close and believed that it was soft. It had turned tail once the going got rough in Vietnam. This, Kissinger thought, was disgraceful. A superpower had to flex its muscles, not capitulate to a backward, Third World insurgency. The eastern establishment, he believed, had become as timorous as the liberals who had capitulated to Nazism during Weimar Germany.
Dallek is wise to emphasize the key role that Nixon and Kissingers outsize personalities played in shaping their policies. They werent statesmen simply reacting rationally to world events. Rather, they were at once ruthless and insecure, consumed by their personal hatreds and fears.
According to Dallek, harsh life experiences had made both men cynical about peoples motives and encouraged convictions that outdoing opponents required a relaxed view of scruples. Ironically, their cynicism would also make them rivals who could not satisfy their aspirations without each other. Both men, for example, were infuriated by Daniel Ellsbergs release of the Pentagon Papers, not because they thought there was anything devastating in the papers themselves, but because they viewed intellectuals with contempt. A weirdo, as senior Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman put it, shouldnt be challenging the president. As Nixon once said to Kissinger, I dont give a goddamn about repression, do you? No, Kissinger answered. It might be tempting to view this as locker-room braggadocio, but their readiness to countenance the rise of an authoritarian regime in Chile suggests that it was not.
Nixon and Kissinger launched an enormously ambitious overhaul of American foreign policy. They not only expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos, but also launched dtente with the Soviet Union in the face of enormous opposition from the right. They established diplomatic relations with China, meddled endlessly in Central and South America, and worked tirelessly to establish Middle East peace.
Nixon was elected on the presumption that he had a plan for ending the Vietnam War. This, as we now know, was wrong. As Dallek notes, Nixon proved no more flexible than Lyndon B. Johnson. In part, Nixon and Kissinger were fixated with appearing toughlegitimately fearful, like Johnson, of a right-wing backlash. They were determined to try and eke out what Kissinger later called peace with honor. But neither was really convinced that the United States could win the war, and both felt that a rapid withdrawal would amount to an explicit confession of defeat, turning the U.S. into what Nixon called a pitiful giant.
Instead, Nixon and Kissinger sacrificed a further 20,000 American soldiers, as they relentlessly bombed the Viet Cong and Hanoi, and expanded the war to Cambodia. Whether the terms of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were really any different from what could have been signed in 1969 is difficult to imagine. Both men genuinely believed that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would have had devastating effects for American foreign policy, particularly in the struggle against Soviet communism. But as it turns out, fifteen years after Americas ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 the entire Soviet Union collapsed.
Few leaders think of themselves as actively malevolent, and Nixon certainly didnt. In fact, as Dallek notes, Nixon genuinely wanted to be thought of as a peacemaker and had a stubborn streak of idealism. (The author notes that Nixon used Woodrow Wilsons desk in the Oval Office.) Nixons peacemaking instincts were at their best in his approaches to China and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union. Nixon thought he could use the opening to China both as a way to end hostilities between it and America and as a card to play against the Soviet Union. It was undoubtedly a bold and courageous move on Nixons part, particularly given his earlier record of irresponsibly assailing Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson for losing China to the reds. When it came to dtente with the Kremlin, Dallek suggests that Nixons motivations were less about the Soviet Union than about other matters. Nixon, as Dallek sees it, didnt really believe that dtente could accomplish much in the way of easing the U.S.-Soviet military rivalry. At best, he hoped that it would induce the Soviet Union to force the Viet Cong to back downa gross overestimation of the Kremlins real influence in the conflict.
Then there were Nixon and Kissingers domestic political calculations. Dallek reveals that Kissinger explicitly warned Nixon about the perils of signing an early peace agreement. According to Dallek, Nixon wanted to plan the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of 1971, but [Kissinger] cautioned that if North Vietnam then destabilized Saigon in 1972, it could have an adverse effect on the presidents reelection. Dallek continues, He recommended a pullout in the fall of 1972, so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election. He apparently had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost in the service of Nixons reelection.
If Dallek offers a mixed portrait of Nixon, his depiction of Kissinger is searing. Nixon was a truly sad figure, his own worst enemy, marinating in his resentments. Dallek censures Kissinger for catering to those resentments. His blind loyalty to Nixon, says Dallek, was a disservice to the country. But as Dallek also shows, it was more about loyalty to himself than to Nixon. Dallek believes that Nixon was so impaired by Watergate, physically and psychologically, that Kissinger should have conferred with other cabinet members about suspending his authority under the provisions of the Constitutions Twenty-fifth Amendment. By the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kissinger had basically usurped control over foreign policy, barely even bothering to consult Nixon. Kissinger had no inclination to challenge the president directly or risk his own position. His goal had always been to surpass Nixon, and he was not about to forfeit his opportunity at the moment of Nixons boozy incapacitation. Nor does Dallek believe that Kissinger, as he himself depicted it, was somehow indispensable during Watergate: [O]ther highly competent foreign policy experts could have conducted diplomacy and defended the national interests with equal competence to Kissinger.
Dallek has done a prodigious amount of research for this 752-page work, with its nearly seventy-five pages of notes. No meeting is too obscure, no memorandum too recondite for Dallek to reproduce. At times, the sheer amount of information that Dallek has collected may overwhelm all but the most ardent student of the Nixon era. As Dr. Johnson once dryly observed of Miltons Paradise Lost, none ever wished it longer. Still, Dalleks reconstruction of Nixon and Kissingers years in office provides an amazingly intimate account of the Nixon presidency. It will hardly end the debate over Nixon, but Dallek has produced what amounts to a prodigious roadblock in the path of those who would rehabilitate his reputation.
And while Dallek may confine himself to the Nixon years, his history has broader implications. The lamentable mindset that Nixon and Kissinger displayed then lingers on today. In 2004, at a small meeting at the Library of Congress convened in Kissingers honor, I had listened to Samuel Huntington, Paul Kennedy, and John Lewis Gaddis discuss Kissingers legacy. As the morning session drew to a close, Kissinger himself rose, and everyone craned their necks to hear the great mans words. He said that he had supported the Iraq War, not because it was necessary, but precisely because it wasnt. The Arab world, he continued, had to realize that when attacked America would respond with massive, disproportionate force. With George W. Bush receiving advice like that from one of the architects of the Vietnam War, is it any wonder that he is mired in a conflict that seems even more intractable?