Over the past five years, in many conversations with friends about American foreign policy, the name of Richard Nixon has come up, and we have commiserated about how we would like to have him back. Nixon certainly deserved impeachment and removal, but in foreign policy, he appeared in retrospect to be a grown-up who could deal with the world as it was. For the last week, however, I have been reading Robert Dallek’s new book, Nixon and Kissinger—and I have to conclude that I have been wrong. Not only was Nixon unfit for the Presidency, but he and his policies also suffered from many of the exact same defects of the current Administration, and it is no accident, it seems, that Dick Cheney got his start at the highest levels as a junior staffer in the Nixon Administration.
Dallek (whom I should note is a friend of mine) faced a tremendous task: to distill an unprecedented quantity of new material, including tape transcripts and Kissinger’s transcriptions of his own telephone conversations, into a publishable book. As it is the finished product weighs in at over 500 pages (as my next one might, as well), but it is never dull, and I if anything wished it could have been longer. Dallek sensibly decided to quote only briefly from each conversation or memo that he cites, but having read some of the originals (such as the one I posted here sometime back from April 1972 about Vietnam), I think something was lost not to give us a few complete conversations. Still, the basic picture is clear enough. Nixon and Kissinger were two paranoid egomaniacs, not without insight into world affairs, but too obsessed with themselves, their need for acclaim, and their hatred of everyone who disagreed with them to be more than intermittently effective, or even (except on the rarest of occasions) to focus on the details of foreign policy issues. They had extraordinarily little feel for the America they were now leading—both their world views had been shaped in earlier periods, Kissinger’s in the 1930s and 1940s and Nixon’s in the 1940s and 1950s—and the political failures that doomed much of what they did are, in retrospect, not in the least surprising. The book, in the end, is a kind of meditation on the vagaries of human nature that so often put such men in charge of the world’s destiny—and a re-affirmation of Bismarck’s famous remark that a special Providence watches over fools, drunks, and the United States of America.
Nixon and Kissinger, to begin with, came into office determined to win the Vietnam War. In an odd parallel to the current Administration—which decided that 9/11 totally discredited the Middle East policies of the last forty years—they evidently believed that the whole experience of the Johnson Administration had nothing whatever to teach them. Nixon, who saw himself far superior both to his two immediate predecessors and to any successor on the horizon, was convinced that Johnson had failed to win the war only because of a lack of will, the quality on which he prided himself the most. One omission from Nixon and Kissinger (which is more of a biographical study than a policy history) is any discussion of NSSM-1, a massive study of
Nixon does deserve all the credit he received for the highlight of his Presidency: the decision to open relations with the People’s Republic of
Nor, oddly, could Nixon and Kissinger avoid seeing the opening to
Détente with the
Neoconservatives and many Republicans still reject détente because they claim it allowed the Soviet Union to go “on the march” in areas like Central America, Afghanistan (which forced Jimmy Carter to repudiate it as well), and various parts of Africa. Such complaints, in my opinion, show a misunderstanding of the relationships among the different areas of Cold War competition—and also a misunderstanding of how Nixon and Kissinger saw détente themselves. Détente stabilized the Soviet-American arms competition and implied mutual recognition of the results of the Second World War in Europe, but it did not, and could not, stop the much less important, though never-ending, rivalry between the superpowers in the Third World. And indeed, it was Nixon and Kissinger, as Dallek shows, who initially took advantage of it in the
And meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger were fatally undermining support for much of what they were doing—and, in the end, dooming the Nixon presidency itself—because of another weakness they share with President Bush: an utter contempt for anyone who seemed to stand in their way, including both the federal bureaucracy, the country’s intellectual class, the press, and the Democratic Party. Because these important parts of American society had decided by 1969 that the Vietnam War had been a mistake, they were fools, wimps, or traitors, for whom in private Nixon and Kissinger never tired of expressing their contempt. Nor could Nixon and Kissinger abide any cabinet officer who tried to share power or the spotlight, such as Secretary of State William Rogers. Dallek provides new insights into both men’s paranoia, which was if anything greater than has ever been understood. That, of course, also led to Watergate, and to Nixon’s disgrace. He resisted his fall to the end on remarkably familiar grounds: "The Office of hte Presidency," he said just two weeks before the end, "must never be weakened, because a strong America and a strong American President is something which is absolutely indispensable if we are to build that peaceful world that we all want."
A belief that they, and they alone, understood the issues facing the country; an utter inability to admit that they might be mistaken; a complete distrust of all opposition; a contempt for the federal bureaucracy and the powers of Congress; a determination to persist in an unpopular war which no longer has any chance of securing its original objectives; a belief in the need for covert action to topple foreign governments; and an exaggerated idea of executive power; all these characterized Nixon and Kissinger, just as they do the current Administration. Nixon and Kissinger, however, lived in a fundamentally stable world, one defined by the Second World War and the decisions taken in