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 Vietnam which Kissinger commissioned upon taking office. It concluded that nothing the US had done had significantly weakened the enemy’s ability to fight, and that no agency of the US government could foresee the day when the South Vietnamese alone could deal with the enemy. A bold and rational leader must have concluded that the United States had to scale down its objectives to end the war, but Nixon did not. He and Kissinger spent about a year vainly trying to get the Soviet Union to end the war by pressuring the North Vietnamese, and then (as Nixon publicly admitted) tried to gain an advantage with the kind of “decisive” action which, Nixon thought, Johnson had avoided—the invasion of Cambodia. Meanwhile, political and military considerations (the latter involving the state of the armed forces) impelled Nixon to withdraw troops, but he continued to believe that he could make the North give in to our terms—an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam—by unleashing an all-out bombing attack whenever he chose. And historian Jeffrey Kimball was right: Nixon was determined not to make peace without giving such a campaign a chance, as eventually, in December 1972, he did—at the cost of 15 American B-52s, and without in the least improving the terms that Kissinger had already negotiated.
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 China. He had foreshadowed this step before he came into office, and Kissinger would surely never have had the temerity to suggest it himself. But Dallek’s account of the handling of this key initiative reveals Nixon’s enormous weaknesses as well as his strengths. To begin with, the entire episode was dominated by attempts to give the President all the credit as the indispensable man, even though Kissinger’s charm and careful preparation did so much to make their visits a success. But more importantly, in the long run (and this as we shall see applies to Soviet-American relations as well), Nixon could not resist the temptation to oversell what he was doing as one of the great diplomatic initiatives of human history, at least equal to the Roosevelt-Churchill alliance, the founding of NATO, or the Cuban missile crisis. (While he and Kissinger rarely if ever mentioned such episodes from the past, the implication of the language they constantly used both publicly and privately is clear.) The opening to China dazzled the world and ensured Nixon’s re-election for one simple reason: the President of the United States was facing a reality that his predecessors had denied for more than twenty years, that Communist China was here to stay. An inability to accept such unpleasant realities (such as the inevitable Soviet gains that resulted from the Second World War, the Castro regime in Cuba, or the fundamentalist regime in Iran almost thirty years ago) has been the worst aspect of American foreign policy since the Second World War, and the popularity Nixon won by rising above it should have made some impression upon his successors. Unfortunately, it rarely has, especially in our new century.
Nor, oddly, could Nixon and Kissinger avoid seeing the opening to China in military terms—despite the spread of nuclear weapons. In late 1971, when India went to war to free what is now Bangladesh from the control of West Pakistan, they regarded this as a threat to the new balance of power that might actually have to be met with general war. Pakistan was our old ally and China was a new one, and a gain for India was a gain for the Soviet Union. Not only did Nixon and Kissinger freely discuss joining with the Chinese in a full-scale global war growing out of the crisis, but they decided not to warn the Chinese against moving against India! Fortunately for us and the world, Mao and Chou En-Lai seem to have had a more realistic appreciation of the stakes involved than the men in the White House.
Détente with the Soviet Union also involved simply recognizing reality. Dallek shows, interestingly enough, how Willy Brandt—a relatively unsung hero of the Cold War—paved the way for it in 1969-72 by accepting the loss of German territory during the Second World War and the existence of East Germany (and thereby allowing for a new Berlin agreement and an end to Berlin crises, something Dallek doesn’t discuss at all.) But Dallek also shows how much Nixon and Kissinger resented what Brandt was doing, even if they had the sense not to oppose it in public. The decision to agree to nuclear parity under SALT I was an important one, and here I would give Nixon more explicit credit than Dallek does for one of his more sensible and courageous public initiatives: his repeated statements that there could be no winners or losers in a nuclear war, and that arms control agreements had to treat both sides equally. No other President had ever been so forthright (although JFK was headed in that direction at the time of his death), and Nixon’s opponents, such as Ronald Reagan and Senator Henry Jackson, never accepted this idea, but it was another welcome breath of fresh air. But détente was also oversold. The Declaration of Principles that Kissinger and Gromyko penned before the 1972 summit—which essentially promised that the two superpowers would live happily ever after—was a rhetorical excess that no Democratic President would have dared sign. It was bound to come back and bite its authors on the rear end, as indeed it did to Kissinger and Gerald Ford in 1976, when Ford had to announce that “peace through strength,” not détente, was his foreign policy. (It can be read here.)
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 Third World by excluding the Soviet Union from important peace initiatives in the Middle East after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Soviets resented it—and if they “retaliated” in Angola or Ethiopia, couldn’t a more reasonable President have simply pointed out that the transformation of Egypt into an American ally was of considerably greater significance? Alas, that was the kind of sensible conclusion of which few American politicians were capable. In the same way Nixon and Kissinger could not abide the election of a Marxist government in Chile and spent three years trying to overthrow it, lying about it the whole time (and, in Kissinger’s case, for much longer. Peter Kornbluh’s book has now shown how deeply the US was involved in the 1973 coup, as well as a failed 1970 one.)
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 the 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 Washington and Moscow during the ensuing five to ten years. They also showed some capacity to face reality—although only, as Dallek shows, when this was good politics as well. We are now adrift in a new world—one less dangerous in some respects, since it no longer includes confrontations between gigantic nuclear arsenals, but also in much greater flux. And I am afraid that the capacity of Americans to face unpleasant realities—in particular, that much of the Muslim world seems likely to fall under fundamentalist rule and remain hostile to the United States—is no greater than it ever was. In any case, we have not gotten any better at finding presidential candidates with the intelligence and the temperament that their position requires, or at finding ways to rise above the divisions within the American people. The Vietnam War, in this respect, remains the great divide of recent history, the one that opened the fissures that have only gotten bigger in the forty years since. The man or woman who will start to close them has not yet appeared. And in this respect, Nixon was certainly not the one.