Book review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
Despite the heavy, odorous baggage permanently attached to his legacy as a result of Watergate—not to mention the long shadow the affair cast over the Presidency—after his resignation, and well into his exile years, Richard Nixon felt strongly (some have argued correctly) that his reputation as a master of foreign policy would prove useful in his historical rehabilitation. His election in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, in the midst of the worst domestic chaos and unrest of the 20th Century and at the instant of deepest political cleavage within the Democratic Party, had—he rationalized—empowered him with unique, even extra-constitutional devices to confront the dangerous and revolutionary times over which he presided.
Nixon wanted to reverse what he saw as Lyndon Johnson’s flawed legislative balance: Johnson had struggled to subjugate foreign policy—and especially Vietnam—to secondary status in the public conversation, preferring to keep his progressive domestic priorities and liberal social goals at the forefront of the Great Society agenda. Nixon sought the opposite: the path to greatness for the man from Whittier would come through his deep understanding of strategic balance and foreign policy talent. Domestic issues would be channeled, managed and minimized—in some cases with ruthless disregard for law or due process—by loyal lieutenants with the cojones to get the job done. Nixon would charge organizational underlings—Bob Haldeman, John Erhlichman, Charles Colson, and others—with the task of containing and snuffing out the import of anti-war movements, anti-government demonstrations and urban unrest.
Nixon’s dark domestic rationalizations would lead ultimately to Watergate, scandal and resignation. Even as investigations by the House and Senate were tightening the noose around Nixon’s neck, the President obsessed more with his foreign policy agenda, which he envisioned as the centerpiece of his administration, and, he hoped, the crowning achievement of his years in office. Nixon would in many ways prove to be remarkably prescient in the intervening years between his resignation and his death, accurately imagining a time when Americans would recognize the historical value of his global vision and foreign policy accomplishments.
But these game-changing international and strategic successes were not solely the work of Nixon; indeed his stunning foreign policy achievements would not have been possible without his unlikely partnership with Henry Kissinger, an egoist seemingly imbued with all the traits Nixon himself most distrusted: towering self-promotion, Ivy League credentials and intellectual endorsements, press likeability and media charm, Jewishness, and a robust sexual appetite bordering on promiscuity. Still, Nixon embraced Kissinger as a near-equal, forming what would become essentially a necessary political marriage; Nixon needed Kissinger, just as Kissinger needed Nixon. Despite obvious differences, each man shared irrepressible traits: a rise from hardship and poverty to power, an unquenchable ambition, savvy and often ruthless political skill, deep sensitivities to criticism, and pathological desires to leave permanent marks upon the pages of history books.
Historian Robert Dallek (author of Flawed Giant: Lyndon B. Johnson and His Times) has written the most authoritative and sweeping account yet of the complex but essential political partnership that became one of the most transformative in contemporary times. At 623 pages, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, is also intensely detailed and well-researched, a massive book which gives scalpel-like insight into the working-relations of perhaps the two most ambitious men ever to willingly share power in modern times.
From the beginning of 1969, Nixon and Kissinger sought to redefine the U.S. foreign policy template, which was by then essentially paralyzed by the costly quagmire of Vietnam. Johnson and his wartime thinkers—Robert McNamara, Max Taylor, William Westmoreland—saw Vietnam as little more than a hot zone in the context of Cold War. Nixon wanted to move beyond Vietnam. Further, Nixon found it pragmatically useful to play the Soviets against the Chinese—trading on decades of antagonism and distrust, and driving deeper the already-present wedge between the Vietnamese and their immense neighbor to the north. Though Johnson had feared military intervention by the Chinese, in fact there was substantial distrust between Annam people and the Chinese. Nixon and Kissinger recognized that this little-understood facet of regional animosity was an opening, and the path to rapprochement with China might become a reality based on that one thread of opportunity.
Operating in secret at first, then more publicly, Kissinger hammered out the complex groundwork between Beijing and Washington. Then, upon his first meetings with Chou Enlai and Mao Tse-tung in China—the first thaw in a chilly relationship dating back to the end of World War II, Nixon learned that Mao had little interest in the Vietnamese, other than a general feeling of disdain. This opened the way for Nixon’s use of heavy airpower and the Christmas Bombings, which—though they were highly controversial in the west—may have finally driven the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table in Paris.
Nixon and Kissinger also became architects of a triangular form of negotiation and diplomacy, shrewdly pitting the interests of the Soviet Union against those of China, and upping the ante with each consecutive set of meetings. By the early 1970s both the Soviets and the Chinese had reason to accept any offer from the U.S. for a thaw in relations. The cost of the Cold War was especially difficult to bear in the Russian economy. And Nixon and Kissinger’s decision to meet with Mao at the height of the long Chinese power struggle between the pragmatists and the Marxist fanatics was a master stoke of tactical genius, for it was Mao who more badly needed the infusion of prestige.
Nixon’s strategic successes with the forcing the North Vietnamese to negotiate a settlement, détente with the Soviet Union, and his bridgeheads to the People’s Republic of China, opened a wide boulevard politically in the United States. Nixon’s 1972 opponent, George McGovern, who had campaigned in the Democratic caucuses and primaries largely on the issues of peace and negotiation, was left as a candidate without a cause. In November, McGovern was buried in a landslide, the most lopsided in American electoral history—even as the early months of the Watergate investigations were beginning to gain momentum.
Kissinger, arguably, became one of the 20th century’s most powerful presidential advisers: and by the start of Nixon’s second term no one, save for Haldeman, had the same unlimited access to the President as did Kissinger. And, for perhaps the only time in Nixon’s long and combative career in politics, Nixon felt the warmth from positive news reports on his success, even if Kissinger, it seemed, enjoyed the spotlight a little too much for Nixon’s taste.
Still, their partnership was one of immense and unparalleled international and strategic success. Nixon managed to accomplish what several post-War presidents had been unable to do—forge a conversation with the great American Cold War adversaries, while at the same time bringing about a conclusion to the long, protracted conflict in Southeast Asia.
Critics point out that Nixon’s ferocious escalations in Vietnam and his incursions into Cambodia may have forced the North to the negotiating table, but the brutal violence surely had a devastating effect on Southeast Asian culture and life, setting in motion political upheavals and societal collapses after the war, unleashing the genocidal retributions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and setting the stage for war between neighboring countries. But some anti-communist pragmatists argue that the demons of fanatical Marxist-Leninist atrocities would have been loosed anyway, especially once the last of the American boots stepped off of the Indo-Chinese subcontinent. The argument remains complex and troubling even to this day (see our review of Nixon’s Vietnam War, Jeffrey Kimball; Thursday Review), as a still unsettled chapter in American foreign policy history.
Dallek is a balanced and scrupulous historian, and not one prone to hyperbole or noticeable political leanings in his writing. Therefore the book can be digested by both the hawks and doves of that era, save for a few diehard Nixon haters, without the usual escalations of blood pressure and anger. But the book is not for everyone: it is not light reading, despite its obvious readability.
On the whole Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger is a towering book, written perhaps to match the skyscraper egos of two of the most compelling and controversial figures in contemporary history.