Tapes from the odd, wary foreign policy couple

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By Robert Dallek

HarperCollins, $32.50, 740 pages, illus.


Any adversary who enters into a war of egos with Henry Kissinger should first commence a mas-

sive rearmament program, lest he fall victim to a true master of self-glorification. I am hard-pressed to name anyone in modern America more skilled at creating and polishing his public image than Mr. Kissinger (forget the lamentable Donald Trump, who mistakes freakdom for stardom).

President Nixon early on recognized Mr. Kissinger’s lust for foreign policy glory, and he was determined not to permit his national security adviser (and later, secretary of state) to elbow him out of history. Hence his decision to tape Oval Office conversations for a good part of his presidency, his intent being to preserve a record of exactly what transpired when he and Kissinger were discussing foreign policy initiatives.

Of course, the tape recorders caught many voices other than Mr. Kissinger‘s, and the president’s exchanges with such advisers as John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and John Dean ultimately led to his downfall.

Robert Dallek’s massive work is a testimony to the fact that, in the end, writing solid history requires a staggering amount of plain old hard labor. The Washington-based historian, whose earlier books include “The Unfinished Presidency: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” went through no less than 2,800 hours of Nixon White House tapes and some 20,000 pages of transcripts of Mr. Kissinger’s telephone calls.

There was more, for taping mania seemed to have seized the Nixon Administration at all levels. Taps were on the phones of close aides of the secretaries of defense and state. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird used the National Security Agency and the army signal corps, which handled secure White House telephone calls, to track message traffic of both the president and Mr. Kissinger.

Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff had their own covert White House source: A Navy yeoman who pilfered documents out of the burn bag and copied them for the Pentagon.

What emerges is perhaps what Mr. Dallek rightly calls “the richest presidential records in history,” which make the Nixon White House “more transparent than any before or since.” We are present for Nixon’s extraordinary opening to the People’s Republic of China, the exit from the Vietnam War, attempts to bring peace to the Middle East, the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile and so on.

But I must report that political voyeurs (I blush here at a confession) will be drawn to the nasty backbiting between Nixon and Mr. Kissinger, surely one of the oddest political couples ever. In off-the-record talks with journalists, Mr. Kissinger would refer to Nixon as a “madman” and a “maniac” with a “meatball mind.”

Suggesting that the president was mentally unstable was no accident: Mr. Kissinger wanted such adversaries as the Soviet Union and North Vietnam to feel that an unbalanced Nixon might strike out in unpredictable ways, hence they should regard him with caution; he well knew these “background comments” would leak.

Nixon had his own supply of venom. Mr. Kissinger was his “Jew boy” — a behind-the-back comment, but an attitude that came across in occasional anti-Semitic outbursts when the two men met privately. He felt that American Jews may be more loyal to Israel than to their own country — “Jewish traitors,” he termed them. As Mr. Kissinger would write, Nixon felt that “on the whole, [Jews] were more sympathetic to the Soviet Union than other ethnic group.”

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