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Tapes from the odd, wary foreign policy couple
NIXON AND KISSINGER: PARTNERS IN POWER
HarperCollins, $32.50, 740 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
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.
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.”
Oddly, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger had only one fleeting contact before becoming foreign policy twins: An inconsequential five-minute chat at a 1967 Christmas party given by Claire Booth Luce, widow of Time publisher Henry Luce. But by 1968, Mr. Kissinger was passing strategic tips to the Nixon campaign.
For instance, he got word that Defense Secretary Clark Clifford might be arranging a coup to topple President Nguyen Van Thieu to guarantee a Saigon government willing to enter into peace talks. Mr. Kissinger’s message to Nixon that if Thieu was assassinated, as Ngo Dinh Diem had been in November 1963, “word would go out to the nations of the world that it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”
Many foreign policy initiatives, however noble in purpose, contained an undertone of cynicism. For instance, consider Nixon’s much heralded “opening” to China. As Mr. Kissinger noted, a visit to Peking would transform U.S.-Sino relations but also be useful in “creating a diversion from Vietnam in this country for a while … We need it for our game with the Soviets as well.”
Although Nixon recognized the utility of Mr. Kissinger making the initial (and secret) trip to China, he feared being upstaged. It took much persuasion for the president to agree to Mr. Kissinger giving a background press briefing on the initiative. Bob Haldeman’s notes record that Nixon was sure that “the press will try to give K. the credit in order to [expletive deleted here but not in the book] the P.”
Vietnam, of course, was the major challenge, and Nixon was furious that Hanoi refused any meaningful peace negotiations. In one rather sobering scene, an infuriated president pounds his desk and says he is ready to get tougher with North Vietnam: “I’m not talking about bombing passes [or trails]… . we’re gonna’ take out the dikes, we’re gonna’ take out the power plants, we’re gonna’ take out Haiphong, we’re gonna’ level that [expletive] country … I think the American people would understand that. The point is that we’re not gonna’ go out whimpering, and we’re not gonna’ go out losing.” He ordered Mr. Kissinger to advise the Soviet ambassador to “tell his little yellow friends to stop these games. We are not going down quietly.”
As Mr. Dallek comments quietly, “It is difficult to understand how anyone could work for someone as volatile and irrational as Nixon sometimes was. More likely, Kissinger and others rationalized their collaboration as helping to save Nixon from himself.” Perhaps. But I suggest that in 1969-70, many Americans shared the sentiments expressed by the president in the outburst quoted above.
Even those of us who supported the war wished that our military had been permitted to take the war to the enemy and win. Further, the venomous enemies Nixon accumulated in a life of politics never saw fit to give him the benefit of any doubt whatsoever.
Politics, of course, could not be ignored, and here lie some exchanges that are now fascinating to students of the Vietnam War. A brief summary: By 1970, Mr. Kissinger had concluded that America must get out of Vietnam, and that it could do so before the 1972 elections. Nixon mulled the idea of a major withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 1971. But Mr. Kissinger argued that this would destabilize the South Vietnamese government, leading to chaos.
Thus he would delay any withdrawal “so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.” As several critics have noted, apparently no consideration was given to how many Americans and Vietnamese would die because of the delay.
Mr. Dallek skirts around the question of whether Nixon’s erratic behavior was tantamount to mental unbalance. In my view, given Mr. Dallek’s lack of access to medical record, his caution is wise. He concludes, “Yet for all Nixon’s emotional problems, it seems fair to say — unless other evidence eventually emerges from the closed records — that he was more erratic than incapacitated.”
Don’t take this book to the beach, for it is dense and demands your attention. The story Mr. Dallek tells is a tangled one, fascinating in that he permits the reader to watch foreign policy unfold against a backdrop of distrust and dislike between the two principals. We now can realize why Henry Kissinger waged such a strenuous (and ultimately unsuccessful) legal battle to keep his papers sealed. He does not emerge from these pages untarnished.
Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894 @aol.com.
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