Lessons of an odd couple

Locked in competitive collaboration, Nixon and Kissinger ruled international relations from 1969-1974.

nixon book 88 298 (photo credit: )
nixon book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power By Robert Dallek HarperCollins 752 pages; $35 They were an odd couple. A "mama's boy" from Yorba Linda, California, shrewd, stiff, insecure, provincial and profane, Richard Nixon rode to political prominence on a tidal wave of anti-communism. He lost the election of 1960 to John F. Kennedy, then emerged from political oblivion to win the presidency in 1968. Henry Kissinger fled Germany in 1938, went to Harvard on the GI Bill, and became a professor specializing in Cold War strategy. Ambitious, arrogant, by turns egotistical, sycophantic and Machiavellian, he was appointed special assistant for national security affairs and secretary of state in the Nixon administration. Nixon, Kissinger wrote, was "bold" and "tough," but "a very odd man, an unpleasant man." Kissinger was a "genius," Nixon recognized, but "my Jew boy" is "a rag merchant, starts at 50 percent to get 25%. That's why he's so good with the Russians." Partners in power, locked in a competitive collaboration, Nixon and Kissinger dominated international relations between 1969 and 1974. Drawing on recently released transcripts of Kissinger's telephone conversations, Nixon tapes and an avalanche of other sources, Robert Dallek, author of biographies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has produced a thorough, often riveting and largely persuasive portrait of Nixon and Kissinger. Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger are petty, vindictive men, who conflated their own self-interest with that of the nation they were supposed to serve. They bristled at criticism and schemed to punish their enemies. Nixon lied to Congress, the courts, the press, prosecutors and the public. Kissinger endorsed presidential dishonesty - and tapped the telephones of his subordinates. And their relationship "partly rested on deception and hostility toward one another." Echoing conventional wisdom, Dallek places overtures to China at the top of their foreign policy achievements. With Nixon's trip, the United States took a giant step toward normalizing relations with the most populous nation in the world. Equally important, Nixon and Kissinger played China against the Soviet Union. With a wary eye on the anti-communist Right, Nixon and Kissinger pursued detente, signing a SALT agreement. Although it did nothing to prevent a "MIRV explosion," Dallek claims, arms limitation, along with deterrence and containment, set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. More surprisingly, Dallek credits Kissinger with bringing to a close the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and reducing tensions between Israel and Egypt and Syria. Shuttle diplomacy, he suggests, was Kissinger's "greatest achievement" in office, worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Dallek relies heavily - and at times uncritically - on Kissinger's analysis of the crisis. Preoccupied with Watergate, he claims, Nixon was either drunk or emotionally unstable on October 6, when Egypt attacked Israeli forces in the Sinai while Syria struck in the Golan Heights. Dallek endorses Kissinger's view that he protected Israel - and promoted peace by keeping either side from winning a decisive victory and the Soviet Union from meddling in the region. Kissinger kept Nixon informed, but took the initiative. He persuaded the president to ignore the advice of secretary of defense James Schlesinger and resupply Israel with armaments. And he brushed aside Nixon's advice that Brezhnev be told that only the US and the Soviets "have the power and influence" to prevent another war. When Brezhnev complained that Israel was violating the UN-sponsored cease-fire and threatened military intervention, Kissinger met with national security officials, without Nixon, and raised the level of readiness of US military forces. Brezhnev backed down - and Egypt agreed to direct talks with Israel to rescue its Third Army. In sum, however, Dallek indicts the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy as self-serving, with a penchant for defining regional crises as Cold War conflicts. Concerned that Chile could become "our Cuba" and strengthen Marxism as far away as Italy, Nixon and Kissinger directed the CIA to induce Chile's generals to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende. Although he has found no evidence implicating American officials in Allende's murder, Dallek deems Chile "an ugly stain" on the Nixon-Kissinger record. And the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy, Dallek concludes, destablilized Southeast Asia, "expended thousands of American, Vietnamese and Cambodian lives, gained no real advantage and divided the country." Dallek interprets Nixon's "mad" rhetoric - "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 goddam country" - as "a form of autointoxication," meant to reassure himself. But he makes a convincing case that Nixon and Kissinger knew the United States would not - and could not - win the war. Their policies, including Vietnamization, were cynical attempts to stave off defeat "on their watch." Fearing that the agreement between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for a cease-fire in place and a US withdrawal after 60 days might imperil his bid for reelection in November 1962, Nixon secretly encouraged South Vietnamese president Thieu to block it. When an agreement was signed, Kissinger warned Nixon not to proclaim "a lasting peace" because "this thing is almost certain to blow up sooner or later." "It's sometimes better not to have attention," Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the United States, once told Kissinger. "It's a little dangerous." Dobrynin was right. Robert Dallek's book further tarnishes the already tarnished reputations of Nixon and Kissinger. Self-absorbed, with an affinity for secrecy, deception and control, they squandered their talent, knowledge and experience. As Dallek reminds us, they bequeathed us, albeit unwittingly, a cautionary tale that has never been more relevant. The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.