Blogs > Cliopatria > Review of Robert Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger (2007)

Jul 21, 2007 8:13 pm

Review of Robert Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger (2007)

[Mr. Kaiser is the Stanley Kaplan Professor of History and Leadership Studies at Williams College, and the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000).]

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.

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Maarja Krusten - 7/28/2007

Thank you for your kind words, Mark.

If I were an historian writing a book about Nixon and Kissinger, I would include a caveat that researchers do not yet have access to White House tapes recorded in 1973, except for the portions dealing with Watergate. Aside from the “symbolic” release of a few new segments on July 11, 2007, NARA has not yet released Nixon's tapes for the period from November 1972 through July 1973.

None of the books in the published Foreign Relations of the United States series go beyond 1972, see
However, NARA has released some textual materials that cover 1973 and 1974.

There are some sensationalistic aspects to Dalleks’ book. As I saw during his recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” interviewers have pounced on them. Dallek writes of Nixon in 1973, "The president was deeply preoccupied, and at times incapacitated by self-pity or alcohol."

I looked at the passages in Dallek's book related to Nixon's reported use of alcohol to see what sources he cites. Dallek mentions Kissinger's comment to Scrowcroft in October 1973. So it derives from a transcription by an aide of a conversation Kissinger had with a third party, not with Nixon. (The White House taping system no longer was in place at that point.) Also, in a couple of places, Dallek refers to the rumor mill in Washington while Nixon was President.

For all the attention this aspect of the book has received, the picture of Nixon as incapacitated appears to derive from an unverifiable comment by Kissinger (it might have been an accurate characterization or it might have reflected a misperception, we can never know for sure) and the rumor mill.

Drinking is the type of issue which can be difficult for an historian to pin down or to address authoritatively. I once had a letter to the editor published about Nixon and the drinking issue. I wrote my letter after a reporter listened to a released Watergate conversation from April 30, 1973 and described Nixon as being "sloshed." The conversation was recorded at the time that Nixon had to accept the resignations of H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. Memoirs indicate this was a very difficult time for Nixon. Here's part of what I wrote in 1996 in a letter ("Speculating About Slurred Speech") published in the Washington Post on December 7, 1996.

"His staff has given varying accounts of Nixon's alcohol consumption during his presidency. In a 1983 book on Kissinger, Seymour Hersh recounted an allegation that the president drank at night. But Ehrlichman wrote in his memoirs that, recognizing his low tolerance for alcohol, Nixon rarely drank after he assumed office.

Haldeman, who spent more time with Nixon than any other aide, described how 'Nixon couldn't drink when he was tired. One beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino. What was even more bizarre was that when he was merely fatigued, not drinking at all, the same phenomenon occurred.'

In his 1994 biography of Nixon, Jonathan Aitken reported that early in his presidency (before Watergate), Nixon sometimes took the drug Dilantin for stress reduction, and that this occasionally slurred his speech.

In all fairness, a note of caution is in order when speculating whether Nixon (who, after all, was as human as the rest of us) was 'sloshed,' feeling the effects of a single drink or merely stressed out and fatigued the night of April 30."

[End excerpt from Maarja's 1996 published letter]

mark safranski - 7/28/2007

Nice rebuttal Maarja - and well sourced.

mark safranski - 7/28/2007

I too am dubious about the " win" claim but I will give Dallek a fair read and see what he has unearthed.

Maarja Krusten - 7/23/2007

"Blaming. Making excuses. Restricting the flow of information. Creating us-versus-them distinctions. Reinforcing mandated structures, authority, and rights. Discrediting others' competence and willingness to take responsibility. Undermining or sabotaging others' efforts.
Expressing cynicism."

An historian's analysis of Nixon's or some other past President's struggle to govern? No, according to management experts, these are merely the frequently found "self-protective strategies" that undermine organizations' efforts to create high trust environments. (Katherine Ryan & Daniel Oestreich, DRIVING FEAR OUT OF THE WORKPLACE)

If, according to Ryan and Oestreich, many small and large organizations in the private and public sector struggle to overcome such barriers, it's no surprise that a President and his advisors do, too.

Study the man, yes, but also study the structure he puts in place and why different Presidents (Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon) choose the decision making apparatus they do. In Nixon's case, the tapes tell only part of the story (and of course, you don't yet have access to all of them, a thousand hours remain to be released). Unlike Eisenhower, who allowed groups of advisors to air out issues -- Fred Greenstein and Richard Immerman provide a snapshot of Ike’s approach in a paper published in 2000 in Political Science Quarterly -- Nixon preferred to read decision papers and to meet mostly with selected advisors. Kissinger, of course, had far more face-time with the President than did Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

Regarding the Kissinger-Rogers “problem,” does the answer really lie in the notion that neither "Nixon and Kissinger [could] abide any cabinet officer who tried to share power or the spotlight, such as Secretary of State William Rogers?"

For all the detailed tapes and documents he created, I don’t think it is so easy to unravel Nixon's thinking. You have to study how he talked to different people and think about the dynamics. (Dissing a third party is a common although very negative way for people to bond. You even see that sometimes in the pack mentality of schoolyard cliques, where the members act disdainful of a non-member when together but an individual might revert to his or her true self and prove approachable if encountered alone.)

Unlike Dr. Kaiser,I would separate Nixon (who had known Rogers since the early 1950s) from Kissinger in their assessments of Rogers. Just this past January the Associated Press reported new revelations from records:

"According to the documents, Nixon disagreed with Kissinger on both Rogers' intelligence and the worthiness of the career diplomatic corps.

'Henry says Bill is dumb — not smart. He is wrong. Bill is smart as hell. Bill is not a clown,' Nixon said at the January 1972 meeting.

As for State Department officials, Nixon said he has 'much more suspicion of them and much more contempt for them than he (Kissinger) has.'

When Rogers was informed shortly after the 1972 election that he was being relieved of his duties, he protested to Nixon that it would look like he was being forced out by Kissinger. Nixon relented and permitted Rogers an elegant exit after Kissinger's appointment to replace him
nine months later.

Kissinger, notified that Rogers was being allowed a grace period, responded that it was 'a disaster for the P (president) and the country and unworkable for the administration and our foreign policy,' the documents show.

'Our problem is not the Foreign Service, it's the secretary and he operates independently of the White House, won't carry out orders and won't do the work, the preparation of his own materials,' Kissinger is quoted as saying."

With all due respect, there are different ways to look at some of the other issues, also. For example, Dr. Kaiser describes what he calls Nixon's and Kissinger's "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.” He notes, “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."

But what about the voters? Yes, of course we know that there was political manipulation of opinion, that’s the way things are done. We know now that there were organized letter writing campaigns to gin up support for Nixon's policies. And we know from later investigations that the print advertisement supportive of Nixon's Vietnam policies placed in the New York Times in May 1972 was prepared not independently by the signatories but by the November Group on behalf of the Committee to Re-Elect. That doesn’t diminish the fact that many intelligent, well-educated voters thought through the issues and supported the President's efforts to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam -- beyond 1969. You can see the thoughts and feelings of some of these ordinary people –- clearly heartfelt, often searingly painful, sometimes struggling, sometimes steadfast -- expressed in some of the letters to the President that have been released by the National Archives from the Nixon record collection’s textual files. I some some of them when as a NARA employee, I archivally processed for release White House Central Files: TR [Nixon's trip files].

Consider also that Nixon was a father. Tabitha Alissa Warters, a Political Science student at Virginia Tech, in 1998 wrote an interesting Master’s Thesis, "Political Roles of Presidential Children." This illustrates how difficult things became for the Nixon family. See

Here's Ms. Warters’s account of Julie Nixon Eisenhower's decision not to attend her college graduation with her parents (I've sanitized the profanities which are spelled out in Julie's account in the original PDF document):

"Retreating from Smith and Amherst for Julie and David would prove yet another challenge in their young marriage. Neither Julie nor David was able to attend their graduation ceremonies in June of 1970 for safety reasons. As Julie recounts,

'Four hundred fifty colleges and universities were now on strike, among them Smith and Amherst, and classes and study were suspended. Several weeks before graduation, the head of my Secret Service detail had asked if he could talk to David and me. Formally he told us what we already had heard as campus scuttlebutt: if we or my parents or any of David's family attended either the Smith or Amherst graduation at the end of the month, the campus organizers were boasting they could swell protesters ranks to 200,000 people by busing students from the enclave of colleges around Boston and other points in the East. College officials at Smith and Amherst had made it clear to both the Eisenhower family and my Secret Service detail that they could not guarantee our safety at graduation ceremonies. Emotions were running high. The demonstrators' usual chants were "Hell, no, we won't go," "Peace now,"
"One, two, three, four, we don't want your [expletive deleted] war."

But recently the Northhampton Hampshire Gazette had reported that at an antiwar rally the crowd had screamed a new chant, "[Expletive deleted] Julie, [Expletive deleted] David'

[sourced to] (Eisenhower, Julie 290)”.

David and Julie didn’t deserve that.

Perhaps a President is supposed to rise above his opponents taking the low road -- as those who shouted epithets at the young couple did. Perhaps some of the people who read HNN could listen to obscene slogans flung at their children and never feel contempt collectively for those who oppose a policy or course of action. But somehow I doubt it would be easy to do.

Ralph M. Hitchens - 7/23/2007

I think Nixon deserves more credit for his foreign policy than you & Dallek allow. It seems to me that what he sought in Vietnam was not to "win" in the classic World War II sense, but rather to end the war on honorable terms. To this end he pursued 1) strategic isolation of the battlefield via reconciliation with the PRC, which apart from its larger strategic wisdom had a direct impact on the war -- previously about 2/3 of the USSR's military supplies for North Vietnam passed through China, and afterward most of it had to come via the more vulnerable sea route; and, 2)substituting US airpower for ground forces. Our troops came home, nearly all of them before the final spasm of 1972. The North Vietnamese apparently subscribed to the once and future myth that "airpower can't win wars" and launched the Easter Offensive that was repulsed with great loss, most of which was inflicted by US bombing. With Soviet resupply squeezed by the blockade of Haiphong, Hanoi regretfully concluded (as historian Ronald Spector has noted) that they had to get the US out of the war at any cost. The Paris Accords of 1973 did not constitute a peace treaty per se, but it did bring about a suspension of hostilities, enforced by the threat of renewed US engagement with airpower. Only after Nixon's self-destruction over Watergate did the credibility of that threat evaporate and Hanoi resume its march of conquest. The bottom line is that while Americans may have been tired of the war, in the 1972 election they overwhelmingly endorsed Nixon's "peace with honor" over the alternative of unconditional withdrawal. I think historians need to take a closer look at what was happening at the time, and not fall under the spell of retrospective historical determinism.

Barry DeCicco - 7/21/2007

David: "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."

I'd just like to point out that one big reason that people had been avoiding dealing with China was that one Mr. Richard M. Nixon (among others) would attack such people for being communist dupes.