Thursday, June 28, 2007

How Little We Knew How Little They Knew: Nixon and Kissinger

(reflections on Robert Dallek, Partners in Power: Nixon and Kissinger)
Richard Nixon was "a man of strong convictions, who came up through adversity; at his best in a crisis, cool, unflappable; a tough, bold, strong leader... never being concerned about tomorrow's headlines; ...steely . . . subtle and almost gentle." That's Nixon, in his own words, in a memo to Henry Kissinger dictating what to say about his boss. It was the occasion of announcing the diplomatic breakthrough to China. Nixon wanted Kissinger also to stress how much the President had in common with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai. (Dallek, p. 299).

What I've learned from Robert Dallek's big book about Nixon and Kissinger is mostly this: When Nixon's "Silent Majority" and even his enemies respected Nixon and Kissinger for their competence in foreign affairs, we were giving them too much credit.

Dallek often reviews the events of Nixon's tumultuous Presidency through the memoirs and public pronouncements of Nixon and Kissinger themselves. But Dallek has also had access to written memos, Nixon's diary, and of course, to those infamous tapes, and he shows that, from the very first, Nixon and Kissinger projected confidence, balance, and reasonableness that they did not possess in private. On top of that, we learn how they sniped at each other. Kissinger called Nixon "meatball mind" and more often "maniac" in off-the-record interviews that ingratiated him to news reporters, while Nixon called Kissinger "Jew boy" behind his back "and sometimes to his face, as a way to . . . keep him in his place" (p. 93).

Above all, Dallek drives home the point again and again that Nixon's trumpeted foreign policy was trumped up to win praise "in tomorrow's headlines." He'd planned his entire Presidency, from his near miss in the (stolen?) election of 1960 onward, to focus on foreign policy, the one area of Presidential responsibility where he could hope to have control. But events seemed to spin out of control all over, as Nixon had to deal with war in Vietnam, India's near-war with Pakistan, Israel's ongoing war with Egypt and Syria, Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile, involvement of the Soviet Union in all of those places, and China's competition with the Soviets. Dallek shows again and again how, behind the doors of the White House, Nixon and Kissinger came to decisions based on how they would look to the public. Dallek also shows that these two men, apart, made decisions to enhance each man's prestige vis-a-vis the other. Time and again, Nixon writes memos to Kissinger and to his staff to make sure that the President got the credit for anything Kissinger did.

I already knew a lot about Nixon. I've read Nixon's autobiography, and Stephen Ambrose's biography. I'd read Nixon's self-justifications in NO MORE VIETNAMS, and Barbara Tuchman's scornful dissection of his Vietnam policy in MARCH OF FOLLY. I'd already heard some behind-the-scenes stories -- the night late in Watergate when Nixon called Kissinger into his office to kneel in tearful prayer; how he discussed his proposed appointee to the Supreme Court William Rehnquist as "Renchler, that Bozo"; and the evening when chief of staff Alexander Haig called Kissinger because England's Prime Minister Heath was waiting on the phone to talk to the President and "the boss is pretty sloshed" -- not an unusual event, judging from the matter-of-fact way the two men discuss how to put off the P.M. I knew how, even late in life, Nixon was still worked up by (I'm quoting him from memory) "the slights, the insults you get early on, around age six, while you're working to make something of yourself, by all those people who just sit around on their fat butts."

Here are a few items that stood out for me:

  • During the 1968 campaign, when Nixon was promising "peace with honor" in Vietnam, LBJ announced new peace talks in Paris just before the election. . . and Nixon countered by making secret contacts with South Vietnam's President Thieu to encourage him to boycott peace talks in Paris before the election. LBJ knew of those secret contacts, but couldn't reveal them without revealing his source of information, through illegal wiretapping. Dallek comments that Nixon was thereafter "beholden to Thieu" p. 78.

  • After appearing calm, reasonable, and effective in his "Silent Majority" speech on November 3, 1969, Nixon phoned Kissinger three times and chief of staff HR Haldeman fifteen times between 10:20 and midnight to get "therapy," as Kissinger recalls and reassurances, and to give orders to "get 100 vicious dirty calls to New York Times and Washington Posts about their editorials." p. 166

  • Nixon to Kissinger, note of November 24, 1969: "I get the rather uneasy impression that the military are still thinking in terms of ... an eventual military solution [in Vietnam]. I also have the impression that deep down they realize the war can't be won militariliy, even over the long haul." Yet he continued to try increasing bombing alternating with periods of asking for guarantees of independence for South Vietnam, four more years, while the North simply waited. p. 183

  • Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman (who was 42 years old when he started at the White House) was known as "the Berlin Wall" for keeping people out of Nixon's presence, and keeping the boss's tirades and tantrums and foul language out of public hearing. More to the point, Haldeman decided which of Nixon's non-stop orders were truly to be implemented, and which ones were just "ramblings." (p.98) Frequently, we read of memos that Nixon wrote to Kissinger that Kissinger simply disregarded.

  • During the Watergate crisis, especially during Nixon's last year in office, Dallek shows again and again that Kissinger purposefully kept Nixon out of involvements with world leaders, because Nixon was not playing with a full deck (chapter 16, "The Nixon-Kissinger Presidency"). RN tells HK to remind Congress of the President's "indispensable" role in managing the mideast crisis (in which the Soviet Union was threatening to involve its own forces) while RN at the same time was saying that his enemies in Congress were trying to kill him: "I may physically die," he said. In a late night White House meeting, while Nixon was asleep (sedated?), Kissinger, Haig, and others decided how to deal with the crisis, and raised troops world-wide to Def Con 3. The threat worked; the Soviets backed down, and Nixon was on the news proclaiming his toughness. The liberal media were right to be suspicious. p. 531

  • The bitterness, the paranoia, the failure to connect personally -- I knew about all that. But I've always believed that these were the dark side of a man who fit his self-description of having "strong convictions," ability, and coolness in a crisis. The Nixon I believed in appears in Dallek's book only during a few public appearances and once in private with Kissinger. That time was in Nixon's White House office when he proposed a toast "not to ourselves personally or to our success [but] to generations to come who may have a better chance to live in peace because of what we have done [i.e., in China]" (p. 290).

Nixon was my first President. I remember JFK's assassination, and I remember LBJ's image on TV. But I recall Nixon's campaign -- and his guest appearance saying "Sock it to me" on LAUGH IN -- and the suspense of election night when racist George Wallace surged and V-P Hubert Humphrey ran close second to Nixon. I saw Nixon's inauguration during class in Mrs. Finkle's fourth grade at Churchill School in Homewood, Illinois. I saw his daughter's marriage. And I accepted his word for truth when he protested that he was not a crook. I felt personally betrayed when the truth came out, and he resigned.

My great aunt Ellen cornered me in my parents' kitchen when I happened to mention that my history students got a view of Richard Nixon that balanced the bad with the good. "I never found any good in him," she said with vehemance. She went on to tell how she had campaigned for a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1970 whose campaign fell apart because of allegations of illegal activity in the news. A couple weeks after the candidate lost, the newspaper admitted that the story of illegality was baseless, and it had come from an unnamed White House source.

Another personal acquaintance of mine involved with Mississippi's Republican Party told of meeting Nixon, who immediately followed up on his greeting with a racist joke, assuming that any white men in Mississippi must enjoy that sort of thing. My former friend was disgusted and embarrassed.

I'm afraid that's my reaction to Nixon, now, too.

Read "Nixon's Voice," my reflection on Nixon in works of opera and fiction

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