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Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power


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"Nixon is dead, but Henry Kissinger remains very much a man in public life. In recent years, President George W Bush has consulted him for advice on the Iraq war, which Kissinger has supported. Since 2001, Kissinger has, according to Bob Woodward's State of Denial, met with the president every other month, and with Vice President Dick Cheney every month, and he has advised President Bush that "victory... is the only meaningful exit strategy" for Iraq." - Robert Dallek, May, 2007.

Similarities between Nixon and Bush II administrations, particularly in terms of war policy, are striking and tempting to pursue, but beyond the scope of Robert Dallek's fast reading, insightful new book, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. This is one of those sweeping, well researched and crafted narratives which opens so many historic themes the reader can readily connect many dots and weave historic threads while comparing and contrasting where we were then, and how we got from there to here.

Dallek's book explores areas which certainly impact contemporary events, like nuclear proliferation, the relationship of American media to American political power, global relations with China, Russia's growing paranoia with the US, and of course the conduct of the US war in the Middle East. With hindsight, it's remarkable (if not tragic) how many opportunities were missed by Nixon and Kissinger that could have fundamentally and positively reshaped the contemporary world.

Theoretically, the Vietnam war could have been ended before it became "Nixon's war" had only the president and his national security adviser focused on peace rather than personal vainglory. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major obstacle to peace and stability today, might have been resolved had Nixon responded when the Soviets asked him to intervene (along with them) to exercise sustained pressure on Israel's Golda Meir and Egypt's Anwar Sadat to accept the two-state settlement, as originally proposed by Sadat prior to the Yom Kippur war. Again in hindsight, such an agreement would have secured Israel's future in the region and established a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, defusing subsequent generations of hatred and violence. But Nixon feared opinion polls and erosion of "the Jewish vote," so he allowed the situation to collapse into war, and the resulting stalled "peace process" which hasn't much changed over the following 50 years.

Based on years of reviewing declassified archives, Dallek, Professor of History at Boston University, provides interesting details about Nixon and Kissinger's symbiotic personal relationship and the extent to which they competed to outdo each other to gain public favor through foreign affairs. He examines their largely unsuccessful dealings with global power bases-including the disaster in Vietnam, rapprochement with China, détente with the Soviet Union, the Yom Kippur War, the appalling overthrow of Allende in Chile, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan. Dallek explores how both men (and their staffs) continually plotted to distract American public attention away from their failures in Vietnam and the worsening scandal of Watergate - petty and stupid crimes which resulted from Nixon's paranoia and fear of losing an election he was projected to (and did) win by landslide. The more aggressive press of his day rejected Nixon White House PR schemes on their surface, and following the infamous "Saturday night massacre," the president plummeted to 17% in public polls, opening the possibility of impeachment.

Dallek provides new details about Nixon's erratic behavior during this period, and the extent to which Kissinger was complicit in the president's use of "national security" to prevent his impeachment or resignation. There was also a well known dark side to their relationship which Dallek revisits using new tapes and transcripts. Nixon, who seemed to fear Kissinger's intellect and resent his growing public stature, would periodically taunt Kissinger as his, "Jew boy." Dallek reports that after one such anti-Semitic tirade, Nixon demanded, "Isn't that right, Henry?" And Kissinger replied, "Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and then there are Jews." Nixon also seriously discussed "the Henry problem," with his aides, ordering them to report to him on Kissinger's "suicidal complex," quoting Dallek:
"Nixon confided to Haldeman, according to the unpublished diaries, that he was 'quite shocked' at how Kissinger had 'ranted and raved' at Alexander Haig during a 1971 phone conversation, telling Haig that he 'had handled everything wrong,' and calling UN ambassador George HW Bush 'an idiot.' Nixon believed that something more serious was going on, and it is known that he once mused to Ehrlichman that Kissinger might need psychiatric help. The subject of Kissinger's stability came up again in 1972. Having read The Will to Live, by Dr Arnold Hutschnecker, his former psychotherapist, Nixon recommended it to Haldeman as providing a road map to what Nixon, according to Haldeman's unpublished diary notes, called 'K's suicidal complex.' Haldeman went on: 'He also wants to be sure I make extensive memoranda about K's mental processes and so on, for his file.'"

Kissinger responded in kind, of course, calling Nixon a "maniac" and, "drunk" behind his back:
"'I have never met such a gang of self-seeking bastards in my life,' Kissinger told the British ambassador in 1970, in a remark preserved in an ambassadorial memo in the National Archives in London. 'I used to find the Kennedy group unattractively narcissistic, but they were idealists. These people are real heels.' The president himself fared little better. Kissinger privately referred to Nixon as 'that madman,' 'our drunken friend,' and 'the meatball mind.' Nixon eventually ended up slurping Scotch and watching the movie 'Patton' over and over while Kissinger ran the nation's foreign affairs. And during the height of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Dallek reports, 'the British prime minister called to speak to Nixon. It was 1:30 a.m. in London, only 8:30 p.m. in Washington. Kissinger wouldn't put Nixon on the line because, as he explained to his deputy Brent Scowcroft, 'when I talked to the president he was loaded.'"

The Nixon-Kissinger contrived exit strategy in Vietnam, one of worst foreign policy failures in US history, appears to have been a simplistic "reward-punishment" strategy to achieve either a short term "peace with face," or to prolong the conflict, timing intervals of troop withdrawals, negotiations, and bombings to pressure the north, manipulate American public opinion, and secure the 1972 election. The result was an additional 22,000 US casualties, another 40,000 US wounded, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians killed over the next four years. Nixon admitted early the US could not defeat the North Vietnamese, so his goal was to achieve the appearance of success by insisting on a negotiated independent state of South Vietnam under a secured Thieu government. Here's Dallek, with current resonances:
"Kissinger and Nixon very quickly came to private conclusions about Vietnam that they never revealed publicly and denied entertaining. 'In Saigon the tendency is to fight the war to victory,' Nixon told Kissinger, according to the transcript of a 1969 phone conversation. 'But you and I know it won't happen - it is impossible.' Even so, according to Haldeman's unpublished diaries, Nixon later urged that Democratic critics making this same point should be labeled 'the party of surrender.'"

The Nixon-Kissinger strategy of Vietnamization [1] required military dominance of the south and a peace treaty with the North to produce a Korea-like stalemate. As it became frustratingly obvious that neither objective could be viable before 1972, Nixon adopted his détente policy which opened triangulated negotiations between the US, Moscow, and Mao. It's debatable, however, which angle of the triangle benefited over others. One result was a SALT treaty with the Soviets (which exempted the category of missiles the soviets lacked, permitting the expansion of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons) and much formal celebration (if little substance) with the Chinese. The Chinese, however, were able to affectively balance a growing menace from Moscow by using Washington. Overtime, these appeared to be important steps in "ending the cold war," but the effort had no impact on Vietnam, and - fast-forwarding to the present moment - with the rising economic dominance of China, and threats of a return to nuclear proliferation from Moscow, Nixon's efforts may become no more than footnotes to history.

Nixon - Kissinger's primary objective was to pressure North Vietnam, through Moscow and Peking, into serious peace negotiations, while distracting the increasingly antiwar American public from his and Kissinger's failures in Vietnam to a more expanded goal of "world peace." These diplomatic actions did result in protracted discussions with the Soviets and Chinese, but they were of minor consequence to the outcomes of the war on the ground, or the negotiations in Paris. The terrible irony, as Dallek relates it, is that Nixon and Kissinger appeared committed to ending the war and both worked tirelessly to accomplish that end; however their strategy and tactics were so mired in their politics of deceit, egoism, paranoia and simplistic thinking, that "Johnson's war" became "Nixon's war," and overwhelmed his administration.

After the 1972 Nixon landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern, and before the oppressive cloud of Watergate settled in, there was another brief window of opportunity when Nixon could have simply ended the war and perhaps salvaged his administration. But he failed to seize that moment. Meanwhile Hanoi's disciplined strategy moved forward, continually assessing troop force balances in South Vietnam, which would favor them after a US withdrawal, as well as their understanding and manipulation of American domestic political and public relations conditions, limited Nixon and Kissinger options, while exerting constant pressure on them to compromise.

With hindsight, another interesting result of this era is how American democracy does work well over time to balance unwise power elites against public pressure groups and one branch of government against another. The Nixon-Kissinger theory of the "realpolitik" - that only the results of conflicting and interacting power elites seeking balance matter - is a fundamentally flawed approach to foreign policy (in my view) because it minimizes the influence of individual leadership (developing world leaders, like Ho) as well as the anthropological, cultural and social sciences in its analysis of geopolitical context, while overemphasizing often irrelevant and fallacious ideological considerations, like "monolithic communism" in opposition to "monolithic capitalism."

The fundamental flaw in the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam strategy was their failure to recognize the relevant political and cultural dynamics at work in the history of Vietnam, while Ho Chi Minh fully understood his historic moment - the movement beyond colonialism toward a collective nationalism - and he viewed it as no different in his nation than the American Revolution and subsequent American Civil War were to the American people. Much of Nixon-Kissinger's failure has been soft-pedaled and spun by neocons into a new ideology of global hegemony, based on supreme US military power and resolute leadership, which is currently faltering in the middle east. But Dallek (in my view) brings a more accurate and clear perspective to the Nixon era:
"But their failure [in Vietnam] is more deserving of condemnation. Both men knew from the first that the chances for South Vietnamese survival without continuing American military support were slim at best and that congressional and public weariness of Vietnam made such long-term backing unlikely."

So why then pursue failed strategy? Because the maintenance of power and the personal control and profit from power, were more important than any other ethical consideration - American lives, Vietnamese lives, the threat of nuclear proliferation, peace in the middle east, none were as important as the obsessive acquisition and maintenance of personal power. Nixon, like Johnson before him, was an astute analyst of public opinion and polling science, and both possessed exceptional political instincts. Nixon knew how to avoid defeat by always taking the game to another level: Minimize Vietnam, for example, by "working toward world peace" in an expanded arena. Move public opinion beyond the failures of Vietnam to the greater "hope" of peace through de´tente. Each failure prodding the next risk. But unlike Johnson, who withdrew from his second term election primarily because of negative polling, Nixon appeared capable of virtually any deceit or illegality to maintain his presidency and Kissinger was his more than compliant agent. On balance, Nixon and Kissinger's failures are their true legacy. But that legacy continues to have real and apparent consequences in the ideology, politics, and tactics in the Bush II administration, and this makes Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power an important source and reminder that history is short, but it's hardest lessons are often easily overlooked:
"As Thomas Jefferson counseled, eternal vigilance is an essential element of a democratic system. A citizenry that takes the good judgment of its leaders for granted is a society that leaves itself vulnerable to disappointment and failure. The Nixon-Kissinger administration provides some constructive lessons for the present and the future on the making of foreign policy. But it also stands as a cautionary tale that the country forgets at its peril." (Dallek)



1   "Vietnamization." In 1969 the Nixon plan was to encourage the South Vietnam to take more responsibility for fighting the war. Nixon announced the first of the US troop withdrawals. The 540,000 US troops were to be reduced by 25,000. Another 60,000 were to leave the following December.
Nixon's advisers told him that they feared that the gradual removal of all US troops would eventually result in a National Liberation Front victory. It was therefore agreed that the only way that America could avoid a humiliating defeat was to negotiate a peace agreement in the talks that were taking place in Paris. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam in these talks, Nixon developed what has become known as the Madman Theory. Bob Haldeman, one of the US chief negotiators, was told to give the impression that President Nixon was mentally unstable and that his hatred of communism was so fanatical that if the war continued for much longer he was liable to resort to nuclear weapons against North Vietnam.
Another Nixon innovation was the secret Phoenix Program. Vietnamese were trained by the CIA to infiltrate peasant communities and discover the names of NLF sympathizers. When they had been identified, Death Squads were sent in to execute them. Between 1968 and 1971, an estimated 40,000 NLF were killed in this way. It was hoped that the Phoenix Program would result in the destruction of the NLF organization, but, as on previous occasions, the NLF was able to replace its losses by recruiting from the local population and by arranging for volunteers to be sent from North Vietnam. [Back]

For excerpts from Nixon-Kissinger, visit Vanity Fair and 'The Odd Couple' ( NY Times).