At one point in Robert Dallek’s account of the Nixon-Kissinger co-presidency ( Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power), the leader of the free world is asked by a TV interviewer what he thinks about when he wakes up in the early hours of the morning. He replies with a solemn face that he broods on world peace. He later gigglingly tells a colleague that he wished he could instead have said, “Going to the bathroom.” This sent me back to an aperçu of the late Fawn Brodie, one of the founders of the psychohistorian school, whose early book on Nixon quoted a friend of the president’s saying that he secretly wanted “the whole world to see him going to the bathroom.”
This repulsive thought—in how many closets of the executive mansion were those noise-activated tapes spinning?—is a hard one of which to rid oneself while turning these pages. What an abysmal record of pettiness and spite and nastiness and obscenity is here disclosed. Obviously, none of us would emerge with unstained character if all our private moments could be recorded and transmitted, but it is still a pretty base type of human being—well below the American average—who would react to the disclosure of the My Lai massacre by blaming it on “those dirty rotten Jews from New York.” And it is perhaps an even lower sort of person—the Semitic sidekick to this foul-mouthed little Jew-baiter—who would keep smirking and fawning while that kind of thing was being said. Many are the schoolyards that maintain a higher etiquette as between bully and toady.
Of course, the courtier Jew and cringe-meister has his own cheap revenge for the moments of abjection when he briefs members of the press off the record (or so he thinks) and refers to his boss as a “meatball mind,” or “our drunken friend,” or—even more accurately—as “that madman.” Truly, in those years, the United States was a rogue-state banana republic by the classic definition. By that I mean that it had a leader who could not be trusted not to start a war in order to distract attention from domestic crises, a leader who tried to sabotage his political opponents by the use of police tactics, a leader who sponsored terrorism in neighboring countries, and a leader whose personal demons were the terror even of his own cronies. By the end, as we know from several previous historians, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were worried enough to discuss how to disobey a presidential order for a nuclear emergency in case the order was to come from a disordered personality who fantasized about bringing down the whole house.
The effect of Dallek’s book is somewhat enhanced by the extreme mildness with which he presents his findings. Indeed, wherever he can do so, he awards the benefit of the doubt. For example, in one of the most appalling instances—the Nixon camp’s attempt to sabotage the Johnson-Humphrey Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968—he takes the most exculpatory line that it is possible for a historian to adopt. In another case where I would say that the evidence has been shifting even further against both Nixon and Kissinger—the cold and premeditated murder of Gen. René Schneider, head of the Chilean army, in 1970—Dallek seems to me to accept the premature findings of the Church Committee and to overlook more damning and more recent disclosures. In a phrase that betrays a certain innocence, he refers in his introduction to the latest electronic records as “untapped”—a sweet word in the circumstances. But an instant of newly released tape can illuminate an entire epoch in a single flash, and here is Nixon responding to Kissinger shortly after the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet and his brigands into power. Kissinger has been whining that the administration can’t take public credit for the atrocity and his slightly less narcissistic capo responds, as if to inject a moment of realism: “Well we didn’t—as you know—our hand doesn’t show on this one.”
Deniability defined! And a bit of a “slam dunk” for those who continue to believe that there was no White House hand in the Pinochet coup.
Extending like a great shadow over every episode of paranoia and bigotry and corruption is the one great question. Did Nixon and Kissinger prolong the war in Indochina to try to save their own political skins? The answer to this eclipses every other consideration, from their support for Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh to their overpraised grovel to Mao Zedong. Dallek does a swift cleanup here. Not that we didn’t know some of this before, but as he puts it:
Nixon wanted to plan the removal of all US troops by the end of 1971, but Henry cautioned that if North Vietnam then destabilized Saigon in 1972, it could have an adverse effect on the president’s re-election. He recommended a pullout in the fall of 1972, “so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election.” He had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost in the service of Nixon’s reelection.
And Dallek, one might add, has little enough to say about the Vietnamese ones, either.
It has sometimes been surreptitiously hinted by Kissinger that he acted as a restraining influence on his deluded master and that things might well have been worse if this were not so. This book punctiliously shows that, to the contrary, Kissinger was invariably trying to encourage Nixon’s very worst tendencies. And flattery was the least of it. “We stirred them up a little,” said Nixon self-deprecatingly after one of his more demagogic speeches. Oh no, sir, said his underling:
“It was absolutely spectacular! The thing that’s so interesting about your style of leadership is that you never make little news, it is always big news. … You are a man of tremendous moves.” It was essentially a repeat of what Kissinger often said to buck up and ingratiate himself with Nixon. “Mr. President,” Kissinger told him, “without you this country would be dead.”
Just think of the many good people who are dead as a result of this hideous partnership and also of the crooks and fascists whose lives and careers were prolonged by it. After reading this, I too felt an urgent need to pay a visit to the bathroom, but for the no-less pressing reason that I needed a long and cleansing shower.