Somehow this has turned into the summer of Reading About Things I Have Previously Avoided. I’ve always been more WW I than WWII, so witness the spate of WW II books I’ve just gone through (see Life During Wartime), with more still on the docket. And I have always, always scrupulously avoided anything to do with Vietnam and other things associated with the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. Yet here I am on my second Nixon book. I don’t know why I have suddenly become such a glutton for punishment but I suppose it’s important to fill in these glaring holes in my education.
Anyway, my second venture into Nixonia is Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. I will be uncharacteristically brief (you’re welcome!) as I already went into a lot about Nixon in my write-up of Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (When the Twain Met) and don’t think I have the strength to crawl down again into the dark hole that is the mind and life of our 37th president.
And we all know the drill by now, don’t we? Paranoid, insecure, self-aggrandizing, vain, desperate, sly, corrupt, willing to put self-service before the service of the country. Dallek’s portrait of the man isn’t anything new but his research shows depth and understanding of Nixon and his actions. The same for Kissinger, brilliant, arrogant, thin-skinned, full of great ideas, but also willing to sacrifice greater causes in the service of his own climb.
It’s hard to sort out all the motivations at play here. Of course it takes a certain level of vanity to aspire to such high governmental positions; essentially you have to believe that you can do the biggest job in the world better than everyone else because you are, well, better than everyone else. So were Nixon and Kissinger aiming for these positions because they wanted to prove to the world that they had won, they were better than everyone else? Or were they doing it because they honestly believed they had the best ideas and could make the world a better place? It’s a mixture of both, I suppose, but it's not hard to guess that the former was the bigger motivator.
There are many ways to deal with the Nixon era. As noted earlier, Margaret MacMillan focused on the China trip and wrote about that as a reflecton of the Nixon presidency. Dallek (obviously) chooses to focus on the twin ambitions of Nixon and Kissinger, two ambitious, bright men who found it too easy to let power go to their heads and who used each other to get what they wanted while both turned a blind eye to the other’s flaws.
The flaws, of course, most famously included lies, sly dealings, power grabs, and backstabbing. Dallek aptly points out that their lies were “partly the product of arrogance—they believed that they knew better than anyone else what best served the nation.” In other words, it was okay if they lied to the American public because they were doing it for their own good. Thanks. He emphasizes how both wanted to be known for great foreign policy work (their record, in the end, was mixed at best), yet were willing to make unsavory sacrifices in that area in the interest of saving their political careers. Example—their fear of a Vietnam resolution that didn’t “look good” and might cause Nixon to lose the 1972 election led to disastrous decisions that kept the war going longer than necessary. Their argument would be that if not elected, they couldn’t do all the other good work on their agenda, but in reality it was just about getting elected. When you read a lot of history, you learn that the big events are rarely conducted by great minds trying to execute great ideas, but that the wheels of war and government and politics are often turned by little men trying to hang onto their little jobs and little squares of power.
If I sound cynical, well, reading about Nixon does that to you. Throughout this book I constantly felt like just screaming, “Would you two stop being such big, whiny babies?!!” Really, the two of them together is a true test of one’s tolerance for bratty little boys. While Dallek’s book is well-written, finely organized, easy to read and one that I would not hesitate to recommend, I think I personally enjoyed MacMillan’s book more, if for nothing else than that the sections on the history of 20th century China and the main players on that side provided a welcome break from Nixon and Kissinger. And if finding the mind of Mao a relief in comparison is not the severest condemnation of the wearisome personalities of Nixon and Kissinger, I don’t know what would be. By the end of this book, I was heartily sick of them. And I am sick of myself, too, and yes, you should know why by now.