Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were two of the most compelling, contradictory, and important leaders in America in the second half of the twentieth century. Both were largely self-made men, brimming with ambition and often ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Tapping into recently disclosed documents and tapes, historian Dallek uncovers fascinating details about Nixon and Kissinger's tumultuous personal relationship--their collaboration and rivalry--and the extent to which they struggled to outdo each other in foreign policy achievements. He also analyzes their dealings with power brokers at home and abroad, including the nightmare of Vietnam, the brilliant opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, the disastrous overthrow of Allende in Chile, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan, while recognizing how both men were continually plotting to distract the American public's attention away from the growing scandal of Watergate.--From publisher description.
Presidential historian Dallek presents here the full tale of the Nixon-Kissinger era for scholar and general reader alike. Dallek mostly allows the story to tell itself and is even-handed when he does insert his own views. Of course, even-handed means a largely negative evaluation. While Dallek rightly praises Nixon for the China opening and to some extent for detente with the Soviet Union, he also covers the criminal overthrew of Chile's elected Socialist leader Allende and their nearly catastrophic tilt toward Pakistan in its conflict with India - and of course, Vietnam.
As Dallek once again establishes, Nixon and Kissinger deliberately extended the Vietnam War to aid Nixon's 1972 re-election. They distinctly did not want the war to end too early and risk the premature collapse of the South Vietnamese house of cards in advance of the election. The exit of US ground forces was cynically calibrated to be just completed by the fall of 1972. And as Dallek relates they expanded the war to Cambodia and Laos with disastrous results for those peoples.
The story of the Nixon era ultimately becomes the story of Watergate. At bottom Watergate was about the tapes. After the discovery of their existence, Nixon's resistance to releasing them led to charges of cover-up, and their ultimate release confirmed his criminality. Dallek does necessarily delve a bit into the details of Watergate, but the best source for that story remains Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon by Stanley Kutler.
When the taping system was first installed, Haldeman asked whether Nixon wanted transcripts prepared. Nixon declaimed, "Absolutely not. No one is ever going to hear those tapes but you and me." The delicious unintended irony of this answer is irresistible, but also revealing. Nixon seems to have had the self-awareness to know in advance that his tapes were not going to be pretty.
Indeed, one of the strengths of Dallek's book is the extent to which the mostly repellent personalities of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are on display: paranoid, ruthless, secretive, conspiratorial, and deceptive. Kissinger at least possessed a charm that Nixon completely lacked. Nixon did not like people much and people reciprocated.
While Dallek does not add any big new important pieces to our knowledge, his exhaustive research does add authoritativeness to what we thought we already knew. Dallek does highlight the shocking extent of Nixon's drinking - he was often drunk and asleep or out of control, in particular during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
'Nixon and Kissinger' is the work of a worthy professional historian and Dallek has given us a complete and even-handed treatment without polemics (however, his repeated suggestion that Nixon's aides and Kissinger in particular should have pushed Nixon's temporary removal under the 25th Amendment is perhaps the book's weakest point).
Dallek also made a special effort to make his work accessible to a younger generation of readers who did not live through the Watergate-Vietnam immersion experience. Highly recommended for both seasoned Nixon hands and newcomers alike.
Other gripes include the remarkably scant coverage of the role of Spiro Agnew, who is mentioned briefly on only four or five occasions, and the inadequate coverage of the effects of Nixon's bombing of Cambodia and the means by which N&K illegally sought to cover it up. I also felt that more direct quotes, which are readily available, would have brought more life to the content.
However, Dallek does provide in-depth coverage of Vietnam, Yom Kippur War, OPEC crises and détente with the PRC and USSR, and the writing style easily maintains interest. The best aspect of the book (and to be fair the main objective) is the portrayal of the relationship between the president and his national security advisor. Startling similarities become apparent, and the author provides a particularly interesting analysis of the inner drivers motivating each man.
Overall, this is a very well written and enjoyable account of some aspects of the Nixon presidency and an intriguing study on the use and abuse of executive power. Kissinger was right when he said in 1968 `that man is not fit to be president'.
I never realized how similar these two guys were, especially how paranoid Kissinger was. Neither one of them treated people very well at all - people quitting and/or having nervous breakdowns seemed faily common.
The book covered both Nixon's and Kissinger's somewhat humble beginnings separately, and then intertwined their biographies when they got together.
Vietnam, China, the USSR are all covered, as well as Watergate. It was interesting how Nixon continued to downplay the importance of Watergate almost to the end.
A well-written book, however sometimes it seemed to jump back and forth in time, as several strings were being followed. Not the easiest of reads.
I listened to the unabridged audiobook and Conger's narration is also first-rate, very engaged,
Kissinger: "We didn't do it . . . "
Nixon: "That is right. And that is the way it is going to be played . . . "
This one wound up being grueling, especially on holiday, especially on holiday during the World Cup. There is considerable stomach turning detail. The idea that both men were thin-skinned and manipulative percolated my own internal inventory. It makes one wonder. This book is strictly an account of the foreign policy of the Nixon Administration and the role Kissinger played in executing such. This continues until Watergate at which point the narrative delineates the relative madness of the White House until Nixon's resignation.
The above quote is about Chile, not domestic dirty tricks. The sections detailing the "handling" of the Vietnam War were brilliant history though one larded with excessive detail and too many full quotes of both men being vulgar and unreasonably optimistic, given the circumstances on the ground.
I made a conscious effort to avoid politics this week and perhaps for the entire World Cup. Certain images and political retreats were still able to grab me, but I will stop here before making any parallels with the infamous personalities detailed in Dallek’s book.
I won't read it again but I don't regret the year!