Henry the First

In his new study of Henry Kissinger’s role in the last year of the Nixon presidency, Alistair Horne navigates carefully and revealingly in areas that are now the subject of escalating debate between American historians.

The traditional enemies of Nixon hold that he was a uniquely sleazy president who committed crimes in office, and that he chose to squander 30,000 combat soldiers in Vietnam for a spurious “decent interval”, rather than extracting the US from that war as soon as he entered office in 1969 by just leaving “by plane and by ship”. The same people see Kissinger as completely complicit in Vietnam and somewhat tainted by the alleged ethical turpitude of the administration generally. 

On Watergate, Kissinger has finessed the issue of whether Nixon was a felon or not. Nixon himself acknowledged “terrible mistakes unworthy of a president,” but never crimes.

Horne seems to find Nixon guilty on the basis of a remark by former CIA director Richard Helms. In the incident referred to, the so-called “smoking gun”, Nixon authorised that it be suggested to Helms and his deputy, Vernon Walters, by Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that the CIA ask the FBI not to look into Watergate because it might lead into undercover CIA Cuban operations. He told Haldeman: “Don’t lie to them,” and Helms and Walters said they would not act without a direct order from the president. Nixon took it no further. Though tawdry, this is a feeble excuse for chasing a US president from office. 

The only plausible argument against Nixon was that he authorised financial assistance to the Watergate defendants in exchange for perjury, disguising White House involvement. This may have happened, but even now it is not entirely clear. In a fair trial, he might well have been acquitted. 

Nixon did lie to the country about what he knew of Watergate, but presidential lies are not unconstitutional or infrequent. In this case, when exposed, they vaporised Nixon’s political capital. The US national media treated their coverage of both Vietnam and Watergate as triumphs of the crusading press over “imperial” government, and have generally tried to maintain that very convenient conventional wisdom. Re-examination reveals mismanaged official press relations, certainly, but also heavy press biases against the administration.

Watergate was destructive of the national foreign and domestic interest, and was probably unjust. Nixon’s full presidential term was one of the most successful in American history. In addition to the foreign policy successes of withdrawal from Vietnam, arms control with the USSR, and new relationships with China and the Arabs, Nixon also achieved the end of conscription, school segregation, the terrible riots, assassinations and skyjackings of the late Johnson era, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and produced brisk economic growth and a lower domestic crime rate. This was why he was re-elected by the greatest plurality in history (18 million votes). 

On Vietnam, the Democrats had plunged the country into the war on a flimsy legal pretext, conducted the war utterly incompetently, handed an appalling mess to Nixon, and quickly hung their war on him. They then ensured the total defeat of the non-Communist Vietnamese and Cambodians by cutting off congressional funds, resulting in the humiliation of the United States and, for good measure, they crucified the president who almost salvaged their war, by morally over-egging the Watergate affair. 

When President Lyndon Johnson offered the North Vietnamese joint withdrawal from the South in October 1966, he was already conceding defeat. Ho Chi Minh could have taken the deal, waited six months, and reinvaded. The US would not have returned, but Ho thought he could defeat the US itself and decisively advance the cause of international communism. Nixon prevented this. 

Horne covers all of this admirably through his subject’s words, and reveals how Kissinger oscillated between the “decent interval” view that Vietnam was hopeless, and the Nixon “peace with honour” view that it might still be saved. Nixon based this view on the fact that the South Vietnamese defeated the Communists in their great offensive of April 1972 with only (albeit very heavy), air support from the US. Kissinger routinely gave senior personnel at the New York Times and the Washington Post to believe that he was with them, telling the journalists Scotty Reston, Joe Kraft, and their ilk that he was saving the world from “the madman” (Nixon), in between urging the strongest reactions on “the madman.” Nixon was generally aware of all this, even checking White House telephone logs revealing Kissinger’s lengthy calls to those individuals. It is a testimony to Kissinger’s indispensability that he kept his job.

Since, on Vietnam, Kissinger’s assailants are Nixon’s also, he supports Nixon. But instead of sidling up to a realistic argument that the whole Watergate orgy was the theft of a thimble, as Muriel Spark metaphorically wrote in The Abbess of Crewe, Kissinger has kept his alliance both with Nixon’s enemies who still rule the liberal media, and with the Nixonians, by dodging the issue under the majestic imagery of the Greek tragedians. Kissinger tells Horne that Nixon was brought down by a “flaw”. He wasn’t. He inexplicably bungled the impeachment crisis, but he was brought down by his enemies, many of whom were Kissinger’s friends. 

Horne rightly describes how Kissinger adroitly handled US foreign policy through the terribly difficult Watergate period, but doesn’t consider Nixon’s view that an overall Middle East settlement with Moscow would have been possible in October 1973, and  could have been imposed. Nixon foresaw that the Arab states and factions would be more difficult to deal with than the Russians, who were being ejected from the region by Sadat.

It was an exaggeration for Kissinger to say to Horne that he held the whole government together in 1973. He had nothing to do with domestic policy; Alexander Haig and some of the other senior cabinet members, especially Vice President Gerald Ford in the last eight months, were responsible for that.  

There is not the slightest question that Kissinger was a great statesman, brilliant both as historian and executant of foreign policy, and a world-league star with a splendid sense of humour. The complaints of the Left about his treatment of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile (where Horne’s own experiences are a very interesting bonus) are rubbish. So are most of the countervailing complaints from the far Right. Horne concludes that Kissinger is a great man. And he believes Nixon to have been America’s most interesting president. 

Elsewhere, he records Kissinger’s bitterness at not being invited back to government by Republican presidents after Ford. Ronald Reagan didn’t ask him back, and Nixon, whose advice Reagan took about Alexander Haig and George Shultz, didn’t recommend him. George Bush Sr didn’t ask him back either. Reagan felt he was too respectful of the status quo and too impressed with the USSR, should not have been tapping subordinates’ telephones, and (as he told this reviewer), “wasn’t loyal to Dick”. 

Cavorting with your president’s assassins is one of the few things that are not acceptable in Washington. You can’t play Talleyrand and Dean Acheson (“I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss”), at the same time. Kissinger’s Metternichian instinct is usually to cling like a limpet to the fluctuating correlation of forces, but Nixon’s Washington was not Napoleonic Vienna. 

The post-Watergate and Vietnam America of Jimmy Carter was artificially weak. Ronald Reagan’s America, which replaced it, was soon so powerful it didn’t have to compromise, as Metternich’s ramshackle empire had frequently done. And Nixon has caused the puritanical conscience of America, still formidable after centuries of cynicism and strife, which was mobilised by his enemies to drive him from office, to torment his accusers with the thought that he was unjustly treated. This is ultimately why Nixon is a subject of such widespread interest;   is the rising historical argument skirted by this book, and by Kissinger himself. 

Henry Kissinger got almost everything right, but he, too, was a Watergate casualty. His absence from the Reagan and Bush administrations was a great talent unutilised. Watergate cost Nixon 30 months as president, but it may have denied America 12 years of Kissinger as Secretary of State, not the least of the damage of that self-inflicted exorcism. 

This book, like its author, is amiable and civilised, and benefits from Horne’s extensive experience. I must disclose that both the author and his subject are friends of many years (although relations with Henry Kissinger have been inactive for several years). But this is an engaging read from a fine historian about an always interesting subject. It enables us to look fairly impartially into the mouth of a rumbling historical volcano.

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