No matter how many books are written about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, there’s always room on the shelf for more. Our fascination with these two larger-than-life characters hardly needs explaining. There’s the doomed and moody president, manic when he wasn’t melancholic, and his super-brainy, super-vain, Nobel Prize–winning adviser—a pair of shape-shifting personalities who took control of American foreign policy at its lowest moment of the Cold War. They combined ambitious statesmanship with jaw-dropping weirdness, sparked controversies that continue to this day, and—while pretending otherwise—were obsessively desirous of our good opinion. How could we not be just as interested in them?
It’s not only the pull of great characters, of course, that keeps the Nixon and Kissinger books coming. There’s plenty of fresh material, too. The many titles of the past year draw on reams of declassified documents; the final batch of Oval Office tapes; first-ever access to some personal papers; extensive interviews with friends, family members, and staffers; and much more. It’s a measure of the abundant information available that one author can pay tribute to another scholar by calling him the only person to have read the “millions of papers at the Nixon Library.” These new books come by their juice and color the old-fashioned way—through tedious, time-consuming research.
The torrent of information has not, alas, given us the unified picture of Nixon and Kissinger that we might have hoped for. The clash of views is sharper than ever. The journalist Evan Thomas (Being Nixon: A Man Divided) and the historian Niall Ferguson (volume one of whose Kissinger biography is arrestingly subtitled The Idealist) are determined to humanize their subjects. Leading the vilification effort are another journalist, Tim Weiner (One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon), and another historian, Greg Grandin (Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman). The first two want to complicate and soften our views; the second pair aim to simplify and harden them.
Humanizers and vilifiers do share a crucial premise. They believe the story of Nixon and Kissinger can best be told by delving into their personalities and peculiarities, mapping every quirk, savoring every tape, noting every outrageous conversation and vulgarity. (The president does seem to have been very fond of the word nut-cutting.) And it’s not enough to be inside the Oval Office, listening to the astonishing things Nixon and Kissinger said. These books want us inside their heads, too, inside their wild ids and egos. Humanizers and vilifiers don’t disagree on where to look, only on what they find there. Of the young Kissinger’s overripe prose, Grandin jokes, “You can almost hear Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in the background.” Ferguson claims to hear Bob Dylan.
More than 40 years after Nixon resigned the presidency, and almost 40 after Kissinger stepped down as secretary of state, this hyper-personalized approach is nearly spent. Both demonizers and defenders have produced valuable and entertaining books. They have clarified the strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and preferences, and thoroughly unsettling pathologies of two major public figures. But it’s time for a change—and not just because the flow of shocking revelations is slowing down. We have found out amazing things about what went on in the Nixon White House. Even so, we have much to learn by trying to see past some of the horrifying details. We need to appreciate the story’s ordinariness as well.
Our first step should be back to the history books. Nixon and Kissinger were neither the first nor the last to manage American foreign policy while the country was feeling overextended and unsure of itself. How do their efforts compare with what others in the same situation have done—most recently, and notably, Barack Obama? The answer gives Nixon and Kissinger’s record more-normal human proportions, and makes clear that they were neither madmen nor demigods. It clarifies the challenges they faced—and our own.
Putting aside our long debate about these two will not be easy. Both critics and admirers have what seem like pretty good arguments. If you hate Nixon and Kissinger, you talk about the cruel—some say criminal—use of American military power in Indochina. If you admire them, you stress their pathbreaking diplomatic initiatives. Christmas bombing versus opening to China—the conversation hasn’t changed much in four decades.
These same fixations animate the latest books. Speaking for the demonizers, Weiner says that “subterfuge and brutality” were Nixon’s “preferred” policy mode. The two halves of this formula—the harsh use of force produced by hidden decision making—also loom large in Grandin’s book. Both authors recount the regular bursts of military power that marked the Nixon presidency—the secret bombing of Cambodia (complete with falsified record-keeping arranged by the new national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger), the Cambodian invasion of 1970, the copycat (and thoroughly botched) operation in Laos in 1971, the mining of Haiphong harbor in 1972, and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam later that year.
Most of these episodes have a similar story line, with the White House overruling (or excluding) dissenting Cabinet secretaries, and the president barking out orders for more planes, more bombs, more sorties, more destruction. Nixon can seem completely indifferent to domestic consequences. “Let this country go up in flames,” we hear him say—and he wasn’t referring to Vietnam. (This particular outburst, to be fair, may have been the liquor talking—Weiner’s Nixon is often drunk.)
Like much of the Nixon and Kissinger record, these stories could be recounted with less vilifying zeal, but the basic facts are hard to dispute. No matter how much new information they present, the humanizers will win few converts on the secrecy, illegality, and brutality front. Thomas may convince us that Nixon was awkward and graceless and insecure (didn’t we sort of know this?), but no amount of talk about poor social skills will make anyone see his foreign policy differently. If you believe Nixon was a war criminal, hearing that he was an introvert will not change your mind.
Ferguson’s Kissinger faces the same hurdles. Calling the book a bildungsroman, Ferguson gamely tries to make Kissinger a regular-guy genius. He was devoted to his cocker spaniel, Smoky; he was just as snotty to his parents as any bright young man; and so forth. But it’s a struggle. The book also reminds us that, long before entering government service, Henry Kissinger the young Harvard professor made his reputation with one big policy idea—that small nuclear weapons were essential instruments of modern war. There was a reason people thought him a model for Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, when the humanizers get a chance to talk about their favorite elements of the Nixon and Kissinger record, they too make a lot of points that aren’t easily countered. Who, after all, is against visionary and effective diplomacy? Speaking at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton helped along this reassessment of the former president. Nixon’s legacy, he said, had to be judged “in totality”—meaning, let’s remember the good stuff. Even the megalomania and weirdness look a lot more excusable, perhaps almost desirable, when measured against the demands of high-pressure peacemaking. As Joe Biden said recently at a Washington awards dinner, with the former secretary of state present, “I’m still intimidated by Dr. Kissinger.”
Thomas’s summary aphorism about Nixon—that “inner torment and even a touch of wickedness can be catalysts to greatness”—may not seem quite enough to justify the bombing of Cambodia. Still, when offered the goal of a “generation of peace,” which Nixon conjured in his second inaugural address, the demonizers become a lot less vehement. They don’t drop their overall indictment. (Détente, Grandin gripes in a footnote, just didn’t go far enough—Washington should have “thoroughly demilitarized.”) But few critics challenge the idea that their favorite villains were genuinely innovative strategists.
Polemics like these keep us from seeing Nixon and Kissinger in a fresh light. For that, we must weigh their record alongside those of other leaders who were given the job of ending America’s stalemated wars. Judged merely by temperament, after all, Dwight Eisenhower, who wound down the Korean War, and Barack Obama, who reduced U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, could hardly be further from Richard Nixon. And their advisers are not to be confused with Henry Kissinger. Yet personal differences were not decisive. Eisenhower and Obama chose policies strikingly similar to Nixon’s.
All three presidents began with the same analysis of their strategic predicament. For the long haul—to avoid going “down the drain as a great power,” as Nixon put it—America needed a downsized foreign policy that better connected ends and means. A “spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies”—Eisenhower’s description of the way his predecessor, Harry Truman, had done things—was not sustainable, politically or economically. Ike’s answer: military budget cuts that were deeper and faster than any his successors made.
In the same spirit, Nixon told Congress in his 1970 “State of the World” message that the United States could no longer “conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Other nations had to do more too—if only, as Kissinger had written just before becoming national-security adviser, to “discipline our occasional impetuosity.” Barack Obama thought of George W. Bush much as Nixon did of Lyndon B. Johnson and Eisenhower did of Truman, and he certainly agreed with Kissinger. The core of a better strategy was to stop, as Obama had it, doing “stupid shit.”
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama further agreed on how to implement their analysis—by making the big decisions themselves. Humanizers and vilifiers tend to see the centralization of power in the White House as an outgrowth of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s personal oddities. In fact, strong policy control is characteristic of all retrenchment presidents. Elected to clean up a mess, they tend (with some justice) to view the bureaucracies they inherit as prisoners of old ideas and aims.
How such presidents overcome obstacles can vary; their determination to do so does not. Eisenhower, accustomed to command, asserted his authority without any of Nixon and Kissinger’s extreme secrecy and intrigue. He insisted on a crisp and orderly process—but felt free to ignore the recommendations it produced. Having become president as a foreign-policy neophyte, Obama found it far more difficult than Ike did, at least at first, to impose his views on his advisers. But on one issue after another—from Iran to Ukraine—he has carried the day. Seeing Obama as an ineffectual egghead is as wrong as considering Eisenhower a grandfatherly golfer. Both knew that managing weakness requires a strong hand.
Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist, of course, that they used their total dominance of policy to make retrenchment a far bloodier and more violent process than it has been in any other administration. This can hardly be doubted. Yet the accusation misses something fundamental, both about how the United States got out of Vietnam, and about how other presidents have limited the risks that accompany a downsized foreign policy.
Richard Nixon’s strategy to achieve peace in Vietnam had two equally important leitmotifs. First was his readiness, at key moments, to rain down death and destruction on the other side. But the second was an unshakable commitment to get the hell out. His “go for broke” military offensives were inseparable from steady troop withdrawals. As he bombed Cambodia in 1969, Nixon started bringing the boys home. The United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, right after the announcement of an even bigger withdrawal. Equally large troop drawdowns were made in 1971. One reason Nixon relied so heavily on airpower to pound North Vietnam in 1972 was that by then he had cut the U.S. force to fewer than 70,000 men, not even 15 percent of the number he began with. Nothing—certainly not the appeals of his generals—ever led Nixon to suspend or slow the pace of withdrawals. He was getting out of the war, and if he used brutal bombing campaigns to cover his retreat, there’s no doubt that it was a retreat. “Peace with honor” was no bar to horrific violence, but it wasn’t exactly mindless, either. Nixon had accepted the inevitable—he just wasn’t ready to have it look as though pulling out had been forced on him.
Did other presidents manage the downsizing of foreign policy without the threat or use of compensatory violence? Certainly not. Eisenhower believed that only his threat of nuclear war had achieved an armistice in Korea. (A secret threat, of course, not shared with the American public or U.S. allies.) Ike actually considered and even threatened using nuclear weapons more than any other president. They were his go-to tool for deterring Soviet advances. Where nuclear threats would not do the job, covert action played its part. Some of the most important CIA operations ever, in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, were undertaken—or, in the case of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, planned—under Eisenhower. And who launched the largest Cold War military operation in the Middle East—the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958—simply out of worry that his policy had begun to look too weak? Same president.
For Obama, winding down overseas combat operations has been as firm a goal as it was for Nixon. The troop surge Obama allowed his generals in Afghanistan was limited, and it came with a strict deadline that he devised himself and would not extend, despite repeated appeals. (Only recently, with a tiny force left, did he change his mind about going all the way to zero.) In pulling out of the post-9/11 wars, Obama wanted what Nixon wanted—a way to keep casualties low and limit the risk of big military setbacks. His means—increased use of unmanned drones, greater reliance on Special Operations forces and cyberattacks, aggressive telephone and e-mail intercepts—were ones whose purpose Nixon and Eisenhower would have applauded. Yes, George W. Bush fashioned these policies, but Obama has used them—and the secrecy they depend on—far more fully. He has given them, moreover, a different goal—not to advance Bush’s strategy, but to reverse it.
Nixon and Kissinger’s claim to immortality rests on the other half of their foreign policy—the new relationships they forged with the Soviet Union and China. Their visits to Beijing were among the most skillfully orchestrated moves in American diplomatic history. Alongside détente with Moscow, these initiatives seemed precisely what the country needed for a successful rebound from the Vietnam War.
All the same, the impulse behind the new strategy was far from unique. Outreach to adversaries—and especially an effort to achieve what Kissinger called an “ideological truce”—has followed each of our stalemated wars. Eisenhower, even after the armistice in Korea, felt there was still a public “hunger for peace”—for relief from the rigors of the Cold War—that he had to satisfy. He considered harsh anticommunist rhetoric “tragically stupid and ultimately worthless.” He spent his presidency seeking a Soviet-American agreement that would lift the threat of nuclear war. None of Eisenhower’s proposals—not “Atoms for Peace,” not “Open Skies,” not a nuclear-test ban—led anywhere with Moscow. The hopeful moods he sought to create—the “Spirit of Geneva,” which followed his first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, in 1955, and the “Spirit of Camp David,” which followed his next one, in 1959—came to nothing.
But Ike persisted. If scaling back the Cold War meant compromising long-standing positions, he was ready for it. He told his advisers that to stop nuclear tests, he would accept pretty much any inspection arrangements Khrushchev proposed. He wanted a 20 percent drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe; when others called for a 25 percent defense-budget increase, he preferred none. (One of the most vocal critics of this early search for détente was Henry Kissinger, who warned that the United States was losing its will to carry on the East-West competition.)
It’s unclear whether Obama has drawn consciously from either Eisenhower or Nixon and Kissinger. Yet the same impulses that shaped their strategy have clearly shaped his. All three administrations shared the goal of developing a post-ideological foreign-policy vocabulary; the conviction that the resource levels devoted to national security were unsustainably high; the desire to make relations with adversaries less competitive; and the hope to use nuclear agreements as levers with which to advance a broader geopolitical (even civilizational) transformation.
Just as Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist that their crimes were sui generis, their admirers can be counted on to claim that their foreign-policy achievements stand alone. Didn’t the architects of “triangular diplomacy”—détente with the Soviet Union paired with an opening to China—give us a master class in how to manipulate rival powers for mutual benefit? Has any other administration displayed such strategic insight or dazzling professional skill?
The Beijing and Moscow summits of 1972 were, to be sure, a gigantic domestic political triumph. They restored a sense of direction and purpose after years of setbacks. But the president and his adviser thought they were doing much more than pandering to voters. (Of the public’s enthusiasm for his China policy, Nixon’s view was typically disdainful: “The American people are suckers.” He derided the very hope he had created by restoring ties: “ ‘Getting to know you’—all that bullshit.”) The big strategic idea underlying their policy was to preserve American “influence” by yielding “formal predominance.” By playing the two leading Communist states against each other, Washington could get their help in Vietnam, soften the hard ideological edges of their foreign policy, and—especially in the case of China—make them supporters of a continuing global role for the United States.
Little of this big idea unfolded as Nixon and Kissinger had hoped. Soviet and Chinese aid to North Vietnam went up, not down. The dramatic U.S. military operations of 1972—first the mining of Haiphong harbor, and then the Christmas bombing—took place because triangular diplomacy had not kept Hanoi from launching another offensive that spring. The Russians and the Chinese did not force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, nor oblige them to accept adverse terms once negotiations began. Nixon and Kissinger had successfully taken the ideological element out of their own relations with the Soviet Union and China, but the same was not true of relations between Moscow and Beijing. If anything, American policy made ideological rivalry between the major Communist states more acute, not less. The United States had to cope with the consequences not only in Vietnam but also, later in the decade, in Africa—as Moscow and Beijing vied for influence in Angola and Ethiopia.
Kissinger has long insisted that after his early visits, China became an advocate of a strong and confident international role for the U.S. (Mao even admitted to being a closet Republican: As he told Nixon in 1972, “I like rightists.”) What Kissinger does not say is that in those same visits he sketched out for his hosts a very different American role, less strong and less confident. Nixon, Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, was not guided by “dreams of the past” and would pursue a different strategy, especially in Asia. The U.S. would not try to “stop history” by propping up weak clients, such as South Vietnam and Taiwan. Kissinger forecast an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea and expressed alarm at Japan’s growing economic strength. Beijing and Washington, he speculated, might have to unite to oppose Tokyo’s militarism. But he urged Zhou not to push for too much too fast. Washington was still getting used to its new role. “You could not respect us,” he pleaded, “if we found this easy.”
Nothing unites the Nixon and Kissinger record more tightly with those of Eisenhower and Obama than the difference between their first and second terms. For all the trials of downsizing, each of these three presidents made foreign policy a major asset in his first four years—and a ticket to resounding reelection. Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Mitt Romney never had a chance against the masters of retrenchment. But then came something altogether different. A strategy that had been broadly accepted as a way to extricate the United States from overcommitment seemed less relevant when the war was over, less valuable in responding to new challenges. Retrenchment, to the surprise of its own architects, became ever more controversial.
What went wrong? To Nixon and Kissinger, the only thing that made any sense of this sudden disenchantment was Watergate. Post-Vietnam demoralization played a part, and so perhaps did skyrocketing oil prices and then recession. But the destructive impact of these events was nothing alongside a domestic political scandal almost unique in American history. Kissinger likes to describe Watergate’s significance this way: “We were castrated.” No wonder the “glittering promise” he felt at the beginning of Nixon’s second term was ultimately wasted.
The postwar-retrenchment blues of other presidents should, however, alert us to other explanations. If, without Watergate, Eisenhower faced a strong second-term challenge to his foreign policy, and Obama has too, then maybe we need to look beyond scandal and “castration” for the real story.
Eisenhower had his own way of explaining his second-term frustrations. The key was Sputnik and what he called, in his famous farewell address, the “military-industrial complex.” When the Soviet Union launched the first globe-circling satellite in 1957, hard-liners with strong corporate backing stoked fears of a “missile gap.” Unfortunately, the president could not reassure the public without compromising top-secret intelligence.
Yet Ike’s version of how his foreign policy lost its allure was incomplete. Fears of a changing nuclear balance were just one factor. In the late 1950s, the U.S. and its friends seemed suddenly on the defensive almost everywhere. New crises erupted in virtually every region of the world—in Berlin, Lebanon, the Taiwan Strait, and Cuba. Calls for a more consistent and better-articulated policy were heard across the political spectrum, even among Eisenhower’s closest advisers. As East-West tensions rose, Ike responded with annoyance. He invoked his own vast foreign-policy experience, said the U.S. was not falling behind, belittled those who wanted to spend more on defense, and impugned their motives. He pushed back, but it was not enough.
Second-term presidents who have managed to tidy up an inherited foreign-policy mess have always been blindsided by what came next. Slow to cope with—or even recognize—new problems, they hope to stick with the winning formulas of their first term. Here too Obama has had much in common with Eisenhower. In the past two years, as he talked about banging out “singles” and “doubles” (while Ukraine was under siege, Syria in flames, and China muscling American allies), Obama channeled Eisenhower’s complacency. When he said that criticism of his nuclear deal with Iran reflected the same mind-set that led to war with Iraq, he displayed Ike’s irritability.
Nixon and Kissinger didn’t see their troubles coming either. Though détente had evoked little real opposition while fighting continued in Vietnam, it fell to earth once the war was over. In the ensuing debate, Kissinger, easily the most acclaimed policy celebrity of modern times, often hurt his own case. He called those who questioned his arms-control offers to Moscow “strategically and politically illiterate.” When support for Soviet dissidents grew in Congress, he inflamed it by advising the president (now Gerald Ford) not to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When Congress banned covert aid to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Angola, he treated the measure as a kind of peacenik absurdity. (In fact, most Republican senators present—from Jacob Javits to Jesse Helms—had voted against him.)
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists—the left- and right-wing fringes of serious debate. He claimed to be the prudent centrist, to have the only long-term strategy for advancing the national interest. No setbacks shook this conviction. In an otherwise conciliatory letter he wrote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after leaving office, Kissinger tried to take the edge off their earlier clashes. As ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan had seen human rights as a way to retake the ideological high ground of the Cold War. The secretary of state, his nominal boss, would have none of it. “I had to position our policy for a long haul,” Kissinger explained, “while you were concerned with the immediate crisis.”
It was a telling inversion of the truth. Kissinger’s position as chief steward of American foreign policy obliged him to focus on a large portfolio of endless pressing concerns. Yet in managing them on a daily basis, he failed to elaborate a strategy that could command support from one administration to the next. He missed, in fact, exactly what Eisenhower—and later, Obama—missed. He had lost the center.
There was no shortage of reasons for this result. The American people may have wanted uplift more than nuance. They may have been too easily frightened by new difficulties. They may have responded too quickly to partisanship. They may have sensed that their leaders were not really leveling with them, were too in thrall to their own ideas, could not see how to change course. Whatever the reason, the public needed a more compelling and coherent description of what Kissinger was trying to do. It wasn’t Watergate that held him back.
America’s retrenchment presidents teach an ironic lesson. Coming in to manage a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the United States that would avoid big swings between over- and undercommitment. What they came up with, however, turned out to command support only as an interim measure. Once it became clear that the world was still a confusing and tumultuous place, the acclaim they had enjoyed was soon forgotten. The resurgence of heated policy debate didn’t just disappoint them—it infuriated them. They found their second terms a bumpy ride, full of criticisms they felt were unfair and unconstructive. They got angry at American politics, and at the American people.
If retrenchment presidents are irritable, they are also surprisingly inarticulate. Few rise to the challenge of explaining their policies. In the course of their careers, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama were all known—in very different ways—for clear and persuasive expression. Yet this gift failed them when their ostensibly long-haul foreign policy came under attack. Persuasiveness gave way to petulance.
Inarticulateness overcame other presidents who carried out strategies of retrenchment. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter adopted many of Nixon’s policies, especially toward China and the Soviet Union—and explained them no better. George H. W. Bush, having achieved both the successful conclusion of the Cold War and victory in the Persian Gulf, sought to de-emphasize foreign policy in the second half of his presidency. But international upheavals—from the Balkans to Somalia—did not subside. Like other downsizers, Bush seemed unsure how to handle these new issues—much less how to talk about them.
Retrenchment is a hard product to market. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush 41, and Obama belong to an honor roll of presidents all with the same problem: how to convince the American people that their foreign policy was more successful, less rudderless and reactive, than it seemed. Believing that they had fashioned a creative response to national war weariness, they found themselves labeled too passive. Certain that theirs was the standard against which all other strategies should be measured, they were called confused. Confident that they had put American foreign policy on a sustainable course that hardly needed to be debated, they lost control of the conversation.
As these presidents discovered, strategies of retrenchment always lose their shine. That’s normal. For Henry Kissinger, of course, normal will be a hard verdict to accept. But it fits. He had only a very difficult assignment, we can now see, not a unique one. In carrying it out, he did some things well, others not so well, and still others badly. With the perspective that time affords, both the calumny and the praise he and Nixon elicited seem obviously excessive. They were sometimes brilliant, sometimes foolish, sometimes lucky, sometimes terribly unlucky. For all their eccentricity and defensive self-regard, their record looks less distinctive than we have usually thought. If, 10 years from now, the next generation of scholars has produced a new shelf of books that help us to see the ordinariness of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, we will understand them—and perhaps ourselves—far better than we do now.