The World in Their Hands
A historian examines a combative collaboration.

Reviewed by Margaret MacMillan
Sunday, May 13, 2007


Partners in Power

By Robert Dallek

HarperCollins. 740 pp. $32.50

Historian Robert Dallek has made his reputation with biographies of American presidents, Kennedy and Johnson among them. In this massive new book, he focuses on a relationship between one of the most controversial recent American presidents and his most influential foreign policy collaborator. So close was the partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that one historian has talked of a "Nixinger" foreign policy. In the first 100 days of his presidency, Nixon met with Kissinger, then his national security adviser, 198 times; by contrast, William Rogers, the secretary of State, met with the president only 30 times.

Nixon and Kissinger shared a similar view of the world -- that nations should act to promote their own interests and to encourage international stability. Both worried about what Vietnam had done and was continuing to do to the United States; both wanted to mend relations with their allies, particularly in Europe; and both wanted a better understanding, including arms control agreements, with the Soviet bloc. Yet they were never friends, and both tried to take credit for the administration's foreign policy successes.

Dallek paints a vivid portrait of two clever, insecure men, each wanting a place in history. Although at the start of their relationship, in 1969, Kissinger was a relative unknown and Nixon his powerful patron, by 1974 it was Kissinger, then secretary of state, who remained popular with the American public as a reviled Nixon left the White House. In later years, they rarely saw each other.

One of the great challenges in writing a history of the Nixon administration is the extraordinary wealth of material, most of it now released. Rogers rightly warned Nixon and Kissinger that they would regret taping everything, but both men were eager to ensure their place in history. Dallek has trolled through thousands of pages of transcripts from the Nixon and Kissinger tapes and caught them at their best and their worst, vindictive, funny, statesmanlike, petty, wise and absurd. A word of warning, though: Their lengthy conversations ought not always be taken at face value. Nixon worked his ideas out that way; Kissinger tended to flatter and agree with his president and even joked about it.

The tapes show the two men egging each other on to savage their enemies. The Democratic senators who are talking of impeaching Nixon during Watergate are, says Kissinger, "bastard traitors." The two men gloat that the 1971 war between India and Pakistan will cause American liberals "untold anguish" because their beloved India was so clearly the aggressor. They celebrate when Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrows Salvador Allende's government in Chile, reassuring each other that, in Kissinger's words, "we didn't do it," although in the next breath he admits, "I mean we helped them."

Dallek recognizes the real successes of the Nixon administration -- China, the end of the Vietnam War and détente with the Soviet Union -- and its failures, such as the coup in Chile. He also reminds us of how dangerously distracted Nixon became as a result of Watergate. Sen. Barry Goldwater came away deeply worried after a bizarre dinner in 1973 at which Nixon "jabbered incessantly, often incoherently, to the end." Increasingly, it was left to Kissinger, the administration's "one figure of stature remaining," as Time put it, to manage American foreign relations and cope with crises such as the October War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For all the fascinating detail, the big picture remains elusive. Curiously for a book about one of the key relationships in American foreign policy, there is little extended analysis of what the two men thought about the world and the role of the United States. Nixon, Dallek tells us, wanted to advance world peace. So do beauty pageant contestants. Nixon is "an idealist" and "a defender of national traditions," and Kissinger is America's "chief practitioner of realpolitik." We need more explanation. The two men "had a hidden agenda that they themselves did not fully glimpse." Well, neither do we.

This also is very much a history of the period as seen from inside the Beltway. Other countries and their leaders serve as background and obliging extras. In 1969, Nixon tells Charles de Gaulle that he is "somewhat pessimistic on the Middle East." It would be nice to know why. We get very little sense of what it is the Soviets or the Chinese, or indeed any other peoples, actually want.

Dallek also commits odd omissions. There is almost nothing on the tensions within the Western Alliance, for example, which we know were a major concern for both Nixon and Kissinger. We also know that they had serious reservations about West Germany's "ostpolitik," or rapprochement with its Communist neighbors (which involved much more than "détente with the Communists"), but these barely get a mention. There is no discussion of how Nixon shocked his allies in 1971, when the United States effectively abandoned its support for the dollar and imposed wage and price controls; and there are no references to the impact of the new American relationship with China on allies such as Japan and Taiwan.

Early on, Dallek promises the story of a collaboration "that tells us as much about the opportunities and limits of national and international conditions as about the men themselves." For all his industry, he does not seem to have shaken himself free of his material to deliver on that promise. They can be dangerous things, those tapes. ยท

Margaret MacMillan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, is the author, most recently, of "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World."

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