1973, the Crucial Year

By By Alistair Horne
Simon & Schuster. 480 pp. $30
August 16, 2009

Chapter One

A Very Odd Couple

"The loneliest and saddest Christmas I can ever remember." - Richard Nixon to David Frost

"If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." - Harry S. Truman

Nineteen seventy-two was a year Henry Kissinger was glad to see come to a close. After twelve months of turbulent activity, and nail-biting negotiations with the North Vietnamese, it had ended on an upbeat note of considerable optimism - insofar as the global position of the United States was concerned - yet one of some uncertainty in terms of his own private ambitions. A triumph in which Kissinger could claim to have played some little part, in the presidential elections that November President Richard Nixon had won the second greatest landslide in American history. Forty-seven million Americans had voted for him - and for his and Kissinger's policies - representing more than 60 percent of all the votes cast. It was an impressive endorsement of his strategy of opening the door to China the previous year, and détente with the Soviet Union. Moreover, despite the huge underswell of opposition to the ever-rumbling Vietnam War, it surely indicated that a majority also supported Kissinger's tireless trips to Paris in 1972, endeavoring to wrestle a "peace with honor" out of the granite-faced, unyielding men from North Vietnam.

Yet that strange human being, Richard Milhous Nixon, the strangest -and perhaps the most fascinating if not egregious - of all U.S. presidents, had celebrated his triumph, not with oysters and champagne as had British prime minister Harold Macmillan in a comparable triumph on coming to power in 1957, but with a demand for the resignation of his entire staff.

Christmas 1972 was a lonely time, for Kissinger as well as for his boss, and a period of serious reflection. Kissinger was then a bachelor, enamored of the tall, elegant, but elusive WASP Nancy Maginnes, but still very much a bachelor - Washington's most sought-after bachelor. Each Christmas he would "ask her to marry me; every year she refused - said she 'wasn't ready' - and yet she wasn't seeing anybody else." So he continued to live in a cramped bachelor house, two up, two down - one bedroom of which he used as an office - on Waterside, a small road running up from Rock Creek.

Originally he was to have spent Christmas with Nixon in his Florida hideout at Key Biscayne. But the invitation had been withdrawn, or rather curtailed to a two-day working visit from December 20 to 22, to debrief General Alexander Haig (then White House chief of staff) on his recent Saigon trip to see the prickly President Nguyen Van Thieu. The two most powerful men in the United States were undergoing a patch of strained relations. There were various reasons: the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi had led to disagreements among the two over its public image; and, on a more personal level, Nixon had been sorely piqued by a recent interview with the attractive Italian female journalist Oriana Fallaci, where Kissinger had rashly let his hair down. Coupled with Time magazine bracketing the president, and his adviser, as their Man of the Year, it had caused the highly sensitive president, ever seeking a slight, to feel grievously sidelined by his ebullient subordinate. So Nixon spent a solitary Christmas ("the loneliest and saddest Christmas I can ever remember," he told David Frost, "much sadder and much lonelier than the one in the Pacific during the war").

Certainly these glum reflections were not shared by his national security adviser; he had his own.

For Kissinger the business year (as recorded in his immaculate "Record of Schedule") ended on December 23 with visits from Admiral Thomas Moorer, the browbeaten chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of Staff Al Haig, to discuss the effect of the Christmas Bombing, a session with his close associate, Peter Rodman, in the Map Room, a lunch date with the journalist William Safire, currently a presidential speechwriter; then, at 3:22 p.m., Nancy arrived to collect him from his office. It was a familiar mix, though less intensive than his habitual workday. Christmas Day was spent lunching with Joseph Alsop, his favorite and most trusted among the Washington journalists, at 2720 Dumbarton Avenue in Georgetown, and then dining with Evangeline Bruceá in her grand abode nearby.

Though Washington had closed down for the holidays, the next day, December 26, a key message from Hanoi brought Kissinger racing back to his office. It was the signal the White House had anxiously been awaiting; it was also the day of one of the biggest raids by the giant B-52s. The North Vietnamese had agreed to a resumption of the Paris peace talks as soon as the U.S. bombing stopped, and registered its willingness to settle "the remaining questions with the U.S. side." It looked like the ultimate climb-down by Hanoi. Kissinger observed in his memoirs, "We had not heard such a polite tone from the North Vietnamese since the middle of October." He signaled back suggesting a resumption of talks on January 8 (ultimately deferred to the 23rd). The bombing was ceased forthwith. A visit from the White House barber, and at 2:50 p.m. Kissinger took off - alone - on a wellearned six-day holiday to Palm Springs in the Southern California desert.

For a man whose mind was never still, it was a time for serious reflection. While strolling down the beach near the San Clemente White House, the weekend before the elections in November 1972, Kissinger had mused gloomily to author Theodore "Teddy" White: "How do you withdraw? How do you get out of a situation where every single crisis around the world gets dumped on us?"

Not since conversing with grandees like George Marshall and Dean Acheson could White recall "the use of American power so carefully explained" as in that conversation. A passerby shook Kissinger by the hand, thanking him "for peace." Kissinger seemed taken aback, exclaiming, "Where else could it happen but in a country like this.... To let a foreigner make peace for you, to accept a man like me - I even have a foreign accent!"

Events had taken a distinctly encouraging upturn since that November stroll, but similar thoughts were not far from the forefront of Kissinger's mind over the Christmas break. The prospects for the coming year looked good, certainly better than they had at the same time twelve months ago. As he apostrophized the coming year of 1973 in his memoirs, it was to begin "with glittering promise; rarely had a Presidential term started with such bright foreign policy prospects."

As his close associate on most of his ventures at that time, Winston Lord, adumbrated these heady days to the author, "U.S. foreign policy was at an absolute peak," with the Nixon-Kissinger team looking "poised to continue to build a structure of peace." Nixon had been reelected in a landslide, the Vietnam War was (or looked to be) over; the Middle East seemed stable; there was the opening to China to build on; and major progress in détente with the Soviet Union. "Now they could continue progress on those fronts while turning to issues that needed more attention; relations with Europe and Japan (especially after the shock of China), Middle East, other regions including our own backyard, 'newer' issues like energy, North-South relations, etc. Congress buoyed by an end to Vietnam War and dramatic summits and progress with two Communist giants."

There was just one small, one very small, blip. It was called Watergate.

Back in the idyllic European peacetime summer of 1870, British foreign minister Lord Granville had been able to discern, justly so it seemed at the time, not "a cloud in the sky." Yet three months later Emperor Louis-Napoleon's Third Empire had collapsed, crushed by a triumphant Prussia, the emperor himself forced to abdicate; the whole European order had been turned upside down. In 1870 the whole balance of power in Europe had changed overnight. In America, though the skies were perhaps not so cloudless, there was certainly no sense of the drama that lay ahead: a major war in the Middle East, but - with far profounder significance - the leader of the free world, successor to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, disgraced and disabled. But, perhaps less than a cloud on the horizon, Watergate was more like a shark circling, as of January 1973 at a respectful distance, still -but slowly out there moving in. Whether, that lonely Christmas of 1972, the ripples in the water figured yet anywhere near the forefront of the mysterious, dark reflections - brooding on thoughts of revenge against his many foes - of Richard Milhous Nixon, will never be known. There were rumblings over the break-in at the Watergate complex the previous summer; but that probably caused the least of disturbance to the slumbers of this secretive man. We'll never know. Yet there was no reason to think they did. Had he not just won one of the most spectacular reelection victories of all time? So why the dark thoughts, the sadness?

Certainly they were unlikely to have featured in those of his national security adviser (he of course had his own worries, but not such torments). In his memoirs Kissinger wrote, "We had begun Nixon's second term imagining that we were on the threshold of a creative new era in international affairs; seldom, if ever, had so many elements of foreign policy appeared malleable simultaneously."

Malleable. However, "Within months we confronted a nightmarish collapse of authority at home and a desperate struggle to keep foreign adversaries from transforming it into an assault on our nation's security." Whereas, from a diplomat's point of view, he saw Nixon's first term having formed "in a sense an adolescence.... Diplomacy in the second term, which ended abruptly in the late summer of 1974, was a rude accession of maturity." As far as his own role was concerned, he summarized, it was to fall "to me to attempt to insulate foreign policy as much as possible from the domestic catastrophe." But "all our calculations were soon to be overwhelmed by the elemental catastrophe of Watergate."

With the full impact of that foolish break-in still imperceptible to him, Kissinger could not help but look toward 1973 in a "mood compounded of elation and relief." This was not, however, how he regarded his own future. "I thought we were then in a superb governmental position -everything seemed to be running well," he told me. "But I had really made up my mind to have left by the latest by the end of 1973. I was thinking of going to Oxford, to All Souls. I had had talks with Isaiah Berlin (the famous philosopher) ... the international situation was very strong and I thought, personally, my relations with Nixon could not go on much longer. We had just been made Joint Men of the Year by Time - now this was something impossible for a president to share with another." This surely said something about the curiously insecure jealousy of the most powerful man in the Western world. "Also," continued Kissinger, "I was having a lot of nagging from [Chief of Staff Bob] Haldeman about how many times I was meeting Nixon. I didn't think I could go on juggling the NSC with State." There lurked too the steadily worsening relationship between him and his office and the worthy but unimpressive secretary of state, William P. Rogers, a Washington lawyer - a lame, if not a dead, duck secretary of state. Repeatedly Kissinger had urged Nixon to let him take over at State. He was addressing deaf ears. To Kissinger's chagrin, Nixon had consistently refused.

What did Kissinger plan to do among those dreaming spires of Oxford? "Maybe work on my memoirs ..." He continued: "David Bruce, whom I hugely admired, also felt I should leave - so by the end of 1972 I had a period of expecting to leave by the end of '73, and a conviction that Nixon and I had left foreign policy in extremely good shape." As he outlined it in his memoirs, "I intended to stay on long enough in 1973 to see the peace in Indochina established; to launch the new initiative toward the industrial democracies that came to be known as the Year of Europe; and to consolidate the new Moscow-Washington-Peking triangle."

But was he being entirely sincere? There was always something compulsively irresistible about Washington to any outsider who had once sampled its heady embrace; power, Kissinger himself was once quoted as saying, was the "ultimate aphrodisiac."

So, after the Christmas break, the working year of 1973 began on January 3, with a fairly quiet day in the life of the president's national security adviser:

Wednesday, January 3, 1973

8:30 Arrive Office

8:50 General Scowcroft/Col. Kennedy (9:00)

9:05 JCS Briefing (Situation Room) (9:15)

9:30 Ron Ziegler (9:42)

9:45 Christine Nadeau - Interviewee (10:26)

(HAK went to President at 10:00; Julie talked to CN)

10:00 The President - Oval Office (10:50)

10:57 John Ehrlichman/Bob Haldeman - Ehrlichman's office (11:35)

11:40 Ambassador Phuong (12:25)

12:28 Arthur Burns (12:45)

1:20 Lunch - Ambassador Dobrynin (Soviet Embassy) (3:50)

3:58 Larry Eagleburger (4:15)

4:17 The President - Oval Office (5:10)

5:13 Dr. Riland (5:43)

6:20 Depart Office - New York

On the 7th he set off to Paris, once more, on his seventeenth trip to negotiate with the North Vietnamese.

Any which way you looked at it, by any criterion - and this was not peculiarly related to Henry Kissinger's role in it - 1973 was not an ordinary year. Whole books have been written about it. One most recently, by Andreas Killen, identifies it, for the United States at any rate, as "the decade's pivotal year ... a year of shattering political crisis and of remarkable cultural ferment." In it Killen saw three major shocks to the United States:

1. Defeat in Vietnam (though it may not have quite seemed so at the time).

2. Watergate, calling, by the year's end, for presidential impeachment.

3. A collapsing economy, caused by Arab oil embargo.

All three were to occur on Henry Kissinger's watch.

Though it may have marked a low point in U.S. history, it was a bountiful year for moviemakers, especially those catering to violent and to pornographic tastes. Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, The Exorcist, and The Godfather all contributed to make 1972-74 box office record years. In the fall of 1973, Erica Jong assaulted the last surviving bastions of old-fashioned modesty with her Fear of Flying. Assisted by the new technology, lightweight cameras, and abandon of all inhibition, U.S. TV scored a runaway success through a twelve-part series called An American Family. In a precursor of the horrors of "reality television" three decades later, week by week the American public would hunker down to watch as the Loud family lived their daily lives, and tore themselves apart in Santa Barbara - all for the benefit of the eager media. Amazingly the Louds had actually volunteered for the purgatory that they were submitted to. By the year's end the couple had gotten divorced. Their son, Lance, had been outed as a transvestite. During the series he became successively the darling then the hate-object of the gay community, and was to admit "television swallowed my family." An identical sentiment might just as well have been voiced by the first lady, Pat Nixon. By a curious stroke of fate, the premiere of the Loud family crucifixion took place the very day that Senate Democrats first voted to investigate Watergate - January 11, 1973, while the taping equipment for both the White House and the Loud house had evidently also been installed at about the same time. Equally, in the course of the series, Pat Loud - with extraordinary parallelism to the Plumbers of Watergate - is seen rifling her husband's files for evidence of his infidelity.

Each series was to rival the other for prime time watching as the year went on.

But was 1973 worse than any other year? - or did it just establish a benchmark for the future?

Certainly the media was coming to assume an increasingly dominant role in American public life. As Abigail McCarthy, the wife of defeated presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, bemoaned: "In public life one learns very quickly that everyone wants to be on television. There are very few private people left." Looking back from the no less agitated vantage point of 2008, some might even see 1973 as the year the media burst out of Pandora's Box, never to be recaptured, as an unelected power took over from the legitimately elected democratic rulers. Doubtless this was how Richard Nixon saw it.


Excerpted from Kissinger by Alistair Horne Copyright © 2009 by Alistair Horne. Excerpted by permission.
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