Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

To read this book is to be reminded how Richard Nixon has managed to be his own worst enemy. Here, as in the rest of his career, he has shown both his intelligence and his deviousness, his claim to statesmanship and his unerring instinct for the unscrupulous.

Yet one can see why he wanted to write it: the need to move beyond Watergate, to remind us of his expertise in diplomacy, and to prepare the ground for his return to public life. Certainly this is the time for a knowledgeable polemic on foreign policy. The stumblings of the Carter administration are too well known to need enumerating here, and Nixon is certainly qualified to undertake such a polemic.

His administration, so shameful in so many respects, was brilliantly successful in certain key areas of foreign policy. The restoration of ties with the communist rulers of China, the SALT I treaty on nuclear weapons, and the first real movements toward détente with the Soviet Union—all of these were Nixon’s accomplishments, however much help he got from Kissinger. Only Nixon had the political skill—and, it should be stressed, the anticommunist credentials—to pull them off. Even the duplicitous “Vietnamization” program, with its heartless bombing campaign and its cynical prolongation of the war for four years with great agony and no apparent gain, could be called a political success for it defused domestic opposition and masked defeat.

Without doubt Nixon was an accomplished diplomatist. He could deal with Brezhnev and Mao, and retain the respect of both. They liked dealing with him. They should have, for he spoke their language: the language of ruthless and unprincipled power politics. He was a moral disaster for the country, but in dealing with its chief adversary his record was far from disastrous. He correctly put relations with the Russians at the center of his diplomacy, offered them rewards for good behavior, and avoided futile grandstanding and provocation. He behaved with monstrous cruelty toward Cambodia and Vietnam, and his devastation of those countries will go down as one of the blackest acts in American history. But nonetheless he was able to work out a modus vivendi with Moscow that has proved to be beyond the abilities of his successor.

When future diplomatic historians write of Nixon’s administration, they will doubtless concentrate less on Watergate and the domestic abuses of power than on a foreign policy that brought the Soviet Union into a nexus of cooperative competition, took the first fledgling steps toward arms control, renewed relations with the world’s most populous nation, and ended, albeit much too late and with unnecessary and terrible brutality, a hopeless and morally compromising war.

To say this is not to praise Nixon, but to try to give him his due. Now that he has returned to New York from the sanctuary of San Clemente and is ready to make his presence felt again, one hoped that in this book he would comment on the current situation with detachment and even wisdom. With his experience in foreign affairs he could contribute something significant to the cacophony that passes for debate. He might, for example, tell us how to deal intelligently with the Russians rather than preach sermons at them or tremble in self-generated fear. Watergate is now six years behind us, six years of the ineptitude of Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter.

The issues of foreign policy are critical. Not because of any Soviet successes, which have been few, but because of an incessant drift that has rendered the nation confused and on the edge of panic. This is the time for sharp and dispassionate analysis. How should the United States make its way in the world at a time when its economic power has dwindled, its military superiority has proved ephemeral, and its privileged access to the world’s resources has been sharply limited? On what more important issues could Nixon find the hinge for his reentry? How better could he persuade his critics that for all his failings he may not have been so bad after all?

Once again, however, he has failed. Failed not because of his intelligence, which is considerable, but because of his character. He cannot resist the cheap headline, even if he has to resort to hyperbole to get it. He cannot resist snide allusions to his critics, even if it diminishes him in the process. He cannot stand apart from a situation because he is too eager to justify himself and too intent on revenge. Nixon’s exile in the wilderness not only made him bitter, which is understandable, but desperate. In this book instead of addressing himself seriously to the issues, he panders to the public’s anxieties. Instead of being constructive, he is once again demolishing.

He has not even played his hand well. His book could have moved from strength: reminding us of his ability to work out a modus vivendi with the Soviets, and dispassionately analyzing what the Carter administration has done wrong. Instead, he has once again reverted to cheap tricks. He has wheeled out his old warhorse, the international communist conspiracy. The Soviets are waiting to gobble us up, we are told in breathless phrases exhumed intact from the 1950s, which he mercifully put into mothballs during his own presidency. They “want the world” and are “rapidly moving into position to get what they want.” We are already in World War III, and are confronted with a choice, as he phrases it so inimitably, “between surrender and suicide—red or dead.” Red or dead? When was the last time you heard that? Probably not since Richard Nixon was running for president.


As evidence he cites the Soviet military buildup. This buildup is real, but it should hardly surprise him. As far back as 1972, when he signed the SALT accords with Brezhnev, he officially acknowledged Soviet coequality as a nuclear power. Nobody heard him complain about the imminent peril then. But since he left office things have just gone to pieces. Some 100 million people have fallen to “Soviet imperialism” since 1974: a figure he arrives at by lumping together the disparate regimes of Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, South Yemen, Mozambique, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He also suffers from that endemic Nixon disease of being unable to distinguish any self-styled radical group from a Soviet-controlled one, thus mingling Libya, Nicaragua, Angola, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Italian Maoist-anarchists. Not above a little hyperbole, he tells us that the PLO is directed by the Kremlin, that a Marxist Ethiopia looks down “menacingly on the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, just across the Red Sea,” and that a communist Nicaragua or El Salvador will mean that the “western hemisphere will have been cut in two at its ‘slim waist.’ ”

It is hard to know how much of this Nixon actually believes. Certainly it bears no resemblance to the policies he pursued so assiduously, and with considerable success, when in office. But if there is something ironic in the rediscovery of the universal Red conspiracy by the father of détente, Nixon gives no sign of it. Once again he has put to use his talents for the sly innuendo, the false analogy, and the phony quote. Richard Nixon has never quite forgotten, or been able to leave aside, the tricks that first got him into office, and that ultimately drove him from it.

Nor has he been able to rid himself of the resentment that has been such a corrosive part of his life. People do not just see things differently from Richard Nixon: they are morally inadequate. Thus the United States is not merely rudderless in a time of post-imperial miseries, it is a victim of its leaders’ “decline of will.” It was the “leadership class,” Nixon charges, that lost the Vietnam war: a class composed of congressmen, business executives, foundation directors, and assorted ” ‘beautiful people’ in New York, and the classrooms of great universities.” This is a class of which Nixon, though he was president of the United States, still apparently does not consider himself a part.

There is something touching, and astonishingly naïve, in what Nixon imagines to be the “power elite” of this country. That group apparently does not include international financiers like the Rockefellers, or even corporation presidents who, one is interested to learn, “have become timid, reluctant to roil bureaucratic waters or offend consumer spokesmen.” The real “power elite” that controls this country, according to Richard Nixon, is composed of frayed-shirted academics and smooth-talking TV anchormen. These are the people who lost Vietnam by inflating Diem’s and Thieu’s shortcomings “grossly out of proportion,” who “weakened the presidency” by harping on Watergate, and who “greased the skids” for the downfall of the Shah of Iran and Somoza of Nicaragua. If the United States loses World War III it will be because of what he calls “trendies”—those “overglamorized dilettantes who posture in the latest idea, mount the fashionable protests, and are slobbered over by the news media.” Nixon ought to know. It was he, after all, who years ago told us who “lost” China.

But then, though he would be shocked at the thought, Nixon is a bit of a “trendy” himself. What is more fashionable today among many intellectuals than to celebrate the CIA, describe arms control as treason and détente as trafficking with the devil, to remind us, as Nixon now does, that our “real friends” are those like the Shah and Somoza, the Greek colonels and the Chilean junta, and that we would be engaging in “moral imperialism” to lecture our friends on their political comportment? But Nixon apparently has not yet picked up on this. He continues to flail the dead horse of elitist radicalism and to remind us that pointy-heads are not so smart after all. “Education,” he observes, “may strengthen the brain but weaken the backbone.” A lesson, one presumes, meant to give heart to those who attend inner-city public schools.


When he manages to get away from finger-pointing and self-justification, Nixon can be quite interesting. His long chapter on military power is a thoughtful and provocative reexamination of the strategy of deterrence in the light of Soviet strategic parity. Nixon rejects the concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) based on minimal nuclear forces. Instead he embraces Paul Nitze’s concept of “crisis stability,” which he defines as a situation where neither side would have an advantage in striking first. Arms control advocates will, with considerable reason, reject this argument as specious, and one likely to lead to an uncontrollable arms race. But at least it is an argument, calmly and lucidly presented. Had he maintained that level he would have written a book worth serious consideration. For the most part, however, his book is a compendium of horror stories about insatiable commissars poised to gobble up the world, of the elitists and journalists who lost Vietnam, of “parochial” blacks and liberal sentimentalists who allow a “misplaced idealism” to affect America’s relations with the Union of South Africa, and of those who fail to realize that world leadership “requires placing limits on idealism, compromising with reality, at times matching duplicity with duplicity, and even brutality with brutality.”

Among his prescriptions are an increase in the military budget of $30 billion a year for five years, building the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, creating a nuclear counterforce capacity, restoring the draft, unleashing the currently “castrated” CIA, preventing Congress from meddling in foreign policy, and reinforcing the powers of the presidency which were weakened by what he delicately refers to as the “Watergate crisis.” He also suggests—reviving his famous Mad Bomber theory—that the president’s trump card in dealing with ruthless foes is his “unpredictability.”

Nixon is understandably proud of his triumphs, which he enumerates often enough, as he glosses over his failures. Among those failures none was more striking than the so-called “doctrine” that bears his name: a formula by which regional gendarmes were loaded with American military equipment and charged with the responsibility of maintaining “security” in their area. The Shah of Iran was his anointed gendarme in the Middle East. Under a secret agreement in May 1972, which Nixon wisely refrains from mentioning in his book, he personally gave the Shah permission to buy any conventional weapon in the American arsenal. In the four years beginning in 1973 the Shah spent $15 billion on weapons, making him the world’s leading arms buyer. More than half of US arms sales abroad went to Iran, including weapons more advanced than anything then introduced into America’s own arsenal. Nixon also neglects to note that “our” Shah, impressed by Soviet SAM missiles, also signed a $400 million arms deal with Moscow.

Nixon’s purpose in giving the Shah carte blanche was presumably to stabilize his regime and allow him to serve as guardian of American interests in the Middle East. It had precisely the opposite results. The Shah’s obsession with turning Iran into a great military power strained his nation’s economy, caused disruptive social tensions, antagonized the Saudis, set off an arms race in the Persian Gulf, stimulated such radical regimes as Iraq’s and Yemen’s to increase their reliance on Soviet weapons, and sabotaged the Shah’s economic development program.

There is another side to the Shah’s procurement program that Nixon understandably ignores, as did Kissinger in his memoirs. The Shah’s ambitions were expensive. He needed great sums of money to pay for his weapons. Oil provided the key. Over the protests of Saudi Arabia, the Shah pushed through a quadruple hike in OPEC’s oil prices. Did Nixon and Kissinger bring serious pressure on him not to do so? The former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Akins, has charged they did not—a charge which George Ball and William Simon have indicated they find plausible. And in spite of Kissinger’s insistence that he did officially protest at the time, the question remains whether they thought this good for the Nixon Doctrine and good for the oil producers, both domestic and foreign. Interestingly, it was Saudi Arabia that tried to keep prices low, not so much as a favor to the West, into whose prosperity its own economic interests are locked, but as a way of keeping the Shah’s drive for regional hegemony in check.

Nixon naturally does not deal with any of this. Instead he tells us that the Shah “provided the muscle” that protected the Saudis, and encouraged the “regional security” of the other Gulf states. Why then, one might ask, were they so intent on countering that buildup? Nixon also tells us that, until the first communist coup in Afghanistan in April 1978, the Shah was “wooing” that country away from reliance on Moscow. The reality is that the Shah, having overspent himself on US weapons, reneged on the promise he had made to the neutralist Daoud government of $1.2 billion in economic aid. This failure of the Shah to fulfill his aid promise, argued The Economist—hardly a journal one could accuse of liberal sentimentality—may have contributed to Daoud’s overthrow and his replacement by a pro-Soviet regime.*

Nixon blames the Shah’s fall on the vacillations of the Carter administration and the reluctance of “moral imperialists” to stand by the nation’s friends, authoritarian though they might regretfully be. This accusation is not surprising, but it will not do. Carter did not repudiate the Nixon Doctrine. To the contrary, he reaffirmed it, exempted Iran from his human rights and arms control homilies, approved virtually every military request made by the Shah, and refused to listen to reports that the Iranian middle class was turning against the regime. As late as January 1978, in a visit to Tehran, Carter declared Iran to be an “island of stability” in the world, and toasted the Shah for the “respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”

No, the Shah collapsed not from lack of American support, but from his own megalomania: a condition magnified by the geopolitical follies of the Nixon Doctrine. Had the Shah not had his insatiable appetite whetted by the prospect of unlimited weapons from the United States he might not have neglected the economic needs of his country, acted as OPEC price hawk, and undermined his own power. Whether or not that would have been better for the Iranian people is another question. But since Nixon is so quick to ascribe blame for the fall of the Shah, he ought first to consider the beam in his own eye.

The major failing of the Nixon administration is not that it was ruthless and amoral—which it was, and which, curiously enough, he deplores in the Soviets, though not in his new-found friends, the Chinese—but that it was so often self-defeating. Vietnam was not only a brutal and morally compromising war but an exceedingly stupid one by any rational standard of Realpolitik. To this day Nixon does not realize that, and continues to maintain that it was lost by “trendies,” by Congress, by guilt-ridden intellectuals, by the “baying of press hounds”—by anyone, in short, other than the majority of the American people who finally realized that it was a disaster.

Two things emerge from this book: Nixon’s intelligence, and his inability to put his old demons to rest. He was a consummate politician, a skillful diplomatist, and the architect of a structure of détente that his successor is clumsily in the process of demolishing. These are considerable achievements and he has reason to be proud of them. Instead of building on his strengths, however, he has continued to pursue the politics of resentment, behaving as though he were alone in a fortress under siege, holding back the “baying press hounds,” the blood-thirsty liberals, and the spineless “power elite” whose confidence he never won. Many people, including those who have been his critics, would be willing to respect his expertise if it were offered constructively. But he has still not learned how to do this.

This book was Nixon’s chance to rise above Watergate. He muffed it. Terrible unresolved tensions obviously still gnaw at this strange and complex man, tensions which he managed to beat back for a time, but which ultimately overwhelm and defeat him. We have doubtless not heard the end of Richard Nixon, but we may never, unfortunately, hear anything better.

This Issue

June 26, 1980