ROBERT DALLEK already has established himself as one of our most formidable chroniclers of the modern presidency, but his new book, "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power," sets a new benchmark for the field and surely will come to be regarded as a classic work of contemporary American history.
Dallek is the author of a magisterial two-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson and also of the deservedly bestselling "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963." This book surpasses them in the freshness of its research, the relevance of the author's analysis and the subjects' compelling nature.
When the newly elected President Richard Nixon hired the former Harvard professor Henry A. Kissinger as his national security advisor, they hardly knew each other. By the time Kissinger became Nixon's secretary of State, theirs had become one of the most consequential collaborations in the history of American diplomacy. Dallek, a distinguished academic historian, has mined thousands of newly available transcripts of Kissinger's phone conversations, newly declassified tapes from the Nixon White House and unpublished diaries of and interviews with H.R. Haldeman and Alexander M. Haig to construct this altogether fresh account of those tumultuous years.
The book brims with insight into the origins of detente with the Soviet Union, the epic opening to China, the torture of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the era of shuttle diplomacy in the Mideast and, perhaps most chilling, the covert intervention in Chile that overthrew President Salvador Allende. (One of the most disturbing aspects of the last account is how diligently Nixon and Kissinger ignored the advice of U.S. diplomats on the ground there and how determinedly they had to search for marginal Chilean military figures prepared to overthrow that country's democracy.)
What sets Dallek's account of the Nixon-Kissinger partnership so forcefully apart from others who have attempted it is his carefully sourced insight into the sick psychodynamics of their relationship. While teaching history at UCLA in the 1980s, the author underwent several years of formal psychoanalytic training, and, while he is too faithful to both disciplines to play armchair shrink, the experience informs his judgments. He's particularly shrewd and persuasive when it comes to Nixon's and Kissinger's mutual and tormenting anxieties as self-made men and with Kissinger's strange accommodation to a casually and persistently anti-Semitic boss, who sometimes referred to him, even in his presence, as "my Jew boy."
One of the telling aspects of the Nixon-Kissinger partnership that Dallek highlights over and over again is how both men, so seemingly unaware of their unexamined personal contradictions, were so attuned to and vigilant concerning the difficulties presented by the other's problematic character. Both men seem to have worried continually that the other, while brilliant, was a treacherous and unstable nut.
Nixon's behavior, so often strangely awkward when a touch of routine humanity was required, became increasingly bizarre as the Watergate crisis slid toward impeachment. When Kissinger married Nancy Maginnes in March of 1974, the couple honeymooned at a private estate outside Acapulco, Mexico. When the president made a personal congratulatory call to the bride, he spent most of it warning her "against poisonous snakes in Acapulco and the need to extract the venom promptly should either of them be bitten." (Dallek's psychoanalytic training gives him an eye for that sort of subtly telling detail, but his discretion as an historian and writer allows him to let the anecdote speak resonantly for itself.)
Issues of character bedeviled Nixon and Kissinger's relationship from the outset. After hiring Kissinger, Nixon was soon telling his then-chief of staff and longtime confidant Haldeman that "Henry's personality problem is just too Goddamn difficult for us to deal [with] ... Goddamn it Bob, he's just psychopathic about trying to screw [then-Secretary of State William] Rogers." At one point, Nixon told his domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman that he thought Kissinger needed psychiatric treatment.