Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hiss Or History?

Thirty-six years after Richard Nixon's resignation and and 16 years after his death, his rivalry continues with his partner in peacemaking, Henry Kissinger. One of the most successful in the history of the presidency, their collaboration was rooted in factors other than temperamental affinity.

It's true that they may have liked one another more than they let on. Kathy O'Connor, Nixon's last chief of staff, tells a story about being with him at an event in New York City in the 1990s. She was standing in a hotel hallway outside the men's room door listening to Nixon and Kissinger inside as they teased each other and told corny gags in their growly baritones. In 1986, I sat with them for a hour while they worked out their disagreements over the wording of an op-ed about arms control they were submitting to the New York Times. The almost affectionate quality of their banter showed that they had a brothers-from-other-dimensions thing going on. When the debate finally came down to a choice between two words, after an uncomfortable silence Kissinger looked at me and said, "Vat do you tink?"

While in office, they were wary of each other at best. One of the reasons Nixon installed his taping system was so he could show who had been the principal architect of his administration's foreign and war policies, he or his brilliant, self-promoting professor. It was an historically bad move, because the the tapes' loose talk and vulgarity are so far making a balanced view of Nixon and his presidency almost impossible.

But on the narrow issue of what he feared Kissinger would say about the policy process "to his fashionable, liberal friends" outside the White House, Nixon seems to have had a point. The latest episode in Kissinger/Nixon began last week, when the Nixon library opened a recording made in the spring of 1973 which contained this exchange:
"The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Jeffrey Goldberg calls Kissinger's comments "among the most vile ever spoken by a Jew about his own people." Kissinger's severest critic, Christopher Hitchens, also piles on.

I wrote last week about the irony of Kissinger's fears that the tapes would show him reacting fawningly to Nixon's outrageousness. As distasteful as the exchange is, it's possible to see in Nixon's response (avoiding all-out nuclear war is surely an appropriate imperative for a U.S. president to mention, even in this revolting a hypothetical context) the vaguest glimmer of a demur to Kissinger's Frankensteinian realpolitik.

It's also important to note that the Anti-Defamation League, while not defending Kissinger's comments, says they don't mean much compared with his lifetime of support for Israel. (Hat tip to Goldberg for the ADL release.)

Besides, in the end, how much exegesis can one blast of hot air really withstand? Was there a Soviet holocaust? No. Would Nixon and Kissinger have stood by and let one happen? Their harshest critics may think so. But no, they wouldn't have let it happen. How do I know? Because I talked to Nixon for about 12,000 hours over the course of 14 years, and you get to know a person.

While it would seem obvious that this big-guy BS had no operational relevance whatsoever, Marty Peretz, one of the few to rise to Kissinger's defense, thinks otherwise:

I know something about Kissinger's maneuvering for the Jewish state and for the Jewish people. I and a few Harvard colleagues were in touch with him, actually met with him during the dread days of the Yom Kippur War when Israel's very survival was at peril. (Henry Rosovsky, Samuel Huntington, Michael Walzer, Thomas Schelling and I comprised the group.) Dr. K. confided to us how difficult it was to persuade his bigoted boss that a great deal of American arms (and sufficient Lockheed C-130s "Hercules" aircraft to deliver them) were needed and needed instantly. There is no doubt in my mind that Kissinger rescued the third commonwealth with these munitions....

So, if Kissinger needed to flatter Nixon in order to convince him, that flattery was also a blessing.

Yep, there goes Henry again, Mr. President, trying to impress his friends at your expense -- and, this time, succeeding spectacularly. Peretz's argument seems to be that Kissinger made his awful comment in order to burnish his credentials (would that be as a self-loathing Jew?) so that, when the time came, he would have enough leverage to maneuver the beast into an Israel-saving move. The problem (besides that it's a dopey idea) is that there's no evidence that Nixon had to be persuaded by Kissinger or anyone else to send massive aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Some actually think it was Kissinger who wanted to hold back on the arms shipments, to improve Egypt's position in ceasefire negotiations (the U.S. was in the process of wooing Egypt away from its reliance on the Soviet Union, a major win for the realpolitikians).

More evidence that the Nixon tapes are both boon and bane, sometimes history, sometimes just hiss.

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