When war in the Middle East exploded in the fall of 1973 and world leaders tried to reach the White House, the president of the United States was drunk and dysfunctional.
An aide told Henry Kissinger that British Prime Minister Edward Heath wanted to call President Richard Nixon in 30 minutes to discuss the Yom Kipper War. “Can we tell them no?” Kissinger replied. “When I talked to the president he was loaded.”
As the fighting intensified, the Soviet Union moved to resupply Egypt and Syria in their war on Israel and even threatened to send troops to the region. The Soviets were making bold moves because “we have no functional president in their eyes,” said Kissinger, the national security advisor, who, with other top officials, raised the nuclear alert status and mobilized troops and aircraft. Nixon was in a stupor.
Tim Weiner’s One Man Against the World dispels any notion that Richard Nixon was a half-decent president who made a few big mistakes. Nixon’s disastrous six-year presidency was dominated by criminal actions, numerous lies and brutal, fruitless military attacks to the end, when he was forced to resign before he was impeached and removed from office.
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Weiner also makes clear, via top aides such as Kissinger, Bob Haldeman and John Dean, that the president often drank himself to sleep and was increasingly incapacitated as the crimes of Watergate were revealed and prosecutors began to close in.
Toward the end, he was “on the brink of madness,” the author concludes.
Weiner’s judgments are harsh but meticulously researched. With earlier books on the CIA and FBI and reporting on secret government programs, the veteran New York Times reporter has the experience to analyze reams of primary-source records. So much has come out on the Nixon presidency over 40 years that overlooking how many documents have been declassified in recent years would be easy. A diary kept by Admiral Thomas Moorer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, declassified in 2007, provides the story of an incapacitated Nixon during the Middle East crisis. The last of the infamous White House tapes, which helped doom the president, were released two years ago, as was a history from the National Security Council concluding that Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia was “an unmitigated disaster.”
Weiner shows that the Watergate break-in of 1972 and other dirty tricks were just part of a series of criminal acts — the “White House horrors,” as Attorney General John Mitchell later described them — that began early on. Obsessed over leaks, Nixon ordered wiretaps on his own top officials. That list grew to 1,600 Americans, according to a National Security Agency history declassified in 2013.
Weiner’s examination of the Nixon presidency spends little time on his early years or domestic issues. He concludes that Nixon had no real domestic initiatives and that the passage of important environmental and social legislation was the work of the Democratic Congress. This may be too simplistic, but the record is clear that Nixon was fixated on making history by ending the Vietnam War and establishing relations with China.
The sad reality, Weiner writes, is that he desperately wanted to use the opening to China and his negotiations with the Soviets to put pressure on North Vietnam to end a war that had become unwinnable and deeply unpopular with the American public. Those gambits failed, and Nixon responded with B-52 bombing raids that dropped more explosives on Southeast Asia than allied forces dropped during World War II. One series of raids killed or wounded 100,000 people, including civilians.
Nixon considered himself a master strategist who could out-maneuver his foes, but in the end, the way he hoped to pressure the Soviets and Vietnamese was through a bizarre “madman theory” that also did not work. But it did illustrate, in an ironic way, the dark depths of this presidency.
“Convey the impression that Nixon is somewhat ‘crazy,’ unpredictable and capable of the bloodiest brutality,” Kissinger asked a Nixon confidant, Leonard Garment, who was preparing to meet Soviet officials. Garment did as directed, he recalled, telling a Soviet official that the president was “a dramatically disjointed personality… capable of barbaric cruelty.”
“Strange to say,” Garment admitted decades later, “everything I said about Richard Nixon turned out to be more or less true.”
Frank Davies is a writer and editor in northern Virginia.