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Henry Kissinger’s whitewashing of Richard Nixon

The American diplomat’s new book, Leadership, is undermined by his self-serving portrait of his thuggish former boss.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The fundamental nature of Henry Kissinger’s new book Leadership is revealed in one anecdote from 1971 that the author tells about his former boss. Ahead of his historic trip to China, Richard Nixon sent Kissinger (then National Security Advisor) an excruciatingly embarrassing memo on how he should be described to the media. In it, Nixon insisted on being described as “a tough bold strong leader” and “steely”, with a “philosophical turn of mind”. Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “The tougher his position usually, the lower his voice.” 

The memo resembles nothing as much as Donald Trump’s boasts of being “like, really smart” and a “very stable genius”. Its role in a book on leadership should be to serve as a cautionary tale about the perils of giving power to those governed by vanity and insecurity. Extraordinarily, however, in Kissinger’s account Nixon’s self-regarding memo introduces a section of generous praise for the former president’s personal qualities. “Nixon’s self-assessment was essentially accurate,” the author writes, before admiring his “wealth of foreign policy experience”, “his enormous appetite for information” and his “long view”. 

The 99-year-old Kissinger has written what purports to be a handbook for the leaders of today and tomorrow, built around six portraits of global figures from the second half of the 20th century: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. Kissinger draws interesting parallels between them. All six lives were shaped by what he calls the Second Thirty Years War – the period of global conflict from 1914 to 1945. 

He argues that his subjects exemplify the shift from the “aristocratic” leadership of the 18th and 19th century – the cosmopolitan Castlereaghs and Metternichs – to the “meritocratic” sort of the 20th century. All of Kissinger’s leaders were born not into the international nobility but into modest, nationally rooted circumstances, and rose on their own merits through institutions such as universities and military academies that made such trajectories possible. All were accordingly marked, he claims, by proudly middle-class values such as discipline, self improvement, charity, patriotism, self-belief and (with the exception of Lee) religious devotion that enabled them to rise to the challenging circumstances they inherited on coming to power.

Adenauer forged the new German Federal Republic from the physical and moral rubble left by Nazism. De Gaulle galvanised France through wartime occupation and swept to power during the Algeria crisis of 1958 to establish today’s Fifth Republic. Nixon, US president from 1969 to 1974, was bequeathed the disastrous Vietnam War and a crisis of American power. Sadat led Egypt out of the humiliation left by 1967’s Six-Day War with Israel. Lee, who served as the first prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, turned an isolated former colony into a thriving and multi-ethnic city state against the odds, and Thatcher grappled with Britain’s long economic stagnation. 

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Kissinger points to common traits rooted in their backgrounds: directness and frankness about hard truths, boldness and willingness to be divisive (“they did not strive for, or expect, consensus”). All, he argues, synthesised the two fundamental modes of leadership: the “statesman” (pragmatic and managerial) and the “prophet” (visionary and transformational).

[ See also: Nixon, Trump and the lessons of Watergate ] 

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It is a nice conceit and the juxtaposition of those six intriguing and world-shaping politicians is instructive. Kissinger knew them all and enlivens his text with accounts of his own interactions with the leaders and those around them. Readers learn of how his visit to Dwight Eisenhower on the latter’s deathbed elicited advice on the US national security architecture that would subsequently define those structures for decades to come. We receive a glimpse of Thatcher’s virulent anti-Germanism from a dinner in 1988 at which the author quoted Otto von Bismarck: “When the host explained that I was quoting Bismarck, [Thatcher] asked, ‘Bismarck, the German?’ To the host’s response in the affirmative she replied: ‘Time to go home.’” 

Details from within the rooms where the second half of the 20th century was shaped are plentiful. In his chapter on Sadat, Kissinger memorably recalls of Golda Meir, who served as Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974: “Her wrinkled face testified to the turmoil of a lifetime pioneering a new society in a strange and forbidding environment.”

There is, however, an asymmetry at the heart of the book that undermines its stated purpose. One does not have to agree with, like or even respect Adenauer, De Gaulle, Sadat, Lee or Thatcher – though at points Kissinger does convince on their remarkable qualities – to acknowledge them as leaders of stature. The same does not apply to Nixon, who simply does not belong alongside them. 

Kissinger makes an energetic case for his former boss’s inclusion. He whitewashes the appalling costs of Nixon’s thuggish foreign policies in Chile, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia and overstates the visionary quality of Nixon’s China trip (indeed, one of his other subjects, De Gaulle, had pre-empted this by eight years by reopening relations with Beijing in 1964 to American outrage). And his defence of Watergate is staggeringly weak, amounting to the argument that the president’s underlings had misunderstood him. “Nixon’s immediate entourage learned that sweeping statements were not necessarily intended to result in explicit actions,” Kissinger writes, going on to quote Nixon’s friend Bryce Harlow explanation of Watergate: “Some damn fool got into the Oval Office and did what he was told.” 

It is always a sign of bad or partial analysis when the decisions of a poor leader are blamed on the flunkeys for whom they are ultimately responsible: to take an example from recent British politics, witness the way that Theresa May’s aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were blamed for her inadequacy as prime minister, or the way that Boris Johnson’s authoritarian impulses were long written off as the machiavellian machinations of Dominic Cummings. Such arguments are simultaneously over-generous and infantilising towards the leaders in question, and so it is with Kissinger’s apologia for Nixon.

The high point of his audacity is a section in which the author briefly contemplates the long-term rise in political polarisation and divisive culture wars in American politics: “The Vietnam War initiated an internal division of American society that has torn it to this day. The conflict introduced a style of public debate increasingly conducted less over substance than over political motives and identities.” 

But he fails to find space for Nixon’s crucial role in this shift towards what he calls “factional triumphs” over “common purpose and reconciliation”; for Nixon’s trashing of presidential norms, cynical exploitation of white southern resentment and deliberate inflammation of divides over drugs, race and religion. This shameful omission is not an isolated one. In a recent interview in the Sunday Times Kissinger lamented the threats to American values and cohesion but declined to identify his own Republican Party as their primary political source.

Thus Kissinger’s assessment of Nixon – the longest of the six – compromises the book. Kissinger begins and ends with his thoughts on the nature of leadership, including the role of virtue. Yet his reflections on the “habits of moderate actions; more specifically, acting with due restraint on one’s impulses, due regard for rights of others, and reasonable concern for distant consequences” (a quote from the political scientist James Q Wilson) dissolve on contact with his hagiographical account of his former boss. Likewise those on the importance of character, which Kissinger says provides “firm grounding in victory and consolation in failure”. 

The worst president in modern US history until Trump, Nixon was memorably and persuasively summed up by Christopher Hitchens as a “duplicitous, gloating, insecure man”, “a small man who claimed to be for the little guy, but was at the service of the fat cats” and “a pseudo-intellectual who hated and resented the real thing”. Character? Virtue? From the president who systematically abused his power and the truth, knowingly stoked social divides, and was so paranoid and deranged by the end of his time in office that his own defence secretary secretly removed his unilateral ability to launch a nuclear strike? 

Kissinger’s goal in boldly including such a terrible president among leaders of greater character is not hard to discern. It would be odd indeed if a figure of – let’s put it delicately – Kissinger’s stage in life were not thinking of his legacy and how the leaders of today and tomorrow might look back on his works. Leadership reads as a bid to burnish Nixon by association with the likes of Adenauer and Lee, and by secondary association to burnish too the legacy of the architect of the foreign policies that it claims earns him his place in such illustrious company: one H Kissinger. 

It fundamentally fails in that goal. The informed and authoritative nature of Kissinger’s other portraits only serves to illustrate the gulf between their subjects and the thuggish, crooked Nixon.

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy
Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane, 528pp, £25

[ See also: Nixon in China: the complicated legacy of the week that changed the world ]

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness