Westward look the land is mediocre: eastward look the land is sombre. Those who are between can only find this dispiriting. But whereas for Western Europeans the dismal spectacle of the Soviet élite has assumed a mysterious inevitability, the second-rate quality of American government remains surprising and is all the more irritating for that reason. Who can accept that the richest of all nations should be governed by such unimpressive men? Who can understand how successive Presidents of the United States, supposedly the most powerful men in the world, should be uniformly second-rate?
In the post-war world it did not start like that, although appearances were unpromising. When Henry Truman became President on the death of Roosevelt in 1945, it was customary to laugh at him. It was said that the United States had exalted the common, ordinary man, and that they were now landed with one as their leader. But the critics were confounded as the small-town politician readily assumed the status of a world leader who, with unusual decisiveness, put his stamp upon the post-war world. It is true that towards the end of his term there was much that could be criticised in the Truman Administration, but the real contrast was between the President and his successors. It was they who were ordinary. Eisenhower, the last President to have served two full terms, was an elderly, puzzled figure who, in his turn, puzzled his contemporaries. How could such an indolent man, so bereft of ideas, have succeeded in reaching the highest offices, both military and civil? Kennedy, for all the wistful romanticism that has surrounded him and his court, was disorganised and unsettled, a showman rather than a statesman, who owned his position to the ambition and wealth of a determined father. Lyndon Johnson was a corrupt politician who neither cared about nor understood the implications of his own rhetoric. Nixon was notorious for his deviousness and dishonesty, remarkable for his complex and psychotic personality. Ford was an accident, an afterthought President who had little opportunity to demonstrate that those who described him as being without either ability or personality were wrong. Carter was inexperienced, unpredictable and weak. Reagan, even for his loyal supporters, has now shown himself to be ineffective, proceeding inconsequentially from one unsuccessful initiative to another.
This is a depressing catalogue. It is in vain that other states have looked to these men for leadership. It could be said that the United States is still reeling from the pre-eminence it reached in the early Fifties. Whether one is talking of the theories of containment or roll-back, the Eisenhower doctrine, Kennedy’s Grand Design or his Alliance for Progress, one is recording disappointments. From the farce of the U-2 incident to the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion, from the trauma of assassination to the agony of Vietnam, from the slough of Watergate to the heartbreak of the American hostages in Iran, this is a sorry story. One of the most powerful states has been repeatedly laid low, whether by the intervention of some violent figure such as Senator McCarthy or by some crusading newspaper such as the Washington Post, whether by its own divisions or its neuroticisms. It has at times been rendered almost powerless by the actions of distant states, such as North Vietnam, Iran and Israel (and may well now be adversely affected by events in certain of the smaller Latin American states).
Naturally this gloomy account can be contested. Every President since Truman can be presented in a more favourable light, and it can be argued that historians should not be misled by the frivolous and irresponsible American media which take delight in making every leader appear foolish and inadequate. Journalists ignored the serious and dedicated aspects of Eisenhower’s Presidency, and presented the world with a man whose only interest was golf. Having created in Kennedy a glamorous genius, innumerable writers then took pleasure in demonstrating that he was both frivolous and false and in destroying his reputation with gossip. But it can be argued that Kennedy was an able leader, with a fresh and alert mind, who was respected by other world leaders. It is but simple truth to say that Lyndon Johnson inaugurated and achieved a vast programme of social reforms and that Carter is almost the only man who has seriously advanced the cause of peace in the Middle East. But both Johnson and Carter suffered because they were from the South, and in the eyes of society-page writers this meant that they were barefooted hicks unfamiliar with the use of indoor plumbing – and, in the case of Carter, a Bible-toter as well. Nixon won the support of impressive majorities of his fellow Americans; he ended the war in Vietnam; he established a meaningful relationship with China; he impressed the Russians. But journalists saw no reason to abandon their well-worn pleasantries about Tricky Dicky and the man from whom no one would wish to buy a second-hand car. Even Reagan’s opponents have to admit that he has a sunny, resilient temperament and that he can touch a chord to Which Americans respond. But the media stick to their version of an aging B-film hero and pounce if he says ‘Indo-China’ when he means Indonesia, ‘Bolivia’ for Brazil.
The instant responses of television and newspaper pundits have created persistent legends; and it is to combat one of these legends that Robert Ferrell has edited Eisenhower’s diaries. Professor Ferrell is not the first historian who has sought to show that the General-President, far from being a confused nonentity, was, on the contrary, a hard-working, shrewd and purposive leader who deliberately sought to play down both his ambitions and his activity, and who believed fervently in his own ability. It comes as no surprise to learn that Eisenhower was ambitious. Why else would a man twice submit himself to the humiliating vulgarity of American Presidential elections? It has always been obvious that Eisenhower was lucky. His first term came after the difficulties of the war years and preceded the worst years of post-war crisis (Professor Ferrell describes the second year of the first term, 1954, as the halcyon year). His electoral campaign in 1956 was enormously favoured by the international crises precipitated by Suez and the Soviet intervention in Budapest, convincing the American public (if they needed convincing) that it was not the moment to change their leader. The diaries show him to have been more thoughtful than one expected. But this is in comparison with the clichéridden public pronouncements he was given to making: George Ball, who twice campaigned against him, has written of ‘a plodding fivestar general uttering pedestrian language written by some journalistic hack with all the grace of a gun-carriage being hauled across cobblestones’.
It appears from the diaries that Eisenhower was curiously indifferent to certain aspects of American disunity. He admits to some difficulty in understanding how it was that liberals expected the state to play an increasingly active role in social matters, but he reveals a positive hatred for New Dealers. He agrees with his Vice-President, Nixon, that the large number of foreign service officers who had no dedication to America and to its service had probably been appointed during the New Deal years. He saw no point in legislating on racial matters and on the integration of coloured and white children in schools. Change, he believed, would have to emerge from the localities themselves. On McCarthy, he seems to have been most disturbed by the possibility that foreign governments might think that he was typical of America. Although he was angered by McCarthy’s attacks on General Marshall, we know that during the 1952 election campaign he failed to make any statement in defence of Marshall, to whom he personally owed a great deal. Nixon, whom he always supported, even in the most suspicious circumstances, vied with McCarthy in his denunciations of Truman, Acheson, Adlai Stevenson and many others, as the leaders of a Red conspiracy which was seeking to submerge America. On no occasion requiring political courage did President Eisenhower show himself to be courageous. Thomas Reeves, the latest historian of McCarthyism, is very clear that McCarthy could have been stopped cold at any time, by any man with authority. It could have been J. Edgar Hoover or Nixon. It ought to have been Eisenhower. In the event, it was McCarthy who was responsible for his own destruction.
The gossip which concerned itself with Eisenhower’s private life, and which was associated with his wartime driver, Kate Summersby Morgan, does not seem likely to persist, and was only a rumour. Frank Saunders, the driver who worked for President Kennedy’s parents, proceeds by innuendo rather than by rumour. The President, he tells us, did not like to sleep alone and when no one else was present, made use of a mysterious college friend, called Lem Billings. When he took a few days off in the family compound at Hyannis Port, he would bring beautiful secretaries with him who were never seen typing (two of these were known by the names of Fiddle and Faddle). The outstanding impression given by this shoddy book is of the overpoweringness of the Kennedy clam – in their wealth, their arrogance, their calm assumption that they were entitled to be the first in the land and (according to their chauffeur) in their avariciousness and inability to be grateful for the help of others. Small wonder that Jacqueline supposedly confided to this employee that she found living in the compound unbearable (and he confides to us that it was not true that her skin was particularly cold).
Kennedy’s associates were also very conscious of the family. Even the critical George Ball noticed the springtime atmosphere which the President’s wife helped to create: but he is equally aware of the unfortunate influence of Joe Kennedy on his son, particularly with regard to his ultra-conservative views on public finance. He does not mention the fact that Joe Kennedy lent 500,000 dollars to the publisher of the Boston Post once that paper had declared its Support for John Kennedy’s Senatorial campaign, or that he prevented his son from making the anti-McCarthy speeches that his Democratic aides had prepared (or that John Kennedy had supported Nixon’s Senatorial campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the wife of Melvin Douglas, who had been smeared as ‘the Pink Lady’). But he does mention Kennedy’s unfortunate excursions into foreign affairs when he was a member of Congress: for instance, he joined in the general caterwauling about Truman having lost China and made a number of insensitive attacks on France. Kennedy, as seen by Ball, was a pragmatist who always kept his options open. This enabled him to demonstrate an impressive coolness and command during the Cuban crisis. But George Ball is surely correct in saying that he was not profound, either in his analysis or in his judgment. It was typical of Kennedy’s jumpy policies that at the same time as he was hoping to further the cause of European union within an Atlantic partnership, he served notice upon his European partners that the United States would defend its interests without consultation with the European powers; and he forced the Macmillan Government to become more dependent on the United States by cancelling the Skybolt missile and obliging them to accept the offer of Polaris missiles. The natural result in January 1963 was General de Gaulle’s demolition of Britain’s hope of entering the Common Market. Just as Kennedy’s oratory was flawed by the dying fall of his Boston accent, so his ambitious policies were flawed by his fatal inability to grasp the intractable realities of local situations.
Part of the Kennedy myth arose from the simple fact that he was well-educated, apparently literate and ostentatiously cultured. This is a comparatively rare phenomenon among American Presidents, and one about which they have tended to be sensitive. When Harry Truman was trying to persuade Adlai Stevenson to stand for the Presidency he had argued: ‘Adlai, if a knucklehead like me can be President and not do too badly, think what a really educated smart guy like you could do in the job.’ Lyndon Johnson was always aware, whether in comparison with the President whom he had so unexpectedly succeeded or in the presence of his elegantly educated advisers, that he had acquired such education as he had had from the South-West Texas State Teachers’ College, an institution of notoriously low standards where students went because there was nowhere else which would charge only 400 dollars for a year at school. As a result, he was always determined to have his way and to enforce his views on everyone. Jimmy Carter was told that Lyndon Johnson was the greatest arm-twister Washington had ever seen, and one of his biographers writes of him as brooding, ‘big-eared, big-nosed, huge, over the entire American political landscape’.
It is a sign of the divisions that exist within America that two biographies of the 36th President are in process of being written Which not only promise to be of the most daunting length, but which also appear to be motivated by something which can only be described as hatred. They seek to show that from his early days Johnson was not only selfish and corrupt, but that he was also ruthless and unpleasant. We must assume that in both cases the authors are moved by feelings of regret: regret, first, that money, rather than ideology or principle or scruples, is all-important in American politics – a fact which Johnson made all too blatantly obvious; and regret that Johnson, again more blatantly than others, identified himself with the war in Vietnam. They cannot forgive him for American life itself, and they cannot forget the element of tragic waste which he contributed to it, as America became so deeply involved in a distant and unsuccessful war.
George Ball, who was Under-Secretary for Economic Affairs under Kennedy, and Under-Secretary of State under Johnson, presents the problem in a more perceptive manner. A distinguished lawyer and public servant with experience of Presidents stretching from Roosevelt to Reagan, he has written an impressive book of memoirs. He is critical of Truman’s last years, hostile to Eisenhower, sharp on Kennedy, contemptuous of Nixon and dismissive of Carter, but he seems to have had some affection for Johnson, in spite of the fact that he resigned from office in October 1966 as a protest against Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Perhaps it is natural that this fastidious man, who has a vision of Europe so elevated most Europeans could hardly aspire to it, should have found something congenial in a superior who was so different from himself and whom he describes as ‘an earthy man with little skill at concealing often crass political motives and methods’. But perhaps, too, there now lurks within George Ball the feeling that giving up in Vietnam was not merely conceding victory to the Communists: it represented an abandonment of the sense of an American mission to the free world – a mission which had been distorted by Johnson’s unrealistic policies but still had its place in Johnson’s confused vision of America’s destiny. Just as Johnson’s hostile biographers have their dream of an America which is far removed from the hustlers and sharks of the present day, so, too, George Ball holds on to a dream where the world is made a better place, thanks to America.
There are those who now believe that what has happened in the Indochinese peninsula since the Americans made peace is a justification of the American war. There are others who claim that if the war had been fought more intelligently, it might have been more successful. But the generally-accepted dogma is that a democracy cannot fight – or at any rate win – a war like that in Vietnam. Public opinion cannot accept a lengthy expenditure of lives and money and it cannot stomach the constant spectacle of bombs and napalm being dropped on other human beings. It must have been clear to Nixon when he took office in January 1969 that for domestic reasons America would have to modify its policies.
But public opinion in a democracy does not like obvious defeat either, and both Nixon and Kissinger realised that the credibility of their policies would be thrown into doubt, both domestically and internationally, if they were seen simply to retreat from Vietnam. Hence the Nixon doctrine, and the strategy whereby the chief burden of the struggle was to be left to South Vietnam acting with the guarantee of full American support. Thus the United States would appear to be meeting its obligations and could continue to provide a shield with which to protect its allies and its protégés, but the manpower expended would not be American. This principle, it was believed, could be extended to other areas of the world.
In other words, an American presence was to be maintained in Vietnam and an extraordinarily active world policy embarked upon. Heavy firepower was now to be sustained by heavy diplomacy. It is this policy which was represented by the partnership between Nixon and Kissinger and which was described as a triumph in the first volume of the Kissinger memoirs, in spite of the controversy that surrounded the invasion of Cambodia and the stepping-up of the bombing offensives. The second volume, however, is an apologia. It was no longer possible for America to maintain a powerful presence in South-East Asia. This, according to Kissinger, was the fault of Watergate.
The apologia of the Secretary of State (his elevation to this office is described in the present volume) is all the more striking because it is made for a time when he had very considerable power indeed. With the President sinking into constitutional impotence as a result of the agonisingly slow revelations of the Watergate scandal, Dr Kissinger had a free hand. His shuttle diplomacy sought to restrict the power of decision-making to only a few individuals and to exclude their bureaucratic advisers. Rather than take Talleyrand’s dictum, ‘Allons lentement, messieurs, je suis pressé,’ Kissinger preferred to say, like Arsène Lupin: ‘Je me charge de tout.’ But what was the upshot of all this intense activity? One has the impression that Kissinger achieved very little, despite the intelligent adroitness of his style. Perhaps he only meant to keep things going, to maintain momentum. Perhaps he wanted simply to identify and to cultivate that minimum of reciprocal understanding which limits the dangers of each conflict as it arises: but he is always anxious to suggest that there were bigger objectives in view and that he was prevented by others from attaining them.
Take ‘the Year of Europe’. This was a grandiose-sounding plan (in which the Japanese would join) to refurbish relations between the Nato allies and the Americans. Presumably – and Dr Kissinger is disingenuous when he says that this was not the case – American prestige would be enhanced in time for the Nixon-Brezhnev summit. But the plan was excessively vague. Edward Heath was not responsive to the idea of a special relationship with America – he was more interested in cultivating relations with his European allies, especially France; the Germans under Brandt were more concerned with their Ostpolitik; and the French (especially the Foreign Minister, Jobert) were anxious to show how independent they were. Thus Kissinger was frustrated and yet another grand design was sunk. (Although this is largely explained by the shortcomings and temporisings of the statesmen mentioned, the shadow of Watergate is to be discerned here: Kissinger noted how, as the scandal developed, Brandt became a shade less ‘respectful’ in his dealings with the Americans.)
Kissinger, of course, prides himself on his skill as a diplomat (‘this is a trick I have often used myself’ is the sort of comment he makes when he observes someone trying to outsmart him with some ruse). But one of the stories he tells of Jobert’s visit to the Western White House makes one wonder. Kissinger organised a dinner for him in Los Angeles, to which many distinguished guests were invited. These included ‘my friend the performer and unpredictable genius Danny Kaye’. (Kissinger always writes like this when he is name-dropping: like the Jewish lady in the old joke who screams, ‘My son the distinguished nuclear scientist is drowning,’ he speaks of ‘my good friend the talented and beautiful Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann’.) Kaye offered to translate Jobert’s speech, to be given in English, into French, so that his French colleagues would understand what their minister was saying. But after Jobert had delivered an elegant toast in English, Danny Kaye got up and spoke French-sounding gibberish in a stentorian voice. ‘Jobert seemed not amused,’ Kissinger remarks. Jobert has mentioned the dinner in his own memoirs without referring to this boorish incident: one can only admire his restraint.
In addition to blaming other statesmen, Kissinger blames the American people. One of his favourite words is ‘obsession’. They had an obsession about Vietnam; they had an obsession about Watergate. Kissinger knew that Hanoi was ‘treacherous’, ‘insolent’, ‘elusive’ and ‘duplicitous’; he was firmly convinced, too, that the North Vietnamese were essentially aggressive and imperialist. But what could he do about it, without a strong government backed by a united country, ready to use force? Kissinger believed that given the relations between China and Soviet Russia, the Americans’ role in establishing the balance of power gave them a certain advantage, but how long would it be before American public opinion would accept that a Soviet attack on China would be an attack on a vital American interest? Writing about Nixon’s apparently successful journey through the Middle East in June 1974, he returns to the old question of Watergate, recording how the Presidential entourage were torn by the disparity between what might have been and what, as they saw it, had to be.
Kissinger’s portrait of Nixon holds our interest as much as his account of jet-age diplomacy. Although from time to time he mentions the President’s furious bursts of activity, how he worked best under pressure, and the fact that he never failed at a moment of decision, it is hard to understand not only how (or why) this man ever came to be President but how he managed to have such a long career and to survive so many crises. Even before he fell into the melancholia that came from Watergate and became locked into an agony that drained him of all life and energy (and no one has explained why he collapsed so over what was, in a way, a minor scandal) Nixon seems to have acted strangely. He sowed division amongst his closest aides and supporters. He was inordinately jealous of anyone who hogged the limelight. He spoke in a rambling fashion, sometimes embarrassing and boring his aides long into the night with monologues about anything and everything; in meetings he would put forward ideas which he did not like simply for the purpose of seeing how others would react to them. He had, according to Kissinger, an ‘obsession’ (that word again) about his public relations: But he must have had many obsessions, and one has some sympathy with Fawn Brodie in her attempt to make sense of Nixon by some form of long distance psychoanalysis. Perhaps there is a lot to be said about the influence of his parents (his father looked like Khrushchev) and of his brother; and perhaps we should try to explain his insomnia, his sexual problems, his drinking habits, his loneliness and his desire to show the worst of himself to the world at the same time as he protested his innocence. But it is more important to study Nixon in terms of the ways in which others kept the Presidency functioning.
Every American President has difficulty in nominating people to his Administration, especially because the power of appointment is shared between the President and the Senate. The cabinet usually consists of unknowns (sometimes they are even unknown to the President) and the process of choosing is extraordinarily complicated. It is characteristic of President Carter that his own account of his Presidency should begin by describing his dithering over whom he should appoint to various posts (he considered for a long time making George Ball his Secretary of State), but he was typical rather than exceptional in this (Kennedy said, after his election: ‘I thought I knew everybody but it turned out that I only knew a few politicians’). What emerges from the Kissinger and Brzezinski memoirs, and from Roger Morris’s hostile account of Haig’s career, is not only the extent and the seriousness of the in-fighting that accompanies the process of nomination: the ensuing struggle for access to the President takes on a life, and a reality, all of its own. This can only make the process of government increasingly difficult. It must also have a bad effect on the President.
During the last war, when British officials were going to Washington to meet Roosevelt and his entourage, they often asked Professor Denis Brogan what they should read in preparation. They expected to be recommended some work on American politics, but Brogan always suggested the memoirs of Saint-Simon. Roosevelt ran a court, and the danger of a court is that the ego of the monarch will be inflated by the adulation of those who surround him. More recently, the White House has become a thieves’ kitchen of intrigue and faction. It was not simply that Kissinger and Haig watched each other suspiciously, but that everyone else was doing the same. It was said that Haig was Kissinger’s man in Haldeman’s office and Haldeman’s man in Kissinger’s office. All the personal aides were unsure of themselves–‘second-raters playing over their heads’, as one commentator put it, fearful of each other as well as of everyone else. The effect of such activity on a lonely, distrustful, paranoiac President was disastrous. Carter’s entourage consisted largely of young men from the South whom he had casually met when beginning his Presidential campaign; they knew little of Washington, and spent a lot of time sniping at each other. The effect of this on a President who believed that governing honestly consisted of not making your mind up too quickly must have been to render him all the more uncertain.
There is much about Carter that reminds one of A.J.P. Taylor’s portrait of the Emperor Franz Josef. When the Habsburg Empire was demonstrably in a poor state and its government ineffective, Franz Josef decided he could remedy things by working for an hour longer each day. Carter was always a compulsive worker. But when things began to go badly, the remedy would be more memoranda, more meetings and briefings, more personal interviews and heart-to-heart talks. And like Franz Josef, Carter and his assistants were aggrieved that the problems were not then solved. Everything was considered and every option was analysed, discussion was exhaustive and must have been exhausting.
The case of the Iranian revolution affords many examples of the ways in which a President can be brought to a state of bewilderment by the activities of ambitious individuals thrusting their views upon him whilst a stagnant, self-protecting bureaucracy stands by and watches. Hamilton Jordan tells of his negotiations over the hostages with a secret and unnamed Iranian (he was surprised when he met him to find that he did not drink wine and wondered whether he was anxious not to seem too friendly); Brzezinski tells us that he never had much faith in this venture and wanted to deploy force. Some thought that the Ambassador in Teheran, Sullivan, should be ignored; others thought that he was too easily brushed aside by brash and ignorant young men; Cy Vance was said to be a good man traumatised by his Vietnam experience; the veteran George Ball was called in for an opinion; the generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff were constantly consulted; an American professor in a distant university was called upon and asked what he thought. Carter, in his last hours as President, sat waiting in the Oval Office for the final release of the hostages. He decided to look over his own handwritten checklist of all the steps that had to be taken. He discovered a vital failure: the central bank of Iran had not sent in the instructions required for the transfer of funds. The President had become the Clerk of Works.
Many explanations can be given for these sad tales of Presidential ineffectiveness. There are those who would emphasise that American political parties have little ideological commitment: they represent sectional interests which have come together in order to win elections. The President therefore tends to be an isolated figure, someone who has sought the nomination, who has fought the election and who is immediately caught up in the process of preparing for a second term. Should he make an early renunciation of this second term, then his power will suffer an early reduction. Others would emphasise the constitutional limitations of the Presidency. Great responsibilities become all the more intractable when executive power is restricted by a host of procedural impediments. In addition, the Presidency is subjected to an unbelievable pressure of publicity: American Presidents have the disadvantage of having to approach each and every issue with an open mouth.
Perhaps the most important reason for the diminishing of the President is the American belief that their vital interests are present in every part of the world. General de Gaulle saw very clearly the dangers of the Yalta agreements which divided the world into a two-power directorship. But it is perhaps not always recognised how grave this was for the United States, which thereby assumed responsibilities which were too burdensome to be acceptable. Ever since Yalta the United States has felt obliged to invent strategic concepts which seek to embrace the full complexity of international conditions. Naturally these attempts have failed. Idealism has sought a policy; pragmatism has sought principles; stratagems have taken the place of strategy; rhetoric has overshadowed reality; assertion of national power oscillates with ideas of restraint and moderation.
It has become conventional to say that every American President since Truman makes his predecessor look good. The depreciation of the President and the incoherence of the system make it difficult for the United States to lead the world as it would wish to do. Too rich to be ignored; too powerful to be discounted; too vulnerable to be great; too clumsy to be trusted.
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