RICHARD NIXON The Life
By John A. Farrell
Illustrated. 737 pages. Doubleday. $35.
While writing “Richard Nixon: The Life,” John A. Farrell could not possibly have known who would be president on the day his fine book was published. That it happens to be Donald J. Trump is, for him, an extraordinary stroke of luck. To read this biography with an eye only toward the parallels between the two presidents would be lazy and unfair, a disservice to Farrell’s nuanced scholarship.
But the context here is unignorable. The similarities between Nixon and Trump leap off the page like crickets.
There is, first and most superficially, their nonpresidential looks — Trump with his roosterly combover, Nixon with jowls so low they formed an A-frame with his nose. More substantively, there’s the matter of their Old Testament fury at the news media. (“The press is the enemy,” Nixon told his aides. “Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”)
What else? Their thin skin. Their skyscraping paranoia. Their cavernous memory for slights. It’s hard to think of two modern presidents with a more dire case of political hemophilia. Once wounded, these men never stop bleeding.
Like Trump, Nixon was a monomaniac on the stump, obsessed with the enemies lurking within. Nixon, too, had a penchant for sowing mayhem and a gourmand’s appetite for revenge, especially in the wee hours of the morning. (Trump tweets. Nixon made phone calls.)
And members of Nixon’s own party feared for his stability. As vice president, he once flew into a rage after contending with a group of hostile student journalists at Cornell University. “What scares the hell out of me is that you would blow sky high over a thing as inconsequential as this,” an adviser told him. “What in goddamn would you do if you were president and get into a really bad situation?”
These similarities in character lead to eerily similar behavioral consequences. In 1968, Nixon opened up a back channel to the president of South Vietnam, assuring him he’d get further support if he could just hold out for a Nixon presidency and resist Lyndon B. Johnson’s offers to broker peace. Nearly 50 years later, Michael Flynn had private discussions with the Russians that seemed to promise them a friendlier American policy — if they could just sit tight until Trump was inaugurated.
Both men went on to claim that their predecessors had wiretapped these discussions. Nixon said he’d been tipped off by J. Edgar Hoover.
Confirmation of Nixon’s meddling in Johnson’s peace efforts is the only real news that “Richard Nixon” breaks. But startling revelations are hardly the only criterion for a good Nixon biography. He’s an electrifying subject, a muttering Lear, of perennial interest to anyone with even an average curiosity about politics or psychology. The real test of a good Nixon biography, given how many there are, is far simpler: Is it elegantly written? And, even more important, can it tolerate paradoxes and complexity, the spikier stuff that distinguishes real-life sinners from comic-book villains?
The answer, in the case of “Richard Nixon,” is yes, on both counts. Farrell has a liquid style that slips easily down the gullet, and he understands all too well that Nixon was a vat of contradictions. Some readers may find Farrell’s portrait too sympathetic — he’s as apt to describe Nixon as a tortured depressive as he is to call him a malevolent sneak — but more readers, I think, will find this book complicating and well-rounded.
It’s also hard to read a one-volume history of a president’s life without feeling like you’re crawling over the dense folds of an accordion. But most chapters in “Richard Nixon” have room to breathe.
The development of Nixon’s character in this book is subtle. He doesn’t start out as a rampaging narcissist and megalomaniac. Over time, it was power combined with profound insecurity that misshaped him. He had no ability to tolerate the slings and arrows of outrageous public humiliations, of which he probably suffered a disproportionate many, and he responded with the venom of a toadfish. The press trolled him. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower trolled him. Once, Ike was asked to name an important decision Nixon had helped him make as his vice president. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” he replied.
Farrell follows a mostly chronological structure. We go to Whittier, Calif., where Nixon was raised by an ogre of a father, a fellow so bad at farming he couldn’t grow lemons. As a young man, Nixon was awkward, square, hopeless at making small talk. I could read a whole book of his love letters to Pat, his future wife. They’re endearing and pathetic, the desperate pleas of the runt of the litter.
“Yes, I know I’m crazy!” he wrote in a note he shoved under her door. “And that … I don’t take hints, but you see, Miss Pat, I like you!”
In some ways, the Watergate years, because they’re so familiar, are the least interesting stretch of this book. (Though here’s a detail I’d forgotten: Nixon had a mole in almost every opponent’s campaign, a thumb in every pie.) It’s Farrell’s chapters about race that prove the most textured and dizzying: It was over this issue that the president’s Quaker upbringing and Machiavellian impulses seemed most overtly at war. When Nixon first ran for Congress, he was made an honorary member of the local N.A.A.C.P., so progressive was he on matters of race. Yet while running for president, he made it clear he’d “lay off pro-Negro crap,” and once in office he mastered the rhetorical art of exploiting racial grievances. Thus began the South’s transformation from a block of Democratic-voting states to a G.O.P. sea.
You can also draw a through line from Nixon’s contempt for the liberal elite to Trump’s boastful claims of political incorrectness. That vaudevillian public disdain for East Coast intellectuals, Ivy League blue bloods, cosmopolites — all of it started with Nixon. It was he who first used the phrase “the silent majority.”
He came by that populism honestly. He started from nothing, and he found the culture of Washington, which went gaga over pretty, privileged boys like John F. Kennedy, infuriating. What his populism didn’t mean, however, was stripping the welfare state to the studs. The public still had a taste for big government back then. During Nixon’s presidency, he signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
The most charitable biographies paint Nixon as a tragic figure, and that’s precisely what the president is here. Farrell’s Nixon is smart and ambitious, a visionary in some ways (China), but also skinless, both driven and utterly undone by self-doubt.
It may be the way he differs most, at least psychologically, from our current president. Trump has shown almost no evidence of self-doubt, ever, about anything. He appears to sail through life unencumbered by introspection. He’d yield no more depth if you used an oil rig.
But grandiosity and profound insecurity often find the same form of public expression: recklessness. “I sometimes had the impression that he invited crisis and that he couldn’t stand normalcy,” Henry Kissinger once said. I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine which president he’s best describing.
If Freud, as Auden wrote in his 1939 elegy, is “a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”, then it would be fair to say that the local weather patterns around him shift from temptestuous to clement with uncanny regularity. Geography inevitably plays into the picture.
There are actually only two (relative) constants in the diffusion of Freud’s invention, psychoanalysis, from 1906 on. One is the acceptance of the fact that each of us has an unconscious life: parts of ourselves that are hidden from our own view inform dreams, and shape unwitting remarks and behaviour. The second is the talk and listening technology of two people – the free-associating patient and the analyst engaged in an intimate therapeutic conversation. The rest of the huge and often subtle panoply of Freud’s ideas, developed and revised over a lifetime of practice and writing, has been – and is – up for grabs.
There is a wealth of material to pick over. From Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, published when he was 35, to his last, Moses and Monotheism, written just before his death at 83, there are 23 volumes of the standard edition, not to mention many thick tomes of reflective and revealing letters to his fiancee (then wife), Martha, and to friends and colleagues, plus proceedings of international psychoanalytic meetings. Followers, interpreters, critics and bashers, reinventors and film-makers, slipper and watch manufacturers, in America, India, China, Europe, Africa and Latin America, can thus dispute, develop or make jokes about everything from the importance of the sex drive or libido to the dynamics of memory and repression; the relations between ego, id and superego; identification; therapeutic practice; cultural liberation and much more, including, of course, Freud’s own integrity – his scientific and medical status.
As Dagmar Herzog, an eminent historian of religion, gender and sexuality, points out in the introduction to her excellent Cold War Freud, the derestriction of the now fully digitised Sigmund Freud Archives in the Library of Congress from 2000 on has ushered in a new era in Freud studies, one rich in contextual detail. Joel Whitebook’s illuminating intellectual biography is part of this fresh and buoyant wave of thinking.
It marks a welcome change from the bile of the Freud wars, that wholesale attack during the last two decades of the 20th century on Freud’s reputation and work (or what might lurk under his capacious mantle). In the US, the virulence of the assault was undoubtedly linked to the postwar centrality of psychoanalysis in both popular and medical culture, where it formed part of psychiatric training until the roll out of drug therapies from the 70s on.
Herzog shows with telling detail how the variety of psychoanalysis that was developed in the US after the second world war had little in common with Freud’s initial project. A wholesale flight from sexuality and an insistence on conservative conformity within the patriotic family dominated many analysts’ repertoire. The sign of “cure” for the ego psychologists became an individual’s ability to control her impulses and adapt to reality. What was understood by “reality” was delimited by the norms of the 50s. The analyst’s task was to work through internal conflicts with the patient, never bringing in shaping social or political conditions. Even analysts for whom Freud’s libidinal emphases were in play sent women back to sterile marriages and worse. Convention ruled, undeterred by the famous emigres from the Frankfurt School who married Freud to social critique and had started publishing in the US.
Herzog brings fascinating documents to bear to show how US psychoanalysts formed alliances with Christian clergy who themselves wanted treatment. In 1952, Pope Pius XII even granted his imprimatur to analysis – as long as it didn’t arouse too many sexual appetites. It was against this cold war analytic ethos that the women’s movement reacted so vociferously, often blaming Freud for a practice that wasn’t his.
Homosexuality was a highly fraught arena, judged by the analysts to be a perverse condition that could be successfully treated. Freud himself had hypothesised that everyone was bisexual and could experience homoerotic feelings and fantasies. He often enough noted them in himself. Not so the US cold war analysts, who also condemned the Kinsey Reports with their challenges to the accepted face of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Herzog meticulously charts the long campaign to eradicate homophobia from American psychoanalytic ranks. Though individual analysts, such as the pioneering Robert Stoller, had long stood against the general trend, it wasn’t until 1991 that the American Psychoanalytic Association officially allowed openly gay practitioners.
Like an anthropologist engaged in fieldwork, Herzog moves from site to site to give us a textured understanding of complex historical matter. She zeroes in on German psychoanalysis, where the naturalising of aggression served to exonerate a troubled postwar nation in which Nazis were still everywhere. She scrutinises the politically radical post-68 Anti-Oedipe by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, grounding the book and its huge impact in its times, and stressing that it initiates a conceptual shift in how to think about the interrelation between psyche and politics.
Herzog also focuses in on the ascent of trauma theory or PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. During the 50s, when postwar reparations were being sought from Germany, it was disputed that the camps could have long-term psychic as well as physical damage on individual survivors, particularly since psychic damage seemed only to manifest itself after the event. A large dose of antisemitism was at work in these deliberations. Only with the Vietnam war (and the work of NGOs with torture survivors) did PTSD become a recognised mental disorder.
Whitebook argues that Freud was never able fully to explore the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere
Whitebook’s Freud is an elegant foray into the man and his mind by a philosopher who is also a psychoanalyst. Freud was notoriously suspicious of biographers (as Adam Phillips’ recent anti-biography of the young Freud stressed). Perhaps he intuited that, once he had given us something of a Proustian autobiography in The Interpretation of Dreams, the very readings his own work prompted would be turned back on himself. Whitebook is both questioning and respectful. He is also shaped by present intellectual currents, so a discomfort with enlightenment universals and an alertness to gender underpin this book far more than they did, say, Peter Gay’s classic Freud: A Life for Our Time or Ernest Jones’s first enthusiastic portrayal of the Freud who was his friend and mentor.
Whitebook persuasively positions Freud as a thinker of the dark enlightenment, “a deeper, conflicted, disconsolate, and even tragic yet still emancipatory tradition within the broader movement of the enlightenment”. Freud understood the forces of the counter-enlightenment, the pull of the irrational, the sway of belief, and integrated all this into his vision. Whitebook’s Freud broke with his own Jewish tradition to forge an identity as a secular and sceptical scientist, but was alert to the shaping distortions of the passions he so skilfully reinterpreted. He offers new insight into Freud’s move away from philosophy to science and medicine, and gives a gripping and even-handed rendition of Freud’s homoerotic yet thoroughly intellectual friendships with the zany but charismatic Berlin doctor Wilhelm Fliess and later with Carl Gustav Jung.
My only reservation with Whitebook’s account is his attributing a modish traumatic significance to Freud’s early family life. He speculates that Freud was traumatised by the oddness of his relations with his mother, Amalia. He was her first, idealised son, but in the aftermath of her next son’s early death, she purportedly developed depression, leaving little Ziggy to the whims of his Catholic nanny. Amalia was a generation younger than Freud’s father, which also meant that one of Freud’s nephews was a little older than him. As a result of this family constellation, Whitebook argues, Freud was never able fully to explore and theorise the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere. Mothers are far less central to Freud’s thinking than fathers. But as a child of the second half of the 19th century, Freud’s early experience was historically hardly uncommon. The powers of patriarchy may have had as much to do with the “Missing Mother” in his work (a figure also important in much Victorian literature) as his own intra-psychic state. In later life, partly under the influence of female analysts, he began thinking about the pre-Oedipal far more.
That said, Whitebook’s is a rich and illuminating intellectual biography, and like Herzog’s Cold War Freud kindles new thought. Together, the books signal that there are still many areas to pursue in the field Freud sparked. The Freudian weather currently feels clement.
Obama’s effort to fix an overextended foreign policy is a lot like Nixon and Kissinger’s.
Stephen Sestanovich, The Atlantic, January/February 2016 Issue
No matter how many books are written about Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, there’s always room on the shelf for more. Our fascination with these two larger-than-life characters hardly needs explaining. There’s the doomed and moody president, manic when he wasn’t melancholic, and his super-brainy, super-vain, Nobel Prize–winning adviser—a pair of shape-shifting personalities who took control of American foreign policy at its lowest moment of the Cold War. They combined ambitious statesmanship with jaw-dropping weirdness, sparked controversies that continue to this day, and—while pretending otherwise—were obsessively desirous of our good opinion. How could we not be just as interested in them?
It’s not only the pull of great characters, of course, that keeps the Nixon and Kissinger books coming. There’s plenty of fresh material, too. The many titles of the past year draw on reams of declassified documents; the final batch of Oval Office tapes; first-ever access to some personal papers; extensive interviews with friends, family members, and staffers; and much more. It’s a measure of the abundant information available that one author can pay tribute to another scholar by calling him the only person to have read the “millions of papers at the Nixon Library.” These new books come by their juice and color the old-fashioned way—through tedious, time-consuming research.
The torrent of information has not, alas, given us the unified picture of Nixon and Kissinger that we might have hoped for. The clash of views is sharper than ever. The journalist Evan Thomas (Being Nixon: A Man Divided) and the historian Niall Ferguson (volume one of whose Kissinger biography is arrestingly subtitled The Idealist) are determined to humanize their subjects. Leading the vilification effort are another journalist, Tim Weiner (One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon), and another historian, Greg Grandin (Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman). The first two want to complicate and soften our views; the second pair aim to simplify and harden them.
Nixon and Kissinger combined ambitious statesmanship with jaw-dropping weirdness.
Humanizers and vilifiers do share a crucial premise. They believe the story of Nixon and Kissinger can best be told by delving into their personalities and peculiarities, mapping every quirk, savoring every tape, noting every outrageous conversation and vulgarity. (The president does seem to have been very fond of the word nut-cutting.) And it’s not enough to be inside the Oval Office, listening to the astonishing things Nixon and Kissinger said. These books want us inside their heads, too, inside their wild ids and egos. Humanizers and vilifiers don’t disagree on where to look, only on what they find there. Of the young Kissinger’s overripe prose, Grandin jokes, “You can almost hear Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in the background.” Ferguson claims to hear Bob Dylan.
More than 40 years after Nixon resigned the presidency, and almost 40 after Kissinger stepped down as secretary of state, this hyper-personalized approach is nearly spent. Both demonizers and defenders have produced valuable and entertaining books. They have clarified the strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and preferences, and thoroughly unsettling pathologies of two major public figures. But it’s time for a change—and not just because the flow of shocking revelations is slowing down. We have found out amazing things about what went on in the Nixon White House. Even so, we have much to learn by trying to see past some of the horrifying details. We need to appreciate the story’s ordinariness as well.
Our first step should be back to the history books. Nixon and Kissinger were neither the first nor the last to manage American foreign policy while the country was feeling overextended and unsure of itself. How do their efforts compare with what others in the same situation have done—most recently, and notably, Barack Obama? The answer gives Nixon and Kissinger’s record more-normal human proportions, and makes clear that they were neither madmen nor demigods. It clarifies the challenges they faced—and our own.
Putting aside our long debate about these two will not be easy. Both critics and admirers have what seem like pretty good arguments. If you hate Nixon and Kissinger, you talk about the cruel—some say criminal—use of American military power in Indochina. If you admire them, you stress their pathbreaking diplomatic initiatives. Christmas bombing versus opening to China—the conversation hasn’t changed much in four decades.
These same fixations animate the latest books. Speaking for the demonizers, Weiner says that “subterfuge and brutality” were Nixon’s “preferred” policy mode. The two halves of this formula—the harsh use of force produced by hidden decision making—also loom large in Grandin’s book. Both authors recount the regular bursts of military power that marked the Nixon presidency—the secret bombing of Cambodia (complete with falsified record-keeping arranged by the new national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger), the Cambodian invasion of 1970, the copycat (and thoroughly botched) operation in Laos in 1971, the mining of Haiphong harbor in 1972, and the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam later that year.
Most of these episodes have a similar story line, with the White House overruling (or excluding) dissenting Cabinet secretaries, and the president barking out orders for more planes, more bombs, more sorties, more destruction. Nixon can seem completely indifferent to domestic consequences. “Let this country go up in flames,” we hear him say—and he wasn’t referring to Vietnam. (This particular outburst, to be fair, may have been the liquor talking—Weiner’s Nixon is often drunk.)
Like much of the Nixon and Kissinger record, these stories could be recounted with less vilifying zeal, but the basic facts are hard to dispute. No matter how much new information they present, the humanizers will win few converts on the secrecy, illegality, and brutality front. Thomas may convince us that Nixon was awkward and graceless and insecure (didn’t we sort of know this?), but no amount of talk about poor social skills will make anyone see his foreign policy differently. If you believe Nixon was a war criminal, hearing that he was an introvert will not change your mind.
Ferguson’s Kissinger faces the same hurdles. Calling the book a bildungsroman, Ferguson gamely tries to make Kissinger a regular-guy genius. He was devoted to his cocker spaniel, Smoky; he was just as snotty to his parents as any bright young man; and so forth. But it’s a struggle. The book also reminds us that, long before entering government service, Henry Kissinger the young Harvard professor made his reputation with one big policy idea—that small nuclear weapons were essential instruments of modern war. There was a reason people thought him a model for Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, when the humanizers get a chance to talk about their favorite elements of the Nixon and Kissinger record, they too make a lot of points that aren’t easily countered. Who, after all, is against visionary and effective diplomacy? Speaking at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton helped along this reassessment of the former president. Nixon’s legacy, he said, had to be judged “in totality”—meaning, let’s remember the good stuff. Even the megalomania and weirdness look a lot more excusable, perhaps almost desirable, when measured against the demands of high-pressure peacemaking. As Joe Biden said recently at a Washington awards dinner, with the former secretary of state present, “I’m still intimidated by Dr. Kissinger.”
Thomas’s summary aphorism about Nixon—that “inner torment and even a touch of wickedness can be catalysts to greatness”—may not seem quite enough to justify the bombing of Cambodia. Still, when offered the goal of a “generation of peace,” which Nixon conjured in his second inaugural address, the demonizers become a lot less vehement. They don’t drop their overall indictment. (Détente, Grandin gripes in a footnote, just didn’t go far enough—Washington should have “thoroughly demilitarized.”) But few critics challenge the idea that their favorite villains were genuinely innovative strategists.
Polemics like these keep us from seeing Nixon and Kissinger in a fresh light. For that, we must weigh their record alongside those of other leaders who were given the job of ending America’s stalemated wars. Judged merely by temperament, after all, Dwight Eisenhower, who wound down the Korean War, and Barack Obama, who reduced U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, could hardly be further from Richard Nixon. And their advisers are not to be confused with Henry Kissinger. Yet personal differences were not decisive. Eisenhower and Obama chose policies strikingly similar to Nixon’s.
All three presidents began with the same analysis of their strategic predicament. For the long haul—to avoid going “down the drain as a great power,” as Nixon put it—America needed a downsized foreign policy that better connected ends and means. A “spasmodic reaction to the stimulus of emergencies”—Eisenhower’s description of the way his predecessor, Harry Truman, had done things—was not sustainable, politically or economically. Ike’s answer: military budget cuts that were deeper and faster than any his successors made.
In the same spirit, Nixon told Congress in his 1970 “State of the World” message that the United States could no longer “conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Other nations had to do more too—if only, as Kissinger had written just before becoming national-security adviser, to “discipline our occasional impetuosity.” Barack Obama thought of George W. Bush much as Nixon did of Lyndon B. Johnson and Eisenhower did of Truman, and he certainly agreed with Kissinger. The core of a better strategy was to stop, as Obama had it, doing “stupid shit.”
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama further agreed on how to implement their analysis—by making the big decisions themselves. Humanizers and vilifiers tend to see the centralization of power in the White House as an outgrowth of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s personal oddities. In fact, strong policy control is characteristic of all retrenchment presidents. Elected to clean up a mess, they tend (with some justice) to view the bureaucracies they inherit as prisoners of old ideas and aims.
How such presidents overcome obstacles can vary; their determination to do so does not. Eisenhower, accustomed to command, asserted his authority without any of Nixon and Kissinger’s extreme secrecy and intrigue. He insisted on a crisp and orderly process—but felt free to ignore the recommendations it produced. Having become president as a foreign-policy neophyte, Obama found it far more difficult than Ike did, at least at first, to impose his views on his advisers. But on one issue after another—from Iran to Ukraine—he has carried the day. Seeing Obama as an ineffectual egghead is as wrong as considering Eisenhower a grandfatherly golfer. Both knew that managing weakness requires a strong hand.
Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist, of course, that they used their total dominance of policy to make retrenchment a far bloodier and more violent process than it has been in any other administration. This can hardly be doubted. Yet the accusation misses something fundamental, both about how the United States got out of Vietnam, and about how other presidents have limited the risks that accompany a downsized foreign policy.
Richard Nixon’s strategy to achieve peace in Vietnam had two equally important leitmotifs. First was his readiness, at key moments, to rain down death and destruction on the other side. But the second was an unshakable commitment to get the hell out. His “go for broke” military offensives were inseparable from steady troop withdrawals. As he bombed Cambodia in 1969, Nixon started bringing the boys home. The United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, right after the announcement of an even bigger withdrawal. Equally large troop drawdowns were made in 1971. One reason Nixon relied so heavily on airpower to pound North Vietnam in 1972 was that by then he had cut the U.S. force to fewer than 70,000 men, not even 15 percent of the number he began with. Nothing—certainly not the appeals of his generals—ever led Nixon to suspend or slow the pace of withdrawals. He was getting out of the war, and if he used brutal bombing campaigns to cover his retreat, there’s no doubt that it was a retreat. “Peace with honor” was no bar to horrific violence, but it wasn’t exactly mindless, either. Nixon had accepted the inevitable—he just wasn’t ready to have it look as though pulling out had been forced on him.
Outreach to adversaries has followed each of our stalemated wars.
Did other presidents manage the downsizing of foreign policy without the threat or use of compensatory violence? Certainly not. Eisenhower believed that only his threat of nuclear war had achieved an armistice in Korea. (A secret threat, of course, not shared with the American public or U.S. allies.) Ike actually considered and even threatened using nuclear weapons more than any other president. They were his go-to tool for deterring Soviet advances. Where nuclear threats would not do the job, covert action played its part. Some of the most important CIA operations ever, in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, were undertaken—or, in the case of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, planned—under Eisenhower. And who launched the largest Cold War military operation in the Middle East—the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958—simply out of worry that his policy had begun to look too weak? Same president.
For Obama, winding down overseas combat operations has been as firm a goal as it was for Nixon. The troop surge Obama allowed his generals in Afghanistan was limited, and it came with a strict deadline that he devised himself and would not extend, despite repeated appeals. (Only recently, with a tiny force left, did he change his mind about going all the way to zero.) In pulling out of the post-9/11 wars, Obama wanted what Nixon wanted—a way to keep casualties low and limit the risk of big military setbacks. His means—increased use of unmanned drones, greater reliance on Special Operations forces and cyber attacks, aggressive telephone and e-mail intercepts—were ones whose purpose Nixon and Eisenhower would have applauded. Yes, George W. Bush fashioned these policies, but Obama has used them—and the secrecy they depend on—far more fully. He has given them, moreover, a different goal—not to advance Bush’s strategy, but to reverse it.
Nixon and Kissinger’s claim to immortality rests on the other half of their foreign policy—the new relationships they forged with the Soviet Union and China. Their visits to Beijing were among the most skillfully orchestrated moves in American diplomatic history. Alongside détente with Moscow, these initiatives seemed precisely what the country needed for a successful rebound from the Vietnam War.
All the same, the impulse behind the new strategy was far from unique. Outreach to adversaries—and especially an effort to achieve what Kissinger called an “ideological truce”—has followed each of our stalemated wars. Eisenhower, even after the armistice in Korea, felt there was still a public “hunger for peace”—for relief from the rigors of the Cold War—that he had to satisfy. He considered harsh anticommunist rhetoric “tragically stupid and ultimately worthless.” He spent his presidency seeking a Soviet-American agreement that would lift the threat of nuclear war. None of Eisenhower’s proposals—not “Atoms for Peace,” not “Open Skies,” not a nuclear-test ban—led anywhere with Moscow. The hopeful moods he sought to create—the “Spirit of Geneva,” which followed his first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, in 1955, and the “Spirit of Camp David,” which followed his next one, in 1959—came to nothing.
But Ike persisted. If scaling back the Cold War meant compromising long-standing positions, he was ready for it. He told his advisers that to stop nuclear tests, he would accept pretty much any inspection arrangements Khrushchev proposed. He wanted a 20 percent drawdown of U.S. troops in Europe; when others called for a 25 percent defense-budget increase, he preferred none. (One of the most vocal critics of this early search for détente was Henry Kissinger, who warned that the United States was losing its will to carry on the East-West competition.)
It’s unclear whether Obama has drawn consciously from either Eisenhower or Nixon and Kissinger. Yet the same impulses that shaped their strategy have clearly shaped his. All three administrations shared the goal of developing a post-ideological foreign-policy vocabulary; the conviction that the resource levels devoted to national security were unsustainably high; the desire to make relations with adversaries less competitive; and the hope to use nuclear agreements as levers with which to advance a broader geopolitical (even civilizational) transformation.
Just as Nixon and Kissinger’s critics insist that their crimes were sui generis, their admirers can be counted on to claim that their foreign-policy achievements stand alone. Didn’t the architects of “triangular diplomacy”—détente with the Soviet Union paired with an opening to China—give us a master class in how to manipulate rival powers for mutual benefit? Has any other administration displayed such strategic insight or dazzling professional skill?
The Beijing and Moscow summits of 1972 were, to be sure, a gigantic domestic political triumph. They restored a sense of direction and purpose after years of setbacks. But the president and his adviser thought they were doing much more than pandering to voters. (Of the public’s enthusiasm for his China policy, Nixon’s view was typically disdainful: “The American people are suckers.” He derided the very hope he had created by restoring ties: “ ‘Getting to know you’—all that bullshit.”) The big strategic idea underlying their policy was to preserve American “influence” by yielding “formal predominance.” By playing the two leading Communist states against each other, Washington could get their help in Vietnam, soften the hard ideological edges of their foreign policy, and—especially in the case of China—make them supporters of a continuing global role for the United States.
Little of this big idea unfolded as Nixon and Kissinger had hoped. Soviet and Chinese aid to North Vietnam went up, not down. The dramatic U.S. military operations of 1972—first the mining of Haiphong harbor, and then the Christmas bombing—took place because triangular diplomacy had not kept Hanoi from launching another offensive that spring. The Russians and the Chinese did not force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, nor oblige them to accept adverse terms once negotiations began. Nixon and Kissinger had successfully taken the ideological element out of their own relations with the Soviet Union and China, but the same was not true of relations between Moscow and Beijing. If anything, American policy made ideological rivalry between the major Communist states more acute, not less. The United States had to cope with the consequences not only in Vietnam but also, later in the decade, in Africa—as Moscow and Beijing vied for influence in Angola and Ethiopia.
Kissinger has long insisted that after his early visits, China became an advocate of a strong and confident international role for the U.S. (Mao even admitted to being a closet Republican: As he told Nixon in 1972, “I like rightists.”) What Kissinger does not say is that in those same visits he sketched out for his hosts a very different American role, less strong and less confident. Nixon, Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, was not guided by “dreams of the past” and would pursue a different strategy, especially in Asia. The U.S. would not try to “stop history” by propping up weak clients, such as South Vietnam and Taiwan. Kissinger forecast an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea and expressed alarm at Japan’s growing economic strength. Beijing and Washington, he speculated, might have to unite to oppose Tokyo’s militarism. But he urged Zhou not to push for too much too fast. Washington was still getting used to its new role. “You could not respect us,” he pleaded, “if we found this easy.”
Nothing unites the Nixon and Kissinger record more tightly with those of Eisenhower and Obama than the difference between their first and second terms. For all the trials of downsizing, each of these three presidents made foreign policy a major asset in his first four years—and a ticket to resounding reelection. Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Mitt Romney never had a chance against the masters of retrenchment. But then came something altogether different. A strategy that had been broadly accepted as a way to extricate the United States from over commitment seemed less relevant when the war was over, less valuable in responding to new challenges. Retrenchment, to the surprise of its own architects, became ever more controversial.
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists.
What went wrong? To Nixon and Kissinger, the only thing that made any sense of this sudden disenchantment was Watergate. Post-Vietnam demoralization played a part, and so perhaps did skyrocketing oil prices and then recession. But the destructive impact of these events was nothing alongside a domestic political scandal almost unique in American history. Kissinger likes to describe Watergate’s significance this way: “We were castrated.” No wonder the “glittering promise” he felt at the beginning of Nixon’s second term was ultimately wasted.
The postwar-retrenchment blues of other presidents should, however, alert us to other explanations. If, without Watergate, Eisenhower faced a strong second-term challenge to his foreign policy, and Obama has too, then maybe we need to look beyond scandal and “castration” for the real story.
Eisenhower had his own way of explaining his second-term frustrations. The key was Sputnik and what he called, in his famous farewell address, the “military-industrial complex.” When the Soviet Union launched the first globe-circling satellite in 1957, hard-liners with strong corporate backing stoked fears of a “missile gap.” Unfortunately, the president could not reassure the public without compromising top-secret intelligence.
Yet Ike’s version of how his foreign policy lost its allure was incomplete. Fears of a changing nuclear balance were just one factor. In the late 1950s, the U.S. and its friends seemed suddenly on the defensive almost everywhere. New crises erupted in virtually every region of the world—in Berlin, Lebanon, the Taiwan Strait, and Cuba. Calls for a more consistent and better-articulated policy were heard across the political spectrum, even among Eisenhower’s closest advisers. As East-West tensions rose, Ike responded with annoyance. He invoked his own vast foreign-policy experience, said the U.S. was not falling behind, belittled those who wanted to spend more on defense, and impugned their motives. He pushed back, but it was not enough.
Second-term presidents who have managed to tidy up an inherited foreign-policy mess have always been blindsided by what came next. Slow to cope with—or even recognize—new problems, they hope to stick with the winning formulas of their first term. Here too Obama has had much in common with Eisenhower. In the past two years, as he talked about banging out “singles” and “doubles” (while Ukraine was under siege, Syria in flames, and China muscling American allies), Obama channeled Eisenhower’s complacency. When he said that criticism of his nuclear deal with Iran reflected the same mind-set that led to war with Iraq, he displayed Ike’s irritability.
Nixon and Kissinger didn’t see their troubles coming either. Though détente had evoked little real opposition while fighting continued in Vietnam, it fell to earth once the war was over. In the ensuing debate, Kissinger, easily the most acclaimed policy celebrity of modern times, often hurt his own case. He called those who questioned his arms-control offers to Moscow “strategically and politically illiterate.” When support for Soviet dissidents grew in Congress, he inflamed it by advising the president (now Gerald Ford) not to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When Congress banned covert aid to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Angola, he treated the measure as a kind of peacenik absurdity. (In fact, most Republican senators present—from Jacob Javits to Jesse Helms—had voted against him.)
America’s retrenchment presidents have all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the long haul.
Kissinger liked to portray his critics as isolationists or militarists—the left- and right-wing fringes of serious debate. He claimed to be the prudent centrist, to have the only long-term strategy for advancing the national interest. No setbacks shook this conviction. In an otherwise conciliatory letter he wrote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after leaving office, Kissinger tried to take the edge off their earlier clashes. As ambassador to the United Nations, Moynihan had seen human rights as a way to retake the ideological high ground of the Cold War. The secretary of state, his nominal boss, would have none of it. “I had to position our policy for a long haul,” Kissinger explained, “while you were concerned with the immediate crisis.”
It was a telling inversion of the truth. Kissinger’s position as chief steward of American foreign policy obliged him to focus on a large portfolio of endless pressing concerns. Yet in managing them on a daily basis, he failed to elaborate a strategy that could command support from one administration to the next. He missed, in fact, exactly what Eisenhower—and later, Obama—missed. He had lost the center.
There was no shortage of reasons for this result. The American people may have wanted uplift more than nuance. They may have been too easily frightened by new difficulties. They may have responded too quickly to partisanship. They may have sensed that their leaders were not really leveling with them, were too in thrall to their own ideas, could not see how to change course. Whatever the reason, the public needed a more compelling and coherent description of what Kissinger was trying to do. It wasn’t Watergate that held him back.
America’s retrenchment presidents teach an ironic lesson. Coming in to manage a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all hoped to devise a foreign policy for the United States that would avoid big swings between over- and undercommitment. What they came up with, however, turned out to command support only as an interim measure. Once it became clear that the world was still a confusing and tumultuous place, the acclaim they had enjoyed was soon forgotten. The resurgence of heated policy debate didn’t just disappoint them—it infuriated them. They found their second terms a bumpy ride, full of criticisms they felt were unfair and unconstructive. They got angry at American politics, and at the American people.
If retrenchment presidents are irritable, they are also surprisingly inarticulate. Few rise to the challenge of explaining their policies. In the course of their careers, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama were all known—in very different ways—for clear and persuasive expression. Yet this gift failed them when their ostensibly long-haul foreign policy came under attack. Persuasiveness gave way to petulance.
Strategies of retrenchment always lose their shine.
Inarticulateness overcame other presidents who carried out strategies of retrenchment. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter adopted many of Nixon’s policies, especially toward China and the Soviet Union—and explained them no better. George H. W. Bush, having achieved both the successful conclusion of the Cold War and victory in the Persian Gulf, sought to de-emphasize foreign policy in the second half of his presidency. But international upheavals—from the Balkans to Somalia—did not subside. Like other downsizers, Bush seemed unsure how to handle these new issues—much less how to talk about them.
Retrenchment is a hard product to market. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush 41, and Obama belong to an honor roll of presidents all with the same problem: how to convince the American people that their foreign policy was more successful, less rudderless and reactive, than it seemed. Believing that they had fashioned a creative response to national war weariness, they found themselves labeled too passive. Certain that theirs was the standard against which all other strategies should be measured, they were called confused. Confident that they had put American foreign policy on a sustainable course that hardly needed to be debated, they lost control of the conversation.
As these presidents discovered, strategies of retrenchment always lose their shine. That’s normal. For Henry Kissinger, of course, normal will be a hard verdict to accept. But it fits. He had only a very difficult assignment, we can now see, not a unique one. In carrying it out, he did some things well, others not so well, and still others badly. With the perspective that time affords, both the calumny and the praise he and Nixon elicited seem obviously excessive. They were sometimes brilliant, sometimes foolish, sometimes lucky, sometimes terribly unlucky. For all their eccentricity and defensive self-regard, their record looks less distinctive than we have usually thought. If, 10 years from now, the next generation of scholars has produced a new shelf of books that help us to see the ordinariness of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, we will understand them—and perhaps ourselves—far better than we do now.
Richard M. Nixon always denied it: to David Frost, to historians and to Lyndon B. Johnson, who had the strongest suspicions and the most cause for outrage at his successor’s rumored treachery. To them all, Nixon insisted that he had not sabotaged Johnson’s 1968 peace initiative to bring the war in Vietnam to an early conclusion. “My God. I would never do anything to encourage” South Vietnam “not to come to the table,” Nixon told Johnson, in a conversation captured on the White House taping system.
Now we know Nixon lied. A newfound cache of notes left by H. R. Haldeman, his closest aide, shows that Nixon directed his campaign’s efforts to scuttle the peace talks, which he feared could give his opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, an edge in the 1968 election. On Oct. 22, 1968, he ordered Haldeman to “monkey wrench” the initiative.
The 37th president has been enjoying a bit of a revival recently, as his achievements in foreign policy and the landmark domestic legislation he signed into law draw favorable comparisons to the presidents (and president-elect) that followed. A new, $15 million face-lift at the Nixon presidential library, while not burying the Watergate scandals, spotlights his considerable record of accomplishments.
Haldeman’s notes return us to the dark side. Amid the reappraisals, we must now weigh apparently criminal behavior that, given the human lives at stake and the decade of carnage that followed in Southeast Asia, may be more reprehensible than anything Nixon did in Watergate.
Nixon had entered the fall campaign with a lead over Humphrey, but the gap was closing that October. Henry A. Kissinger, then an outside Republican adviser, had called, alerting Nixon that a deal was in the works: If Johnson would halt all bombing of North Vietnam, the Soviets pledged to have Hanoi engage in constructive talks to end a war that had already claimed 30,000 American lives.
Anna Chennault, 1969.Credit Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post, via Getty Images
But Nixon had a pipeline to Saigon, where the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that Johnson would sell him out. If Thieu would stall the talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s actions as a cheap political trick. The conduit was Anna Chennault, a Republican doyenne and Nixon fund-raiser, and a member of the pro-nationalist China lobby, with connections across Asia.
“! Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam, Haldeman scrawled, recording Nixon’s orders. “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do.”
Nixon told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s personal secretary, contact another nationalist Chinese figure — the businessman Louis Kung — and have him press Thieu as well. “Tell him hold firm,” Nixon said.
Nixon also sought help from Chiang Kai-shek, the President of Taiwan. And he ordered Haldeman to have his vice-presidential candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, threaten the C.I.A. director, Richard Helms. Helms’s hopes of keeping his job under Nixon depended on his pliancy, Agnew was to say. “Tell him we want the truth — or he hasn’t got the job,” Nixon said.
Throughout his life, Nixon feared disclosure of this skulduggery. “I did nothing to undercut them,” he told Frost in their 1977 interviews. “As far as Madame Chennault or any number of other people,” he added, “I did not authorize them and I had no knowledge of any contact with the South Vietnamese at that point, urging them not to.” Even after Watergate, he made it a point of character. “I couldn’t have done that in conscience.”
Nixon had cause to lie. His actions appear to violate federal law, which prohibits private citizens from trying to “defeat the measures of the United States.” His lawyers fought throughout Nixon’s life to keep the records of the 1968 campaign private. The broad outline of “the Chennault affair” would dribble out over the years. But the lack of evidence of Nixon’s direct involvement gave pause to historians and afforded his loyalists a defense.
Time has yielded Nixon’s secrets. Haldeman’s notes were opened quietly at the presidential library in 2007, where I came upon them in my research for a biography of the former president. They contain other gems, like Haldeman’s notations of a promise, made by Nixon to Southern Republicans, that he would retreat on civil rights and “lay off pro-Negro crap” if elected president. There are notes from Nixon’s 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, in which he and his aides discuss the need to wiretap political foes.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that, absent Nixon, talks would have proceeded, let alone ended the war. But Johnson and his advisers, at least, believed in their mission and its prospects for success.
When Johnson got word of Nixon’s meddling, he ordered the F.B.I. to track Chennault’s movements. She “contacted Vietnam Ambassador Bui Diem,” one report from the surveillance noted, “and advised him that she had received a message from her boss … to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was … ‘Hold on. We are gonna win. … Please tell your boss to hold on.’ ”
In a conversation with the Republican senator Everett Dirksen, the minority leader, Johnson lashed out at Nixon. “I’m reading their hand, Everett,” Johnson told his old friend. “This is treason.”
“I know,” Dirksen said mournfully.
Johnson’s closest aides urged him to unmask Nixon’s actions. But on a Nov. 4 conference call, they concluded that they could not go public because, among other factors, they lacked the “absolute proof,” as Defense Secretary Clark Clifford put it, of Nixon’s direct involvement.
Candice Millard’s third book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” would make a fine movie, though Richard Attenborough did, in a sense, get there first. In 1972, he made “Young Winston,” drawn from Churchill’s own account of his early life, and it includes the same material Ms. Millard recounts so thrillingly: the future prime minister’s brash heroics in the South African Republic in 1899, which culminated in a prison break and nine days on the lam.
“I’m free! I’m free! I’m Winston bloody Churchill, and I’m free!” he shouts in the film, just as he crosses the border to safety — a moment, we later realize, that could just as easily have referred to Churchill’s psychological relief as his physical freedom: He had finally shaken off the legacy of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose formidable early accomplishments and later humiliations stalked him like the moon.
As her subtitle suggests, Ms. Millard similarly believes that the conflict in the Boer Republics profoundly influenced Churchill. But her book is much shorter on the anxiety of influence and far longer on the blustery impatience of youth. In Ms. Millard’s retelling, young Churchill was entitled, precocious, supernaturally confident — one of those fellows whose neon self-regard is downright unseemly until the very moment it is earned.
“Churchill seemed far less Victorian than Rooseveltian,” she writes. (Well, his mother was American.) Or, as his first biographer wrote: “Winston advertises himself as simply and unconsciously as he breathes.”
On its face, Churchill’s role in the Second Boer War may not seem like a substantial enough subject for a book. Don’t be fooled. Over the years, Ms. Millard has made a stylish niche for herself, zooming in on a brief, pivotal chapter in the life of a historical figure and turning it into a legitimate feature-length production. In “The River of Doubt,” she focused on Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon basin to recover from his defeat in 1912. (These excursions seemed to be the political equivalent of rebound girlfriends for him.) In “Destiny of the Republic,” she focused on the assassination of James A. Garfield, particularly the doctors who serially bungled their attempts to save his life.
The story Ms. Millard tells here is no less cinematic or dramatic. Churchill covered the Second Boer War as a correspondent for The Morning Post, but he was hardly an ordinary reporter: He insisted on traveling with his valet; he took along roughly $4,000 of fine wines and spirits, including 18 bottles of St.-Émilion and another 18 of 10-year-old Scotch.
Most critically, though, he brought with him a great thirst for redemption. Churchill, 24, had just stood for Parliament and lost, having made the dire mistake of running “on the strength of his father’s name rather than his own.” Though he’d already fought in two wars — one in Sudan, the other on the northwest frontier of British India — and witnessed another as a reporter in Cuba, he “returned home every time without the medals that mattered, no more distinguished or famous than he had been when he set out.”
It was not for lack of trying. He charged the Pashtun while riding a bright gray pony. He stuck out like a bride.
Churchill hoped that the Second Boer War would finally do the trick. It did, and how. While on a scouting expedition on an armored train, he and scores of British soldiers were shelled by pom-poms, vicious weapons with a deceptively quaint nickname. His army instincts took over, and it was in large part because of his courageous efforts — and a dash of MacGyver ingenuity — that anyone on the train came back.
The bad news: Churchill was captured. The good news: Everyone in England knew about his bravery. The headlines were the stuff of his dreams. “MR. CHURCHILL’S HEROISM” screamed The Yorkshire Evening Post.
This part of the book — where the train derails — is the only part where the narrative derails, too. (The logistics of this particular skirmish? A bit of a bore. Or rather, too minutely conveyed. They’re hard to follow.)
Soldier through. The rest of Ms. Millard’s book — about Churchill’s time as a prisoner of war, his audacious escape, the outcome of the conflict — are as involving as a popcorn thriller. Ms. Millard does an excellent job conveying the drama of confinement, both inside the prison and out. Being on the run meant hiding in many dark, dank, undignified spaces. It meant tolerating uncertainty, which Churchill hated. It meant being powerless, utterly dependent on the mercy of strangers, and he hated that, too. “It had been hard enough,” she writes, “to take orders from his superiors while he was in the army.”
Ms. Millard also shows, as she has in her previous work, that she has a great ear for quotes — an underrated virtue in writers of history. (Favorite example: The British Ambassador to Berlin wrote that Churchill’s mother had “more of the panther than of the woman in her look.”) Her eye for detail is equally good. With just a few key images, she conveys how the most formidable empire on the planet could be so discomfited by an unpolished, seemingly ragtag army of Boers: “At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight,” she writes. “The other 10 were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms and waiting on their officers.”
It didn’t help matters that the British soldiers brought heaps of amenities into the field, which required many mules and oxen to lug. They were the hopeless dowager aunt who brings way too much luggage on holiday.
But the real example of profligacy in this story may be young Churchill’s ego. It’s not a surprise, exactly. What’s striking is the high volume of evidence Ms. Millard has compiled to show how unswervingly he believed in his own majestic destiny more than 40 years before he fulfilled it, and how early this belief began to appear, like the first visible outlines on a Polaroid.
“I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” Churchill wrote to his mother from Bangalore, trying to reassure her he wouldn’t be killed in India.
The powerful really are different from you and me. They have more confidence. It requires outsize stamina and self-assurance to save a nation. “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults,” his first love, Pamela Plowden, once said. “And the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.”
Hero of the Empire
The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill
By Candice Millard
Illustrated. 381 pages. Doubleday. $30.
A version of this review appears in print on September 22, 2016, on page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: That War Where Churchill First Earned His Spurs. Today’s Paper|Subscribe
How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?
A host of earlier biographers (most notably Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest and Ian Kershaw) have advanced theories about Hitler’s rise, and the dynamic between the man and his times. Some have focused on the social and political conditions in post-World War I Germany, which Hitler expertly exploited — bitterness over the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and a yearning for a return to German greatness; unemployment and economic distress amid the worldwide Depression of the early 1930s; and longstanding ethnic prejudices and fears of “foreignization.”
Hitler, far right, with fellow soldiers from his Bavarian unit in 1916. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Other writers — including the dictator’s latest biographer, the historian Volker Ullrich — have focused on Hitler as a politician who rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses. In “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939,” Mr. Ullrich sets out to strip away the mythology that Hitler created around himself in “Mein Kampf,” and he also tries to look at this “mysterious, calamitous figure” not as a monster or madman, but as a human being with “undeniable talents and obviously deep-seated psychological complexes.”
“In a sense,” he says in an introduction, “Hitler will be ‘normalized’ — although this will not make him seem more ‘normal.’ If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific.”
This is the first of two volumes (it ends in 1939 with the dictator’s 50th birthday) and there is little here that is substantially new. However, Mr. Ullrich offers a fascinating Shakespearean parable about how the confluence of circumstance, chance, a ruthless individual and the willful blindness of others can transform a country — and, in Hitler’s case, lead to an unimaginable nightmare for the world.
Mr. Ullrich, like other biographers, provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a “Munich rabble-rouser” — regarded by many as a self-obsessed “clown” with a strangely “scattershot, impulsive style” — into “the lord and master of the German Reich.”
• Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”
• Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”
• Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a “mask of moderation” when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, “Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,” Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.
• Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”
• Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.” But Hitler virtually wrote the modern playbook on demagoguery, arguing in “Mein Kampf” that propaganda must appeal to the emotions — not the reasoning powers — of the crowd. Its “purely intellectual level,” Hitler said, “will have to be that of the lowest mental common denominator among the public it is desired to reach.” Because the understanding of the masses “is feeble,” he went on, effective propaganda needed to be boiled down to a few slogans that should be “persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.”
• Hitler’s rise was not inevitable, in Mr. Ullrich’s opinion. There were numerous points at which his ascent might have been derailed, he contends; even as late as January 1933, “it would have been eminently possible to prevent his nomination as Reich chancellor.” He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”
• Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression. Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.” Politicians, for their part, suffered from the delusion that the dominance of traditional conservatives in the cabinet would neutralize the threat of Nazi abuse of power and “fence Hitler in.” “As far as Hitler’s long-term wishes were concerned,” Mr. Ullrich observes, “his conservative coalition partners believed either that he was not serious or that they could exert a moderating influence on him. In any case, they were severely mistaken.”
• Hitler, it became obvious, could not be tamed — he needed only five months to consolidate absolute power after becoming chancellor. “Non-National Socialist German states” were brought into line, Mr. Ullrich writes, “with pressure from the party grassroots combining effectively with pseudo-legal measures ordered by the Reich government.” Many Germans jumped on the Nazi bandwagon not out of political conviction but in hopes of improving their career opportunities, he argues, while fear kept others from speaking out against the persecution of the Jews. The independent press was banned or suppressed and books deemed “un-German” were burned. By March 1933, Hitler had made it clear, Mr. Ullrich says, “that his government was going to do away with all norms of separation of powers and the rule of law.”
• Hitler had a dark, Darwinian view of the world. And he would not only become, in Mr. Ullrich’s words, “a mouthpiece of the cultural pessimism” growing in right-wing circles in the Weimar Republic, but also the avatar of what Thomas Mann identified as a turning away from reason and the fundamental principles of a civil society — namely, “liberty, equality, education, optimism and belief in progress.”
A version of this review appears in print on September 28, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue. Today’s Paper