In his farewell remarks to the White House staff after his resignation from the presidency, Richard Nixon said, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” In his illuminating and compelling One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, award-winning author and journalist Tim Weiner tells the story of a tormented man, considered by many to be a brilliant politician, in the process of destroying himself. Weiner, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Philadelphia Inquirer reporting on secret government programs and a National Book Award for Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA, bases his book in great part on tens of thousands of government documents declassified between 2007 and 2014. Every quotation and citation is on the record.
Nixon saw himself as a great statesman whose top priority was to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. At the same time, he regarded politics as war. Anyone who opposed him was considered his enemy, particularly antiwar protesters. Weiner reveals the extremes Nixon was willing to go to defeat his enemies at home and abroad. He strongly believed that John Kennedy stole the 1960 presidential election from him and vowed to do whatever it took to keep that from happening again. And he did.
Days before the 1968 presidential election, with his lead over Hubert Humphrey dropping in the polls, Nixon convinced government leaders in South Vietnam to wait until after the election to make any binding deals because, as president, Nixon told them he could negotiate better terms for ending the war than President Johnson could. It is a federal crime for a citizen to conduct diplomacy with a foreign government against the interests of the U.S. Nixon would long remember that his victory that fall depended on deception and acts of dubious legality. He won by less than half a million votes, and not since 1912 had a president been elected with less of a popular mandate. Years later, Philip Habib, a senior State Department diplomat at the Paris peace talks, who served both presidents Johnson and Nixon, believed the talks then in progress would have succeeded if Nixon had not intervened. Habib said he was convinced that if Humphrey had won the election, “the war would have been over much sooner.”
Nixon’s grand strategy included persuading the leaders of China and the Soviet Union to put pressure on North Vietnam to help him pursue peace. But as that initiative failed, his frustration and anger led him to take personal control of much of the massive military power at his command, thinking he could bomb the enemy in Vietnam into submission. He did not trust anyone else, even members of his cabinet and his closest advisers (although he did count on top aides Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig to carry out his plans), and he was increasingly secretive and duplicitous. One of the best examples of this was his decision in 1970 to invade Cambodia, over the strong objections of his secretaries of state and defense. In 1971, relations between the country’s national defense and intelligence communities and the president were so bad that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had their own officially approved spy inside the White House.
H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, noted accurately that “without the Vietnam War there would have been no Watergate.” After the 1970 congressional elections and with the country bitterly divided over the war, Nixon felt he had reached the low point of his presidency. At that point he devoted much time and effort to political strategy meetings that he hoped would lead him to an overwhelming re-election victory in 1972. Toward that end, the break-in at the offices of Lawrence O’Brien and the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel and other related activities came about because of Nixon’s obsession with doing everything possible that would reflect negatively on his opponents.
Rich in behind-the-scenes views of political and foreign-policy maneuvering, One Man Against the World is an excellent guide to better understand Nixon as a man, as well as his policy in Vietnam and the beginnings of the Watergate scandal. Weiner writes so well that his book is not only authoritative but a riveting read.