Book review: One Man Against The World - Nixon's tragedy

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Tim Weiner expertly shows in this book how the late president nearly destroyed the United States

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm


The conventional wisdom among Nixon apologists is that the Watergate scandal has been overblown, that the crimes were ones that had been committed by other presidents, too, and that Richard Nixon was a great man who did great things. And this certainly would be the judgment that Nixon wanted history to have of him.

But as Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Tim Weiner expertly shows in One Man Against the World, the late president was an aberration, and his deeds nearly destroyed the country. His chief legacy is not the opening of communist China, but a pattern of presidential abuse of power from which the country is still recovering.

Most books about Nixon suffer from a lack of perspective. Because Nixon wire-tapped his own offices and (illegally) those of other people, and his aides took copious notes of conversations, there are reams of documentation of what happened during his administration. Because of this, it is easy to become mired in the details of the Nixon presidency.

Weiner slices through these disparate elements, pulling in only the threads that advance the telling of Nixon's story. This includes some material that was only declassified last year. Weiner also avoids the trap of dwelling on the president's background, noting only how Nixon's personality - the ruthlessness, the ambition, the political instinct and the amorality - was revealed in his formative years.

Once in office, Nixon was determined to win the Vietnam war, or at least to have America leave the war "with peace and honour". To that end, he ordered unprecedented secret bombings of neutral Laos and Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese had bases.

As the 1972 election loomed, Nixon ordered massive secret bombing of North Vietnam's civilian centres to bring the country to its knees. To appease anti-war sentiment at home, Nixon tried the "Vietnamisation" of the war - having the South Vietnamese fight instead of American soldiers. But when the South Vietnamese showed little will to fight, Nixon lied to a national TV audience, telling the country that "Vietnamisation has succeeded".

Weiner shows how Nixon conflated his political fortunes with the nation's interests. For instance, he threw US support behind Pakistan during that country's war with India because the corrupt and brutal leader of Pakistan had helped Nixon arrange his visit to communist China, and because Nixon personally hated Indians.

Perhaps this book's biggest achievement is the accounting of what Nixon wrought on the US. Much of the apathy and cynicism, the lack of respect for the office of the president and the distrust of government can be laid at his feet. And then there are the presidents who came after Nixon. It seems that the lessons of Watergate have not been what to avoid, but rather, how much can be got away with.

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon  by Tim Weiner  (Henry Holt and Co)

Tribune News Service