Nixon’s Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration
By Ray Locker
Lyons Press. 339 pp. $29.95
By James Robenalt
Ray Locker’s book is a disappointment. He obviously invested a great deal of time reading primary documents and listening to presidential recordings, the kind of basic research that is critical to any insightful account of the Nixon presidency. Unfortunately, Locker then mixed primary source material with highly dubious secondary sources, thereby casting doubt on the integrity of the entire work.
Nixon’s Gamble begins promisingly. Locker accurately describes Richard Nixon’s proclivity for secrecy and his divide-and-conquer strategy to marginalize institutions that he did not trust: the State Department, in particular, but also the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. Nixon’s mishandling of these stakeholders caused an unprecedented reaction, particularly in the Pentagon. For more than a year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s liaison office at the National Security Council purloined documents containing information that was not being shared by the president and his equally secretive national security adviser.
Little about this story of secret back-channels and severe institutional jockeying is particularly new, though Locker does a commendable job of pulling together the strands and putting it all in context. Nixon had good reason, of course, to worry about leaks and their impact on his bold but surreptitious initiatives with respect to China and the Vietnam war. The clandestine negotiations that led to the China breakthrough, and the back-channel meetings in Paris with the North Vietnamese, could have been endangered by an unregulated flow of information to the press. And, of course, there is nothing really unique about presidents keeping secrets, especially in the realm of national security. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt famously said that he never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. Given that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, were trying to end U.S. involvement in a war and simultaneously triangulate relations with the Soviet Union and China, they cannot be blamed for obsessing, to a degree, over the secrecy of their initiatives.