Excerpted from Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen (courtesy PublicAffairs, March 2010).
On 25 April 1970 President Nixon enjoyed a private screening of Patton, in which George C. Scott portrayed the belligerent World War II general known as ‘Old Blood and Guts’. He had watched the film three weeks earlier with his family at Camp David, for pleasure. This time, at the White House, it was business: he insisted on the attendance of his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. In a televised address five days later, the President announced that American and South Vietnamese troops were moving into Cambodia at once to destroy the sanctuaries of the Vietcong. ‘We will not be humiliated,’ he promised the nation. ‘We will not be defeated.’
In his 1977 interview with the disgraced ex-President – the encounter re-enacted for a later generation in Frost/Nixon – David Frost asked if seeing Patton twice had any influence on his decision. ‘Well, I’ve seen The Sound of Music twice,’ Nixon replied.* ‘The war part of the Patton movie didn’t particularly interest me. The character sketch was fascinating. And as far as that was concerned, it had no effect whatever on my decisions.’ Yet at the time he seemed obsessed with it. He advised his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to follow General Patton’s example if he wanted to inspire people.
Secretary of State William Rogers, who thought Nixon behaved like ‘a walking ad for that movie’, told the head of 20th Century-Fox that ‘it comes up in every conversation’. Word of this Patton fixation even reached Zhou Enlai, the Chinese prime minister, who acquired a copy of the film in the hope of understanding Nixon’s character. Speaking to a group of businessmen at the White House soon after the Cambodian incursion, the President reminded them that Patton had achieved what other generals thought impossible. The moral of the story? ‘You have to have the will and determination to go out and do what’s right for America.’
[*Kissinger, revealingly, was bored rigid by Patton: his boundless self-confidence needed no such buttresses to prop it up, then or ever. Years later, after President Clinton bombed a harmaceutical factory in Sudan, an acquaintance of mine suggested to Kissinger that Clinton was behaving like a war criminal. ‘No,’ the former secretary of state corrected him, in that unmistakeable Teutonic growl. ‘He hasn’t got the strength of character to be a war criminal.’]
Nixon, a deeply insecure man with an ineradicable inferiority complex, always envied the easy, strutting confidence of strong characters such as John F. Kennedy or Henry Kissinger. He was awestruck by Patton – the whipcord riding breeches, the gleaming cavalry boots, the brass-buttoned battle jacket festooned with medals, the long riding crop which he waved for emphasis while urging his men on. Although the contrast with the shifty-looking President could hardly be starker (‘Would You Buy a Used Car from this Man?’ a famous anti-Nixon poster had asked), while gazing at the cinema screen even Tricky Dick could imagine that he too was spurred and booted, a dauntless warrior bound for glory.
Hugh Sidey, then the White House correspondent for Life magazine, reckoned that Patton came along at exactly the right moment. ‘Here’s a man in battle. Here is an argument for boldness, innovation, ready-made… It was just a marvelously articulated argument for precisely what Nixon fancied he was doing in Cambodia.’ As Nixon put it in a memo to Kissinger a few days before his announcement: ‘I think we need a bold move in Cambodia, assuming that I feel the way today (it is 5am, 22 April) at our meeting as I feel this morning.’
The telling detail here is the revelation that Nixon was dreaming up policies at five in the morning. They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and caliginous thoughts often swirled through his murky, insomniac mind as he lay awake fretting about his waning leadership quotient and brooding on his colleagues’ disloyalty. During the night of 23 April he rang Kissinger at least ten times to rant about the ‘disobedience’ of CIA operatives and American diplomats in South-East Asia. ‘He flew into a monumental rage,’ Kissinger wrote. ‘As was his habit when extremely agitated he would bark an order and immediately hang up the phone… In these circumstances it was usually prudent to wait twenty-four hours to see on which of these orders Nixon would insist after he calmed down.’*
The diktats were sometimes apocalyptic – verging on a declaration of nuclear war – but often startlingly petty. When several members of the Cabinet, including the Defense Secretary and the Secretary of State, argued against the invasion of Cambodia Nixon retaliated by ordering the removal of the White House tennis court – ‘a spiteful way to take a jab at the Cabinet by removing one of the “perks” many of them enjoyed’, Haldeman explained. Since Nixon didn’t play tennis, the court was of no use to him.
The motives for the ‘bold move in Cambodia’ can thus be found more easily in Washington DC, and in Nixon’s own vindictive psyche, than in the battlefields of South-East Asia. Pauline Kael commented in her New Yorker review of Patton that George C. Scott portrays the general ‘as if he were the spirit of war, yet the movie begs the fundamental question about its hero: Is this the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?’ In that 5 a.m. memo to Kissinger Nixon envisaged the Cambodian invasion as his way of getting one over ‘State Department jerks’ and ‘lily-livered ambassadors from our
so-called friends in the world’. Better still, it would infuriate the perfidious US Senate, which had just rejected his nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy, G. Harrold Carswell, because of Carswell’s support for racial segregation. Haldeman recorded Nixon’s reaction to the vote:
Wants to step up political attack. Investigators on [Senators] Kennedy and Muskie and Bayh and Proxmire. Also get dope on all key Senatorial candidates, and especially crack the anti-Carswell group… Have to declare war.
The investigators were two former cops from New York, Jack Caulfield and Tony Ulasciewicz – who, in Haldeman’s delicate euphemism, handled projects ‘that were outside the normal scope of the Federal investigative agencies’. They had spent much of the previous summer and autumn snooping on Edward Kennedy in the hope of catching the skirt-chasing Senator in flagrante, though without much to show for it. ‘An extensive survey of hotels, discreet cocktail lounges and other hideaways was conducted,’ Caulfield reported dejectedly to his White House superiors after a weekend tailing Kennedy in Hawaii. ‘No evidence was developed to indicate that his conduct was improper.’
If his gumshoes couldn’t hurt Kennedy, Nixon would do the job himself. ‘We’re going into Cambodia,’ he told Kissinger, ‘and I’ll show those fucking Senators who’s tough.’ On the eve of his broadcast he spent all day and most of the night working on the text – interrupting his labours only to call Haldeman for a discussion about where to put his new pool table, since there wasn’t enough room in the White House solarium. ‘Absolutely astonishing he could get into trivia on brink of biggest step he’s taken so far,’ Haldeman wrote in his diary. Not all that astonishing: the only surprise is that he didn’t suspect his enemies of somehow contriving the pool-table crisis as a reprisal for the tennis-court ban.’…
©Public Affairs, 2010