After being sworn in as president, Richard Nixon told the assembled crowd that "government will listen...Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in." But that same day, he obliterated those pledges of greater citizen control of government by signing National Security Decision Memorandum 2, a document that made sweeping changes to the national security power structure. Nixon's signature erased the influence that the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the CIA, had over Vietnam and the course of the Cold War. The new structure put Nixon at the center, surrounded by loyal aides and a new national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who coordinated policy through the National Security Council under Nixon's command. Using years of research and revelations from newly released documents, USA Today reporter Ray Locker upends much of the conventional wisdom about the Nixon administration and its impact and shows how the creation of this secret, unprecedented, extra-constitutional government undermined US policy and values. In doing so, Nixon sowed the seeds of his own destruction by creating a climate of secrecy, paranoia, and reprisal that still affects Washington today.
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I constantly get the mental image of an M.C. Escher woodcut of interlocking figures, in this case a vast nebula of whirling figures with faces concealed and revealed in turns, multiple facets showing differently on all sides, with knives concealed and flashing in all directions likewise, in deadly earnest. The strategy of survival in this boiling crab-pot is only matched in my historical studies to, say, the paranoid days of late Nazi officials in their particular cauldron, or the pols sweating under Stalin's strange caprices. In my imagined woodcut, each player has as many multiple faces and stances and moves as there are, other persons encountered, feared or to be cultivated. And much of what would be, in any clinical setting, deemed paranoia is actually merely the real factual situation: the hidden knives are real. The apparitions are half of the time real, half of the time imagined. The victims are all too often very real. Careers, trust, sometimes bodies literally shattered. Battles happen through leaks, thinly veiled blackmail, betrayals signified by the tiniest bureaucratic symbolisms on up to the ones that decided the fates of countless American GIs, their fates physical and mental. How about: Nixon through a back-channel indicating to the USSR (far earlier than anything I'd ever read) that he was willing, in effect, to toss South Vietnam to the wolves in exchange for getting USA out with the right kind of face-saving? Without telling this to such marginalized figures as, say, his own Secretary of Defense? And in the time frame of other message-sending to the Soviets via secretly bombing Cambodia (over that Secretary's admonitions against it, with warnings it would leak some day)? (I can only thank fortune I wasn't tossed as a pawn into that chess game. The scars were immensely less, for me. I was a hair too young.) Toss J. Edgar Hoover and his own paranoid architecture into the middle of the wiretaps, back-stabbings, etc., and you get a feel for this pressure-cooker atmosphere. Sometimes, listening, I had to stop and catch my breath, astonished. Then there is the other side: maybe the bureaucracy had in its very core become such a can of worms, such an intractable den of snakes, it was a prime mover itself: its own maddening barriers and contradictions and leaks were perhaps driving Nixon deeper in these directions than his character could otherwise have taken him. Some characters are as if strapped into the nose cone of an experimental rocket, awaiting its accelerating trajectory to determine their fates, frenetically trying to steer the thing .... Wow, I'm glad I stayed on the west coast! DC is like a beguiling challenge and game,a siren song of power games that could devour souls. And (this being fall, 2016), echoes of this subtle and not-so-subtle bureaucratic war of all-against-all are rumbling almost inescapably, even on this far coast. Pity the fools. I pray, we and our fortunes do not all wind up as collateral damage.