In This Review
Nixon: A Life

Nixon: A Life

By Jonathan Aitken

Regnery Publishing, 1994, 633 pp.

No politician is ever embarrassed by an excess of flattery, but Richard Nixon should have been by this one. This biography, published almost concurrently with Nixon's death, is by a British author and practicing politician (a minister of state for defense) who admires Nixon without restraint and praises him without stint. Some samples: "Nixon's example of what determination and persistence can achieve will surely earn him a niche among the immortals"; "It was impossible not to be swept up and moved by the depth of his idealistic commitment"; "His life story bears comparison to a modern political version of Pilgrim's Progress."

Aitken praises Nixon for every decision he ever made, but most of all for three triumphs in foreign policy: the opening to China, detente with the Soviet Union and ending the war in Vietnam. Fair enough, but that praise needs to be balanced by additional considerations. With regard to China, for 20 years Nixon was one of the leaders in keeping the door closed; with regard to detente, Nixon's version did not outlive his administration (Gerald Ford banned the use of the word in the White House); with regard to Vietnam, it is just silly of Aitken to write that thanks to Nixon, "Peace with honor had been achieved."

Aitken had privileged access to Nixon, who ordinarily refused to give interviews to historians, and therefore has some new material. For example, on a number of occasions in the past decade Nixon claimed that he opposed Eisenhower's 1956 policy of forcing the British and French to withdraw their troops from the Suez Canal region. In his public statements and in cabinet meetings at the time, however, Nixon supported Eisenhower. In this book, Nixon claims that Eisenhower came to regret what he did. Aitken has Nixon quoting Eisenhower as saying in 1963, "Why couldn't the British and French have done it more quickly?" Perhaps Eisenhower did say that to Nixon, but in my own interviews with Eisenhower in the mid-1960s, the former president said just the opposite. He was proud of what he had done with regard to Suez and insisted that he had been right to support Egypt.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a delightful read. Aitken is excellent on Nixon's personality and private life, and has many insights into his domestic policies.