The tape of conversations between President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger released this week contained some pretty ugly stuff, but no great surprises with respect to Nixon. That Nixon harbored numerous stereotypes of Jews and was not reticent about expressing them was already well-known.
Indeed Nixon's discussion of Jews' "insecurity" on the just released tape pales in comparison to what has already been published, much of which is highly toxic. In some of those earlier tapes, Nixon describes Jews as "born spies" and "disloyal," and suggests that his administration was "trying to run this town while avoiding Jews in government."
And yet, Nixon's White House was filled with Jews: his chief counsel, Leonard Garment; chief economic advisor, Herbert Stein; chief speechwriter, William Safire; campaign manager, Murray Chotiner; and, above all, his first national security advisor and later secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.
Israeli prime minister Golda Meir credited Nixon with having saved Israel in 1973 by ordering a massive airlift of arms to Israel, while war still raged. Nixon not only responded to Israel's pleas for new arms, at a time the Soviets were busy rearming Egypt and Syria, he did so over the foot-dragging of the Pentagon and State Department. He specifically ordered Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to expedite the transfer of supplies to Israel. At one point, he asked for an assessment of Israel's military needs. When Schlesinger provided him with it, he told his shocked Secretary of Defense to double it.
In particular, Nixon overruled Kissinger on the airlift. The latter hoped that a more vulnerable Israel would be more compliant with his grand diplomatic designs to both bring peace to the Middle East and freeze the Soviets out of the action.
The contrast between Nixon's evident anti-Semitism and ongoing stream of ugly statements and his rescue of Israel and employment of many Jews has long puzzled commentators. But actually it is not nearly so big a paradox as they make out. There are many levels and types of anti-Semites. Genteel anti-Semites, for instance, try to avoid the company of Jews and generally harbor a number of negative stereotypes about them. At one time, genteel anti-Semitism excluded Jews from certain law firms, universities, country clubs, and from professions, like banking. On the plus side, it served as a barrier to intermarriage.
Nixon did not come from the genteel classes, and his anti-Semitism went beyond what was commonplace in those circles. Stereotypes about Jewish loyalty and propensity for spying were far from harmless stereotypes about personal habits and manners, and could have caused grave danger to the status of Jews in America.
But Nixon was not obsessed with Jews. He could control his anti-Semitic outbursts. They were confined to private conversations, never displayed in public. At least in part, they were likely synonymous with blowing off steam at liberals, which most Jews were and still are. Ugly, yes; but not so far gone that he could not think rationally when it came to Jews or the state of Israel. He did not see the world, as did Hitler, ym"sh, and other lethal anti-Semites, as a cosmic struggle between the forces of good on one side and the Jews on the other.
In 1970, three years before the massive airlift of armaments to Israel in the Yom Kippur War, Israel's then ambassador to Washington, Yitzchak Rabin told Rabbi Moshe Sherer, long-time president of Agudath Israel of America, that Nixon had done more for Israel than John F. Kennedy, even though he knew very well that only 8% of American Jews had voted for him. Rabin did not deny that Nixon was quite likely an anti-Semite, but told Rabbi Sherer, "Nixon really believes and understands Israel's cause." Rabin felt that much of the credit for that probably belonged to evangelist Billy Graham.
WHAT ULTIMATELY HORRIFIES in the just released tapes is not Nixon but Kissinger. The latter had barely escaped his native Furth with his family in 1938, and he had witnessed the Nazi brutality towards Jews first-hand. Nineteen close family members died in concentration camps. He knew all the arguments that had been used by the Roosevelt administration to avoid taking serious action to rescue Europe's Jews, on the grounds that the overriding American interest was in winning the war as soon as possible.
And yet in the tapes, we hear him telling the president, after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, at which she pleaded for American pressure to secure the release of more American Jews: "The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern." That remark did not come in response to anything Nixon had said. It was Kissinger who initiated the conversation, and it was he who added the entirely gratuitous statement that even sending Jews to the gas chambers would not be an American concern. Nixon never came close to that.
Kissinger's remark sent me scurrying back to Ambassador Yehuda Avner's book The Prime Ministers, in which he records an incident in which Kissinger is approached, after a triumphal press conference at the King David Hotel, in the midst of one of his shuttle diplomacy missions, by a man who greets him, "Heinz, Heinz." "Heinz – remember me. Wilhelm Furtwangler from Furth. Remember?" said the man extending his hand. Kissinger threw him a contemptuous look and strode on.
Wilhelm Furtwangler was by that time a prominent Washington D.C. psychiatrist going by the name Dr. Willie Fort. Not only had he been Kissinger's closest school chum in Furth, but the Furtwangler and Kissinger families had both moved to Washington Heights and davened in Breuer's shul. In short, there was no chance that Kissinger did not recognize him.
After the incident in question, Dr. Fort, who had become friendly with Avner, from the latter's days in the Israeli embassy in Washington, sat down and provided him with a psychoanalysis of Kissinger, which he urged him to convey to his boss, Prime Minister Rabin.
I generally have a strong aversion to psycho-history, which attempts to explain the actions of historical figures in terms of certain psychological traits shared with millions of others. But Kissinger's background as a teenage refugee is sufficiently rare, and Dr. Fort's analysis so dead on in its predictive value, that I cannot resist sharing it.
Fort began by denying the possibility that Kissinger's claims not to remember childhood persecutions in Germany could be true. He was already 15 when the family fled, and by 1938, "Jews were being beaten and murdered in the streets." Kissinger's father had been dismissed from a prestigious teaching position in the state school system, and the family had to flee for their lives. That experience could not have been anything but traumatic: "to lose control of one's life, to be powerless, to see one's beloved heroes suddenly helpless, overtaken by brutal events, most notably his father, whom he greatly admired. . . ."
While Kissinger presented "an image of self-assurance, strong will and arrogance," Dr. Fort continued, the insecurities triggered by his refugee status created a "deeply depressive disposition, an apocalyptic view of life, a tendency to paranoia, and an excessive sense of failure when things did not go his way." Inner doubts triggered "displays of petulance, tantrums, and temper." Persons like that are often boot-licking to superiors and tyrannical to subordinates.
To this mix, according to Fort, must be added Kissinger's deep ambivalence about his Judaism. On the one hand, he had completely left the religious observance of his parental home; on the other, he could never shed being identified as a Jew. Dr. Fort reported that the Washington grapevine had it that when Nixon wanted to cut his secretary of state down to size, he humiliated him with anti-Semitic slurs and even referred to him as "my Jew boy."
What was the import of all this as far as Kissinger's role as a mediator between Arabs and Israelis? Avner asked his friend. Fort replied that people like Kissinger "invariably over-compensate. They go to great lengths to subdue whatever emotional bias they might feel, and lean over backward in favor of the other side to prove they are being even-handed and objective." Dr. Fort concluded that Kissinger's reaction to him had been neurotic, and that he hated his boyhood friend for hurtling him "back into Jewish memories he had spend a lifetime trying to suppress," just moments after he had been glorying in the world's spotlight at his press conference. "You noted how he bridled at my mention of his name, Heinz. He utterly despised me for that. . . . Tell Yitzchak Rabin that he should be wary in dealing with our secretary of state. Tell him that deep inside is an insecure and paranoid Jew."
In a long interview with Yehuda Avner, he told me that Rabin's relationship with Kissinger was more ambivalent than the above sketch might indicate, and that beside moments of high tension were those of closeness. And some subsequent prime ministers continued to consult with Kissinger on geo-political issues once he was out of office.
But in the cold contemplation of Jews going to the gas chambers, we hear clearly both the desire to curry favor with superiors, even anti-Semitic ones, and the over-compensation to hide an emotional identification described by Dr. Fort.