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Secret service

How the machinations of two unlikely allies defined -- and deformed -- an era

Rivals and collaborators: President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Sept. 16, 1972. (Associated Press/First Run Features)

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power
By Robert Dallek
HarperCollins, 740 pp., illustrated, $32.50

American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, >Watergate and Beyond
By E. Howard Hunt with Greg Aunapu
Wiley , 340 pp., illustrated, $25.95

Captain Queeg was sure one of his officers had stolen the strawberries. He believed it because he was paranoid, according to the novel "The Caine Mutiny." Herman Wouk's 1951 bestseller about the US Navy exemplified the paranoid style in literature, until now. Paranoia is the ocean in which Robert Dallek's Moby Dick saga swims.

"Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" is not "psychohistory," mired in speculation and surmise. It is a historian's meticulously detailed look at the momentous half-decade known as the Nixon era. Or perhaps it will be called the Kissinger era. Let Dallek's two highly intelligent and hugely insecure subjects carry their narcissistic quarrel to the darkling plain of history's judgment. They bickered everywhere else.

Richard Nixon, from the lemon groves of California, and Henry Kissinger, a product of Germany's unsteady Weimar Republic, were worlds apart culturally. Intellectually and politically, Dallek writes, "they were as much alike as they were different: both self-serving characters with grandiose dreams of recasting world affairs." The president and his national security adviser shared an abiding cynicism, Dallek reports, along with "convictions that outdoing opponents required a relaxed view of scruples. Ironically, their cynicism would also make them rivals who could not satisfy their aspirations without each other."

This book does not skimp on praise for what Nixon and Kissinger did to improve US relations with China and the Soviet Union. But it is no monument to them. Their egocentric political scheming lengthened the war in Vietnam, so they already have monuments on the Mall in Washington. The Vietnam Memorial lists American combat deaths year by year. On the Nixon-Kissinger wall, the total exceeds 21,000, and for what?

"Why don't you get out of Vietnam? " Charles de Gaulle, one of Nixon's heroes, once asked Kissinger. "Because," the former Harvard professor replied, "a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem." As Nixon and Lyndon Johnson discovered, presidents who lie encounter credibility problems. Dallek believes "de Gaulle had it right: a quick exit from Vietnam would have helped, not undermined , America's credibility."

Since Nixon resigned in 1974, mountains of notes, tape, and memoranda have become available to historians, from which Dallek catalog s the mutual insults Nixon and Kissinger muttered. "It's obvious he can't negotiate, he makes debating points instead," Nixon said of his adviser's work. Kissinger called his boss "meatball mind." In Dallek's account, Kissinger emerges as the superior manipulator, making Nixon seem sympathetic, at least by comparison.

Secrecy, and secrecy for its own sake, united president and adviser in their giddy paranoia. "K all cranked up about his secret trip to Paris," White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman noted in his diary. "He loves the intrigue and P enjoys it, too." The secret sharers labored mightily to hide their secrets not from the Russians, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, but from the secretary of state and the secretary of defense. "K and P" ignored, isolated , and blindsided the Colin Powell of his time, William Rogers, who was forced to read about foreign policy in the newspapers.

Nixon and Kissinger dealt warily with Melvin Laird, whose congressional experience made him tougher to deceive. Laird often argued against excessive secrecy. Both he and Rogers were pragmatic and honest, which is why history will treat them better than Dallek's subjects. The author says Nixon "preferred a party wheelhorse" like Laird at Defense, but he first offered the job to a Democrat, Senator Henry M. ( " Scoop " ) Jackson of Washington. Laird was the go-between, offering the job to Jackson, who declined. Nixon then pressured, not preferred, Laird to run the Pentagon. Even the best historians make mistakes. Dallek calls Adam Walinsky, a young speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, Kissinger's "former Harvard colleague." He probably means Adam Yarmolinsky.

Fully footnoted, "Nixon and Kissinger" is admirable and important. So is E. Howard Hunt's "American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond." Hunt, who died in January at 88, presents a livelier, tabloid version of the 1970s. "The White House was becoming more paranoid by the day," Hunt writes. Nixon's "paranoid delusions" about political enemies ignited "the charged atmosphere that I entered at the White House, halls so deep in paranoiac sludge that we had to wade through it with boots."

For aficionados of the scandal that ended Nixon's presidency, Hunt offers a compelling scenario, a "CSI: Watergate." It is the best moment-by-moment depiction of the June 17, 1972, burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters I have ever read. Hunt's candid tale carries a touch of professional pride, rather like the Dickens narrative in "Oliver Twist" featuring the Artful Dodger's boasts of his criminal exploits.

Hunt has little to say about Kissinger, but Kissinger's overreaction to the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers actually led to the notion of White House burglars on 24-hour call, "the plumbers unit." The president's political advisers thought the publication of Vietnam documents was harmless, even beneficial, to Nixon because it documented Democratic mistakes in Vietnam. Laird called them "the McNamara Papers" after Robert McNamara, defense secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Kissinger prevailed, persuading Nixon that preserving secrecy was more important than law and order. So Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy deployed their burglar tools on Nixon's behalf, were caught and sent to prison. Unlike Nixon and Kissinger, they complained little. Hunt and Liddy retained, during and after that paranoid era, a sense of humor and a sense of honor.

Martin F. Nolan covered the Nixon White House for the Globe.