Nearly a quarter century after he resigned the presidency in disgrace and four years after his death, Richard Nixon continues to evoke a special animus on the part of historians and other commentators. But even many of his most unforgiving critics concede his accomplishments in the field of foreign policy. No matter how devious and deceitful he may have been, goes the argument, his grasp of foreign affairs cannot be gainsaid.
In the eulogy he delivered at the memorial service for Richard Nixon in 1994, Henry Kissinger articulated the conventional wisdom:
[W]hen Richard Nixon left office, an agreement to end the war in Vietnam had been concluded, and the main lines of all subsequent policy were established: permanent dialogue with China, readiness without illusions to ease tensions with the Soviet Union, a peace process in the Middle East, the beginning via the European Security Conference of establishing human rights as an international issue, weakening the Soviet hold in Eastern Europe.
In A Tangled Web, his relentlessly negative assessment of Nixon's foreign policy record, William Bundy disputes this view, calling into question the reputations of Nixon and Kissinger, his primary foreign policy adviser, as skillful actors in the realm of foreign policy. Bundy is not one of the radicals who helped drive Nixon from office and continued to harass him until his death, but rather a pillar of the Cold War liberal foreign policy establishment that essentially created the U.S. policy of containment.
Bundy praises Nixon's "extraordinary ability and experience" as well as his courage and tenacity. But ultimately, he concludes, "Nixon's outstanding leadership capacities were in large measure offset or made worthless by his consistent practice of deception, through secret actions and especially through actions inconsistent with his public positions."
Bundy's critique of Nixon and Kissinger is based more on style than substance. Like most Cold War liberals, Bundy championed the particular policies that constituted the core of Nixon's foreign policy: detente with the Soviet Union, arms control, the opening to China, withdrawal from Indochina, and de-emphasis of ideology as a component of U.S. foreign policy. But, he concludes, these policies ultimately foundered on the shoals of Nixon's personal shortcomings, especially his propensity for misleading the American people and Congress for the sake of short-term freedom of action and his own narrow political purposes.
Additionally, says Bundy, Nixon failed to lay the necessary foundations for lasting foreign policy success. Thus, the accomplishments for which Kissinger praised him in 1994 were in reality fleeting.
For instance, the Paris Peace Accords were nothing more than a frail cease fire and certainly did not lead to "peace with honor" in Vietnam. "The true 'end' to the war came in 1975 in the form of defeat," says Bundy. Likewise, while Nixon derived enormous domestic benefit from the opening to China, the effects were temporary and far less consequential than advertised. Bundy claims Nixon's China initiatives had little effect on Soviet behavior, and did not lead to Chinese help in achieving any kind of compromise in Indochina, especially Cambodia, where China's support for the murderous Khmer Rouge never wavered.
Detente, the centerpiece of Nixon's foreign policy, was also a casualty of the Nixon-Kissinger approach, Bundy asserts. At home, the administration's record of misrepresenting its policies and "pursuing strategies and actions at odds with what [Nixon] told Congress and the American people" ensured a lack of domestic political support. Abroad, his failure to move away from the Cold War paradigm meant that the U.S. missed opportunities for an even more cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union.
Bundy gives generally high marks to the Nixon administration's policies in the Middle East, especially Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which isolated the Soviet Union and helped cement a relationship with the moderate Arab states. But even here, he excepts Nixon's embrace of the Shah of Iran, which he says, contributed in large measure to the anti-American flavor of the subsequent Iranian revolution, and Nixon's handling of the 1973 oil crisis, which, Bundy asserts, demonstrated that neither he nor Kissinger could truly grasp the importance of economic factors.
Bundy is especially critical of Kissinger's claim that the Nixon administration laid the foundation for support of the European Security Conference and the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Nixon, he writes, hardly ever made a "favorable reference to human rights either as an ideal or as a practical force in international affairs." Additionally, Nixon had little use for West Germany's Willy Brandt, the architect of this European policy.
While Bundy is generally correct in his critique of Nixon's foreign policy style, especially his "persistent record of misrepresenting his policies" to Congress and the American people and his preference for short-term advantage to the detriment of long-range planning, he does not pay sufficient attention to the geopolitical logic of Nixon's policies and the circumstances that he faced as president.
The fact is that Nixon and Kissinger believed that the Vietnam War had created growing domestic constraints to the traditional policy of containment, and that accordingly, they needed to pursue a strategy of global retrenchment. However, they had to proceed with care lest friend and foe alike perceive a wholesale American retreat, causing the entire structure of containment to unravel.
Thus, Nixon tried to avoid a precipitous, unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. The approach was fundamentally sound in conception but in the end, Nixon lacked the moral authority to prevent Congress from abandoning South Vietnam. By the same token, rapprochement with China constituted an attempt to maintain geopolitical equilibrium in Asia, to gain leverage vis-a-vis North Vietnam by pressuring that communist regime to accept peace, and to help contain Soviet expansion.
Nixon and Kissinger envisioned detente and arms control as a means of constraining the Soviet Union at a time when domestic political constraints were leading to a decline in U.S. power. Policy toward the Shah and other authoritarian regimes likewise was an attempt to achieve U.S. interests by means of regional surrogates, thus maintaining the structure of containment to the maximum extent permitted by the realities of domestic politics. But Nixon and Kissinger believed that to work, detente had to be "hardheaded," i.e. to have as strong a military component as possible. Thus, they were not hostile to Brandt's ostpolitik per se, but sought instead to embed it in the wider framework of containment.
Bundy cannot really criticize the content of Nixon's policies because like any good Cold War liberal, he is broadly sympathetic to them. The most trenchant criticism of the substance, as opposed to the form, of Nixon's foreign policy came at the time from what might be called the Reagan-Jackson axis, the consensus uniting conservatives in both parties. This consensus criticized Nixon's foreign policy in part because it was excessively optimistic about the prospects of cooperation with the Soviet Union and excessively pessimistic about the capacity of the American people to recover from the trauma of Vietnam and sustain a robust foreign policy when the case for such a policy was properly made.
At the time, then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the late Senator Henry Jackson argued that Nixon's policies in no way constrained the Soviet Union, which was relentlessly building up its military strength as U.S. programs lagged. The Soviets, they contended, were pursuing detente and arms control, not in the interest of geopolitical equilibrium as Nixon and Kissinger believed, but to achieve global hegemony. Thus, claimed Reagan and Jackson, the policies of Nixon and Kissinger inevitably would lead to the deterioration of the U.S. strategic position vis-a-vis the U.S.S.R.
Reagan and Jackson were especially concerned that by downplaying the ideological dimension of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, Nixon and Kissinger were depriving U.S. foreign policy of the moral element necessary to enlist public support. Those who agree with this view contend that the chickens came home to roost during the Carter administration, when what can only be called a demoralized American foreign policy created a particularly dangerous security environment.
The current U.S. foreign policy disarray makes A Tangled Web particularly timely. The Clinton administration's foreign policy seems to possess all the defects of Nixon's without any of the virtues.
On the one hand, Clinton, like Nixon, seems to prefer short-term advantage to the long-term protection of U.S. security interests. In the Clinton White House, reaction to discrete crises appears to be a substitute for strategy and statesmanship. Clinton seems to share Nixon's penchant for duplicity and deceit. Like Nixon, he seems to be willing to mislead "the American people and Congress for the sake of short-term freedom of action and his own personal political purposes."
On the other, Clinton's foreign policy lacks the geopolitical sophistication of Nixon's, the latter's flaws notwithstanding. Nixon would have rejected Clinton's multilateralism and his subordination of U.S. security to commercial imperatives and the use of U.S. military forces in support of goals only tangentially related to U.S. interests.
I can't prove it, but I believe that Bundy would prefer Nixon's foreign policy to that of Clinton. For their part, President Clinton and his advisers should heed the last sentence of A Tangled Web: "If there is any single lesson from the Nixon era that stands out above all others, it is that a pattern of deception, of Congress and of the American people, is in the end doomed to failure."