A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidencyby Bundy
William Bundy's magisterial book focuses on the controversial record of Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's often overpraised foreign policy of 1969 to 1973, an era that has rightly been described as the hinge on which the last half of the century turned. But Bundy's
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An authoritative historical assessment of american foreign policy in a crucial postwar decade.
William Bundy's magisterial book focuses on the controversial record of Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's often overpraised foreign policy of 1969 to 1973, an era that has rightly been described as the hinge on which the last half of the century turned. But Bundy's principled, clear-eyed assessment in effect pulls together all the major issues and events of the thirty-year span from the 1940s to the end of the Vietnam War, and makes it clear just how dangerous the consequences of Nixon and Kissinger's deceptive modus operandi were.
"A major critique . . . Bundy has made a strong casea stimulating reconsideration of the gauzy nostalgia [for] Nixon's foreign policy."James G. Hershberg, The Washington Post Book World
"Judicious and comprehensive . . . The most complete and balanced account of Nixon's foreign policy."Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe
"An exemplary and fascinating story, and rather frightening."William Pfaff, Los Angeles Times
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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- 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.12(d)
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AN HOUR AND A MAN
The election year of 1968 was as eventful and tumultuous as any in American history--war in Vietnam that had turned sour yet offered no easy exit; an antiwar movement at home, chiefly among a generation born during or after World War II to great expectations and ideals, with many both resenting and profiting from a conscription system loaded in favor of the educated and well-to-do; new movements such as feminism just starting to take hold; and above all a deep-seated racial division between African-American and white citizens, as old as the nation itself but attacked more forthrightly by President Lyndon Johnson than by any predecessor, with the result, common in history, that as the possibility of improvement showed itself, bitterness and frustration became all the greater.
There had been election years of equally deep domestic discontent slid convulsion--in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, bonus marchers and breadlines in the cities conveyed a whiff of revolution. In other intense election years the nation faced and debated issues of peace and war--1860, 1864, 1916, 1940. But never before had the two elements come together powerfully in the same election year. That they did in 1968 is basic to understanding the Nixon presidency. This was an hour of testing, and the experienced Republican candidate in that year was, in the eyes of a plurality of the American voting public, ready for the test.
For twenty-plus years, Richard Nixon had cut a wide swath in American public life and made a deep impression on two fronts. One was political campaigning. He had raised to a high level the art of imputing subversive tendencies to liberal opponents, acquiring early the nickname "Tricky Dick," Almost every campaign he fought was etched in the memory of his contemporaries for some extraordinary event; 1952 for a "Checkers speech" in brilliant defense of his own honor; 1960 for woebegone handling of a TV debate with John F. Kennedy; 1962 for a bitter farewell press conference in California before the despised media. This Nixon was emotional, capable of igniting deep chords of feeling for and against his personality and positions, and at the same time of masterly expository speeches. He was a superb practitioner of politics, occasionally with the raw side showing.
The other feature that stood out in Richard Nixon's record was his extensive foreign policy experience. As a member of Congress, Vice President in the collegial Eisenhower structure, and then as a much-traveled private citizen, his exposure to the world and to foreign leaders stood near the top among the political figures of his time and among twentieth-century candidates for the presidency. He had been particularly involved in and articulate over policy toward East Asia, stressing the threat from China after the Communists won power there in 1949, and had made dramatic impressions of competence and coolness on two occasions--under the physical threat of a crowd in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958, and in a dramatic kitchen debate in the Soviet Union in 1959 with the redoubtable Nikita Khrushchev. On the other hand, both in public and in government Councils, Nixon demonstrated on many occasions a strong inclination to deal with problems by decisive action, violent and military if necessary, and not to be constrained by potential opposition at home or by the attitudes of allied countries. Both in domestic politics and in his foreign policy views, he had the temperament of a "true believer," fervent, intolerant, sure of his own positions.
An hour and a man had come together. The story of Nixon's prepresidential career, his years of preparation, is not only all account of the personal development of an extremely energetic and intelligent American of his generation, but a study of what the American nation itself went through, especially in East Asia, in the first twenty-five years of the Cold War.
1. The Making of a True Believer
Richard Nixon grew up next door to the Pacific Ocean. His wartime service was as a Navy officer in the South Pacific. Elected to Congress in 1946 over a popular liberal Democratic incumbent, in a campaign that he made markedly negative by the standards of the period, Nixon made a strong impression at once as an articulate younger voice in a Republican Party that retained many elements of its prewar isolationism.
When the Marshall Plan for Europe was announced in the spring of 1947, Christian Herter of Massachusetts picked Nixon as a junior member of a special bipartisan House committee, which spent several weeks examining the European situation. The committee soon endorsed the Plan, and Nixon went all out to turn around his skeptical California constituents. The experience did much to establish him as a serious worker and thinker on foreign policy. In his own account of the trip, Nixon dwelt on what he learned about Communists, whom he insisted on meeting face to face and found to be men of great ability to be taken extremely seriously. He concluded that the only thing Communists would respect and deal with was "power at least equal to theirs and backed up by willingness to use it" and that a basic rule with Russians must be "never bluff unless you are prepared to carry through, because they will test you every time." At the same time, Nixon saw that it was essential to improve economic conditions in Europe, the main object of the Marshall Plan. (The question of military measures was not then to the fore.)
At the opposite extreme from this high-toned committee was the House Un-American Activities Committee, dominated by right-wingers from both parties and often accused of irresponsibility in exposing supposed Communist activity. Doubtless on the strength of his election campaign, in which he had so successfully attacked his Democratic opponent for leftist leanings, Republican leaders put Nixon on HUAC, where he rapidly distinguished himself as an active participant and articulate questioner. By the summer of 1948 he was the lead figure in the committee's investigation of a just-retired State Department official, Alger Hiss, on charges of association with Communists leveled by a confessed Communist informant, Whittaker Chambers. A dramatic confrontation between the two was inconclusive, but Nixon kept pressing Chambers, who finally came forward that fall with microfilm of State Department cables, stored for years in a pumpkin on the farm of a friend. These so-called Pumpkin Papers became the key evidence leading to the conviction of Hiss, in early 1950, for perjury concerning his relationship with Chambers.
Nixon was also in the lead in linking the celebrated Hiss case to alleged Communist influence on American policy in China during and after World War II. As the Chinese Civil War turned in favor of the Communist side in 1947-49, he consistently supported attempts to increase American military aid to the Chiang Kai-shek government, and when Mao Zedong took over China in October 1949, became a strident proponent of the charge that the "loss" of China had been the fault of President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. While Nixon steered clear of some of the wilder attacks mounted by the mostly conservative and Republican "China Lobby," he remained close to its members in and out of Congress.
When North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950, Nixon fully supported Truman's decision to commit American forces to the defense of South Korea. Unlike many Republicans--Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, for example--he never challenged Truman's refusal to seek a declaration of war or any other congressional approval, apart from the voting of appropriations. Nixon consistently took an expansive view of presidential authority in matters of war and peace. On the other hand, he was also one of the first to charge that the Truman Administration had invited the North Korean attack, particularly by a speech Acheson had given in January 1950 that omitted Korea from a geographically defined American "defense perimeter" in East Asia. Whether the charge was valid or not, a great many Americans, then and later, found it persuasive; it was repeatedly invoked not merely for partisan purposes but to show that the United States ought to clarify its attitude toward military intervention in all regions. Ironically, Acheson had intended primarily to stir up latent conflicts between the Soviet Union and a now Communist-controlled China (which were to become central in Nixon's presidency). Only secondarily did he draw on the known views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, given the reduced postwar U.S. military forces, defense perimeters should be defined only for areas that could realistically be defended. Yet the episode came to be a main argument for drawing lines firmly and fixedly, first in Northeast Asia and in the mid-1950s in Southeast Asia as well.
In the turbulent summer and fall of 1950, as forces under General Douglas MacArthur held on precariously in South Korea and then rebounded in the brilliant Inchon landing, Richard Nixon was winning an invectiveladen Senate campaign against a Democratic incumbent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he charged, often in nasty ways, with being "soft" on the threat of Communism. It was a campaign that, even more than the pursuit of Alger Hiss, made him anathema to a great many Democrats and not a few independent voters and observers.
That September, the Truman Administration enlarged its objective from simply restoring South Korea to unifying all of Korea by force. Authorized to go into North Korea with care and caution, MacArthur did so with maximum fanfare and aggressiveness. As his forces approached the Yalu River boundary with China, the Chinese intervened massively and to devastating effect.
Under the field command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, the war became a grinding struggle near the 38th parallel, with the Truman Administration effectively abandoning the objective of unifying Korea. The unchastened MacArthur, declaring that "war's very object is victory," urged stronger action against China. In March 1951, the charismatic general stated his views in a public letter to Congressman Joseph Martin, Republican Minority Leader. Truman, who had put up with earlier critical statements from MacArthur, finally relieved the general for insubordination and for publicly advocating a policy opposed to that of the government. It was an epic confrontation: legendary war hero versus upstart President. Many wondered whether the very principle of civilian control of the military could survive, or whether MacArthur's views might sweep the country and make Truman's position untenable.
On the day the firing was announced, April 11, 1951, Richard Nixon, in a role rare for a freshman senator, was picked to lead his party in a long and acrimonious debate on the Senate floor. He did not challenge the President's power to relieve a commander, but urged simply that General MacArthur be reinstated. Nixon also did not lend himself to attacks by other Republicans on Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, who had joined in recommending the President's action. He went beyond familiar Republican attacks on past policy to urge all the immediate steps MacArthur had proposed. Seeing no hope that the war could be ended successfully "with concerted United Nations action," he argued that the United States unilaterally insist on strategic bombing of key targets within China and on allowing Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces on Taiwan to threaten the mainland and thus divert some Chinese forces from Korea.
As the historian Stephen Ambrose rightly sums up, the debate that spring was "between those who wanted to crush the Communists in Asia and those who wanted to contain them." The Truman Administration--through Acheson, Marshall, and General Omar Bradley--stressed the fundamental strategic importance of ground forces, of accepting geographical limits and taking account of the views of allies; the MacArthur side advocated drastic use of airpower, enlarging the war zone, and making political and alliance factors subordinate to military needs. (This sharp division of opinion over American policy in East Asia continued for the next two decades.) In 1951, exhaustive joint congressional hearings, impressively chaired by Senator Richard Russell, convinced many Americans that Truman had been right both to fire MacArthur and to reject his advice. Nixon did not return to the fray during or immediately after those hearings, but he had clearly aligned himself with the MacArthur school, in favor of drastic military action with maximum objectives.
At the same time, Nixon continued to distance himself from Taft Republicans by his strong support of the U.S. commitment of major forces to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and of the designation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Alliance's supreme commander in Europe. Nixon was an early supporter of Eisenhower as the Republican nominee in 1952, and his own selection as Vice President fell naturally into place, highlighting the issue of Communism and balancing the ticket geographically. In the campaign, much of Nixon's oratory repeated his earlier litany of attacks over the "loss" of China and "softness" on Communism. Calling Acheson the dean of a "college of cowardly communist containment" was a sample of rhetoric that endeared him to the right, enraged liberals and many moderates, and left a deep mark.
Nixon was more involved in foreign policy than any previous Vice President. He formed close and friendly ties with both Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles. And whereas the custom in most administrations was for the Vice President to air his views only directly and personally to the President, Eisenhower allowed the Vice President to participate frequently and apparently frankly in meetings of the National Security Council. All in all, Nixon got a training in foreign policy that was comparable to the kind of apprenticeship that is usual in Cabinet-style governments but a rare exception in the American system.
By 1953, with a stalemate in Korea, Eisenhower took the secret step of warning the Chinese, through an Indian intermediary, that if the war went on the United States might feel impelled to attack China; the clear implication was that it might use nuclear weapons. It was an action consistent with Eisenhower's New Look strategy of defending outlying areas by making a threat of "massive retaliation" at places and times chosen by the United States--a strategy Nixon accepted and was surely much influenced by.
North Korea and China did accept an armistice in July, 1953: whether the secret Eisenhower warning was decisive has been much debated among historians. But there can be little doubt that Eisenhower and Nixon (whenever he learned of it) believed that the warning had been a crucial and perhaps the single most decisive factor. Nixon repeatedly said so in later years, and must have marked down stern private messages and threats of all-out war as special and important tools of policy.
By the fall of 1953, the Eisenhower Administration had scored a noteworthy series of successes, including the armistice in Korea, the election of Ramon Magsaysay as President of the Philippines (with substantial American advice and a strong public campaign to make the election fair), and a CIA-assisted Coup in Iran that restored the pro-American Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi to power. NATO was firmly established, Latin America and the Middle East at peace. The greatest remaining worry was Indochina, where the French position was deteriorating rapidly, so that Eisenhower decided in September on a major increase in military aid,
At this apogee of American power and prestige, Nixon embarked on a seventy-day "goodwill" trip to nineteen different countries. This had no ceremonial purposes; rather, it was a down-to-earth survey with little formality and a great deal of direct talk with senior foreign officials and Americans in the countries visited, The format gave Nixon the chance to refine his already great capacity to digest written materials and to conduct searching conversations with foreign leaders, usually without tension. On the trip he also formed a number of strong impressions of individuals. Carrying with him the ideas that were soon to be embodied in treaty links with Pakistan, he was drawn to the bluff and downright Pakistani generals, but found Jawaharlal Nehru in India iniquitously neutral ("immoral" was John Foster Dulles's label); similarly, although Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia was a non-Communist leader with legitimacy and popular support almost unique in Southeast Asia, Nixon found him intelligent but "vain and flighty," above all naive about Communism.
With American officials likewise, his assessment depended heavily on evidence of hard-line anti-Communist views. In Tokyo, Samuel Berger, a Foreign Service officer with a labor background, briefed Nixon on the important labor federation SOHYO. Under Nixon's stern cross-examination, Berger stuck to his judgment that SOHYO was not then Communist-dominated or likely to become so--a judgment confirmed by later events. The result, at Nixon's behest, was the early reassignment of Berger to a less important post.
The overall situation in Southeast Asia made by far the greatest impression on Nixon. He came to believe that holding off the Communist threat in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was essential to a stable East Asia and the top priority for American policy. He found the French too tarred with the colonialist brush to be effective; locally rooted regimes were essential, but so was outside support in some form, to deal principally with the threat of Communist China.
On his return, Nixon made a two-hour report to the National Security Council. He urged that the United States forge mutual-defense links from Turkey right around to a rearmed Japan--an Asia-wide security structure to deter and resist Communist expansion in any form, with the United States in the central role as it already was in Europe. He was thus an early advocate of the "pactomania" that characterized John Foster Dulles's foreign policy, with its great emphasis on formal defense commitments.
The situation in Indochina became critical even sooner than Nixon had feared. In April 1954, Vietminh forces besieged the remote fortress of Dien Bien Phu, and Eisenhower had to decide whether the United States should intervene directly. Intense discussions with the French produced a plan for strategic air attacks, in line with the Administration's New Look military strategy. But the French public was sick of the war, the British government was cool to taking military action, and Eisenhower's old colleague, General Ridgway, now Army Chief of Staff, argued strongly that a land war in Indochina would be costly, unpredictable, and unwise. In early April, a Gallup poll found 68 percent of the American public against armed intervention.
Within the Administration, Nixon for a time joined with Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, in favoring the air attack plan. He also expressed his views in a dramatic public fashion. At the important annual meeting of newspaper publishers in Washington, he said in response to a question that if the situation required he would favor a decision to commit U.S. ground forces to help the French. Although the response was theoretically "off the record," it was far too explosive for him or anyone else to suppose it would remain private. Both comment and speaker were at once reported in the media, bringing the issue of American intervention to a head.
Eisenhower did not rebuke or repudiate Nixon--part of a cool and somewhat detached position in the crisis that continues to puzzle historians. When the President met with congressional leaders shortly afterward, he found them strongly opposed to military action and decided to pursue a more diplomatic policy of "united action," designed less to prevent a Communist takeover in North Vietnam than to forestall further Communist gains after that. As in the MacArthur crisis three years earlier, Nixon was for taking risks with strong action, especially air attacks. But when Eisenhower moved in a more moderate direction, Nixon supported his policy loyally,
The upshot was that France gave up the fight when Dien Bien Phu fell in early May. A July conference in Geneva set the 17th parallel as the demarcation line between the Communist-held territories in the North and the Western-supported non-Communists in the South, with an ambiguous provision for elections after two years to determine whether the country should remain divided. The United States accepted these 1954 Accords, but did not sign them or participate in the hasty final decisions that produced them.
That fall, "united action" took shape in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that John Foster Dulles designed and promoted. The signatories--the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan--pledged to come to each other's aid against armed aggression and to consult on common action against "indirect aggression." Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) became "protocol states" under the treaty, entitled to call on the signers for help against direct or indirect aggression--a status that Sihanouk in Cambodia promptly rejected as part of a determined policy of neutrality.
That the Senate readily ratified the SEATO treaty reflected the Eisenhower Administration's prestige, relief that America had not become militarily involved in Southeast Asia, and belief in the "lesson of Korea," that drawing firm lines helped to deter Communist expansion and make war less likely. But it was a weak and unrealistic treaty: it offered no answer to subversion and guerrilla warfare, so everything depended on whether solid local regimes could emerge and win the support of their people.
The next few years saw remarkable apparent progress in South Vietnam. In July 1954, on the recommendation of Democratic senator Mike Mansfield (a long-standing expert on East Asia), Ngo Dinh Diem, a central Vietnam mandarin with a staunch nationalist record and some administrative experience, was plucked from a New Jersey retreat and persuaded to take office as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. The next spring, with strong support from some officials in a divided U.S. Embassy, Diem beat back threats from local sect forces and established himself in control. In the fall of 1955 his power was ratified by a formal, though hardly free, election as President.
Just what part Nixon played in these dramatic developments is not clear. His association with the activist Dulles brothers suggests that he may have been a significant force behind the scenes at critical points. Certainly he welcomed and publicly cheered for each successive move to strengthen South Vietnam and to enlarge American activities there. He was also one of the first U.S. officials to describe America's new relationship to South Vietnam as a "commitment."
July 1956 was the due date for the elections called for under the Geneva Accords, but by then a confident Diem had publicly refused to accept these, on the ground that South Vietnam had never signed the Accords and was not bound by them. A more persuasive argument, urged on Diem by Secretary Dulles and endorsed at the time by at least one senator, John F. Kennedy, was that any semblance of free choice was impossible in the territories controlled by the Communist regime in North Vietnam. Hanoi sharply attacked Diem's decision, but could do nothing.
Nixon came to Saigon again that July, to celebrate the second anniversary of Diem's taking charge. In the next four years, American aid to South Vietnam was massive and varied, Military equipment and training were provided to create a conventional defense force, organized in division units on the South Korean model, and designed to hold off a frontal attack from the North until help came. Large quantities of economic aid and training in public administration were also supplied. But the political situation was left almost entirely to Diem, who developed a system of personal rule, relying heavily on his brothers. It was apparent from an early stage that his regime was antagonizing Buddhists and other groups in Vietnam's varied society, and thus playing into the hands of the initially small Communist movement in the southern part of the country, but when a courageous American ambassador with experience in Communist situations, Elbridge Durbrow, tried to offer advice, Diem ignored him with impunity, believing rightly that the pliant American general in charge of military aid was the effective voice of Washington. This passive and acquiescent American posture probably had an important influence on Diem's later behavior and on his refusal to take American advice seriously. Again, just what part Nixon played in this American posture has not been revealed.
Certainly the Eisenhower Administration saw its record in South Vietnam as a success story. When it invited Diem to Washington for a state visit in 1959, the exchange of statements was flowery--with the Vice President to the fore. In all, Nixon's record suggests that his sense of the need to support South Vietnam went beyond normal loyalty to Administration policy and took on a personal, almost evangelical character. Nixon had developed, as Stephen Ambrose concludes, "almost a lifelong commitment to saving the people of Indochina from Communism."
In Laos, meanwhile, the Eisenhower Administration moved away from formal support of an unstable coalition regime, which had been prescribed in the 1954 Geneva Accords, and in 1960 gave its outright backing to a rightist general, Phoumi Nosavan. This set off a sharp conflict with "neutralist" forces, and by the end of the year small U.S. military detachments were in Laos supporting Phoumi's side. Wider hostilities seemed imminent.
In South Vietnam, 1960 saw widespread terrorist activity and increasing small-scale actions by local Vietcong (Vietnamese Communist) forces and a tremor of instability in the form of all abortive coup against Diem in November by Air Force officers. Much more important, but then unknown to the American government or public, was a North Vietnamese move in May 1959, which most historians regard as the start of the Second Indochina War. Hanoi decided to turn up the pressure by supporting and directing the already sizable Vietcong guerrilla forces it had helped to create in South Vietnam. Trained cadres flowed across the porous border and down the blossoming supply trail through eastern Laos (the Ho Chi Minh Trail). American intelligence soon detected a Hanoi-led radio command network, but American policymakers only dimly grasped the scale of the North's intervention, The Lao Dong (Communist) Party in the North wanted total control of Indochina--a goal that was encouraged, but never directed, by the Communist regime in China, Thus, what appeared to the American public--even, apparently, to the two presidential candidates in 1960--as a fairly stable Indochina situation was in fact drifting badly
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Meet the Author
William Bundy held key positions in the Defense and State Departments from 1951 to 1969 and in the Central Intelligence Agency, and served as the editor of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1984. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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