Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume I

Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969-1972

The field of U.S. diplomatic history has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, broadening its scope to encompass cultural relations. The Foreign Relations of the United States series is similarly moving in new and innovative directions. Previous Foreign Relations volumes focused on the major decisions and diplomatic activity of U.S. foreign policymakers. This volume-“Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969-1972”-is the first in the series to document one aspect of the cultural approach: the intellectual assumptions that U.S. foreign affairs leaders used to make sense of the world and frame policy. Although other key officials receive attention, the volume carefully details the worldviews of the two architects of foreign policy during the first administration of Richard M. Nixon: the president and Henry A. Kissinger, his assistant for national security affairs. Using previously unpublished records along with published sources, it chronicles the basic premise-realism-that both Kissinger and Nixon used in mentally ordering the world and in formulating policy. It also highlights the theoretical mechanisms-linkage and triangular diplomacy-they employed to achieve Vietnamization, détente, and other objectives. It reveals the principals’ worries about multipolarity, U.S. power, and American credibility, while tracing their mental construction of the Nixon Doctrine to meet those perceived challenges.

Nixon and Kissinger’s foreign policy views did not spring de novo into their heads in January 1969. Rather, they both arrived on the job with a wealth of ideas about international affairs developed throughout years of practical and theoretical experience in the field. The volume begins by documenting those worldviews in articles, essays, and campaign speeches written or given by Nixon and Kissinger during the 2-year period prior to their assumption of office.

Realism, the most important of the principals’ initial assumptions, influenced policy throughout the administration. For Kissinger, among the most influential thinkers in the history of U.S. diplomacy, the concept of balance-of-power was a shibboleth. A proper balance, attained only if the great powers resisted the temptation to jockey for tactical advantage, created a stabilizing equilibrium, he argued. The former Harvard professor also believed that national interests (rather than ideals) measured in terms of security and power (military, economic, political, and psychological) should govern both international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. According to an important 1968 essay, in which he expressed his overall worldview, Kissinger realized that Americans, accustomed to thinking in terms of such ideals as peace or freedom, were uncomfortable defining power and interests as the bases of their foreign policies and objectives. Nevertheless, he argued, the United States should pursue its global “interests”-a key word in the Nixon administration’s foreign political lexicon-rather than “altruism.” Before doing so, however, American decisionmakers first needed to reach a “mature conception” of foreign policy by clearly defining the nation’s interests and objectives and then by matching its capabilities and commitments to those interests and objectives. (4, 118) On those grounds, realism led Kissinger to be particularly critical of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam, which the national security advisor felt was peripheral to U.S. security. (81)

Although Nixon was no stranger to power politics or international affairs, the volume documents his evolving realist thought. Earlier in his career, Nixon-first as a Congressman and then as vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower-had been a devout anti-communist and cold warrior who saw the world through an ideological lens. But he converted to realism as president, a transition most clearly revealed in his conversation with Chairman Mao Tse-tung during his historic first visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in February 1972. Within the context of calming Mao’s concerns about the U.S. military presence in Asia and elsewhere, Nixon explained that, as a Quaker, he was philosophically opposed to a large military establishment and “military adventures.” Since becoming commander-in-chief, however, he had found it necessary “to put the survival of his nation first.” As Nixon told bipartisan Congressional leaders after his return to Washington, that reordering of priorities had led him to explore relations with communist China, with which the United States shared a “common interest” that trumped the two states’ ideological differences. (106, 108) Realism provided the intellectual rationale not only for the administration’s approach to the PRC, but also for its disinclination to promote democracy abroad, a mission usually associated with Wilsonian idealism. (2, 3, 4, 53) Similar thinking peppered the president’s public discourse, including a nationally televised address he gave at the end of his first term. Listing his administration’s accomplishments, Nixon highlighted the creation of a “structure of peace” with the two communist powers-China and the Soviet Union-that rested “on the hard concrete of common interests and mutual agreements, and not on the shifting sands of naïve sentimentality.” (123, 18)

Before the realist Weltanschauung of Kissinger and Nixon could function, policymakers needed to analyze, plan, and identify the nation’s capabilities, interests, and objectives. Since bureaucratization hindered the thoughtful, yet agile, approach to statecraft favored by the president and his national security advisor, reforming the policymaking process emerged as one of their key goals. As the secrecy surrounding Kissinger’s trips to Peking in July 1971 and to Moscow in March 1972 suggest, reform often meant centralizing foreign policymaking, placing decisions almost entirely in the hands of Nixon and his national security advisor. (102, 110) Before being named to his post, Kissinger argued that bureaucracy paralyzed U.S. policymakers by widening the array of available policy options even as it limited the capacity of statesmen, increasingly distracted by administrative responsibilities, to choose among them. (4) Both Kissinger and Nixon numbered reforming the foreign policymaking apparatus among the key accomplishments of their first years in office. The administration, they claimed, had created a “a new way of making decisions” by making the National Security Council (NSC), rather than the Department of State, the main body responsible for advising the president on foreign affairs. The smaller, more agile NSC could plan, analyze, and review all foreign policy options systematically and quickly, providing a clearer picture of the way ahead. Specialized groups within the NSC-such as the Senior Review Group and the Defense Program Review Committee-reviewed policy, prepared contingency plans, or brought other matters, including defense, more fully within the White House’s grasp. (47) Nixon confidently declared that-unlike past administrations that allegedly had lacked a clear sense of purpose, merely had responded to crises, and had become unnecessarily embroiled in conflicts-“we know where we are going.” (104)

Realism provided Nixon and Kissinger with an understanding of geostrategy and a negotiating approach that fueled their pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union. Common wisdom within the administration held that the Sino-Soviet split, Soviet-American strategic parity, and certain challenges facing the Kremlin within its own sphere of influence had combined to create a situation in which a lessening of Cold War tensions was in the interest of both nations. (2, 8, 41) Signaling his desire to negotiate, Nixon announced in his inaugural address what would become an oft-repeated theme of his administration: the world was moving from “a period of confrontation” and “entering an era of negotiation.” (9) Unlike past administrations, which had pursued agreements with the Soviets merely to lessen tensions or improve the atmosphere of superpower relations, Nixon and Kissinger assumed that Soviet-American interests differed and instead sought to negotiate only in those areas where it was in their mutual interest to do so. For example, Nixon told French President Charles de Gaulle, during a private conversation held in Paris in early 1969, that he had little interest in talking with the Soviets merely to reduce mistrust. Instead, “we should be hard and pragmatic in dealing with the Soviets. They knew what they wanted and we must know what we want.” (13, 10) The president repeated that position on several occasions, including an address to the United Nations in October 1970, in which he stated that détente depended upon a mutual recognition of power and national interest. “[P]ower has a role in our relations,” Nixon reminded his listeners. “Power is a fact of international life.” (78, 47, 52, 60) Similarly, Kissinger, in a speech before the Business Council in December 1971, argued that Americans mistakenly assumed that tensions with the Soviets were due to “mere personal misunderstandings and that the remedy for national differences is the development of interpersonal good will.” The Nixon administration would not make the mistake of confusing “foreign policy with psychotherapy. What we want to do is deal with concrete issues in our relationships.” (101)

Détente produced dramatic results in May 1972 with the Moscow Summit, where the United States and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation agreement (SALT). (97, 114, 116, 117) At the summit, Nixon again articulated his administration’s approach to the Soviets. Acknowledging their differing systems and global interests, he told his hosts that a superpower condominium could not be achieved by “mushy sentimentality or by glossing over differences which exist. We can do it only by working out real problems in a concrete fashion, determined to place our common interests above our differences.” (115) Upon his return to Washington, the president reiterated this worldview to his Cabinet and White House staff, reminding them that “fundamental shifts in the world balance of power,” rather than “woolly-headed idealism,” had produced the Moscow Summit and SALT. (119)

Triangular diplomacy and linkage provided tactical models to achieve the interests identified by realist analysis. Based on balance-of-power theory, triangular diplomacy involved using relations with one country as leverage to extract concessions from another. The deepening Sino-Soviet split and the emergence of China as a global power presented the Nixon administration with an opportunity to establish relations with the PRC which, by serving as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, would provide additional leverage for extracting concessions from Moscow. Kissinger typically provided the most detailed and nuanced explanation of triangular diplomacy to Time magazine correspondents in December 1970. Given the Sino-Soviet border conflict, he explained, the Soviets had an interest in dealing with the United States so as “to free their Western rear so that they can focus more on China.” And the United States could guarantee itself a maximum amount of leverage vis-à-vis Moscow simply by putting out “the word that we are restudying the China question.” The administration’s emerging China strategy was “to develop a dialogue with them [the Chinese] for its own sake and then to have a counterweight with the Soviets.” (80, 24, 55) With those goals in mind, Nixon came to office determined to pursue an opening to China. In April 1969, Secretary of State William P. Rogers announced at an Associated Press luncheon that the administration was ready to establish “normal relations” with China and would be “responsive” to any friendly overtures from Peking. (21, 14)

Triangular diplomacy paid dividends immediately after the July 1971 announcement that Nixon would visit China, a breakthrough made possible by Kissinger’s secret visit to Peking that month. (92, 93) The national security advisor discovered that playing the “China card” had worked its magic during his first meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin following the announcement. Dobrynin, who Kissinger found “totally insecure,” conveyed the Kremlin’s suddenly renewed interest in a proposed U.S.-Soviet summit that was eventually held in Moscow in May 1972. (94) Kissinger typically placed triangular diplomacy within a broad concept of geostrategy during a meeting in the Oval Office held just days before the president’s trip to China, a discussion recorded on the Nixon tapes. “For the next 15 years we have to lean toward the Chinese against the Russians. We have to play this balance of power game totally unemotionally. Right now, we need the Chinese to correct the Russians, and to discipline the Russians.” (105) Nixon similarly characterized triangular diplomacy. (97, 107, 119)

Closely related to triangular diplomacy was linkage, another intellectual foundation for the administration’s statecraft. Kissinger and Nixon believed that linkage-making negotiating progress in one area with the Soviet Union dependant upon progress in another-provided the best tactic for achieving several key international goals, including détente, strategic arms control, ending the war in Vietnam, and reaching settlements in the Middle East and Berlin. The president defined linkage in a letter to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird soon after his inauguration. Theorizing that “the great issues are fundamentally interrelated,” Nixon wrote, “we must seek to advance on a front at least broad enough to make clear that we see some relationship between political and military issues.” The Soviets, he continued, “should be brought to understand that they cannot expect to reap the benefits of cooperation in one area while seeking to take advantage of tension or confrontation elsewhere.” (10) Kissinger similarly defined linkage for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The administration, he stated, “sought to move forward across a broad range of issues so that progress in one area would add momentum to the progress of other areas.” (118)

Nixon and Kissinger went to great lengths to link progress on détente and SALT to the Kremlin’s willingness to press its client in Hanoi to negotiate an end to the fighting in Vietnam. (11, 12, 13, 25) The president and his national security advisor stressed this connection in their private discussions with Dobrynin and Soviet foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko. (77) During an October 1969 meeting with Dobrynin in the Oval Office, Nixon and Kissinger explained that, if the Soviet Union did “something in Vietnam” that led to an acceptable peace settlement, “the U.S. might do something dramatic to improve” bilateral relations. (40) As the volume shows, however, in March 1972, less than two months before the planned Moscow Summit, North Vietnam launched an offensive, largely supplied by the Soviet Union, that severely jeopardized the administration’s linkage strategy. (110, 112, 113) Nixon and Kissinger decided during a telephone conversation to threaten to abort the summit if the Kremlin failed to pressure Hanoi to halt its campaign and negotiate in earnest. As Nixon put it, their approach was to “keep kicking them [the Soviets] in the balls.” (109)

As it applied to Vietnam, linkage complemented the Nixon Doctrine, the president’s intellectual response to the war and shifts in the global balance of power. Nixon, who hinted at such a concept on the campaign trail, articulated the doctrine during a background briefing for reporters in Guam, where he had traveled in July 1969 to witness the splashdown of the Apollo astronauts. (3, 5, 29) Refined over the next several months, the doctrine held that, while the United States would honor its treaty obligations and continue to extend its nuclear shield to allies, it would come to its allies’ defense only in the event of an invasion by a major power and only if doing so was in its own interest. Instead, Washington would encourage Asian nations to be responsible for their own defense. (32, 34, 37, 69)

Vietnamization, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Southeast Asia accompanied by Saigon’s assumption of responsibility for its own defense, was “an application of the Nixon Doctrine to South Vietnam,” according to Kissinger. (69) Nixon, for whom ending the unpopular war in Vietnam was a top diplomatic priority, argued for shifting the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese in a campaign speech in October 1968. The South Vietnamese should “fight their own battles,” he declared. (7) Rogers agreed, informing the annual luncheon of the Associated Press in 1969 that the White House was “deeply engaged…in an intensive program of upgrading” South Vietnam’s military capabilities. (21)

A reaction to the quagmire in Vietnam, the Nixon Doctrine also represented an attempt to harmonize the United States’still vast global interests and commitments with its declining capabilities and the emergence of a multipolar world order. Kissinger and Nixon, who assumed that the United States was moving from a position of “predominance to one of partnership,” used the doctrine to promote self-sufficiency among U.S. allies in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. (41, 58, 101) However, the doctrine’s tools-including foreign aid, strategic assistance programs, and regional alliances-also sought to contain nationalism, independence, and self-reliance within an American dominated network of interdependent relationships. (37, 85, 89, 90) According to Kissinger, U.S. aid and assistance programs were designed to develop “a world order in which the United States does not have to carry the entire burden. This means relating individual countries to others in their regions and then relating them to the United States.” (35)

As the Nixon Doctrine suggests, Nixon and Kissinger’s perception that the architecture of international power had shifted served as yet another intellectual backdrop against which they crafted policy. The economies of Western Europe, Germany, and Japan, all crushed by World War II, had fully healed. The communist world had split between the Soviet Union and China, a burgeoning power. New nations in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America had emerged. The end result: the bipolar structure of the Cold War, in which only two superpowers held a preponderance of power, had given way to a multipolar system. Several documents in the volume illustrate the principals’ understanding of this change. (84, 104) As early as July 1967, Nixon informed a gathering of conservatives at San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, “We live in a new world.” (2) One year later, Kissinger identified “political multipolarity” as a new feature of the global scene. (4) After the inauguration, a study by the NSC staff concluded that a “diffusion of independent political activity” had replaced bipolarity. (41)

Even as the poles of international power proliferated, Nixon’s foreign policy team became convinced that the United States was mired in relative economic, military, and even psychological decline, an assumption that profoundly shaped the administration’s foreign policies. The Soviet Union, having occupied a position of inferiority since the dawn of the nuclear age, finally had achieved rough strategic parity with the United States. (71) In addition, a worsening economy, heightened demands for domestic spending, and post-Vietnam criticism of the military left little room for spending on defense or foreign aid. Concerned by the budgetary crisis, Secretary Laird and Undersecretary of State Elliott Richardson worried that the United States no longer possessed resources sufficient to conduct a robust foreign policy. (82, 46)

Disenchantment with Vietnam not only put pressure on defense budgets, it also fueled a sense among the public and Congress that the United States was over-committed abroad. The movement to narrow America’s overseas obligations troubled Nixon’s foreign policymakers insofar as they assumed that it could lead to a “new isolationism.” (39, 41) The president attacked “new isolationists” in a commencement address given at the Naval Officer Candidate School in March 1971, in which he equated assaults on U.S. military budgets and overseas commitments with “weakness.” (87) The next month, he told Republican Congressional leaders that calls for a rollback in the U.S. posture represented a grave “danger to peace” as the proposed withdrawal would only weaken the United States, encourage adversaries, and “invite a large war.” (88) In short, the Nixon administration was the first to confront “Vietnam syndrome,” Americans’ postwar unwillingness to play a forceful global role. (85, 86, 101) That condition shaped the administration’s strategy in Vietnam. On several occasions, including during a May 1969 conversation with Singapore’s prime minister, Nixon expressed his fear that a too rapid U.S. “bug-out” from Vietnam would foster a sense of national failure that would in turn produce “isolation.” (20, 23, 27, 38, 75)

In Kissinger’s estimation, post-Vietnam retrenchment, parity, and shrinking military budgets had combined to create a perception of U.S. weakness that led friends and foes alike to question Washington’s credibility. (36) Worried that Vietnamization was further eroding America’s reputation, in October 1969 he sent Nixon a study arguing that the nation’s “deteriorating strategic position” discouraged allies, who increasingly viewed the United States as “a reluctant giant.” (39) Conversely, the perception of American impotence encouraged adversaries, emboldening the Soviet Union to be provocative and challenge the United States. (71, 72) Such concerns, harbored also by Richardson and Nixon, led policymakers to try to end the war in Vietnam in such a way as to maintain the integrity of South Vietnam and thereby enhance U.S. credibility. (42, 67) The president, in a meeting with Republican Congressional leaders, made the case for a measured withdrawal from Vietnam that would leave an impression of U.S. strength necessary to facilitate a “modus vivendi” with the communist powers and to defend Washington’s Asian allies. Alluding to the domino theory, the president sensed that the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan would “lose confidence in us…if we leave [Vietnam] precipitously.” (88) Policymakers connected credibility, Vietnam, the domino theory, and even détente on several other occasions. (17, 67, 71, 87, 91, 101) In June 1972, for instance, Nixon informed his Cabinet and White House staff that only U.S. military strength, which created the impression of power, had made such breakthroughs as the Moscow Summit, SALT, and the opening of China possible. However, the United States would surrender its credibility, he explained, if it lost ingloriously in Vietnam. Summarizing his thinking, Nixon concluded, “If they think we are weak, they are going to pounce on us. If they think we are strong, they are going to deal with us.” (119)

The intellectual foundations, including concerns about U.S. credibility, upon which the president, Kissinger, and other principals built foreign policy prepared the first Nixon administration to achieve some notable diplomatic achievements. Realism, linkage, and triangular diplomacy helped produce détente, SALT, and an opening to China. The Nixon Doctrine, meant to respond to multipolarity and relative U.S. decline, helped pave the way toward Vietnamization, which culminated in temporary peace in Vietnam in 1973. While Nixon achieved notable successes in his first term, the legacy of Vietnam, both domestic and foreign, confronted Nixon during his second term and Gerald R. Ford, his successor, with serious foreign policy challenges. Foreign Relations of the United States will document the intellectual assumptions of foreign policymakers during the second Nixon and Ford administrations from 1973 to 1976, when Kissinger served as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.