178. Letter From Former President Nixon to President Carter1

Dear Mr. President,

After receiving the briefing you thoughtfully provided,2 I should like to pass on to you my personal views with regard to your decision to normalize relations with the PRC.

I have made no public statement because since your action has already been taken it is now U.S. policy, and I see no constructive purpose to be served by publicly second guessing what you have done. However, I have some views about implementing the policy and on issues relating to it which I think might be useful for you to consider.

First, as to the process by which the agreement was reached, I know from experience that, particularly when negotiating with the Chinese, secrecy is indispensable if there is to be any chance for success. The Congress, of course, will have an opportunity to play a role in approving appropriations and other legislation necessary to implement the agreement.

I have three major concerns: the adequacy of the guarantees against the use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue; the credibility of U.S. commitments to our other allies and friends in view of our termination of the Taiwan Treaty; the effect on your ability as President to enlist public support for your other foreign policy initiatives in the future.3

No reasonable person would question Dr. Brzezinski’s assertion that the PRC, because of its control over population and territory, is in fact the government of China. However, no political realist can ignore the fact that the 17 million people on Taiwan, who have prospered greatly under a non-communist government, have an almost fanatical core of support in the nation and in the Congress. You addressed this problem in your December 15 announcement.4 I believe, however, that it is essential that you and your representatives give additional reassurances firmly and unequivocally.

I recognize that realistically the possibility of a PRC military attack on Taiwan will be remote for several years. But I believe the U.S. should [Page 668] publicly go on record that any use of force against Taiwan would irreparably jeopardize our relations with the PRC.5 I believe, also, that we should make it clear that we not only have the right to approve private arms sales to Taiwan, but that we intend to exercise that right for as long and to the degree necessary to deter any use of force against Taiwan. If because of the delicate state of our negotiations with the PRC you feel the administration could not go this far, I would not discourage the Congress from doing so. If the Congress does proceed in that manner I would urge you not to oppose such action publicly and that you privately inform the Chinese of the problem. They will strenuously object, but they will understand because they need us far more than we need them. They also will be impressed by the fact that those who are most strongly pro-Taiwan are also those who are most strongly anti-Soviet.

There are those who contend that the pro-Taiwan forces are stupid, short-sighted and reckless. Assuming for the sake of agrument this to be true, they are a fact of American political life and they are effective. Unless their opposition is mitigated, you will probably still win the battle: but you may lose the war because the fall-out on future foreign and defense policy battles you will have to fight will make the Panama Canal controversy look like a Sunday school picnic in comparison.

With regard to the effect of your decision on other allies and friends, I believe it is essential for you to reiterate that Taiwan was a special case6 and that the U.S. firmly stands by all its treaty and other commitments and under no circumstances will we renounce a treaty simply because we determine our interests are no longer served by it. As a respectful suggestion you might indicate that while you do not give an inch on the proposition that a President has a Constitutional right to rescind a treaty without obtaining Senate approval, you will in the future voluntarily submit such decisions to the Senate.7

With regard to specific countries, I am most concerned about Korea. I realize that you have announced a decision to withdraw American forces by 1983. I would strongly urge you to reconsider that decision in view of Soviet supported adventurist policies in Afganistan, Ethiopia, and other countries in Africa.8 If you believe you should not do so, I would suggest that at this time it would be most helpful to increase substantially the budget for military aid to Korea as a symbolic [Page 669] move to put North Korea and others on notice that the action on Taiwan should under no circumstances be interpreted as the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from other parts of Asia.

The Philippines, Indonesia, and Iran in different ways present difficult problems because of their corruption and in varying degrees their denial of human rights. At this time in view of the Taiwan decision, I believe it is important to publicly and privately give them unqualified support. It would be ironical to qualify our support to any country which allows some human rights at a time when we have dramatically moved toward normalization with full cooperation with a nation which allows none—the PRC.

I don’t mean to criticize your eloquent commitment to this cause, but I feel the greatest threat to human rights today is on the totalitarian left rather than on the authoritarian right.

With regard to my third concern, as one who initiated détente with the USSR, I must in all candor say that based on what I have read in the press, I have some grave questions about the terms that are being considered for SALT II.9 However, I believe it would be most unfortunate if Senators voted against SALT primarily because of resentment on the PRC normalization decision. We hear that some want to “get well” after supporting the Panama treaty. They will not be able to do so on normalization because it is a fait accompli. They might well take out their frustration on SALT specifically and détente generally. Since a yes vote on Panama has been interpreted as being “soft” they are looking for some way to correct the balance and a “no” vote on SALT provides that opportunity.

I believe that this is one of those critical times when you cannot afford any moves which justifiably or not are considered soft or weak, vis-a-vis the Communist powers. For example, any plans even to consider normalization with Cuba or Vietnam should be put on the back burner,10 which I assume would be your intention any way in view of their barbaric behavior toward their own people and toward others.

I apologize for the length of this letter and I imagine that many of my suggestions will be like carrying coals to Newcastle, or bringing saki to Nada, as the Japanese would say.

From a purely partisan political standpoint, I would hope you would not take my advice. But I feel that the stakes for America and the world are too high for partisanship as usual. You have a supreme opportunity to lead the nation and the world into a new era of prosperity, [Page 670] peace and justice. To paraphrase Charlie Wilson—what is good for you is good for America, and if it results in many happy returns for you in 1980, you will deserve it.

Please do not take your time to reply to this letter.11 I have not written it “for the record” and do not intend to make it public. I know that particularly at this time you are overburdened with work with the final budget decisions to be made, the State of the Union address to be prepared and a possible Summit visit with Brezhnev on the agenda.

With warm personal regards,


Richard Nixon
  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, Subject File, Box 39, State Department Evening Reports, 12/78. No classification marking. At the top of the page, Carter wrote, “Very good letter. J.” Someone, perhaps Carter, wrote, “CC: Zbig, Fritz, Cy.” The salutation is handwritten.
  2. See Document 175.
  3. Carter underlined much of this paragraph.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 171.
  5. Carter underlined all but the first three words of this sentence.
  6. Carter underlined “reiterate that Taiwan was a special case.”
  7. In the left margin, Carter wrote, “Zbig—What others do we have?”
  8. In the first three sentences of this paragraph, Carter underlined “I am most concerned about Korea,” “to withdraw American forces by 1983,” and “to reconsider.”
  9. Carter underlined “have some grave questions about the terms that are being considered for SALT II.”
  10. Carter underlined “normalization with Cuba or Vietnam should be put on the back burner.”
  11. On December 22, Carter replied with a handwritten letter: “To Pres Richard Nixon: I appreciate your excellent letter, which is very helpful to me. We have, with some difficulty, reserved the options you described in our negotiations with the PRC. After you receive a final briefing on SALT II, your analysis would also be welcome. This has been a long and laborious process which has a good prospect of coming out well. Our best wishes to you & your family. Jimmy Carter” (Carter Library, Plains File, Subject File, Box 39, State Department Evening Reports, 12/78)