All the President's Acumen: The Paradox of Nixon's Foreign Policy

Uniquely among postwar presidents, Richard M. Nixon continues to be the object of hard and unforgiving feelings among historians of American foreign policy. Though all presidents have at times been treated harshly, none evokes the special animus reserved for Nixon. Scholars who regard the American involvement in Vietnam as a blunder of monumental proportions -- and there are few writing today who do not -- frequently treat the president who escalated the war, Lyndon B. Johnson, with real empathy, the scorn once reserved for LBJ having been displaced by a sense of the tragic compulsion that led a man with essentially decent political instincts to doom. The president who extracted the United States from that war, by contrast, is still hated. Since Nixon was a great hater himself, as he ruefully acknowledged in his touching farewell speech, there is perhaps a measure of cosmic justice in this state of affairs -- with Divine Providence ensuring strict reciprocity in this as in all other matters. Whatever the reason, or reasons, the fact remains. Nixon is judged harshly; even his successes are often seen as proceeding from an essentially rotten heart.

William Bundy's exacting, intelligent, and formidable history of Nixon's record in foreign policy demonstrates that the hard judgments about the former president are by no means confined to the radical critics who drove him first to distraction and ultimately to ruin. The author is no radical, but a pillar of the liberal foreign policy establishment. In the 1950s he joined the CIA, then served in the 1960s at the assistant secretary level in the Departments of Defense (for international security affairs) and State (for East Asian and Pacific affairs). He was editor of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1984. He is broadly sympathetic to the essential features of post-World War II American foreign policy and even to many central features of Nixon's foreign policy. At the same time, he has written a biting and often savage indictment of Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger. Under Bundy's microscopic examination, scarcely any feature of that record emerges unscathed. Time has not withered, nor custom staled, what is clearly a considerable animosity toward both men.

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