×

The Wounded Presidency, Part One

The Untold Story of U.S. Foreign Policy During the Nixon Impeachment Crisis

Photo Illustration by Ricky Ferrer / Foreign Affairs

“If the Democrats and the U.S. public do not stop laying siege to their government, sooner or later someone will take a run at us,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to a small group of national security principals assembled in the White House Situation Room. It was nearing midnight on October 24, 1973, and Kissinger believed that the Soviets were about to exploit the wounded presidency of Richard Nixon to challenge the United States in the Middle East. The secretary of state had received an ominous phone call at 9:35 that evening from the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, who delivered an urgent message from Leonid Brezhnev: the Soviet leader sought a joint U.S.-Soviet intervention in Egypt, but absent U.S. cooperation the Soviets were prepared to go it alone.

It had been a little more than two weeks since Egypt and Syria began a coordinated offensive against Israel, blowing past the cease-fire lines established after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and capturing much of the Sinai Peninsula and some of the Golan Heights. But the Israelis had recovered from the initial shock of the Yom Kippur attack, and with the help of a significant U.S. resupply effort, pushed the invading armies back. The Soviets had undertaken a resupply effort of their own to aid the Egyptians, but now the Israelis had crossed the Suez Canal, encircled Egypt’s Third Army, and violated a superpower-brokered cease-fire by moving into the city of Suez. So worried was Brezhnev about the fate of his Egyptian ally that Kissinger believed the Soviets were contemplating a military intervention.

“I will say it straight,” Dobrynin said, quoting from Brezhnev’s message, “that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessary urgency to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally. We cannot allow arbitrariness on the part of Israel.”

Fifteen minutes after he got off the phone with the Soviet ambassador, Kissinger called White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig, Jr. “I think we have to go to the mat on this one,” Kissinger said. “Should I wake up the president?” The perceived threat from Moscow necessitated the question, but developments closer to home likely determined the answer. Nixon was then in the first days of a crisis that would eventually end his presidency. Four days earlier, in what would become known as the Saturday Night Massacre, he had ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, and the closure of the independent inquiry into the June 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the ensuing White House cover-up. The country had erupted in bipartisan outrage, spurring Democrats and Republicans alike to endorse the first impeachment inquiry since 1868.

The rubber gloves worn by the Watergate burglars, 1973
The rubber gloves worn by the Watergate burglars, 1973 George Tames / The New York Times / Redux

The turn of events in the Watergate scandal had thrown Nixon into a funk. Stress often destabilized the president, causing him to test his famously low tolerance for alcohol and bringing to the fore the darker elements of his nature. With his presidency suddenly in peril, his aides feared he was too unstable to respond to the emerging crisis in the Middle East. To Kissinger’s question about waking the president, Haig answered with a single word: “No.”

POLITICS AND THE NATIONAL INTEREST

The headlines in New York City, August 1974
The headlines in New York City, August 1974 Neal Boenzi / The New York Times / Redux

Although Americans tend to view impeachment as a domestic affair, efforts to remove a sitting president inevitably reverberate beyond U.S. borders. When the leader of a superpower is hobbled, the world reacts. And each U.S. president to face impeachment has dealt with that reaction differently: Nixon delegated responsibility for foreign policy during Watergate, whereas Bill Clinton continued to immerse himself in foreign-policy making throughout his own impeachment scandal. But in every impeachment battle, including the current one, the commander in chief’s fight for political survival has shaped the conduct of U.S. foreign policy as well as its reception around the world.

For as long as the United States has been a superpower, its foreign policy establishment has embraced the idea of a wall between foreign policy and domestic politics. This consensus flows from a shared belief in the existence of national interests, which though not necessarily fixed, transcend individual presidencies. Of course, the wall represents an ideal. Domestic political pressures intrude on foreign-policy making in every presidency, and there are policy areas where the two are inextricably linked—trade policy, for example. Even before he was elected, Nixon showed that he was not above subverting U.S. foreign policy to advance his political aims: in 1968, he interfered with peace talks with North Vietnam lest they benefit his opponent. But his impeachment crisis, and Clinton’s after it, put additional pressure on the wall between domestic politics and foreign policy, as both presidents reached for accomplishments overseas that would make them seem indispensable at home. Moments of presidential overreach during both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment crises had similar causes, but slightly different effects. More significant were the differences in how foreign powers reacted—differences that help to explain the world’s response to the current U.S. impeachment crisis.

Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, Nancy Kissinger, and Kissinger listen to Nixon’s farewell, Washington, D.C., August 1974
Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, Nancy Kissinger, and Kissinger listen to Nixon’s farewell, Washington, D.C., August 1974 Mike Lien / The New York Times / Redux

A wounded American presidency might seem like an opportunity for U.S. adversaries, and one can instantly grasp why Kissinger feared a challenge from Moscow while Nixon’s position was weakening. But the story of what might be called the Kissinger Regency, when the secretary of state exercised broad control over U.S. foreign policy, shows why his fears about Moscow were misplaced—and why the biggest threat to U.S. global leadership in times of domestic crisis comes not necessarily from great-power rivals, which have a stake in upholding the status quo, but from revisionist powers bent on upending the international system. Turkey, Greece, and possibly North Vietnam sought to capitalize on Nixon’s impeachment, whereas the Soviet Union and China actually came to the president’s aid. A quarter of a century on, the Clinton impeachment saga invited similar revisionist provocations, but more of them this time, from Iraq, Serbia, and a nonstate actor, Osama bin Laden.

Trump has collapsed foreign policy and domestic politics into a single, self-serving enterprise.

What had changed in the intervening years was the end of the Cold War and the rise—in number and relative strength—of powers seeking to revise borders and other aspects of the international system. Today, power is even more diffuse on the global stage, and potential challengers to the international system and to U.S. national interests are more numerous. Following the pattern of the Clinton impeachment drama, Iran and North Korea have already tested President Donald Trump in his moment of greatest political vulnerability, and it seems likely that China pressed its advantage in its recent trade deal with the United States, the details of which have been kept secret.

Trump, for his part, has eagerly sought foreign policy wins during his impeachment crisis just as Nixon and Clinton did before him, except that his administration never accepted the principle of a wall between foreign policy and domestic politics in the first place. (Evidence that Trump bent U.S. policy toward Ukraine to serve his own private interests, after all, forms the basis of his current impeachment trial.) Instead of resisting the temptation to play politics with the national interest, Trump has collapsed foreign policy and domestic politics into a single, self-serving enterprise. As a result, the perversion of U.S. foreign policy that many feared during the last two impeachment crises has been the norm throughout this presidency.

THE KISSINGER REGENCY

During the Nixon impeachment, Kissinger assumed an extraordinary degree of responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, especially where his and Nixon’s shared vision aligned with that of the rest of the president’s national security team. Increasingly distracted by the fight to save his presidency, Nixon entrusted day-to-day management of foreign affairs almost entirely to his secretary of state. Still, like the two presidents who would face impeachment inquiries after him, he made periodic forays into foreign policy where it suited his domestic political needs.

Outside the White House, Washington, D.C., August 1974 Don Hogan Charles / The New York Times / Redux

During Nixon’s first term, from January 1969 to January 1973, U.S. foreign policy was the product of a fraught but productive partnership between the president and his then national security adviser. Nixon set the general course and Kissinger devised the tactics to execute it. A diplomatic opening to China, for instance, was the president’s idea. But Kissinger forged the secret contacts that made Nixon’s historic 1972 visit possible. The administration’s handling of the Vietnam War also reflected this partnership, although it couldn’t be shielded from other domestic influences, such as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Congress, and the American public.

In 1973, Kissinger became the master of the nation’s traditional centers of foreign-policy making and implementation.

But Kissinger began to accrue greater control over foreign affairs even before the start of the impeachment crisis. According to Kissinger, Nixon started losing his capacity to focus on foreign policy in the spring of 1973, when the Watergate investigations led to the resignation of his top domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, and his iron-fisted chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The first area the president relinquished was arms control policy toward the Soviets. “[I]n the wake of the resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, he explicitly told me (on May 1) to follow my own judgment in choosing among options,” Kissinger recalled in his memoirs. From that point on, Nixon’s attention span for foreign policy got weaker and weaker. “He would sign memoranda or accept my recommendations almost absentmindedly now, without any of the intensive underlining and marginal comments that in the first term had indicated he had read my papers with care,” Kissinger recalled. “Increasingly, he went through the motions of governing.”

In September 1973, Nixon formalized Kissinger’s unprecedented role in U.S. foreign policy by appointing him secretary of state in addition to national security adviser. In one fell swoop, Kissinger became the master of the nation’s traditional centers of foreign-policy making and implementation—the cockpit for the powerful “Nixoniger” secret diplomacy. Kissinger’s mantra throughout this period was, “Our job is to demonstrate that the foreign policy of the United States continues forcefully, competently,” even during a domestic political crisis. And because the president shared this goal, U.S. foreign policy largely carried on as before under the secretary of state’s leadership. Kissinger would not have attained this level of power if not for Watergate and the all-consuming crisis that it created for his boss. “One of the more cruel torments of Nixon’s Watergate purgatory,” Kissinger noted a decade later, “was my emergence as the preeminent figure in foreign policy.”

Nixon at a banquet in Hangzhou, China, February 1972 Handout / Reuters

But the specter of impeachment threatened Nixon’s authority, and Kissinger’s by extension. To retain mastery of the situation, the secretary of state needed to maintain the impression, at home and abroad, that the president remained committed to a worldwide “structure of peace,” or détente, as Nixon’s signature policy of easing tensions between the superpowers was known. The president’s 1972 visits to Beijing and Moscow had ended a 22-year U.S. effort to isolate the People’s Republic of China, and led to the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as other confidence-building measures. A peace accord with Hanoi in January 1973 had also taken Vietnam, the most destabilizing Cold War regional conflict, largely off the table. But the United States hadn’t given up on its South Vietnamese ally, and it sought to expand its new relationship with China and move toward a second nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. In other words, détente was still a work in progress, and Kissinger’s authority over foreign policy depended on its advancement.

“NO FUNCTIONAL PRESIDENT, IN THEIR EYES”

The fate of détente seemed to hang in the balance on the night of October 24, 1973, when Kissinger assembled the crisis subset of the National Security Council 30 minutes after getting off the phone with the president’s chief of staff. In addition to Haig, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer, and CIA director William Colby all gathered in the Situation Room while the president slept. Both Kissinger and Haig believed that the Soviets were prepared to sacrifice détente, because, as Kissinger put it, “We have no functional president, in their eyes.” The other men present didn’t disagree. As Schlesinger later recalled, “[W]e were concerned, because of the domestic situation, that the publicity and the uproar associated with the Saturday Night Massacre and then the calls for Nixon’s impeachment might persuade the Russians that we were incapable of reacting to what we regarded as Brezhnev’s threat.”

As Nixon grew weaker, forces inside the United States that opposed détente grew stronger.

There were other reasons for Nixon’s national security team to worry. Recently declassified documents reveal that a Soviet ship that the CIA thought might be carrying nuclear weapons was approaching Egypt that night, and that the Soviets had abruptly shut down their airlift operation to resupply the Egyptian army, potentially freeing up those planes to carry troops. By midnight, the principals had decided to institute a DEFCON III alert, the highest U.S. strategic alert status since the Cuban missile crisis, and to move two aircraft carriers closer to the western part of the Soviet Union. “I think it was Henry’s [Kissinger] idea,” Schlesinger later recalled. “[R]aising the DEFCON level of the forces was our way of conveying the message, ‘We are quite capable of reacting; don’t you dare do anything.’”

Nixon was never in the room for what was ultimately a five-hour meeting. Schlesinger later recalled Haig going back and forth between the Situation Room and the White House residence, saying, “ ‘The president has agreed to this’ or ‘The president has not agreed to this.’ ” Regardless of what, if anything, Nixon agreed to that night, Kissinger and his team didn’t think a presidential decision was required. Brent Scowcroft, who was then Kissinger’s deputy on the National Security Council, later described the alert as an “administrative” decision.

The Soviets took several steps to reassure the embattled U.S. president.

The Soviets picked up the alert early on October 25, but their response wasn’t what Kissinger and the other principals expected. Soviet documents and memoirs that became available after the end of the Cold War suggest that Moscow wasn’t scheming to veer off the path of détente after all. Rather, Brezhnev and some others in the Soviet Politburo really were panicked about the survival of the Egyptian regime. Brezhnev, who had dictated his letter to Nixon from his hunting lodge, rushed back to Moscow for meetings in the Kremlin after the U.S. alert was detected. If the Soviets had intended to intervene militarily in Egypt, Brezhnev would likely have been with the Politburo on October 24. Moreover, the Soviets didn’t respond to the U.S. alert with one of their own but, rather, took steps to reassure the embattled U.S. president.

What Soviet leaders seemed to have gleaned from Watergate was that as Nixon grew weaker, forces inside the United States that opposed détente grew stronger. “The threat of ‘impeachment’ has now become more realistic for Nixon than it was a few months ago,” Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, wrote to Brezhnev on October 29. “One cannot rule out that in this situation the Jewish lobby in the Congress is seriously limiting Nixon’s actions and his desire to implement the agreement” for a cease-fire in the Middle East.

Meir and Nixon in the White House, Washington, D.C., September 1970
Meir and Nixon in the White House, Washington, D.C., September 1970 Walter Bennett / Camera Press / Re​dux

Although Moscow’s intelligence analysis was hobbled by anti-Semitism and knee-jerk conspiracy thinking, the Soviets had good reason to think that détente faced serious domestic challenges. Since the fall of 1972, Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, had sought to link further U.S.-Soviet economic relations, a key element of détente supported by both the Kremlin and the White House, to the easing of restrictions on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1973, Kissinger had helped the Soviets craft a formal statement to Congress aimed at bypassing Jackson’s efforts and enabling the Soviet Union to gain most-favored nation trade status. The attempt had failed, but as a result Moscow knew where the Nixon White House stood on the issue.

On November 10, in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Brezhnev sent a private note to Nixon wishing him “energy and success in overcoming all sorts of complexities, the causes of which are not so easy to understand at a distance… [O]ur determination to proceed further along the path of decisive improvement in the Soviet-American relations has not diminished as a result of the events in the Middle East.” Nixon, who was touched by the message from Moscow, invited Ambassador Dobrynin to meet with him privately. And in mid-December 1973, he assured the Soviets through Dobrynin that he was still dedicated to détente. Then, as if to confirm the KGB’s analysis of the situation, the president made a point of blaming Israel and the American Jewish community for opposing any improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations.

A MIDDLE EAST DÉTENTE

There were other countries that favored détente as well, especially in the Middle East, where the extension of Nixon’s “structure of peace” had the potential to ease regional tensions. Arab countries hoped a more engaged U.S. administration would help them gain concessions from Israel, while Israel hoped the United States would make a stronger commitment to peace on Israel’s borders, and weaken Soviet influence in the region. If the wounding of Nixon’s presidency had any effect in the region, it was to make Egyptian President Anwar Sadat eager to pressure his fellow Arab leaders, most notably Hafez al-Assad of Syria, to take advantage of U.S. mediation with Israel before Nixon, and presumably Kissinger, were swept from the scene. Sadat became Kissinger’s essential partner in exploiting the effects of the Yom Kippur War, which Sadat had started, to de-escalate the Arab-Israeli and inter-Arab conflict.

Kissinger meets the Israeli Minister of Foreign Relations in Tel Aviv, October 1973
Kissinger meets the Israeli Minister of Foreign Relations in Tel Aviv, October 1973 Israel Sun-Rea / Redux

With the president’s general approval, Kissinger undertook the most strenuous negotiations by any American secretary of state up to that point, logging days away from Washington, D.C., first to secure agreements to separate the Israeli and Arab armies on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts and then in pursuit of a framework for negotiations—indirect at this point—between Cairo, Damascus, and Israel. As Harold Saunders, a key staffer on Middle East policy, later recalled, Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” largely proceeded outside of the shadow of the impeachment drama. “[S]trangely I don’t think we could have achieved more than we did… [Watergate] didn’t have that much effect.”

Initially, Nixon left Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy alone for the most part. On the Middle East issue, as with other issues where the Pentagon and the State Department were aligned, the Kissinger Regency was relatively uncontroversial. Kissinger’s results were also impressive. In January 1974, with the United States acting as intermediary and prod, Israel and Egypt reached a disengagement agreement. So impressed were the Saudis by Kissinger’s efforts that they made clear to the United States that if a similar achievement could be achieved between Syria and Israel, OPEC would lift the oil embargo it had imposed on countries seen as supportive of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The United States agreed, but made clear that the embargo had to be lifted first, and not held hostage to talks in Damascus. In March 1974, the Saudis lifted the embargo and Kissinger soon began what would be 26 meetings with Assad over 35 days.

But as the impeachment crisis deepened, the president made clear that there were limits to how much credit he was willing to let Kissinger take for foreign policy successes. When Nixon sensed his presidency was in mortal danger in the spring of 1974, after he released edited transcripts of his secret Oval Office recordings under subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee, he tried to reassert superficial command over Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy. He had no substantive suggestions to make; Kissinger’s diplomacy was going very well. But Nixon felt that he desperately needed some good public relations, and began to view the emerging Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement as necessary for his political survival. As a result, he began to pressure Kissinger to broker an agreement as quickly as possible.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee on the first day of the Nixon impeachment hearings, May 1974 Mike Lien / The New York Times / R​edux

On May 9, the same day that House Minority Leader John Rhodes, a Republican from Arizona, suggested that Nixon should consider resigning, Kissinger sent a note to his deputy, Scowcroft, to reassure Haig that Nixon would get public credit for the emerging deal with Syria. “Please tell Haig that I will use every available opportunity to mention the President’s role in the current negotiations,” Kissinger wrote, presumably in response to a message from the president’s chief of staff. “I will continue to stress the importance of his involvement in our overall effort to seek a lasting peace,” he added. But the White House wanted more than that. The president felt he needed a splashy trip to distract from his troubles at home, and to underscore that just as only Nixon could go to China, only Nixon could go to Damascus.

But there was a sticking point. A grand Middle East trip for Nixon in May or June 1974 would depend on Israel and Syria reaching an agreement, something that was proving much more difficult than the Israel-Egypt deal. After Syria’s initial gains in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis had pushed the Syrians back into their own interior, past the borders of the Golan Heights, which Israel had occupied since June 1967. Not only did Syria want Israel to withdraw from the territory it had taken in this war, but Syria wanted Israel to relinquish some of what it had taken in 1967, including Quneitra, a town of 20,000 people in the Golan Heights. Israel, however, showed no interest in handing over occupied territory. As Prime Minister Golda Meir explained to Kissinger, “the Syrians had no right to gain territory after losing a war.” Under U.S. pressure, Israel did offer to withdraw from Quneitra as long as it could keep troops on the western edge of the town, but Assad regarded this compromise as unacceptable.

A damaged minaret near the town of Quneitra in the G​olan Heights, Syria, May ​2005
A damaged minaret near the town of Quneitra in the G​olan Heights, Syria, May ​2005 Ed Kashi / VII / Redux

When Kissinger reported to Nixon on May 14 that an agreement between Israel and Syria seemed out of reach in the short term because Israel refused to make any more compromises around Quneitra, Nixon blew up. The president’s support for Israel had always been cold and strategic. An anti-Semite who doubted the enormity of the Holocaust, Nixon was now convinced that Israeli obstinacy threatened his political future. In the middle of the night on May 15, as Kissinger later recalled, the president “phoned Scowcroft twice to order him to cut off all aid to Israel unless it changed its position by the next morning.” Nixon was insistent, but he didn’t tell Scowcroft what exactly he wanted Israel’s new position on Quneitra to be.

Nixon’s support for Israel had always been cold and strategic.

As Nixon fumed about the lack of progress toward a deal, the situation in the region took a dramatic turn for the worse. Early in the morning of May 15, a group of terrorists from the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed five people and took four teachers and about 90 children hostage in a school in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot. In the midst of this new crisis, Kissinger was very concerned about the possible effect of the president’s ultimatum. “With respect to your recent message on cutting off Israel’s aid,” he wrote to Nixon from Jerusalem, “I must tell you as strongly as I can that such a course would be disastrous in terms of the immediate negotiation, the long-term evolution and the U.S. position in the Middle East.”

Yet somehow Kissinger managed to simultaneously calm the irrational U.S. president and coax additional concessions from the Israelis. Despite the Churchillian sweep of his three-volume memoirs, Kissinger’s account of how he ultimately persuaded Israel to pull far enough back from Quneitra to satisfy the Syrians seems oddly incomplete, and State Department historians compiling the Foreign Relations of the United States volume for those negotiations could find no official record of the secretary of state’s meeting with Israel’s negotiating team or his private meetings with Meir and the Israeli ambassador to the United States on May 15.

Meir meets with Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights, 1973
Meir meets with Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights, 1973 Stringer / Reuters

Perhaps Kissinger, who knew for whom he was working, warned Meir that his anti-Semitic boss was losing it. The Israelis’ finely honed political antennae in Washington, D.C., had certainly picked up Nixon’s distress. It is also possible that Meir, who had already decided to step down and was affected by the horrific events in Ma’alot, didn’t need much of a push to make another concession for peace at the end of her long political career. Subsequent events suggest that an implicit deal may have been part of the equation as well: at the bitter end of Nixon’s presidency in August, the Israelis would deliver a major request for weapons. Kissinger may have signaled in mid-May that in return for help with Syria, the United States would look more favorably on additional military support. In any case, Israel did Nixon a favor and agreed to a compromise on Quneitra drafted by Kissinger. And, even more surprising, Syria agreed to it as well on May 18, with only a slight modification related to the placement of Israeli arms. One cannot be certain of the reason for Syria’s agreement, but it seems likely that Assad recognized that the Americans had got him a win and that further intransigence might cause him to lose the peace.

A few days later, a much calmer President Nixon sent Kissinger a private message: “I believe we should follow up this development with a trip to the Middle East at the earliest possible time. We will thereby be able to seal in concrete those new relationships which are essential if we are to be successful in building a permanent structure of peace in the area.”

Nixon and Assad, both suited at the back right, meet in Assad’s family home in Syria, June 1974 Camera Press / Redux

Two weeks after Israel and Syria formalized their agreement on May 31, Nixon took his victory lap in the Middle East, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Israel and Syria, and only the second to visit Egypt. Sadat arranged a remarkable visit for Nixon, with millions cheering him in Cairo and Egypt’s state-controlled press extolling his “peace visit.” Nixon tested his stamina on the trip and arguably risked his life. On his way to the Middle East, his doctor urged him to stay off his feet as much as possible. His left leg was enlarged with phlebitis, and although “the greatest danger had already passed,” according to Nixon’s memoirs, the condition was known to cause fatal blood clots. Despite the doctor’s warning, Nixon stood for hours next to Sadat, first in a motorcade through Cairo and then on an open train car to the port city of Alexandria, holding on with his right hand while waving with his left.

THE REAL ENEMIES OF DÉTENTE

The Kissinger Regency was not as successful in areas, at home or abroad, where the policy of détente was not as broadly supported. Curiously, the most robust challenge to Nixon’s “structure of peace” didn’t come from a communist power. Soviet leaders resisted the idea that the scandal could bring down the U.S. president, and Brezhnev himself didn’t want to see Nixon go. Similarly, the Chinese did nothing to complicate Nixon’s personal political fight. A month after Nixon left office, Richard Solomon, a senior staffer on the National Security Council, observed that the Chinese “have shown a remarkable degree of loyalty and personal warmth to Mr. Nixon.”

Rather, as the Soviets had surmised, the real pressure on détente came from inside the United States. The collapse of Nixon’s presidency accelerated centrifugal forces in the Republican Party, where détente had already caused a rift. It also emboldened hawkish Democrats and the Pentagon to seek a tougher approach to arms control.

The signal achievement of Nixon’s détente policy had been the conclusion of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT I, in 1972. The purpose of the treaty was to avoid an expensive and dangerous arms race by freezing in place a status quo acceptable to both sides. But by 1974, advances in technology had reduced the effectiveness of key SALT I restrictions. The Nixon administration was pursuing a second round of talks that it hoped would yield a new treaty—SALT II. But it also had a new defense secretary, Schlesinger, who had not been in the cabinet during the earlier SALT negotiations and was skeptical of both détente and Nixon’s judgment in the throes of an impeachment crisis.

Soviet leaders resisted the idea that the scandal could bring down the U.S. president.

In June 1974, facing the prospect of a Nixon-Brezhnev arms control summit in Crimea, Schlesinger and other skeptics of détente in the administration took steps to prevent Nixon and Kissinger from rushing into a bad SALT II agreement. On June 4, Schlesinger wrote to Jackson, the nation’s most prominent critic of détente, implying that he preferred the senator’s approach to arms control over that of the administration. At an NSC meeting two weeks later, Schlesinger recommended, and Moorer endorsed, a negotiating position on arms limitation that Nixon knew the Soviets would reject out of hand. “The NSC meeting was a real shocker,” Nixon dictated to his diary, “insofar as the Chiefs, and particularly of Schlesinger, was concerned.”

Schlesinger’s skepticism about Nixon’s judgment on arms control was even shared by some on Kissinger’s staff, including Scowcroft. At the summit in the Crimea, “Nixon and Brezhnev went off by themselves to negotiate, and I think Nixon was hoping for an arms control agreement, a follow-on agreement in principle that would have given him a psychological boost with the American people and maybe prevent something happening,” Scowcroft later recalled. At another point during the summit, perhaps out of desperation to push Brezhnev to accept new limits on strategic missiles, Nixon scared Kissinger by appearing to accept Brezhnev’s suggestion of a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union designed to counter China. Kissinger later revoked this acceptance and Nixon would deny ever giving it.

White House aides unload transcripts of Nixon's Watergate conversations in Washington, D.C., April 1974
White House aides unload transcripts of Nixon's Watergate conversations in Washington, D.C., April 1974 The New York Times / Redux

The June summit did produce a limited underground nuclear test ban and a new limitation on anti-ballistic missile systems. But by that point, no foreign policy achievement, however dramatic, could have changed the conversation in Washington as Nixon’s presidency careened toward collapse. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that the president would have to turn over the secret tapes that the Watergate special prosecutor had requested for the criminal trials of the president’s top lieutenants. One of those tapes, Nixon knew, would reveal his participation in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary.

DANGEROUS BUSINESS

With the Nixon presidency in its death throes, Kissinger still worried about the Soviets making trouble. But the only countries that actually attempted to exploit the widening power vacuum in Washington during this period were small ones. In mid-July, Greece had overthrown the government of Cyprus, prompting Turkey to invade the Mediterranean island. Nixon was in San Clemente at the time, and he didn’t want to return to Washington, where the House Judiciary Committee was about to debate articles of impeachment. “I can do whatever I could in Washington here,” he told Kissinger. Once again, Kissinger was expected to manage all aspects of the crisis, although Nixon did reassure his secretary of state that if “the Greeks did go to war, then I would come back to Washington.”

The world watched the collapse of the Nixon presidency largely with sadness and surprise—not with a sense of opportunity.

Nixon and Kissinger had previously discussed what to do if Greece retaliated by attacking Turkey in Thrace. Despite the weakened state of Nixon’s presidency, the Department of Defense and the CIA suggested covert action to overthrow the Greek regime. But Kissinger objected: “I don’t like overthrowing governments. I’m not sure the Greek government will last out the week, anyway,” he said at a crisis meeting of the NSC. When the CIA suggested working with the former king instead, Kissinger replied, “That’s dangerous business in the middle of a war. I’ll talk to the President about it.” The Greek government ultimately fell without any U.S. intervention, and the Turks awaited Nixon’s own fall to resume their military operations in Cyprus.

Celebration on the tenth anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in Nicosia, Cyprus, September 1984
Celebration on the tenth anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in Nicosia, Cyprus, September 1984 Ulutuncok / laif / Redux

The Pentagon worried that North Vietnam, too, might be preparing to take advantage of the collapse of the Nixon presidency. In early August, the intelligence community detected chatter that seemed to suggest that three divisions of the North Vietnamese army had gone on alert. It also picked up tactical communications from a reserve division outside Hanoi. On August 6, “A local force unit in Quang Nam Province was instructed to prepare for a ‘general offensive,’ ” intelligence officials reported to the White House. The intelligence officials didn’t expect an offensive against South Vietnam that day, but they believed that “serious communist attacks may be imminent.”

The previous day, August 5, the transcript of the tape revealing Nixon’s involvement early in the Watergate cover-up had been released to the public, and even Republicans were describing it as a “smoking gun.” With Washington expecting Nixon’s resignation at any moment, Schlesinger didn’t call the president about worrying chatter in Vietnam. Instead, he called Kissinger on August 7. “Anything we can do?” Kissinger asked in response to the secretary of defense. There were no troop options, but Schlesinger suggested moving some aircraft carriers closer to Vietnam. He also suggested telling the Soviets and the Chinese what the United States had detected. Kissinger agreed: “I think that’s an excellent idea,” he told Schlesinger. In the twilight of Nixon’s presidency, Kissinger’s agreement was all that the secretary of defense needed to act.

Three Republicans who voted to impeach, 1974 George Tames / The New York Times / Redux

Later that same day, at 5:58 PM, the president’s chief of staff called Kissinger. “Henry, could you get to the Oval Office in five or six minutes?” Haig asked. Kissinger wasn’t surprised. The day before, his confidante and former White House aide Rita Hauser had made clear to him that the “smoking gun” transcript effectively meant that Nixon had “pleaded guilty.” Now a Republican delegation from Congress had told the president that impeachment and removal were inevitable, and Kissinger was the first member of the cabinet whom Nixon informed of his intention to announce his resignation the next day.

In the end, with the exceptions of Greece, Turkey, and possibly North Vietnam, the world watched the collapse of the Nixon presidency largely with sadness and surprise, but not with a sense of opportunity. Egypt, Syria, the Soviet Union, and China had, if anything, been helpful to the wounded president, and Israel had actually done him a favor. The peculiarities of Nixon’s partnership with Kissinger, shaped before the impeachment crisis, allowed the foreign policy system to function with a dysfunctional president. Something very different would play out in the nation’s second impeachment crisis as a superpower.

Enjoy more high-quality articles like this one.

Become a subscriber.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles posted daily online and almost a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue