By the summer of 1974, when Gerald R. Ford took over as president, Richard M. Nixon's foreign policy had become controversial. Liberals chastised him for inadequate attention to human rights. Conservatives depicted his administration as overeager for accommodation with the Soviet Union in the name of detente, which, in their view, compounded bad policy with French terminology.

Each of these criticisms owed something to the discomfort evoked by Nixon's ambiguous personality, but the overriding cause of the complaints was that his foreign policy raised two fundamental philosophical challenges. Nixon sought to extricate the United States from Vietnam on terms he defined as honorable at a time when most of the intellectual and much of the political community wanted to get out of Indochina essentially unconditionally.

Even more important was Nixon's effort to guide the transition of America's role in the world from hegemony to leadership. For much of the postwar period, the United States was preeminent because of its nuclear predominance and economic strength. By the time Nixon took office, our nuclear monopoly was dwindling, Europe was regaining vitality, Asia was entering the international arena, and Africa was being swept by independence movements. Dominance reflects power; leadership requires building consensus. But the attempts, inseparable from consensus-building, to balance rewards and penalties ran counter to the prevailing philosophy of Wilsonianism, which tried to bring about a global moral order through the direct application of America's political values undiluted by compromises with "realism."

Over two decades later, as these lines are being written, many of the themes of the debates of the 1970s have reappeared in the contemporary argument over America's role in the post-Cold War world.


A nation's foreign policy inevitably reflects an amalgam of the convictions of its leaders and the pressures of its environment. To understand the Nixon administration's approach to East-West relations -- and the controversy that bedeviled Ford -- it is necessary to describe the situation that Nixon inherited.

Richard Nixon took office in the midst of one of the gravest foreign policy crises in American history. Over 540,000 American troops were fighting in Vietnam, and the country was tearing itself apart over what Walter A. McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania has brilliantly described as America's first "Great Society war." By this he meant that Vietnam was the first American war fought for no definable military objective. Rather, the strategic goal was to not lose, thereby giving South Vietnam time to create democratic institutions and social programs that would win the war for the hearts and minds of the population. Such a goal for a divided country independent for only a decade, in a society governed by colonialism for a century, required a time span of stalemated war beyond the psychological endurance of the American public.

The Nixon administration was prepared to assume the responsibility for extricating the United States and never blamed our predecessors for the debacle. We would not, however, leave the country for which nearly 40,000 Americans had already died by turning over to communist rule tens of millions who had staked their lives on our word. The strategy adopted by the Nixon administration to extricate America was foreshadowed in an article I had written for Foreign Affairs while still a professor at Harvard. In it, I had urged that the military and political issues be treated separately. The military issues would be negotiated between the United States and the Vietnamese parties, leading to a cease-fire, withdrawal of American troops, exchange of prisoners, and a limitation of armaments. The Vietnamese parties would then negotiate a political process by which the peoples of Indochina would be able to decide the future of their countries.

The so-called peace movement insisted that there was only one meaningful issue, which was peace on whatever terms were available, and that the fate of the population was irrelevant to that goal (or, in the argument's more sophisticated version, that the peoples of Indochina would be better off if we abandoned them). In pursuit of what amounted to unconditional and unilateral withdrawal, the protesters sought to impose their views by mass demonstrations designed to paralyze the government. The protesters considered the very terms "honor" and "credibility" abominations, the empty slogans of a flawed society that would repeat its errors over and over again until it was made to taste the bitter dregs of futility and humiliation. In their view, American presumption and vainglory had caused the tragedy in Indochina. The peace movement rejected the invocation of America's role in preserving the global equilibrium as a symptom of a national obsession with power, and it denied Nixon's moral right to invoke the term "honor." Its challenge was not to specific policies but to America's worthiness to conduct any foreign policy at all.

To be sure, Establishment figures never went quite this far. Paralyzed by the futility of what they had wrought, they simply wished to extirpate the Vietnam War from their consciousness and to submerge their mistakes in collective amnesia. The practical result of their emotional abdication was that they would not support any American negotiating position rejected by Hanoi, thereby depriving the American negotiators of a floor on which to stand and, in effect, urging abdication.

Pressures from abroad paralleled the domestic ones. Most of America's North Atlantic allies were extremely skeptical about the war in Indochina. By the time Nixon took office, they had begun to question whether America's alleged bellicosity might not threaten, rather than safeguard, their own security overall. A number of European leaders felt quite free to present themselves to their publics as apostles of peace whose primary mission was to moderate American intransigence in the conduct of the Cold War.

All this was happening less than a year after the Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia in order to overthrow a communist regime aspiring to a measure of autonomy from Moscow. Leonid Brezhnev had proclaimed a doctrine that asserted Moscow's right to impose ideological orthodoxy on the communist world. Backed by a rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, the Kremlin was projecting an image of ideological militancy and military strength.

Such was the context of stalemate, tension, and frustration inherited by Nixon. When he took office, the American public was drained by 20 years of Cold War exertions and the increasing frustrations with Vietnam. It had lived through two Berlin crises, the Korean War, Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and the Cuban missile crisis, and it had already sustained over 35,000 casualties in Indochina. For us to have launched the grandiloquent anti-Soviet crusade that our critics later (though not at the time) chastised us for not undertaking would have driven our domestic crisis out of control and jeopardized our alliances.

Throughout his career, Nixon's critics had portrayed him as an unregenerate Cold Warrior. But now that he was president, both the liberals who dominated Congress and the media urged him to end the Cold War as if he were one of their own. A widespread and vocal consensus, which had many supporters within the bureaucracy, pressed the new administration to initiate immediate negotiations with Moscow on trade, cultural and scientific exchanges, and, above all, arms control. The conservatives remained sullenly silent. Shell-shocked by Vietnam and the domestic upheaval, they provided no counterweight to the liberal onslaught. In the absence of such a counterweight the dominant theme of the public discourse was peace: how to achieve it in Vietnam, how to preserve it in the world at large through immediate East-West negotiations, and how to protect it at home from the Nixon administration's alleged hard-line proclivities. At that time, of course, the neoconservatives who would later accuse us of softness on communism were still on the radical side of the dividing line, adding their voices to the clamor for accommodation.

Wilsonianism had involved the United States in Indochina by means of universalist maxims that had proved successful in Europe and were now applied literally in Asia. Wilsonianism rejects peace through balance of power in favor of peace through moral consensus. It sees foreign policy as a struggle between good and evil, in each phase of which it is America's mission to defeat totally the evil foes challenging a peaceful order. Having prevailed, the United States can then devote itself to fostering the underlying harmony (in the internationalist version) or cultivating its own virtues (in the isolationist version) until the next discrete crisis arises -- perceived not as a disturbance of the equilibrium but as a deviation from the moral order. Such a foreign policy tends to be segmented into a series of episodes and not perceived as a continuum requiring constant attention and adjustment, a quest for absolutes rather than the shaping of reality by means of nuances.

The Nixon administration strove for a more differentiated approach. Though he admired Woodrow Wilson, nothing in Nixon's personal experience led him to share the conviction that great ideas could be realized in one grand assault. Nixon and I enlisted our firm anticommunist convictions in the service of a complex strategy destined to achieve our objective in stages, each of which by definition was bound to fall short of the ultimate ideal and could therefore be castigated as insufficiently moral. We viewed foreign policy as a continuing process with no terminal point, unlike the dominant view seeking a series of climaxes, each of which would conclude its particular phase.

The Nixon strategy had the following six components: to extricate the United States from Vietnam under honorable conditions; to confine the dissent of the protest movement to Indochina; to seize the high ground of the peace issue by a strategy that demonstrated to the American public that, even while pursuing the Cold War, the administration would do its utmost to control its dangers and gradually to overcome it; to broaden the diplomatic chessboard by including China in the international system; to strengthen our alliances; and, from that platform, to go on the diplomatic offensive, especially in the Middle East.

Detente was one aspect of the overall strategy. An unfortunate label implying European antecedents, detente was designed to control a relationship conceived as adversarial, not to conjure up a nirvana from which all tensions had automatically been removed, as later caricatures of it implied. Throughout, Nixon and I considered the Soviet Union ideologically hostile and militarily threatening. At once an empire and a cause, it was the only power capable of intervention globally, the source of most postwar international crises, and the sole country capable of attacking the United States. We strove for a strategy that calibrated the benefits of restraint and the penalties of recklessness to keep Soviet leaders from mounting a challenge during the period of our national turmoil. And if the calibration failed, the very effort would at least have demonstrated to the American people that the resulting crisis was caused by the Soviet Union -- thereby bolstering support for a strong response. In short, we treated America's travail over Vietnam as a temporary weakness that, once overcome, would enable us to prevail over the Soviet system when geopolitical isolation and a stagnant economy had exhausted the Kremlin's ideological zeal.

We judged the Soviet Union, seemingly so monolithic and so eager to demonstrate its military power, as in fact being rent by vast systemic upheavals. Such astute observers as Andrei Amalrik (one of whose articles I gave to Nixon to read) were already calling attention to the fact that the Soviet empire was facing profound and congenital vulnerabilities. In the more than 50 years of its history, the Soviet leadership had never managed a legitimate succession. Leaders had either died in office (like Lenin and Stalin) or had been replaced by coup-like procedures (like Khrushchev). In each case, succession was followed by a purge. And the growth of Soviet military potential was draining the economy and driving it into stagnation. This is why, in the Alastair Buchan Lecture in June 1976, I said, "We have nothing to fear from competition: . . . if there is an economic competition, we won it long ago. . . . If performance is any criterion, the contest between freedom and communism, of which so much was made three decades ago, has been won by the industrial democracies."

In the process, the Soviet international position was growing more complicated. Tensions between Moscow and Beijing were escalating. Within weeks of Nixon's inauguration, we learned of military clashes along the Ussuri River, which demarcates the boundary between China and the Soviet Union's maritime provinces at the edge of Siberia. Upheavals in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and a near-revolution in Poland in 1970 dramatized the tenuousness of the Soviet hold over its satellites.

In the Middle East, the Soviet Union had been arming its Arab allies for a war it was well within our capacity to prevent them from winning. Therefore, our strategy in the Middle East sought to thwart an Arab military option in order to oblige the Soviet Union and its radical Arab allies to dissociate from each other. Far from conducting detente from a perception of weakness, the Nixon administration was convinced that it had little to fear and much to gain from a flexible diplomacy in which the rigid Soviet system was bound to find itself increasingly at a disadvantage. In light of its vulnerable economy and geopolitical isolation, we intended to maneuver the Soviet colossus into transforming itself from a cause into a state capable of being influenced by traditional calculations of reward and punishment, thereby first easing the Cold War and ultimately transcending it.

To be effective, a strategic assessment needs to be translated into an operating policy. The then-dominant liberal group viewed negotiation as an end in itself, regardless of content. The very act of dialogue, it argued, "eased the atmosphere"; each agreement facilitated the path for further progress until a spirit of reconciliation had supplanted the suspicions of the Cold War and made some of the issues that had dominated it less central.

The Nixon administration rejected this approach. We were prepared for an intense period of negotiation, but we were not willing to let our adversaries choose the agenda or the conditions. Progress on issues of concern to Moscow had to coincide with progress in areas of concern to Washington. Therefore we insisted that individual negotiations on trade or arms control take place in an atmosphere of Soviet political and military restraint, especially with regard to such long-standing trouble spots as Berlin, the Middle East, and Indochina. Unlike the liberals, the Nixon administration did not justify its East-West diplomacy by a presumed change in Soviet motivations. But unlike the conservatives, who feared that agreements might weaken American vigilance, we argued that the Soviet Union was more vulnerable than the free world to a long period of peace and more likely to face fundamental changes as a result of it.

By the end of Nixon's first term, we had vindicated the strategy of moving forward on a broad front. The Soviet Union was being constrained from geopolitical adventures by the stick of our opening to China and the carrot of prospects of increased trade. In 1971, we helped channel West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik into a direction compatible with allied cohesion by linking West German recognition of the East German communist regime to a guarantee of free access to Berlin, thereby ending for the rest of the Cold War Soviet harassment of the city's access routes. In 1972, we were able to step up military pressure on Hanoi without Soviet interference. The Soviets went ahead with the planned superpower summit despite the mining of Vietnamese harbors and the renewal of bombing of North Vietnam because they prized the benefits of a visit by Nixon more than ideological ties with Hanoi. It was also in 1972 that Soviet military forces were expelled from Egypt -- as we had predicted in 1970. By the end of 1973, the United States was dominating Middle East diplomacy. A strategic arms agreement numerically freezing the Soviet missile buildup without modifying any established American program had been negotiated. Linkage had prevailed.


At this high point of Nixon's foreign policy, the national consensus broke down. Beginning in 1972 and continuing for the remainder of Nixon's term, an increasingly acerbic domestic debate over the nature and the priorities of American foreign policy broke out. With brief interruptions, it has continued to this writing.

Many factors combined to produce this state of affairs. Perhaps the most fundamental was that Nixon and I underestimated the impact on the public of the sharp difference between our approach to foreign policy and the Wilsonianism that had become dominant in the twentieth century. For his part, Nixon embittered the emerging debate by stressing in his public speeches (though not in our annual reports to Congress) domestic and political, rather than conceptual, explanations for his foreign policy. Convinced that the best way to isolate his liberal opponents was, in effect, to steal their program, Nixon could not resist rubbing it in that it was he -- the despised, ostensibly reactionary Cold Warrior -- who had, in fact, fulfilled much of the liberal agenda on negotiating with the adversary and that he had done so on the basis of a strong national defense.

This tactic infuriated the liberals, who moved ever further away from Nixon by searching for more sweeping arms control proposals and such moral causes as human rights where they thought Nixon could not follow them. And it lost him the support of the traditional conservatives who might well have gone along with a justification of our policy for what it was -- a hardheaded strategy for managing the Cold War -- but who viewed co-opting liberal slogans as opportunism.

The liberals, having advocated greater East-West contacts, arms control, and increased trade for at least a decade, would normally have been supportive of these policies now that they were actually being implemented. And under the leadership of any president other than Richard Nixon, they might well have eventually endorsed the substance of our policies even while differing with the geopolitical approach on which they were based. But Nixon had been anathema to the liberal community for more than two decades; the blood feud ran too deep.

The liberals' first line of defense was to invoke all their standard critiques. Nixon's policy, they argued, was not going far enough; indeed, it was a subterfuge for continuing the Cold War. But given the broad front on which Nixon was proceeding, this argument held little attraction for any but confirmed Nixon-haters.

So it happened that, in the course of 1972, the liberals' attack veered in an entirely new direction that let them maintain their traditional moral critique. Though they had hitherto insisted that East-West trade, arms control, and cultural exchanges were vital to ameliorating the superpower conflict and therefore needed to be pursued in their own right, the liberals now declared war on the Soviet internal system. Unembarrassed by their previous rejection of the concept of linkage of foreign policy issues to each other, they now resurrected linkage with a vengeance by insisting that all agreements be linked to changes in Soviet domestic practices.

Shifts in the editorial position of The New York Times mirrored this metamorphosis. Over the course of a few months in the fall of 1972, the newspaper moved from unconditional advocacy of East-West trade and arms control -- and attacks on linkage -- to stern criticism of any agreement that did not dismantle the Soviet domestic structure. On September 13, 1972, for instance, the Times espoused its traditional liberal view that expanded trade "is sufficiently beneficial to both sides that it ought to be considered . . . on its own merits, independent of particular secondary disputes in other areas." Within two months, on November 25, 1972, in a complete reversal, the Times was cautioning its readers that "it will be a serious mistake if American business, the Nixon administration, or, for that matter, Soviet officials, become so eager to expand Soviet-American trade as to forget the continuing sensitivity of the American people -- and of Congress -- to Soviet political behavior both inside and outside the USSR's borders."


The liberals' reversal of position was soon being echoed by various conservative groups. Convinced that the Cold War was a life-and-death ideological struggle, conservatives had never been comfortable with a wide-ranging negotiation with the Soviet Union because the mere fact of it implied some degree of common interest with the adversary. In their view, so long as communism retained its grip, any hope for restraint in Soviet conduct was chimerical. The conservatives would have been most comfortable with some variation of the original Acheson-Dulles containment posture of waiting behind "positions of strength" for the eventual collapse of communism within the Soviet Union and preferably in China as well.

The conservatives' split from Nixon was a pity because we did not differ with their analysis of the nature of the Soviet system. Where we disagreed was in assessing its implications for American foreign policy. Nixon and I believed that refusing to negotiate with the Kremlin would spread the virulence of the anti-Vietnam protest movement into every aspect of American political life and deeply, perhaps fatally, divide our alliances. Far better, we thought, to seize the initiative and control the diplomatic process. In the meantime, we would keep open the possibility that what on the Soviet side had begun as tactics might evolve into a more reliable pattern of coexistence.

What drove conservative disquiet into outright opposition was the emergence of the so-called neoconservatives. That they claimed even part of the conservative label for themselves was something of an anomaly, since, nearly without exception, their leading representatives had started out on the liberal side, most of them on its radical wing. They had disdained Nixon, passionately opposed the Vietnam War, objected to our military budgets as too Cold War-oriented, and pressed for a more conciliatory approach toward the Soviet Union.

Starting in the summer of 1972 and extending over the period of a year, this group grew disillusioned with the turn American liberalism was taking. They found distasteful the radicalism and lifestyles of the Democratic convention that had nominated George McGovern for president in 1972. And ever since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, they had become increasingly disenchanted with the prospect of accommodation with the Soviet Union. The 1973 Middle East war completed their conversion to geopolitical realities. They interpreted that war as a Soviet-Arab conspiracy against Israel and the industrial democracies and concluded that the challenge was best resisted in the name of opposition to detente.

Many of the neoconservatives were (or have become) personal friends. And however painful their critiques might occasionally have proved when I was in office, they made significant contributions to American thinking on foreign policy. They brought a much-needed intellectual rigor and energy to the debate, which helped to overcome the dominance of liberal conventional wisdom. Once they reached office in the Reagan administration, they conducted a strong and successful national strategy which I supported.

But there was also a reverse side to the single-mindedness with which they pursued their newfound convictions. When the neoconservatives first appeared on the scene, their defining experience was their own ideological conversion to the pursuit of the Cold War. Tactics bored them; they discerned no worthy goals for American foreign policy short of total victory. Their historical memory did not include the battles they had refused to join or the domestic traumas to which they had so often contributed from the radical left. When the neoconservatives moved to the radical right, they packed in their bags their visceral dislike of Nixon, even though technically they were now on the same side. And they distorted the subsequent debate with a touch of amnesia about their own role in the seminal battles of which Vietnam was a symbol, if not a cause.

Vietnam accelerated the phenomenon that the United States would have experienced in any event, albeit more gradually: that power in the world was becoming more diffused and isolation for America increasingly impossible. As the 21st century approached, the United States would have to exercise its influence as the single most important and coherent part of an international system, but no longer as the solitary leader it had been at the beginning of the Cold War. The great initiatives of the early Cold War had been presented as "solutions" to the challenge they were addressing, often with a terminal date. Henceforth what was needed was a permanent American participation depending more on the ability to accumulate nuances than on engineering final outcomes in a brief period.

The realization was dawning that idealism could lead to overextension as easily as miscalculation. But traditional American Wilsonianism rebelled against the verity that great goals in foreign policy must generally be approached in imperfect stages. The radical opponents of the Vietnam War had ascribed the failures in Indochina to moral defects and had preached the cure of abdication to enable the United States to concentrate on self-improvement. The neoconservatives reversed the lesson, seeing in moral regeneration the key to reengagement. Nixon and I agreed with the neoconservative premise, but we also believed that the Wilsonianism of the early 1960s had lured us into adventures beyond our capacities and deprived us of criteria to define the essential elements of our national purpose. Those of us who had been mauled by the Vietnam protests were deeply concerned with avoiding a repetition of this paralysis. We therefore searched for a more sober approach to American foreign policy that would -- as we repeatedly stated -- avoid the oscillations between abdication and overextension that had marked the previous period.


The neoconservatives insisted that such an approach did not do justice to the moral dynamism of a society that had turned its back on the callous calculations of the Old World. In the process, they put forward not so much a new dispensation -- as they claimed -- but a return to a militant, muscular Wilsonianism. The fundamental aim of foreign policy as they saw it was the eradication of the evil represented by the Soviet Union without confusing the issue with geopolitics.

Whereas Nixon (and I) saw the greatest danger in creeping Soviet expansionism abetted by Soviet superiority in conventional forces, interior lines of communication, and the umbrella of a vast and growing strategic nuclear force, the neoconservatives' stated nightmare was some apocalyptic showdown over world domination. The Nixon team viewed the conflict with Moscow as a long-term geopolitical contest in which, together with our allies, we would wear down the Soviet system. The neoconservatives argued that it was possible to overcome communism with a burst of ideological elan.

This difference in emphasis was overshadowed and confused by a bitter debate that broke out in 1972 over the first agreement to limit strategic arms, which froze the offensive deployments of the two sides for a period of five years. Though these force levels had been chosen by the Pentagon without any reference to arms control, our critics insisted that they left America vulnerable and invented complex scenarios whereby a Soviet attack might reduce our warheads to a "mere" 4,000 while the Soviets would retain three times that number.

It was a symptom of the mood of the period that presidents like Nixon and Ford, who had been defense hawks all their lives, could be accused of sanctioning strategic inequality. We took the strategic arms race seriously but we did not believe that the aged leaders of a moribund society were prepared to stake the survival of their society and political system on a number of wild gambles: that they were technically able to launch hundreds of missiles simultaneously even though they had never test-fired more than three at a time and these only from test sites, never from operational silos; that American missiles would not be launched on warning even though there might be a 30- to 45-minute interval in which to determine that an all-out attack was underway; that Soviet operational missiles had the same accuracy as test missiles; that an American president would refrain from using the thousands of warheads which, even under the most pessimistic scenario, would survive a surprise attack. Finally, none of these hypothetical disaster scenarios would be available even to the most demented Soviet leader until about a decade after salt i expired, and then only if we took no countermeasures.

To protect against these contingencies, the Nixon and Ford administrations vigorously modernized our strategic forces. In fact the backbone of the strategic arsenal at this writing is composed of weapons developed and put before Congress in the Nixon and Ford administrations: the Minuteman III, the MX, the rebuilt B-52, the B-1 and B-2 airplanes, and the Trident submarine.

All subsequent administrations, including Reagan's, adhered to the salt i limits even after the agreement had lapsed. In fact, the total of our strategic forces at the end of the Reagan period ten years later was slightly lower than when salt i was signed.

The real issue in our national debate was not the numbers game of arms control discussions. It had to do with the perception of the challenge. Nixon and Ford judged the challenge to be in the nature of a marathon race, and they would not dissipate our strength in a series of sprints designed for the gallery. And they were reinforced in this attitude because Congress was annually legislating cuts in the defense budget over our opposition. Nixon and Ford thought it essential to prove to the American people that crisis and confrontation were a last resort, not an everyday means of conducting foreign policy. Both were convinced that we stood to win the marathon for which we were girding. With its creaky economy, the Soviet Union would, in the end, not be able to compete with the coalition we were assembling of all the industrial democracies cooperating with China, the world's most populous country. And that is essentially what happened.

Nixon and Ford were right from the perspective of their time, as was Reagan from the perspective of the 1980s. Unfortunately, the bitter feud between two sides that should have been allies produced both a standoff and diplomatic near-paralysis.

The neoconservatives saw far less value in defeating Soviet geopolitical encroachments on distant battlefields, such as Angola or Indochina, than in facing down the Soviet ideological or nuclear threat in some kind of definitive confrontation. This is why most neoconservatives failed to support the Ford administration when liberals in Congress cut off aid to the desperate peoples of South Vietnam and Cambodia and to the African forces resisting the SovietffiCuban intervention in Angola.

The neoconservatives' need to break with their past made them oblivious to the context in which their prescriptions had to be carried out and made it impossible to incorporate the real lessons of Vietnam into the national consciousness. Even though we granted the neoconservative argument on behalf of the need for moral revival, the United States -- just emerging from Vietnam, in the midst of Watergate, and later led by a nonelected president -- was not in a position to conduct a crusade; in fact, the attempt to do so would have torn the country apart even further. By depicting the diplomatic strategy of the Nixon and Ford administrations as a form of appeasement and our resistance to communist expansion in various theaters as a diversion from the main struggle, the neoconservatives undercut the real foreign policy debate, which was not with them but with the liberals.

Until well into Ford's term in office, congressional and media pressures came predominantly from the liberal side of the political spectrum. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield periodically led drives to pull American troops out of Europe; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright challenged the alleged militarization of American foreign policy; Senators Frank Church and Walter Mondale attacked the intelligence community. Some liberal senators, such as Jacob Javits, John Sherman Cooper, and Hubert Humphrey, endorsed our arms control policies but shrank from the defense programs necessary to give us leverage in the negotiations.

In the early 1970s, the option of what later became the highly effective Reagan policy did not exist. The obstacle to such a policy was not the Nixon or the Ford administration but the liberal Congress and media. By training their fire first on Nixon and then on Ford, the neoconservatives provided an alibi to those whose pressures had complicated the extrication from Indochina, whose legislation then caused its collapse, and who mandated an end to the Soviet/Cuban onslaught in Angola. The focal point of the foreign policy debate for the neoconservatives had been the moment at which they appeared on the scene, and they have so concentrated on largely tactical disagreements with fellow conservatives that they have made it difficult to come to grips with the real lessons of the Vietnam tragedy.

Even after the neoconservatives had achieved dominance with the Reagan ascendancy, they continued their assault by insisting on a version of history that lures the United States away from the need to face complexity. According to this interpretation, a group of accommodation-prone, European-influenced leaders was overcome by the knights-errant who suddenly appeared on the scene and prevailed in short order by proclaiming the distinction between good and evil and the revolutionary role of democratic principles.

Reality was more complex then and has become even more so at this writing. Ronald Reagan and his associates deserve vast credit for the denouement of the Cold War. But the United States will not harvest the intellectual lessons of their success if it ascribes its victory in the Cold War to rhetorical posturing. Reagan's policy was, in fact, a canny elaboration of the geopolitical strategies of the Nixon and Ford administrations combined with the rhetoric of Wilsonianism -- a quintessentially American combination of pragmatism and idealism. In an important sense, the victories of the 1980s derived from a Reaganite variation -- not a rejection -- of the strategies of the 1970s.

However different their tactics, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan conducted policies that sought simultaneously to contain the Soviet Union, shrink its influence, and work with it as this process unfolded. But whereas Nixon had sought to legitimize these policies by their practical success, Reagan proved to have a better instinct for America's emotions. He justified his course by an appeal to American idealism. Nixon attempted to preach the virtues of the national interest by evoking what he called a "structure of peace;" Reagan understood that the American people are moved more by appeals to purpose rather than structure, and his policy declarations resonated with classic democratic virtue. As a result, he won broader support for high defense budgets and geopolitical reengagement than Nixon was able to achieve -- or could have achieved in his time with the same appeal. (Reagan, of course, led a nation that had largely recovered from the Vietnam trauma and had grown disgusted with the humiliations of the Iran hostage crisis.)

Absent Watergate, a successful Nixon presidency might well have been able to use the high-wire acts of his first term to amalgamate the ideological convictions of the neoconservatives with the geopolitical insights of his own approach. As it was, this necessary reconciliation was prevented by our domestic crisis.

The fact is that both Reagan's inspirational approach and Nixon's geopolitical perspicacity are needed to conduct a long-range foreign policy in the 21st century. Nixon, under the pressure of circumstances and perhaps of his personality, overemphasized the tactical element. But Reagan's disciples today, neglecting the facts that Reagan inherited a psychologically recovered American people ready for a stronger course as well as a Soviet Union weakened by overextension and by Nixon's foreign policy legacy, seek to telescope a historical process into one climactic presidency. They thereby postpone both the synthesis without which we will never fully grasp our challenge and the consensus, now more necessary than ever, that would be theirs if they could only leaven their righteousness with an understanding that history did not begin on the date of their conversion.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and 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
  • Henry A. Kissinger was Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations and National Security Adviser to President Nixon. His books include A World Restored and Diplomacy. This essay is adapted from the recently published third volume of his memoirs, Years of Renewal.
  • More By Henry A. Kissinger