In This Review

A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency
A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency
By William Bundy
672 pp, Hill and Wang, 1998
Purchase

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.

Bundy, it is true, treats with much generosity the Kissinger of the dark years of 1973-74, after he had become secretary of state, when the political mood was one of the utmost bitterness and serious crises pressed on all fronts. He praises Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Yom Kippur War as masterful, echoing his complimentary treatment of the handling of the Jordanian crisis in 1970. He also clearly admires Kissinger's rear-guard action against the hard-liners, centered on Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), who were indicting Kissinger for appeasement on arms control and the emigration of Soviet Jews. But what praise there is for the overall record is meted out sparingly, appearing as little oases of commendation amid a desert of condemnation. Bundy's larger judgment emphasizes that Nixon and Kissinger continually deceived the American public and Congress; out of these deceptions flowed the major mistakes in policy (the "tangled web") in which they were subsequently entrapped. Watergate, though emblematic of Nixon's deceit, was not the primary cause of the collapse of the administration's policy from 1973 to 1975. The real reason was that its vaunted "structure of peace" had been "oversold, timed and framed too much for domestic political effect." The administration is alleged, in effect, to have kept three sets of figures: one to mislead the public, another to mislead the Congress, and the third to mislead itself.

THE INDICTMENT

Among the many allegations brought against the administration are that Nixon "personally organized in 1968 a covert operation to persuade Nguyen Van Thieu to defer joining in the peace talks -- the very act that may have tipped the [1968 U.S.] election result in Nixon's favor"; that Nixon never challenged Thieu's choice of commanders in South Vietnam, which might have made a real difference, because of the debt so incurred; that the Cambodian incursion of 1970 was counterproductive to the larger policy of Vietnamization and disastrous for Cambodia, part of a series of missteps that place the responsibility for the mass killing that befell that country after the 1975 Khmer Rouge victory squarely on Nixon and his advisers; and that in the period leading up to the Paris peace accords of January 1973 the administration treated the North Vietnamese with bad faith and brutality and the South Vietnamese with contemptuous disregard, while deceiving the American public with Nixon's secret and unconstitutional pledge to Thieu to resume bombing in the event of a major North Vietnamese violation of the peace accords.

The traits that distinguished the administration's approach to Indochina, Bundy argues, were also on display in its policies toward Chile, Iran, and the Asian subcontinent. Though Bundy absolves the administration of direct responsibility for the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973, he castigates the covert and violent measures against the Chilean regime approved in 1970, casts strong doubt on Kissinger's assertion that they were countermanded, and insists that even in 1973 the administration might be fairly indicted for indirect responsibility because it so clearly welcomed the action by the Chilean military. Policy toward Iran, which in effect gave the shah carte blanche for military purchases from the U.S. arsenal, prepared the ground for the harsh anti- Americanism of the Iranian Revolution, while the dispatch of a carrier task force to the Indian Ocean in 1971, in the midst of the war between India and Pakistan, probably played a key role in India's decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Throughout that crisis, Bundy concludes, Nixon and Kissinger "lurched to highly doubtful conclusions on the basis of fragmentary evidence, little understood the decisive regional elements, and misjudged the conduct of both the Soviet Union and China at key junctures," leading to a policy "replete with error, misjudgment, emotionalism, and unnecessary risk taking."

Whereas policy in all these areas had grave consequences, the administration's policy toward the Soviet Union was often simply inept. In the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (salt), Bundy holds, Kissinger was continually sloppy. His blunders included a cynical political maneuver that feigned a willingness to negotiate limits on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) technology, an unwillingness to explore with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin the bases of a mutual framework for controlling nuclear arms, and an unaccountable failure to link offensive and defensive limitations until early February 1971. Detente, Bundy believes, was for Nixon little more than a ploy intended to secure his reelection in 1972, but a policy for which the administration nevertheless had expectations that were doomed to be disappointed (for neither Russia nor China provided any real help in extracting the United States from Vietnam).

The real success of detente was the European version, emphasizing human rights, rather than the American, centered on geopolitics. Indeed, the Nixon administration never grasped the importance of Willy Brandt's policy, often bitterly criticized it, and misunderstood the part played in Soviet policy by concern about the future of Germany (even though, Bundy notes with a gasp of disbelief, Kissinger absurdly took credit for the achievements of the European detente in his eulogy of Nixon).

The opening to China was brilliant theater, and Bundy even allows that the understanding that Kissinger reached with Zhou Enlai over Japan, reflecting Chinese acceptance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, was of great importance. But it was a big blunder to have informed Japan at the last moment, profoundly embarrassing its government and destroying the trust that had been built up for a generation. Given the sheer inevitability of such a normalization, as well as the limited benefits obtained thereby, the opening was not quite the virtuoso performance alleged by the administration's defenders; besides, Kissinger found the answer to all the really difficult problems, like Taiwan, in State Department memoranda of the 1950s.

The heroes of this book are the unsung bureaucrats who were continually slighted and cut out of the policy process by the White House but who, Bundy argues, often gave more prescient assessments and better policy advice. Thus Marshall Green, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, expertly forecast the folly of invading Cambodia -- and was punished for being right. Gerald Smith, chief salt negotiator, was cut out of the action before and during the final stages of the negotiation over offensive nuclear forces, with predictably negative results. The State Department's Berlin experts were not the "sterile theologians" of Kissinger's description but professionals with a far better grasp of the European situation than either Nixon or Kissinger. Bundy also lavishes high praise on the economic diplomacy of the administration, particularly the patient method of consultation with Congress and allied governments employed by George Shultz after he became secretary of the treasury in 1972, pointedly contrasting it with the deceptive end runs made by Kissinger.

A PHILOSOPHICAL DEEPENING

The power of this indictment, and the skill with which Bundy marshals his evidence, cannot be gainsaid. It is nevertheless flawed. For all the emphasis on Nixon and Kissinger's deceit, there is much that this book leaves hidden: the polished foreign policy reports prepared under Kissinger's direction hardly merit a mention, much less a fair exposition. Yet the words of the administration were important. Nixon and Kissinger introduced to the dialogue over the nation's foreign policy a new sophistication that did represent what Kissinger called a philosophical deepening. Their outlook accepted much of the previous liberal critique of universalism, yet cast the new approach in the classic idiom of European statecraft. America, they contended, could neither withdraw from nor dominate the world; instead, it would have to accept its necessary role as a stabilizing factor in the maintenance of a balance of power, without which there could be neither peace nor justice. The Nixon administration's policy, it might be argued, often sounded better than it was, but a careful historian should recall the words and give them their due.

Bundy's desire to cast the two men into perdition leads him frequently to overstatement. It is misleading, for example, to leave the impression that the Nixon administration was positively hostile to Brandt's Ostpolitik. Giving vent to suspicions in private is not the same thing as opposing in public. Privately, both men did indeed worry that Germany would get too far ahead of its allies and be tempted to cut a separate deal with the Soviet Union. Their considered policy, nevertheless, was not to derail but to guide Ostpolitik by embedding it "in a wider framework than German nationalism," as Kissinger noted in his memoirs.

Nor is it fair to chide the administration for failing to move "out of the mold of the Cold War." Such an enterprise, like the tango, is best not undertaken unilaterally. When the American presidency suddenly weakened in 1973 and 1974, the Soviet Union proved a most coy and unwilling partner (as was seen in its continuing military buildup and its growing adventurism in Africa and the Middle East). Bundy is right to stress that Europe's mid-1970s detente with the Soviet Union represented an important structural change, for contact with the free societies of the West did in the end introduce a fatal contagion into the communist system. But that detente, culminating in the 1975 Helsinki accords, was largely brought about in conjunction with rather than in opposition to the United States and would not have been as successful as it was without the corresponding U.S. insistence that a balance of military power was also indispensable.

Bundy's account of Kissinger's oversights, failures, and sloppiness in negotiations over nuclear weapons is also tendentious. As Kissinger himself has conceded, the methods employed in the Nixon administration -- the "weird" administrative style of the White House, the studied isolation of the foreign affairs bureaucracy -- are not "desirable in the abstract; certainly, they should not be regularly pursued." Bundy does show that certain mistakes followed directly from that style, but he does not show that those mistakes were really all that consequential. The Nixon administration's policy must stand or fall on the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, whose lasting significance was the acceptance of mutual vulnerability, yet Bundy says little about the importance of that agreement. Conceding, as he does, that it would have been almost impossible for any administration to stop the momentum toward MIRVs and precision guidance in the late 1960s or early 1970s, which so complicated arms control efforts over the next two decades, the indictment of Kissinger must center on certain marginal features of the numbers game related to strategic nuclear weapons. Later in the book, Bundy all but acknowledges that the numbers game was essentially meaningless.

The grand design that Nixon and Kissinger put forth in the first term -- symbolized by "triangular diplomacy" and "the new structure of peace" -- had more coherence and integrity than Bundy is willing to allow. Their moves to open an era of negotiation with both communist powers and to de-emphasize the ideological warfare of the preceding generation gave American diplomacy considerable flexibility and resilience, constituting valuable warnings against the overreaching of the previous epoch and important insurance against the prospect of the unilateral abdication that then beckoned.

Linkage, it is true, introduced through the back door the fixation on ideological considerations that had been banished at the front, and Bundy's criticism of the Chilean episode -- a discreditable instance of this strange displacement -- is just. Still, the overall framework then established was a sound one, which is why American diplomacy kept returning to it over the next 20 years. The strategy of offering to the Soviet Union both inducements and restraints did not constitute a miracle cure for superpower competition (what could?), but it still seems in retrospect a more sensible formula than that offered by the Congress of that era. That formula, increasingly, seemed reducible to denying the administration both carrots and sticks in its approach to the communist world, yielding a diplomacy that was not made for peace and a military posture that was not prepared for war.

"Peace with honor" also, of course, ended ignominiously, and doubtless the Nixon administration must take much of the blame. But blame also falls on Congress, which irresponsibly cut the South Vietnamese off from the supplies of ammunition and fuel that were desperately needed in 1974 and 1975. The assessment of responsibility in Cambodia is also, I think, much more difficult than Bundy allows. The alternative scenario that he suggests might have unfolded had the United States respected the Cambodian sanctuary (a North Vietnamese rather than Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia) seems quite implausible. Even if right, isn't it a classic case of wisdom after the event? Many critics of the Cambodian incursion in 1970 stressed the illegality of the measure; those whom Bundy cites approvingly (like Green) stressed that it would prove counterproductive to the larger policy of Vietnamization. None predicted that it (or later missteps) would give rise to a chain of consequences that would end with a genocidal regime in power in Phnom Penh in 1975. Americans should certainly reflect deeply and sorrowfully on the nature of the responsibility their country bears for that catastrophe, even if the consequences were unintended and the responsibility was partial. Still, those who advised that we should wash our hands of the entire business and let events take their course are really in no position to hurl down thunderbolts at those who counseled resistance to a communist takeover.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence," in F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-quoted words, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Certainly such an ability is useful in coming to terms with Nixon and Kissinger. They are truly a study in contradiction. Not for nothing has "Nixonian" passed into the language as an adjective designating low methods and deceptive tactics. There is impressive evidence that Kissinger, too, acted in ways that well earned the distrust and enmity of former colleagues and associates. But the dark side is not the whole truth about either man. Nixon may have been, as Bundy alleges, a " 'true believer,' fervent, intolerant, sure of his own positions," but he could also be a very shrewd observer of the political world. Kissinger, as The Haldeman Diaries made clear, may have acted in an extraordinarily petty fashion on some occasions, but he also displayed elements of true greatness as a statesman. It is a strange irony indeed that Kissinger, who may be found on occasion both well below and well above the mean of virtuous conduct -- alternately resembling, as it were, both the beast and the god of Aristotle's description -- should be most identified with, and have given us such profound explications of, the philosophy of equilibrium in international relations.

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