Sunday, April 22, 2007

Richard Nixon's "lessons of Vietnam"

I was intrigued recently to read an essay by Mortin Halperin, "The Lessons Nixon Learned", which appeared in The Legacy of Vietnam: The War, American Society and the Future of American Foreign Policy (1976), Anthony Lake, ed.

Coming into office in 1969, Nixon with the help of his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger had drawn the following lessons from the war at that point, lessons on which he relied during his notorious administration:

• The United States must be able to project a credible intent to use force when its interests are threatened.
• Escalation must be sudden and massive.
• The very existence of the North Vietnamese government, society, and economy must be threatened.
• Indochina must be linked to other issues in dealing with the Soviet Union and with China.
• Domestically, support must come from the right and from patriotic "middle" America.
Since today's Cheney-Nixon Bush administration [that was a real typo!] is the misbegotten spawn of the Nixon administration, Nixon's worldview is in part still driving US foreign policy. The undead stalking the living, one might call it.

To be historically realistic, Nixon's regime on the whole looks like a model of sober statesmanship in comparison to the Cheney-Bush crew, although even in comparison Nixon's policies in the Vietnam War and the Chilean coup of 1973 don't merit such a favorable description.

Nixon was big on the key notion of demonstrated the Will of the American people, especially as embodied in their Leader, being particularly important. Today we know that as the Cheney Stomach Theory of War (i.e., does the wimpy public have the Stomach to wage war forever in Iraq?) and, in Gene Lyons' inspired description, as the Professional Wrestling Theory of Foreign Policy. Halperin wrote:

This [Nixon's Vietnam War] policy had to be administered with considerable skill. Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow had to be convinced that the President had the determination to escalate the conflict as well as the domestic political freedom to do so. The President had to be seen as a decisive man who would pay the domestic costs, whatever they were, of an escalatory policy. (my emphasis)
Nixon and Kissinger never reduced diplomacy to military threats to nearly the extent that Dick Cheney has. But they were fond of brandishing their missiles, too:

The Nixon Administration's approach to the Vietnam war was a reflection of, and in turn was reflected in, its more general relations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The basic objective was to establish a new relationship with Soviet and Chinese leaders under which they would refrain from using military force to exploit local situations, and would instead cooperate with the United States in bringing such conflicts under control. The successful application of this policy required not only an end to the Vietnam war, but more generally a conviction on the part of the Soviet leaders, especially, that the United States would use force whenever it believed it was necessary to defend its interests, even in an arbitrary and unexpected way. This in turn depended on demonstrating to the Soviet leaders that the President believed in the use of force and would not be deterred from using it by domestic political opposition.

The lessons learned from the Johnson Administration's Vietnam policy were simultaneously applied in Indochina and elsewhere. Indeed, the successful application of the lessons of Vietnam required that they be applied in each potential crisis situation. Not only were they believed to be the most likely means to bring any particular crisis under control, but the failure to use the threat of force and to hold the Communist powers responsible would undermine the credibility of the general policy. The United States might have been seen as a pitiful, helpless giant, not only if it had failed to invade Cambodia, but also if it did not take credible steps indicating its willingness to use decisive military force in any potential conflict. Thus, throughout his Administration, every time the United States has seen itself on one side of a local military confrontation and the Soviet Union or China potentially on the other, President Nixon sought to convince the Soviet leadership that the United States would intervene militarily if the Soviets themselves threatened to challenge our interests. (my emphasis)
Halperin's essay reminds us that the value of this approach was, to put it mildly, highly questionable:

If the Kissinger-Nixon policy ultimately failed in Indochina, it is even less clear that the policy was necessary to build a structure of peace, or had an important impact on Soviet or Chinese behavior in other areas.
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