We’re now to part 17 of our twenty part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. I am told that there is the possibility that the second half of the book may be released, in mildly revised form, in paperback; I’d recommend buying the whole thing, but mileage may vary. Chapter XVII deals with the Nixon administration, taking us up to 1974. As with the last installment, my understanding of events with regards to China (which looms large in this chapter) has been immeasurably improved by reading Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk; once I finish this series, I’ll give a full separate review to that work.
I like this chapter because Herring is morally outraged, which always makes writing more lively. Herring clearly has little but contempt for Nixon and Kissinger. I agree, but Herring differentiates between Nixon and other presidents in ways that I am not really comfortable with.
I didn’t really get this from the chapter. It seemed to me that Herring distinguished between Nixon-Kissinger great power diplomacy and Nixon-Kissinger third world diplomacy, and rather approved of the former while harshly criticizing the latter. Herring suggests that Nixon and Kissinger were very bad a relations with non-great power actors, including Vietnam, Chile, and others, because they neither knew nor cared very much about anything that happened outside of Moscow or Beijing. Everything else, even Vietnam, was treated as a desultory sideshow. Nixon and Kissinger were happy to play the Cold Warriors in the sense that they would grant tacit support to Pinochet in Chile, but only because they understood such action in the frame of polite Cold War competition; Chile mattered because it might go Red, not because of any intrinsic value for US foreign policy.
This approach, as Herring suggests, had some drawbacks. Nixon was utterly indifferent to the suffering of the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples; Johnson may actually have caused as much destruction (to Vietnam, anyway), but Nixon simply couldn’t bother to care, beyond an analysis of how the bombing of Cambodia affected his re-election chances, and relations with the great powers. In Latin America, Nixon happily adopted the frame that his immediate predecessors had left; the key threat was left wing regimes, which meant that right wing dictatorships should be tolerated and even encouraged. Nixon, like his predecessors, paid outsized attention to Fidel Castro, and understood the election of Salvador Allende largely within that frame.
I’d also say, however, that Herring gives Nixon a fair shake on China and the Soviet Union. Relations between the US and the USSR were probably better under Nixon than at any point during the Cold War, at least until Reagan’s second term. Nixon stood by while Willy Brandt pushed ostpolitik in Europe, which helped conclude the endless series of Berlin crises that had afflicted US-German-Soviet relations since 1945. The Soviets were more or less comfortable with Nixon’s fumbling in the third world; they certainly didn’t care what happened to Allende. They were also glad to see the US rein in the Israelis a bit. While the arms control agreements that Nixon and Brezhnev concluded could have been better, they did lay the foundation for regulating competition between the superpowers for the next twenty years.
Herring makes clear that Nixon and Kissinger do not deserve sole credit for “opening” China; the PRC had diplomatic and trade relations with most of the rest of the world by 1972, and the controversy over relations in the United States was in large part due to anti-Communist hysteria that Nixon himself helped foment. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Nixon and Kissinger grasped the opportunity that a visit to Beijing presented. Herring argues that the impetus to opening relations was generated largely by concerns about Cold War competition, but that there was also an economic element; Nixon believed that increased trade with China would, in the long run, help to substantially improve US growth. I think that this has, in the long run, been borne out, although the volume of trade between the two states remained very low for a very long time. In military and political terms, “opening” China looked much better on the map than it did in real life; Chinese military and economic power was a fraction of that of the USSR or the US, and it’s unclear that adding the PRC (even implicitly) to the list of US obligations may have reduced, rather than contributed to, overall US capabilities. Positive relations with Beijing and Moscow also failed to make the North Vietnamese any more flexible in negotiations.
Neoconservatives continue to loathe Nixon and Kissinger, and it’s not hard to understand why. Neither were interested in even lip service to human rights. Nixon understood detente with, not destruction of, the Soviet Union to be the primary goal of US foreign policy. Nixon “betrayed” the brave freedom fighters on Taiwan in favor of the totalitarian PRC. Nixon and Kissinger weren’t terribly friendly to Israel, at least by the standards of contemporary administrations; Herring suggests that Kissinger (Nixon was drunk and distracted by this point) was delighted to see the Israelis getting a bloody nose at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. In short, Nixon and Kissinger represent almost the negation of neoconservative foreign policy preferences, even worse than Carter.