Last month I posted about Richard Nixon and the extent to which he tackled and solved domestic problems during his presidency (1969-1974). The main motivation for the post was related to the ending of study of the module ‘American Dream: Reality & Illusion 1945-80’ at my college (having taken the decision to ditch it in favour of the module Germany: Democracy & Nazism 1918-1945). However, despite having encountered various problems with the module I definitely ended it having a deeper understanding of this period of history, as well as a renewed appreciation of various characters; including President Richard Nixon.

So, having outlined domestic issues I thought it was fitting then to continue outlining Nixon’s foreign policy. It was an area of debate that I enjoyed covering, perhaps due to Nixon’s own philosophy and how this matched the wider American policy of being a domineering world power. Furthermore, Nixon pulled out a couple of foreign policy coups, notably that of opening up a stronger line of communication with Communist Russia and China (in what is known as détente). This post will focus chiefly on how Nixon dealt with the issue of Vietnam, in which we can see a variety of methods and the testing of Nixon’s own philosophy in attempting to end the war.

Nixon’s Philosophy

Before winning the 1968 election Nixon had already amassed a wide range of experience relating to foreign policy. He was Eisenhower’s VP during the 1950s, during with time he engaged in diplomatic summits all across the world; this aspect of constructing the image of a foreign policy expert was continued during the 1960s (after the setbacks of losing the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy and the 1962 gubernatorial election for California). With the increase of foreign policy problems for President Johnson – notably that of the escalation of the Vietnam War – Nixon’s own stock continued to rise, becoming a key part of his election campaign during 1968.

But Nixon had various influential constraints, especially of America’s own prestige and ideological commitments. The USA’s own assertive foreign policy developed over a period of decades and after the end of the Second World War it proclaimed itself as the central defender of capitalism against the expansion of Communism (as noted in the Truman Doctrine of 1947). America could not be seen to back down to another foe for fear that if one country collapsed to Communism then others would follow (the ‘Domino Theory’). This combative thinking led to the formation of the Cold War with the USSR and to the escalation of war with Vietnam. Clearly Nixon could not simply ignore the weight of the past, however, he was also keen to bring about his own approach. Along with Kissinger (his National Security Adviser) Nixon attempted to implement a brand of realpolitik; yes, America’s earlier doctrines – stretching back to the Monroe Doctrine of the 19th Century – were idealistic, but Nixon would not let this stop him from obtaining the gains that he wanted.

This so-called ‘Nixinger’ combination has been commented on by historians, with David Rothkopf noting:

‘They were a fascinating pair. In a way, they complemented each other perfectly. Kissinger was the charming and worldly Mr. Outside who provided the grace and intellectual-establishment respectability that Nixon lacked, disdained and aspired to. Kissinger was an international citizen. Nixon very much a classic American. Kissinger had a worldview and a facility for adjusting it to meet the times, Nixon had pragmatism and a strategic vision that provided the foundations for their policies. Kissinger would, of course, say that he was not political like Nixon—but in fact he was just as political as Nixon, just as calculating, just as relentlessly ambitious….these self-made men were driven as much by their need for approval and their neuroses as by their strengths.’

But how did this approach and philosophy operate when dealing with real-life foreign policy issues, notably the need to bring the war in Vietnam to a successful conclusion?

Nixon and Vietnam

Vietnam was a massive factor in the 1968 election campaign: the Democrats were unable to provide any solution to the mess that Johnson had created, whilst Nixon used the chaos to his advantage by positioning himself as the voice of reason. He initially spoke of his ‘secret plan’ that would resolve the war, but failed to outline it in any detail (for fear that it would compromise the plan… yes, that old chestnut). However, on assuming his place in the White House Nixon realised that the war could not be simply ended by wishing it so, which led to a combination of contrasting methods in order to end it.

For example, he quickly switched from positioning himself as a man of peace (at his inauguration he proclaimed: ‘The greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker’) to utilise the ‘Madman Theory’ to scare the North Vietnamese into a peace settlement. As Nixon himself explained:

‘I call it the Madman Theory… I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.’

However, the North Vietnamese were not scared or cowered, resulting in further American aggression. One of the key themes of the Vietnam War is the inability of American policy makers to understand the context of the region and the willingness of the people to resist foreign invaders (as they had done against the Japanese and the French); as Kissinger stated: ‘I can’t believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not having a breaking point.’ This inability had led to the excesses under Johnson’s administration, and it is only with Nixon that a greater realisation was achieved. Nixon implemented the policy of ‘Vietnamization’: America would help build up and train the ARVN (the South Vietnamese army) in order to allow them to take over responsibility of the war. This in turn would result in a drawdown of American troops which would provide Nixon with plaudits from home (which was highlighted in time for the 1972 election campaign).

But yet the war dragged on with plenty of more twists and turns, including the expansion of war into Cambodia and the ‘Christmas Bombing’ campaign of 1972 to exert pressure on the North Vietnamese. Peace came in early 1973 in the form of the Paris Peace Accords which partitioned Vietnam between the Communist North and the capitalist South, thereby ending American participation in Vietnam and fulfilling Nixon’s election promise of 1968.

Success or Failure?

Does all of this suggest that Nixon succeeded with Vietnam? Further context is needed, notably the understanding that the conflict was not firmly resolved in 1973. Within two years  South Vietnam completely collapsed and the North took full control of the country to create the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. All of this highlights the USA’s ultimate failure and folly in involving themselves in the region: twenty years of military combat (either supporting the French or engaging directly themselves) was completely fruitless. It was – and remains – the greatest military defeat in American history.

However, Nixon’s methods could be argued to have been successful. He alternated between many extremes – from peace to outright aggression – which could show that he did not have a strong, clear plan; however, it could also be argued that he was flexible in order to obtain a peace settlement. The most successful method was the one that provided him with the right result: an ending of the war. In this manner, the ‘Nixinger’ realpolitik approach can be evidenced thoroughly.

However, despite this supposed flexibility, Nixon was unable to create a long-lasting peace. Yes, his policies in Vietnam were successful in political terms (the return of American troops definitely helped him in his 1972 election win), but all of it was built on sand. Perhaps Nixon’s realpolitik approach would have benefitted from firmer, stronger ideological convictions. Of course, the Watergate scandal revealed the extent of the lack of these convictions, and ultimately ruined Nixon’s presidency and legacy. But it could be argued that the Vietnam War poses a stronger haunting legacy.