Perfectly Clear

The Real War

by Richard Nixon
Warner Books, 341 pp., $12.50

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

To read this book is to be reminded how Richard Nixon has managed to be his own worst enemy. Here, as in the rest of his career, he has shown both his intelligence and his deviousness, his claim to statesmanship and his unerring instinct for the unscrupulous.

Yet one can see why he wanted to write it: the need to move beyond Watergate, to remind us of his expertise in diplomacy, and to prepare the ground for his return to public life. Certainly this is the time for a knowledgeable polemic on foreign policy. The stumblings of the Carter administration are too well known to need enumerating here, and Nixon is certainly qualified to undertake such a polemic.

His administration, so shameful in so many respects, was brilliantly successful in certain key areas of foreign policy. The restoration of ties with the communist rulers of China, the SALT I treaty on nuclear weapons, and the first real movements toward détente with the Soviet Union—all of these were Nixon’s accomplishments, however much help he got from Kissinger. Only Nixon had the political skill—and, it should be stressed, the anticommunist credentials—to pull them off. Even the duplicitous “Vietnamization” program, with its heartless bombing campaign and its cynical prolongation of the war for four years with great agony and no apparent gain, could be called a political success for it defused domestic opposition and masked defeat.

Without doubt Nixon was an accomplished diplomatist. He could deal with Brezhnev and Mao, and retain the respect of both. They liked dealing with him. They should have, for he spoke their language: the language of ruthless and unprincipled power politics. He was a moral disaster for the country, but in dealing with its chief adversary his record was far from disastrous. He correctly put relations with the Russians at the center of his diplomacy, offered them rewards for good behavior, and avoided futile grandstanding and provocation. He behaved with monstrous cruelty toward Cambodia and Vietnam, and his devastation of those countries will go down as one of the blackest acts in American history. But nonetheless he was able to work out a modus vivendi with Moscow that has proved to be beyond the abilities of his successor.

When future diplomatic historians write of Nixon’s administration, they will doubtless concentrate less on Watergate and the domestic abuses of power than on a foreign policy that brought the Soviet Union into a nexus of cooperative competition, took the first fledgling steps toward arms control, renewed relations with the world’s most populous nation, and ended, albeit much too late and with unnecessary and terrible brutality, a hopeless and morally compromising war.

To say this is not to praise Nixon, but to try to give him his due. Now that he has returned to New York from the sanctuary of San Clemente and is ready to make his presence felt again,…

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