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The New Shape of Nixon’s World



In his newly published memoirs1 General Taylor says that “deterrence depends upon a belief approaching certainty that our leaders and our people will risk war and even survival to aid an ally who is the victim of attack.” This one sentence, from his penultimate chapter “Lessons From Vietnam,” lights up a landscape of military thinking and planning which is usually kept murkily hidden from public view. That one quiet phrase “and even survival” reveals how much our military—and political—leadership may be prepared to gamble in order to enforce the Pax Americana. It suggests how little difference the apocalyptic dimensions of thermonuclear weapons have made in their traditional conception of machismo.

To accept defeat in Vietnam, General Taylor goes on to say, “would create understandable doubts everywhere as to our dependability in greater crises.” For General Taylor, success in limited war depends ultimately on readiness, if necessary, for all-out war. By this standard General Taylor must applaud the gamble Nixon took when he shut off North Vietnam’s harbors and escalated the war in its skies, in a fundamental challenge to Moscow and Peking.

Against that backdrop, the Declaration of Principles signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow makes sour reading. “The USA and USSR attach major importance,” it says, “to preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations” because “in the nuclear age there is no alternative to conducting their mutual relations on the basis of peaceful co-existence.” But twice in less than a decade, the US risked confrontation and the USSR backed down.

Over Vietnam, as earlier over Cuba, it proved untrue that there was “no alternative” in the nuclear age. The principle of “preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation” was again successfully ignored by the United States. The game of dare and double-dare played itself out—in spite of the unprecedented stakes—in schoolboy fashion. Khrushchev’s missiles in Cuba were the dare, Kennedy’s naval blockade the double-dare. The offensive by the revolutionary forces in Vietnam on the eve of the Moscow summit looked to Nixon like Brezhnev’s dare; the blockade and bombing were Nixon’s double-dare. All this, easily discernible between the lines, made a historic and dangerous joke of the words they signed.

For the Russian military at the end of the summit there was the bitter cup of a second humiliation; for ours, the heady wine of again proving its adversary “chicken.” Our side’s triumph was too intoxicating for our own safety; their defeat, perhaps, too bitter not to provoke some day as perilous a revulsion. What happens when and if they don’t back down?

Peaceful relations between the two nuclear superpowers, said the declaration they signed, must be “based on the principle of equality and the renunciation of the use or threat of force.” But in the showdown it was again Moscow that renounced force. The first of the fallacies propagated by the Moscow declaration is that it registers US acceptance of the Soviet Union as an equal power in a bipolar world. On the contrary the declaration is only a face-saver for American emergence again as top dog. We are slowly destroying a communist nation from the air and cutting off its supplies by sea and land without interference from its two great allies; indeed without any interruption of Moscow’s negotiations for US trade and credit favors or of Peking’s rapprochement and even covert collaboration with Washington, as in their joint support of Pakistan.

Whatever the Vietnamese revolutionary forces manage to achieve in South Vietnam under the most savage bombardment of history short of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s primacy as the world’s No. 1 military and economic power has been established by Nixon’s gamble and the Moscow-Peking acquiescence in it. Like the Godfather, we have earned “respect”’ by demonstrating that we can kill with impunity, that we are so feared that rival gangsters are afraid to interfere, and even court us. Nixon, like Kennedy, is wise enough not to crow publicly, but no verbose declarations can wipe out the facts. Nixon won even more than Kennedy, for the latter at least had to give an implicit promise to leave Cuba alone if Khrushchev withdrew his missiles, while Nixon has been given a green light to smash North Vietnam.

Several times in the briefings that ended the Moscow summit, reporters reduced Kissinger to a series of lame evasions and the Soviet press spokesman Leonid Zamyatin, general director of Tass, to angry silence by bringing up the contrast between the principles signed and what was going on in Haiphong harbor and over Hanoi. The question first came up at Kissinger’s 1:18 PM briefing at the Intourist Hotel in Moscow on May 29. “Dr. Kissinger,” he was asked, “if this document had been signed two months ago, would the mining of Haiphong be considered antithetical, against the spirit of the document?” Kissinger replied, “No set of principles can be used like a cookbook that can be applied to every situation.” That was hardly responsive. Nixon’s mining of Haiphong doesn’t fit any recipe in the new cookbook he put together at Moscow.

Later a reporter tried again, on another tack, and was turned off with a grim joke:

Q: The President said in his speech that he had no choice but to mine harbors and bomb the rail lines. Can you give us any idea of the degree to which Soviet leaders understand [sic] that vested interest?

Dr. Kissinger: We did not ask for the approval of the Soviet leaders and had we asked it, my instinct is that there would not have been a unanimity of views. [Laughter.]

At 2:30 PM the same day a joint press briefing was held by Nixon’s Ron Ziegler and Leonid Zamyatin. A similar question was put to Zamyatin:

Q: Mr. Zamyatin, had the statement of principles been signed two months ago, would you have considered the US mining of Haiphong to be in violation of the spirit of that?

Mr. Zamyatin: Our attitude to the mining of Haiphong was set forth in the statement of the Soviet government, and nothing in the negotiations has changed our evaluation, our assessment of this action.

Q: Mr. Zamyatin, with respect, sir, you didn’t answer my question. I asked whether or not….

Mr. Zamayatin: What I wanted to say, I said….

No one had the temerity after that slapdown to ask Zamyatin to which statement of the Soviet government he was referring. Before the summit, on May 11, Moscow called the mining of the North’s harbors a “gross violation” of international law. But in the post-summit joint communiqué, where each side set forth its own views on Indochina, the Soviet Union did not even mention the mining of Haiphong, and its protest against the bombings could hardly have been milder. “The Soviet Union stands for a cessation of bombings of the DRV,” was all it said. In the meantime it “stands for” continued escalation of that very same bombing.2


The world that emerges from the Moscow summit may be bipolar but it is not equal and it is not symmetrical. Both the US and the USSR are thermonuclear superpowers and neither can destroy the other without being destroyed itself. To that degree, but that degree only, there is equality. But in conventional air and naval power, the US is overwhelmingly superior, as it is in economic power. With roughly twice the gross national product of the USSR, the US probably has about the same margin in military power. Where Soviet military power is still largely defensive, US military power is largely offensive and imperial. It controls the seas between itself and Eurasia, and it is geared to maintain the containment line around the Soviet bloc. For the Pentagon, to hold that line is what the Vietnam war is all about. For Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, acquiescence in that line, in the status quo, is the price of détente and expanded trade. That is what I meant when I said in a previous article (NYR, June 1) that Nixon was offering Moscow a junior partnership in the Pax Americana.

This brings us to another of the fallacies fostered by the Moscow declaration, the assertion that the new cooperation between the two superpowers is being brought about “without in any way prejudicing the interests of third countries.” The principal leverage of the smaller countries in between them has always rested on their rivalry. The Marshall Plan was sold here not as economic sense and humane duty but on the basis of anti-communism, of saving Western Europe from a Red takeover. Castro’s Cuba has survived because the cold war has enabled it to switch from the American to the Soviet empire. The bargaining power of the Third World is weakened by détente between Washington and Moscow. The shadow cast over the Vietnamese revolution by the Moscow summit is in the same pattern.

When Kissinger held his press conference in Moscow on May 29 to explain the Declaration of Principles and the final communiqué, he said that speculation “about the linkages between trade and other political problems happen[s] to be quite wrong.” Both sides sought to create the impression that there was no “linkage,” i.e., no sellout of Vietnam for trade and credit concessions. But within a few minutes Kissinger undercut his own denial and exposed the real logic of US diplomacy. I want to quote this paragraph in its entirety because it is in many ways the most revealing statement made at the summit. Kissinger said:

Now, what we have attempted to do, as—some of you will remember we stressed to you before, is to attempt to move forward in our relations with the Soviet Union on a very broad front on many issues, some of which were related and some of which were not related, partly because of the intrinsic merit of these negotiations and of these issues, but also partly because we thought this would create on both sides so many vested interests in a continuation of a more formal relationship that apart from any of the policy considerations there would henceforth be a different attitude in the conduct of the foreign policy of both sides. [Emphasis added.]

A few minutes later in the same press conference, a reporter said he had been told by “a member of the White House staff” that “trade was our ‘leverage’ on Vietnam and if we don’t have one agreement we would not have one on the other.” He asked, “Are you denying that that is the situation?” To which Kissinger replied, “I am denying that we ever said to the Soviet leaders, ‘If you do this for us in Vietnam, we will do that for you in trade.’ You have to recognize that these are serious people and that we didn’t come here to buy them.”

  1. 1

    Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Ploughshares (Norton, 434 pp., $10.00).

  2. 2

    Peking, too, keeps a remarkably stiff upper lip as Hanoi is bombed. In the latest issue of Peking Review (May 26), the main article is in commemoration of Mao’s talk at Yenan thirty years ago on “Literature and Art,” as simplistic a bit of pseudo-Marxism as ever came from Stalin. The second big article (more than three pages) is “Why It Is Necessary to Study World History.” The Vietnam escalation is relegated to the “Round the World” section on page 21 of the twenty-four pages. It cites protests everywhere, but not in any communist country! Hsinhua’s Selected News Items (May 29) not only buries the Vietnam war but represents the US blockade and bombing as an effort to prevent North Vietnam “from supporting their kith and kin compatriots in the South.” No mention is made of the shut-off of Soviet and Chinese supplies nor of any steps to circumvent the sea and air blockade. It says that by “persevering in a protracted peoples’ war, the three Indochinese people will certainly drive US imperialism out of Indochina….”

    In the meantime Peking is doing its best to keep US imperialism from being driven out of South Asia. On the very day that Secretary Rogers urged the annual conference of the Central Treaty Organization Powers—Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Britain, and the US—to guard against new Soviet thrusts in that area, the news broke from Islamabad (New York Times, June 3) that Peking had supplied Pakistan with $300 million in new weaponry (including jet fighters and tanks) to make up for those lost in the war with India over Bangladesh, in which Peking and Washington were united against Delhi and Moscow in support of those responsible for the Bengali massacres. The world has seen strange bedfellows before but never in a stranger and bloodier bed.

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