Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev
Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev; drawing by David Levine



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.”

So I can say [Kissinger continued] that it is not correct that we linked trade to Vietnam. It is correct that it has always been understood, which you could say about any one of these problems, that as our general relationships improve, we can accelerate progress in every area, but this is no more true of trade than anything else, and there never was any direct linkage.

If the linkage is implicit rather than explicit, Secretary of Commerce Peterson made it clearer when he spoke on “Meet the Press” on May 28. He said of the suggestion that there was a “very specific link” between Vietnam and trade:

I think that is a substantial overstatement, both from talking to the President today and Henry Kissinger yesterday. I think it is a rather different kind of situation; the kind of linkage is not that kind of linkage, as in a chain, but rather a more general kind of linkage. In our country if we are going to improve and expand credit terms, for example, and commerce, it is going to be very important for the public to be behind it. Obviously for the President to be behind it. But very important for the Congress to be behind it. The Congress must approve these arrangements. I think that if indeed the Vietnam situation were in more positive shape vis-a-vis the Soviets than it is now, that would be a helpful, positive factor, but there is no specific linkage as many newspapers have suggested.

Undoubtedly this need for the “positive” on Vietnam was put to the Russians in the private talks by Nixon and Kissinger. Congressional action is required for any substantial credits and for Most Favored Nation treatment; the Federal Power Commission would have to approve any agreement to market Siberian natural gas in this country. Part of the problem in expanding Soviet-US trade, as Secretary Peterson explained on the same program, is that “we don’t have business facilities for marketing products either there or here.” The climate of opinion would affect such marketing efforts, as the hostility of the labor movement, notably the longshoremen, would affect even transportation. It would take only some renewed blasts from the White House about Russian weapons killing American boys in Vietnam to kill any hopes of expanded trade and credit. We know US propaganda agencies deliberately orchestrated this theme before the summit to soften up the Soviet bargaining position.3 We still don’t know the price paid for calling off that campaign, but it probably played a role in the Kremlin’s mild reaction to the escalated bombing and the blockade.

The carrot of trade has enabled Nixon to get away with the club of the blockade. As Secretary Peterson put it softly in the White House briefing of May 30 on the domestic implications of the summit agreements, “I think there is ample evidence that important leaders in the Soviet Union have decided that improving their standard of living, by enhancing their economic development, is moving up in their priority objectives.” Relative, that is, to Vietnam. The most urgent Soviet need is for feed grains, since, as the secretary explained, “they do have a publicly announced program of a very substantial increase in meat consumption” which is “approximately a third of ours.” The biggest disappointment in Moscow seems to have been the failure to sign an agreement at the summit on feed grains, and Secretary Peterson said, “It is quite possible there will be some negotiations” on this even before the joint Soviet-American commission on trade is set up some time in July. More meat for Russians will almost certainly mean fewer weapons for the Vietnamese revolutionaries.

Against this background one can begin to understand how different is Nixon’s gamble from the gamble that Goldwater might have taken in 1964 if he had been elected. Nixon has been adopting one after another the proposals the Joint Chiefs of Staff have long advocated. The difference is that unlike Goldwater he has coupled this with a subtle and shrewd diplomacy. Like Kissinger’s idol, Metternich, he is building a new conservative world order in which he is ready to accept coexistence with the communist states if they do not disturb the peace beyond their borders, i.e., if they contain themselves.

The gamble of blockading North Vietnam and escalating the bombing was rejected by Johnson lest it draw China and the Soviet Union directly into the Vietnam conflict and risk World War III. The policy became feasible only after Nixon abandoned his ideological line for balance of power politics and softened up both China and the Soviet Union with special favors and the hope of more to come. Nixon spoke at the very beginning of his administration of replacing confrontation with negotiation. What he offered Moscow with the escalation of the war was confrontation or junior partnership.

That term is not too strong, as the public will begin to realize in coming months when joint commissions on environment, space, science, and technology, as well as trade and nuclear arms, begin work in accordance with the Moscow agreements. The extent to which they will gear the two governments together began to surface at the White House briefing of May 30 by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs. This followed a special meeting of the Domestic Council, which Nixon ordered held “immediately following the Summit meetings…to discuss the domestic impact of the agreements reached with the USSR.”

Ehrlichman said reports were made by the Chairman of the Environmental Quality Council, the administrator of NASA, the President’s Science Adviser, the Secretary of HEW, and Secretary of Commerce Peterson. “The President felt,” Ehrlichman told the press, “that it was important as soon as possible following the Russian visit, for the Domestic Council to meet and for every Cabinet officer on the Domestic Council to understand the implications of the agreements and the participation that might be required by his respective department or agency in this effort.” He even announced that the new Soviet-American Space Agreement for joint docking and rescue would create 4,400 jobs, mostly in California, and the retention of about 1,500 employees who would otherwise be laid off in Florida and Alabama.

This is a sample of the political dividends Nixon may draw or claim for the agreements in his campaign for re-election. In the meantime there are other dividends in Vietnam. In an exclusive story from Saigon in the Washington Star, May 30, Henry Bradsher disclosed that a leaflet showing Nixon shaking hands with Soviet leaders is being prepared by psychological warfare experts for dropping on enemy troops. “It will be a follow-up,” Bradsher cabled, “to a leaflet distributed within the past two months featuring a photo of Nixon with Chairman Mao Tse-tung of China” as a means of spreading demoralization on the other side. This is another example of the “business” set in motion by the Moscow summit.


The most important agreement, of course, is that which deals with strategic arms. The two related fallacies spread most widely by this agreement is that it gives the USSR parity in nuclear arms and that it will curb the arms race. The US still has and is determined to maintain superiority; the agreements will merely channel funds from a quantitative race to a qualitative race, in which the US has long held a lead. Since 1968, when the SALT talks were first planned, it has been the aim of US arms negotiation to put a quantitative restraint on the Soviet nuclear forces so that they could not make up in numbers and megatonnage what they lacked in accuracy.

For all Nixon’s talk of “sufficiency,” superiority is still the basic doctrine of the US arms program. As Nixon told Congress on his return from Moscow, “no power on earth” will be allowed to become “stronger than the United States of America in the future. This is the only national defense posture which can ever be acceptable to the United States.” The doctrine was stated more explicitly in Laird’s latest defense posture statement: “Any assessment of the future defense needs of the United States must include a program to assure our continued technological superiority.” That spells perpetual arms race, since the other side—irrespective of any new cooperation in trade or other matters—cannot lag too far behind for fear we may be developing a first strike capacity.

Does that mean the Moscow agreements have no value in curbing the arms race? The answer is not as simple as one might hope. The arms controller must look at the Moscow agreements as a psychiatrist would look at a patient who has finally been persuaded that he is not Napoleon Bonaparte, though he is still sure that he’s a military genius. The progressive improvement is from the super-crazy to the just plain crazy. The ABM would have opened up a whole new dimension and a sky’s-the-limit spiral in the arms race without adding to the security of either side; indeed both would have become far more insecure as the destructive pot rose in this new nuclear poker game.

In this perspective billions were saved. Nixon and Brezhnev deserve a high mark for it because the ABM agreement, though obvious good sense, faced enormous institutional pressures from both their war machines. The artillery-minded Russian military have had a hard time realizing that the ABM is not just a bigger cannon. Here even as this was being written Laird was telling the House Appropriations Committee on June 5 that the main reason he backed the ABM treaty was that Congress by approving only two of the projected twelve ABM sites had shown that the program could not be enacted! Laird still clings to the dream that a nationwide ABM would make it possible credibly to threaten a first strike in the nuclear age, or even to take the plunge and still come out somehow “ahead.”

Such are the calculations that still buzz in the bonnets of those meshuganah over in the Pentagon. This is the spirit in which Laird said the McGovern defense plan would be the “white flag” of surrender, though McGovern still charts a nuclear striking force by 1975 so stupendous that it could destroy the Soviet Union as a society many times over. Here is the insane arithmetic from the McGovern plan: 200 Soviet cities hold one-third of its population and two-thirds of its industry. McGovern would still maintain 3,500 “force loadings” or warheads in an armada of 1,000 Minutemen, 34 Polaris and 7 Poseidon submarines, and 190 bombers. If one “force loading” in eighteen got through, the Soviet Union would be destroyed as a living entity. You don’t have to hit every babushka with a million dollar bomb to bring a war to an end.

McGovern’s strike force would, of course, be less than the 5,700 warheads we now have and the 10,000 we project in the next five years, but that only points up the lunacy. The purpose of the “overkill” was to saturate a Soviet ABM, but if neither side is going to have an ABM, why pile up more overkill? That is the question that could open the door to some arms reduction, and that is the question the high brass will do its best to hide from public view.

When Kennedy and Khrushchev finally got the nuclear test ban in 1963, Kennedy had to sign a virtual treaty with the Pentagon assuring it that testing would go on at a greater pace than ever underground. It was underground that MIRV was born. The Pentagon is looking for similar assurances this time. At the same House Appropriations Committee hearing on June 5, Admiral Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “suggested,” according to the New York Times report next day, “that the Defense Department’s acceptance of the arms control agreement might depend on the Administration’s approval of modernization of the offensive strategic forces.” This is how our own military barons bargain in the neo-feudal system of Washington. They can cause trouble on Capitol Hill and they want to be bought off, as they were in 1963.

Their plans have been well laid. Without a Soviet ABM, there was no rational excuse to construct an American MIRV to overwhelm an ABM by sheer quantity of warheads. The long delay from 1968 to 1972 gave them time with Nixon’s help to go ahead and deploy MIRV on both land-based and sea-based missiles, knowing that this was the point of no return, that there was no way short of on-site examination of a missile to know whether it contained more than one warhead. The number of missiles can be monitored by both sides from the air. Not so the warheads, and this is the huge obstacle to any real progress in reducing offensive weapons now.

If the ABM agreement had been reached first, the monster of MIRV might have been strangled in its cradle. Now we may be on the verge of the most destabilizing spiral yet in the arms race. Now MIRV may become a counterforce weapon. If the laser and TV guidance methods making the new US “wonder” bombs so effective over North Vietnam can be adapted to nuclear weapons, warhead accuracy may at last reach first strike precision. In the meantime, despite the ABM treaty, research and development for a better ABM will go on. If either side should find some promising new way to stop incoming warheads, it can opt out of the treaty.

The tyranny of technology has us in its grip. The arms race heads now toward first strike accuracy for warheads and a better ABM. That is what all the talk of “modernization” is about and that is why the new Brookings report sees a $100 billion defense budget by fiscal 1977. Since the Soviets still have no MIRV, and have not deployed even the MRV, a new spiral could be stopped if the US exercised leadership in restraint, but the political obstacles are formidable.

Were the Democrats in power, the new temporary Moscow agreement freezing offensive weapons would have united Republican and right-wing opposition. Nixon’s agreement to allow Moscow a wide numerical advantage in missiles—as a trade-off for the qualitative advantage reflected by our more numerous MIRVed warheads—would be assailed as a sellout, as indeed it already is by the far right. To take the far more difficult step of relinquishing our MIRV in a mutual freeze may be politically impossible.

The outlook in the wake of the Moscow agreements is for a stepped up nuclear arms race, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Even more expensive will be the step-up in conventional arms; the mining of North Vietnam’s harbors was what used to be called a triumph of gunboat diplomacy and the Navy will make the most of it. The aircraft carrier, useless in all-out nuclear war, is the gunboat of our time, an ideal weapon for bullying and bombing small nations. The Soviet admirals will be asking for carriers too.

The tragic consequence of Nixon’s successful gamble in Vietnam and at Moscow is that it diverts to foreign adventures and the arms race the energies and funds we need to save our country from the rot that spreads within at this very moment of imperial triumph.

This Issue

June 29, 1972