The New Shape of Nixon’s World

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…

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