Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

Richard Nixon once remarked that the nation did not really need a president to conduct its domestic business. And indeed, it is not as the man who cleaned the air, made the streets safe, balanced the budget, found enough jobs, or made Americans feel better about their country that Nixon has sought re-election and a place in history, but as the architect of a new “structure of peace” designed to last a generation. This promised generation of peace is to come from a radically revised vision of the world, a modernized military strategy, and an updated political rhetoric. All reflect the official lessons of the Vietnam war.

There is a new map of the world in the White House which bears little resemblance to the one that McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow once used. In the official US world view the Soviet Union and China are no longer centers of an international conspiracy. They have become nation states. The Soviet Union, according to the Nixon-Kissinger analysis, is not primarily interested in promoting the world communist conspiracy or committing “indirect aggression” by subverting free world nations, but is absorbed with problems of securing its borders, building its economy, controlling its own population. China is far more interested in what is happening in China than in the politics of any other place. Nixon’s gamble that the Soviet Union and China would put up with the humiliation of the Haiphong blockade to protect possible profitable trade relations with the United States was based on a nonideological reading of Soviet and Chinese motives unknown in the Kennedy-Johnson era.

Nixon is now prepared to accept the overwhelming historical evidence that the Soviet Union has consistently sold out revolutionary movements. Soviet leaders, contrary to the official view in the Dean Rusk era, are not primarily in business to humiliate the United States. With a judicious mixture of tough talk, ostentatious display of military power, and attractive economic concessions, one can make them offers they can’t refuse.

Nixon has become the first President since Franklin Roosevelt to recognize the Russian revolution of 1917 and to accept the Soviet Union as a fixture of international politics that will neither “mellow” (in George Kennan’s sense) nor collapse, and he is the first President ever to recognize the Chinese revolution of 1949. His generation of peace, as he has said, calls for “a strong healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other….” In effect the President has offered the Soviet Union something like the junior partnership in world management that Stalin sought after World War II. He is offering an agreement among great nations not to push each other too far and to conduct their continuing rivalry within mutually advantageous rules of combat, such as the SALT agreements, which forbid exactly those weapons both sides would prefer not to build.

In arranging the new relationship with the Soviet Union Nixon has adopted several notions promoted in the early 1960s by critics of the cold war. He has appeared on Soviet television, and as part of an election-year pitch he has tried to evoke sympathy from American viewers for the “little Tanyas” of Russia. He has made an agreement regulating the access rights to Berlin—no one talks any more about who will die for whom over Berlin. The world’s most expensive ritual, the preparations for the great ground war with the Soviets in Europe, continues, but the deployments in the center of Europe are being brought more into line with the actual expectations of the two sides. Indeed, agreements for “thinning out” or “balancing” military forces in Europe can be expected within the next two years. Although the Soviet Union is growing more powerful in staking out interests far from its own territory, the principal problems among the NATO nations during the 1970s increasingly concern the Russians less and the Americans more.

The United States is abandoning the familiar ground rules of the cold war because it can no longer afford them. The new issues in Europe, as indeed almost everywhere else, will be economic rather than military, and the competition will involve former allies more than erstwhile ideological enemies. Conflicts over such crucial matters as monetary policy, scarce resources, and new markets make the largely irrational military confrontation of the past too expensive a luxury. John Connally has already served notice upon the “free world partners” that the US does not intend to share most of the big decisions of world economic management and that it will use shock, surprise, maneuver, and threats to get its own way. The competitive struggles between the United States and its fully recovered European protégés are growing much more intense, and the new look in US foreign policy is in large part based on this reality.


On the new White House map the “Third World” looks even newer. During the Kennedy days the number one official fear was of the “war of national liberation,” identified as the Kremlin’s secret weapon. This preoccupation with counterinsurgency reflected the anxiety of the Kennedy Administration that Cuba and Vietnam were models for the revolutionary transformation of the former colonial world. Guerrilla leaders, incredibly, were seen as Kremlin or Maoist agents, as Mao himself was once seen as Stalin’s agent.

Under Nixon the worry about insurgency is by no means diminished. But the Sino-Soviet dispute, the willingness of both communist powers, in spite of dozens of sharply worded notes, to “stand idly by” while their ally is subjected to the heaviest bombardment in history, the hunting down of Che Guevara and the crushing of guerrilla movements in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America have made possible a new, more relaxed view of how to handle the Third World. Vietnam and Cuba, it now seems, were historical exceptions. The two billion people who live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are not, Che Guevara and Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, about to rise up and take our wealth from us. They are hungry, divided, and vulnerable, and all the more so because the US-Soviet detente makes it much harder for small countries to play one giant off against another.

Small nations, even those as dependent upon the Soviet Union for material aid as Egypt was, have demonstrated, nevertheless, a strong impulse to resist Soviet domination. The split in the communist world, with Russia and China each accusing the other of having formed a cabal with the United States, has helped to convince Nixon that the ideological attraction of communism for the poorer nations is waning. Most Asian, African, and Latin American governments are in the hands of military dictatorships, rightist regimes, or technocratic modernizers, all eager for US military aid, loans, and private capital. Many of the “unstable,” “romantic” revolutionary leaders who used to upset Walt Rostow so much—Sukarno, Nasser, Nkrumah—are gone, replaced by men prepared to serve as pillars for Nixon’s “structure of peace.”

It is a totally different picture of the world from the one Nixon presented to the American people during his nine previous electoral campaigns. Accordingly, it calls for a different military strategy. The Nixon Doctrine contains some important new elements, but as Virginia Brodine and Mark Selden point out in their revealing commentary, Open Secret: The Kissinger-Nixon Doctrine in Asia, it is mainly an attempt to update traditional US counterinsurgency thinking. The authors find the basic elements of Nixon’s new policy as it applies to Southeast Asia scattered throughout his speeches and articles written during the Eisenhower and Pepsi-Cola years: The United States is a Pacific power and cannot accept a defeat anywhere in the Orient—since the Pacific, as he warned the Executives Club of New York in 1965, would then become a “Red Sea” and the dominoes would fall. In 1967, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he outlined the premises of his thinking on Asia:

I am not arguing that the day is past when the United States would respond militarily to communist threats in the less stable parts of the world, or that a unilateral response to a unilateral request for help is out of the question. But other nations must recognize that the role of the United States as world policeman is likely to be limited in the future.

The reliance on what the Pentagon calls “indigenous troops” is of course the cornerstone of the new “low profile” policy. Asian soldiers, according to Pentagon statistics, cost only one-fifteenth of what is spent for their American counterparts, and neither they nor their parents vote in US elections. As John Dower, a contributor to Open Secret, points out, Vietnamization is a very old dream. A National Security Council policy statement of early 1952, released as part of the Pentagon Papers, calls for the development of “indigenous armed forces [in Indochina] which will eventually be capable of maintaining internal security without assistance from French units.” It has been conventional wisdom in the Pentagon since 1951 that the United States should not fight a major land war in Asia. The most prominent military critics of the Vietnam war, General James Gavin and Matthew Ridgway, were members of the “never again club” who remembered that Korea was the wrong war in the wrong place.

The Nixon Doctrine explicitly expresses the view that other nations, rather than a US expeditionary force, should do the fighting to protect US “vital interests” on their territory. That, of course, has always been our preference. In the same way, the United States has always indicated its readiness to send such a force if the indigenous troops are incapable of fighting on their own. Melvin Laird told the House Armed Services Committee in March, 1971, that “when required and appropriate,” US help “could include ground combat support.” Following the first Nixon State of the World message on February 18, 1970, Max Frankel reported in The New York Times that “Mr. Nixon’s aides concede…that there is nothing in his new doctrine that excludes a Dominican-style intervention in defense of vital interests.”


There is nothing either in Nixon’s rhetoric or in his practice to suggest that the United States has adopted a less imperial definition of its “vital interests.” The principal threat in Asia, according to Laird, is still “internal insurgency supported by external assistance.” The United States will keep all its treaty commitments to some forty-two governments to protect them where necessary from their own people. Even “political agitation” has been identified in Department of Defense documents as a military threat requiring a counterinsurgency response. Although certain minor bases have been phased out and forces in such forward battle stations as Korea have been thinned out, the Administration has abandoned no major outposts of American power, and indeed has even staked out new “vital interests” in two critical areas: the Indian Ocean and southern Africa.

Although the Nixon Administration no longer believes that all insurgencies are masterminded in the Kremlin, and no longer conjures up LBJ’s picture of successful Asian revolutionaries sweeping under the Golden Gate Bridge in sampans and junks, it obviously does believe that “stability,” which is the prize of statecraft, is jeopardized by guerrilla movements throughout the world. The situation in the Philippines is serious enough for the Marcos government to impose martial law, shut down the press, and arrest liberals. Insurgents in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos have controlled important territory for years, and the Cambodian rebels continue to gain ground. There are almost 3,000 highly organized guerrillas in the Dhofar area of Oman. In the Portuguese territories in Africa, according to the private estimate of a UN expert, about one-fourth of Angola is administered by the rebels and about two-thirds of the rural area of Guiné Bissau is in the hands of the liberation movement.1 In view of America’s continuing counterrevolutionary commitment and the possibility that guerrilla activity around the world may continue to grow, how can the United States hope to avoid future Vietnams?

War Without End, Michael Klare’s well-documented study of US military planning, gives the best available account of the tactics behind the strategy for maintaining a Pax Americana without casualties, inflation, dissent, or guilt. The contours of the new strategy are visible in Vietnamization. Nixon’s first domestic task was to disengage the country from the war without losing it. He did this by reducing American casualties and promising to end them entirely, by curbing inflation through wage-price controls, and above all by making use of technology. Nixon gambled that the very Americans who were outraged by an indecisive land war in Asia, with its 1,000 American battle deaths per week, would passively support an air war in which the equivalent of twelve Hiroshima bombs are dropped each month. According to the latest polls he is winning that gamble. What makes the strategy of military engagement and psychological disengagement possible is technology, and Klare gives a useful account of it in his book.

Perhaps his best chapter is on the “electronic battlefield.” “We are making unusual efforts to avoid having the American young man stand toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball, or even rifle to rifle against the enemy that may outnumber him on the battlefield,” Major General Ellis W. Williamson told a Senate subcommittee in 1970. “We are trying to fight the enemy with our bullets instead of the bodies of our young men—’firepower, not manpower.’ ” Some of these unusual efforts include olfatronic detectors such as the XM-2 Concealed Personnel Detector Aircraft Mounted, a General Electric product universally known in Vietnam, Klare tells us, as the “people-sniffer,” which detects ammonia emitted from the human body. There are also many varieties of infrared detectors which locate human bodies from the heat they emit. Operation Bedbug, the army’s experiment with the use of bedbugs wired with amplifiers as a warning system, was a failure because while bedbugs let out a “yowl of excitement” when they come in contact with human flesh, they turn out to be excited most of the time.

There is an extensive network of research laboratories in major universities, corporations, and military installations inventing equally ingenious devices for carrying on long-distance war. In his book, Klare traces a number of these weapons systems from the laboratory to the battlefield—magnetic detectors, surveillance radars, seismic detectors, acoustic detectors, and other advances in lethal technology.

Eventually, the Pentagon tells us, they will be able to tell when the enemy shoots, what he is shooting at, and where he is shooting from. On the battlefield of the future, says General Westmoreland, “we can destroy anything we locate through instant communications and almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower.” The technology of fighting wars by remote control is an essential component of the Nixon Doctrine. It is also, as Haynes Johnson and George C. Wilson demonstrate in their important survey Army in Anguish, a requirement of the military itself.

Johnson and Wilson, both Washington Post reporters, conducted extensive interviews with military people, from generals to privates, and they concluded that the army is beset with extraordinary problems most of which directly derive from the Vietnam war—drugs, fragging, desertion, a crisis of leadership and morale. (The army’s desertion rate in 1971, according to DOD, was seventy-three men per 1,000.) Since “the army’s problems are America’s problems,” as several senior officers told them, the answer is to “professionalize” the army, which means, among other things, to detach the services as much as possible from American life. Thus the Nixon Doctrine not only requires new equipment, such as the C5A airplane, which can carry six Greyhound buses, to get soldiers to “trouble spots” around the globe in a hurry. It also demands a new kind of soldier—professional, technologically trained, and unobtrusive.

Klare’s account of the science-fiction weapons our taxes buy is frightening, but he takes the claims of the military too much at face value. Revolting as the new technology of death is, one has more doubts than are raised in his book about its effectiveness for the political purposes it is designed to accomplish. Boatloads of “people-sniffers” sent to Vietnam have not prevented the successive defeats of the ARVN. No one has yet devised a weapon, including the “smart bomb,” that can keep South Vietnamese soldiers from selling gasoline to the NLF. It appears that even war cannot be dehumanized to the extent desired by the Pentagon.

The Nixon Administration is aware that even a modernized American elite corps cannot police the world by itself. Nixon’s “structure of peace” is to be maintained by the sharing of “responsibilities,” with “stable” nations acting as deputy peacekeepers. Klare describes what he calls the “science of mercenarization,” i.e., how the military aid and counterinsurgency programs work, particularly the counterinsurgency research program called Project Agile and the stepped-up support for local police forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Thailand, for example, Stanford Research Institute designed elaborate technology for internal spying, a multi-million-dollar “Village Information System” for retrieving and storing “information about conditions and events in the villages and towns” for the benefit of the Thai army. Many of the police techniques used by the Brazilian police for extracting information from suspected insurgents have been developed with American advice and equipment. American military personnel have charged that there are torture chambers in the Brazilian Navy Ministry in Rio right next to the offices occupied by the US naval mission.2

America’s deputy peacekeepers, as Kissinger suggested fifteen years ago in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, are to play a crucial role in “local defense” and “regional cooperation.” The US role is to be limited to whatever will “make the difference between success and failure.” Outside the region the US “must be free to act alone or with a different grouping of powers if our interest so dictates.”

Nixon has openly assigned a deputy peacekeeper role to Japan. For many years he has urged Japanese rearmament. In 1967 he called for “a greater role both diplomatically and militarily in maintaining the balance in Asia” for Tokyo, and in the Okinawa accords he made his ideas about Japan’s new role explicit.

However Japan is not only a deputized peacekeeper but an increasingly formidable economic rival of the United States. Some US multinational corporations are beginning to demand that the federal government play the same active role in direct support of their activities as the Japanese government plays in support of Japanese firms overseas. As competition with Japan increases such pressures will be hard to withstand, particularly for an administration already so protective of the interests of the multinational corporations. There is an obvious contradiction between Japan’s role as a stabilizing military and economic presence in the Orient and her emerging role as the world production center and marketer of high technology, particularly as the United States becomes more and more of a service economy and net importer with rising unemployment.

In Latin America Brazil has already given active support to the Bolivian junta and is engaged in making Uruguay an economic dependency, thus imitating the traditional US role elsewhere in the hemisphere. But like Japan, Brazil, harboring a century of resentment about its treatment at US hands, may not always be willing to play its assigned part in the Nixon scheme for “peace.”

The most ominous use of the “deputy peacekeeper” concept is in Africa. Over two years ago the National Security Council adopted NSSM 39, which, according to the New York Times, calls for “deliberately expanded contacts and communication with the white governments of southern Africa.” In pursuit of the new policy, the UN has authorized the sale of previously forbidden jet aircraft to Portugal and South Africa. It has authorized the sale to South Africa of helicopters and civil aircraft which are easily convertible to military use. It has violated UN sanctions against Rhodesia and has facilitated the granting of substantial new credits to South Africa.

Even more significant was the renewal of the Azores base agreements with Portugal under which the United States promised an aid package of $436 million. This is roughly the equivalent of Portugal’s annual military expenditure, most of which goes to the support of the three colonial wars in Mozambique, Angola, and Guiné. According to a recent report in the London Sunday Times (July 9, 1972), South African mercenaries in cooperation with the Portuguese Air Force have been waging chemical warfare against nationalist guerrillas in the jungles of northern Mozambique in order to wipe out rebel food supplies.

Chemicals produced in South Africa, including Convolvotox, which kills broad-leafed plants and inhibits fertilization, have been sprayed by South African pilots who, according to the Times, receive more than $72 an hour for their services. The State Department, when questioned, has refused to say whether US defoliants are being used in Portugal’s colonial wars. But in a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Africa Studies Association, Jennifer Davis reports that in the first eleven months of 1970, the year the Portuguese began using defoliants in Africa, the export of herbicides by US firms to Portugal was four times greater than the total exported in 1969.

Rhodesia and South Africa have stepped up their “peacekeeping” activities in the Portuguese territories because the Portuguese, even with increased US aid, are unable to prevent the guerrillas from occupying large parts of the countryside. For as in Vietnam, the foreign power can hold on to the towns while losing control of the surrounding rural areas. South Africa has rushed planeloads of arms to help Hastings Banda’s government of Malawi fight a rapidly growing guerrilla movement. The white governments believe in the domino theory in its purest form. As the Rhodesian Secretary for External Affairs put it in 1969, “If we go, Mozambique can’t hold out for six months; the others would fall in order.”

The white regimes of southern Africa are important to Nixon’s new policy not only because the navy thinks that the Cape route is a vital substitute for the Suez Canal and there is a “power vacuum” in the Indian Ocean but because those regimes symbolize “stability.” In Nixon’s neo-Metternichean politics, the liberal disdain for African fascism that marked the Kennedy-Johnson era is a dangerous luxury. The white regimes are a bulwark against communism and fanatical nationalism, and they offer the most hospitable climate anywhere for American business. The average rate of profit in 1972 on the one billion dollar US investment in South Africa was higher than 17 percent. A sharply rising proportion of the total NATO requirements of several vital minerals, including asbestos, iron, and tungsten, is now derived from southern Africa. For these reasons the United States (under the rhetoric of containing violence and preventing war) now appears ready to step up its assistance to the minority racist and colonial governments in beating back challenges to their rule.

The new rhetoric is as important to Nixon’s “generation of peace” as the new strategy. Gone is the tone of cold war hysteria and in its place is a tone of complacency, even euphoria, designed to make Americans feel more comfortable, safer about the world. It is a law-and-order world, managed by limited agreements among the powerful. Nixon’s definition of “peace” is flexible enough to accommodate genocide, as in Burundi, mass starvation, as in Nigeria, crippling malnutrition, as in much of Latin America, and obscure fratricidal wars among what the British used to call the minor races.

After the disastrous efforts of the Kennedy-Johnson years to export the Great Society, Nixon has discovered the politics of indifference. Since the poor of the world cannot hurt us, they can be ignored or quietly repressed. The United States, with 6 percent of the world’s population, can continue to burn, melt, or gobble up over 52 percent of the consumable resources, as Barry Goldwater happily reported to the Republican Convention, and perpetuate the poverty of the undeveloping nations.

The sense of concern about the mounting human misery in the world that John F. Kennedy projected ten years ago is gone. The American efforts in the Kennedy era to direct peaceful revolutions in the Third World from above were tragically naïve and had grotesque consequences, but at least they reflected an understanding that no stable world order can be built without far-reaching reforms in desperate societies. The need for radical changes in the decolonizing world is now much more obvious. But the essence of Nixon’s strategy is that peace can be bought by suppressing such changes through a combination of big power deals and modern technology.

This Issue

November 16, 1972