Monday, April 13, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XVII

This is the seventeenth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week Herring talks about Nixon. I like this chapter because Herring is morally outraged, which always makes writing more lively. Herring clearly has little but contempt for Nixon and Kissinger. I agree, but Herring differentiates between Nixon and other presidents in ways that I am not really comfortable with.

Nixon's foreign policy successes are of some legend--opening up China, beginning arms negotiations with the Soviets. His failures are equally legendary--his invasion of Cambodia, his support for Pinochet and other South American dictators. Herring provides a nuanced discussion of these events. I found the Chinese issues particularly interesting, including that Nixon involved Reagan by sending him to Taiwan in order to settle them down. The repercussions of visiting China in the rest of Asia was also quite fascinating. The Japanese were extremely unhappy and it led to a low point in postwar U.S.-Japan relations. I also thought that Nixon's lack of policy toward Europe was interesting because it created a vacuum ably filled by West Germany's Willy Brandt. I wonder if there's been a president in postwar America less concerned about European issues (outside of the Soviets) than Nixon?

Herring also details how Israel joined Iran and Saudi Arabia as the third pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The long term benefits of this decisions have been minimal to say the least. Nixon was less favorable to Israel than Johnson, being an anti-Semite and all. But under Kissinger's guidance, the U.S. allowed Israel to further their cause in the Yom Kippur War by delay the cease fire and then did everything he could to stick it to the Arabs and their Soviet allies in coming days. Where was Nixon during all of this? Drunk apparently, at least when Kissinger presided over an emergency National Security Council meeting which moved military forces to DefCon 3.

I know Herring likes dishing the dirt on Nixon with stories like this. But the evidence doesn't suggest that Nixon was that much worse than Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson on the issues Herring attacks him over. Imposing a Cold War mindset on Latin America and South Asia? How is this different than the previous 4 presidents exactly? Nixon did a terrible thing when he invaded Cambodia, but does anyone think Johnson wouldn't have done the same thing if he thought it was necessary? Supporting Pinochet was disgusting, but the CIA had been undermining Chilean democracy since at least the mid 60s. Plus was it any worse than what Eisenhower did in Guatemala? Nixon's biggest sin probably comes in Vietnam, where he eventually negotiated American withdrawal for basically the same effect that he could have achieved when he took office in 1969. How many American, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian lives were lost because of Nixon and Kissinger's policies? But that's almost standard U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War.

None of this excuses Nixon and Kissinger. They were bad men. But they also acted in the same universe as both previous and future presidents. Their actions aren't that much worse than Reagan or Johnson. Herring is disgusted by Nixon's personal behavior and of course Watergate. Moral condemnation is a proper response to Nixon, but he takes it too far in analyzing Nixon's foreign policy, slamming him for policies that fit very comfortably within the Cold War context.

Much more to talk about, including India and Pakistan, but I'll send it to Rob now.