In the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs, an article appeared under the byline of Richard Nixon, “Asia After Viet Nam.”  (The two-word spelling of this country’s name was what the magazine’s editors favored, but here I’ll use the more familiar form.)  At that time the former Vice-President was still several months away from announcing his entry into the 1968 presidential race, and by the time he started his campaign, domestic political tensions had escalated to the point that much of it was devoted to explaining what he would do as President to overcome such divisions.  And where overseas matters were concerned, American voters were far more concerned about the Vietnam War than anything else.  So it was that RN’s article, which was a careful examination of the economic and political development of the nations around the Pacific Ocean, and the eastern half of the Indian Ocean, went somewhat unnoticed at the time.

During the Nixon Administration, the article gained new attention in 1971 when the President made the startling announcement of his planned visit to the People’s Republic of China.  Looking through Nixon’s writings for anything that might have suggested this step would be taken, reporters and columnists pointed out the passage in “Asia After Viet Nam” emphasizing that “we simply cannot afford to leave China out of the family of nations.”  It has since been well established that the article, even in a nation at the time almost paralyzed by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, came to the attention of the PRC’s leaders quite rapidly, and as a result Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were on the lookout, as soon as President Nixon was inaugurated, for any American overtures that might lead to significant communication between the Forbidden City and the White House – overtures that, indeed, started in Poland toward the end of 1969. 

But the passages about China tended to overshadow the rest of the article.  This is one reason why it is useful to examine it again now, for the new issue of Foreign Policy contains an article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” which in some ways parallels the concerns of “Asia After Viet Nam.”

The most obvious parallel is that both articles are focused on the idea of the United States moving on from major military conflicts. The Nixon article was published at a time when America’s energies in Asia, when not taken up with Vietnam and what was seen as the necessity of “containing” the PRC,  were primarily focused on developing economic ties with the countries on the other side of the Pacific – from Japan, at that time re-emerging as an economic powerhouse, to South Korea, still in the early stages of economic expansion, to India, which was, in the 1960s, still struggling in many respects with the legacy of British occupation.   Nixon envisioned a future in which containment would be replaced by a policy aimed at ending the PRC’s isolation and helping to provide it with the opportunity to use its enormous resources and manpower for peaceful competition in the global arena rather than the export of revolution. 

 (In his article, Nixon refers to the 1966 counter-revolution in Indonesia that ended a Communist insurgency in that country which did have considerable Chinese support.  But the article, reflecting the viewpoint of many of the foreign-policy experts with whom Nixon conferred, tends to overestimate the level of the PRC’s involvement in North Vietnam’s military effort.  It is now rather well established that the USSR was the North’s prime source of support, and that Mao and Zhou, who viewed the Soviets as China’s main threat, were wary of strengthening the North to the point where it could unite Vietnam and start to crowd in on the PRC’s ties to its neighbors to the South such as Thailand and Burma.)

Secretary Clinton’s article, looking at the scene over four decades later, emphasizes that she and President Obama are thinking about what the United States should focus on after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan move toward a conclusion or at least wind down to the point where some of the focus now given to the Mideast can be redirected to Asia.  She writes:

With Iraq and Afghanistan still in transition and serious economic challenges in our own country, there are those on the American political scene who are calling for us not to reposition, but to come home. They seek a downsizing of our foreign engagement in favor of our pressing domestic priorities. These impulses are understandable, but they are misguided. Those who say that we can no longer afford to engage with the world have it exactly backward — we cannot afford not to. From opening new markets for American businesses to curbing nuclear proliferation to keeping the sea lanes free for commerce and navigation, our work abroad holds the key to our prosperity and security at home. For more than six decades, the United States has resisted the gravitational pull of these “come home” debates and the implicit zero-sum logic of these arguments. We must do so again.

Tomorrow I’ll examine the emphases of her article further and compare these to what President Nixon envisioned forty-four years ago.

Photo courtesy of Oliver Weiken (Reuters): On February 21, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.