By Chris Barber
Having witnessed the necessity of U.S. support for post-war Western Europe under the Marshall Plan as a Congressman, Richard Nixon the President viewed his first foreign trip to Europe as priority above all else. On February 6, 1969, President Nixon formally announced his intentions to visit Western Europe towards the end of the month. The purpose of his visit was stated as such:
“The Alliance, held together in its first two decades by a common fear, needs now the sense of cohesiveness supplied by common purpose. I am eager for an early exchange of views on all the important issues that concern us. I favor intimate and frank consultations, and I am delighted that it has proved possible to make this journey so early in my administration. I am going to discuss, not to propose; for work, not for ceremony.”
Upon taking office, Nixon inherited foreign policies largely unpopular under the Johnson administration and, particularly, a European–U.S. relationship unconvincing and weak. For five years, the United States thrusted Vietnam and its domestic policy at the forefront of its priorities list. As President, Nixon “wanted to show the world that the new American President was not completely obsessed with Vietnam….[and] that, despite opposition to the war, their President could still be received abroad with respect and even enthusiasm.”
Further, Nixon felt that this trip would establish the principle that the United States would consult its allies first before approaching their adversaries for negotiations.
It was under this foundation that Nixon believed he could revive the confidence so essential to the historically strong alliance forged between the Western European nations and the United States.
In a declassified talking points document, Nixon’s top National Security man, Henry Kissinger, addressing the Board of Trustees of the Brookings Institution, remarked on the President’s worthwhile European effort:
“This President believes that our relations with Western Europe are of overriding importance–because they are the oldest and closest allies and also because a stable world is inconceivable without a European contribution.”
Furthermore, Kissinger adds, “Western cohesion is foundation of the efforts to reduce tensions in Europe. Consultation assures that our efforts are complementary; differentiated detente would be illusory and destructive. We favor concrete negotiation on Berlin, MBFR, and other steps.”
Under this pretext, the President’s inaugural European trip was widely regarded as a resounding success. Nixon believed that he had achieved all the goals he had set out to achieve while meeting the leaders of Great Britain, Brussels, Germany and France. Most importantly, the talks had dissuaded the Soviet Union for taking Western disunity for granted. For a moment, it had appeared that national morale at home improved, demonstrating what Nixon regarded as respect for U.S. foreign policy and assistance abroad.
Of course, other factors compelled President Nixon to make Western Europe his first destination abroad. The man was a strategist and he did not simply see his excursion as a ceremonial and obligatory procedure to satisfy the status quo of U.S–Euro relations. He wanted to gauge the ability of the American allies to assist him in his overarching diplomatic goals. It was in Europe that President Nixon could plant the seeds of his backchannel diplomatic system; he would need to find leaders he could trust and most aptly rely upon for secrecy and unconditional support.
To do this, Nixon selectively probed issues among the European leaders, most notably whether or not the United States should begin discussing weapons limitations with the Soviet Union. The responses to these issues helped shape his understanding of European leaders and likewise confirmed his ideas of other parts of the world in 1969.
With his first foreign tour complete, Nixon set the stage for his grand diplomatic strategy. Europe would eventually act as Nixon’s centerpiece to his foreign policy elsewhere around the world. The roots of all his diplomatic overtures, including the big three in China, the Soviet Union, and Southeast Asia, originated with European backchannels and initiated the efficacy of his foreign policy strategy.