Luke Nichter discussed President Nixon’s vision for NATO and Transatlantic Relations on October 23, 2017. (Richard Nixon Foundation).
Luke Nichter is the author of “Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World.”
Historian Luke Nichter talked to a Nixon Library audience about President Nixon’s policy towards Europe. Topics included Nixon’s vision for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the ending of the Gold Standard and the Bretton Woods System, U.S. Cold War policy, and bilateral relations with Great Britain and France.
Luke Nichter is professor of history at Texas A&M University Central Texas, and noted expert on the Nixon White House taping system. He is a former founding executive producer of C-SPAN’s American History TV. His website, nixontapes.org, offers free access to the publicly released Nixon tapes as a public service. Nichter is the co-author with Douglas Brinkley of the volume of bestsellers on the Nixon Tapes, and “Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World.”
– Richard Nixon’s experience and education in Europe as member of a special Congressional Commission in 1947.
– The repurposing of the NATO alliance for a “social dimension.”
– The role of urban affairs advisory Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the reshaping of policy towards Europe.
– The application of the “Nixon Doctrine” to Europe.
– Detente with the Soviet Union, the Berlin Agreement, and arms limitation.
– The foreign policy implications of ending the Bretton Woods system, and the ending of the Gold Standard.
– The bilateral relations with France in the area of defense, and President Nixon’s relationships with French Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou.
– The Year of Europe (1973)
– Great Britian’s integration in the European Community.
Nixon, Richard. Address at the Commemorative Session of the North Atlantic Council. 10 April 1969.
Nixon, Richard. Address to the Nation on the Vietnam War. 3 November 1969.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Position Paper on NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society. 30 June 1969.
Nicole Parsons: On the 20th anniversary of NATO, just as the treaty was about to expire, President Nixon paid homage to the men who made NATO a reality. He especially paid respect to Dwight Eisenhower, who did so much to bring NATO to its strength and give life to its principles. Nixon went on. Two decades ago, the men who founded NATO faced the truth of their times. As a result, Western world prospers today in freedom. We must allow their example by once again facing the truth, not of earlier times, but our own times.
Our distinguished speaker today will discuss President Nixon’s vision for transatlantic relations in these challenging times and the impact of his decisions on this important alliance in the world. And I think we all kind of see that the world is changing so rapidly in this global economy that NATO is becoming more relevant than ever. Luke Nichter is a professor of history at Texas A&M. In addition to being an accomplished historian, he is the founding executive producer for “C-SPAN’s American History TV.” His work has appeared in various publications including the “New York Times, “The Washington Post,” “Vanity Fair,” and the “Associated Press.”
Luke is a noted expert on the Richard Nixon’s over 3,400 hours of secret White House tapes, personally transcribing nearly 500 hours. His website, nixontapes.org, offers free access to the publicly released tapes. He is a “New York Times” bestselling author and editor of six books including two volumes of the Nixon tapes with co-editor Douglas Brinkley. His current project is the “Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Decline of the Eastern Establishment,” to be published by the Yale University Press. It will be the first full biography of Lodge, whose public career spanned from the 1930s to the 1970s and it was also based on extensive multilingual in archival research.
The topic he’ll be discussing tonight is the subject of his book published and now in paperback by Cambridge Press, also available in our bookstore, which you’re welcome to purchase and I think Luke will gladly sign. It is entitled “Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of a Postwar Atlantic World.” He’ll be in conversation today with our director of research, Jonathan Movroydis. Please join me in welcoming Luke Nichter.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you everyone for being here. Thank you, Luke, for coming all the way from Texas A&M. This is an interesting topic, largely because during the 2016 presidential race, our current president, Donald Trump was debating whether to reshape the NATO alliance or even get rid of it all together. So now that we look 50 years ago, Luke Nichter actually kinda researched this topic in terms of what Richard Nixon thought of the treaty. So with that, my first question is why did you decide to undertake this project?
Luke Nichter: There’s no great story or no great reason. I think the biggest one was, I had written a master’s thesis on U.S. European relations. But more recent, I wrote a thesis on the expansion of the European Union to East and Central Europe for the first time beginning in 2004, the former communist nations of the Iron Curtain. And then sort of went backwards in time, really because nobody had done it. There’ve been plenty of books about Vietnam and Watergate and China and the Soviet Union and really, you know, the more I learned, I realized… I think coming to the presidency, Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew more about Europe than any other part of the world in terms of their experience going back to the Herder Commission, their language ability, the world leaders they knew, the alliances at the time that were the strongest between the United States and Europe, Nixon’s role in the founding of NATO, working under Eisenhower as vice president.
And so to me it was just this kind of hiding in plain sight that no one had done Nixon in Europe. So now great story, as in, hadn’t been done before. And I thought it was interesting.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you give us a brief background in how transatlantic relations evolved in that period of time between the beginning of NATO in 1949 to 1969?
Luke Nichter: Yeah. I think when Nixon came into the White House in January of 1969, I think he felt that this period of the previous 20, 25 years that we call post war, the post war was coming to an end. Because, you know, in history we give these tidy titles to eras, you know, one day historians, 50 years or 100 years from now textbooks will have a tidy title for this year, the era in which we live now. Which you would think that we perhaps are best qualified to figure out what that is, but it’s not gonna be till 50 or 100 years from now they figure out some title. And even in most history books, you know, I think they only go up to the post-Cold War era. Well, how long does that continue? How long is it still a post-Cold War era?
And I think that’s what Nixon saw, a version of that when he came to the White House is how long is it gonna be the Post-World War II era? Things were changing. Europe, which had been very much dependent on U.S. support in the 1940s, whether it be NATO or the Marshall Plan or American moral support and starting what became the European Union by the late ‘60s, Europe was becoming a trade competitor or a commercial competitor. Its economies had by and large recovered and were doing very well, especially West Germany. Even Japan was becoming a competitor of the United States. And so I think Nixon had recognized that some changes had occurred by the end of the 1960s and I think wanted to have a kind of reappraisal of that relationship and tried to breathe some life into it for the next 25 years.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned the Herder Commission. When Richard Nixon was a congressman, one of the first things that he did in 1947 was travel to Europe with the Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee, Christian Herder. As vice president, he traveled all over the Europe meeting with world leaders and even into his wilderness years between 1962 and 1967, he had traveled a lot to Europe. But years before his presidency, that 25-year period, what unique perspectives do you think he brought to Europe by 1969?
Luke Nichter: I think the fascinating thing that he brought was his youth. He’d been a member of the house representatives since earlier that year in January of 1947. And he brought his youth, I mean, to select a member of Congress so young for an important mission like that. I mean effectively kinda setting up the post-war order economically, was allowing someone to potentially have a great career one day because he was so young. He went as a junior congressman and he came back an expert on the issues. And that helped him then to play even more important roles in U.S. European relations. And so we had a couple of years, the Herder committee led directly into the Marshall Plan aid and then 1949 was the NATO treaty establishing the defense alliance.
And by the mid to late ‘50s, the U.S was helping Europe begin its organizations that would become the European community and the European Union. So it gave Nixon an important early role establishing his foreign policy credentials. Prior to that mission, the only foreign policy credentials he had, although not minuscule, was his wartime service. And so this gave him kind of hands-on political foreign policy experience at a high level, covered in the “New York Times,” everywhere they went and who they talk to. So this gave a very young, upwardly mobile politician some real experience.
Jonathan Movroydis: When people think about Nixon, they think about the trip to China in ‘72 and Russia. But Nixon actually makes his first foreign trip to Europe in February of 1969, why did he choose Europe?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, this is one of the things I think most people don’t realize that… I think if anyone can remember anything about Nixon, it’s Vietnam or it’s Watergate or it’s China or Soviet Union. Richard Nixon as president spoke before Europeans and European parliaments before he spoke to Americans or the American Congress. So he toured and spoke in other countries before he spoke here. Like 20 days into his presidency, he was on a major international trip. I mean, think about unprecedented that is. In terms of any recent presidents, you’re less than a month in, you have a major tour of foreign capitals. And I think that would establish for him that this was gonna be a presidency that was gonna be focused on foreign policy and improving relations with allies.
So I think it’s just remarkable that he made Europe such a foreign policy and in improving ties around the world. ‘68 was a traumatic year. It was traumatic in this country. It was traumatic in the streets of Paris. It was traumatic worldwide as a year of revolution and a year of social upheaval. I think Nixon underwent the trip, not to save the whole world and answer all these questions, but to sort of lower the tone and lower the concerns that were boiling over after ‘68, the Czechoslovakian invasion by the Soviet Union. There was a lot of tension in early 1969. And I think his trip was an effort to address some of that tension.
Jonathan Movroydis: Going back to World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill established the Atlantic Charter to sort of create a vision, a new vision for the Transatlantic alliance. Can you describe what was the Atlantic Council…oh, I’m sorry, what was the…
Luke Nichter: Well, the Atlantic Charter, the original Atlantic Charter was from 1941 and it was the Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin for a while while he was still on our side. The Atlantic Charter, the idea was…and there was a series of these agreements, but this is maybe one of the most notable ones. Bretton Woods was another one, 1944. And what these were Atlantic Charter ‘41 first was leaders would get together periodically and yes, discuss the war, but beyond that, sort of to have a conversation. “You know, one day the war is gonna be over. The fighting will stop and what kinda world do we want? What kinda world do we wanna live in?”
And it’s very sort of philosophical conversations about what do we want the postwar to look like whenever that happens, sort of to be ready for when that happens, if a chance for peace were to happen? And so that was 1941, the Atlantic Charter. And so Nixon used that language, the Atlantic Charter in 1969 because again, his idea of the postwar period had ended. He was looking for a new set of initiatives and a new common bond between U.S. and Europe. U.S. and Europe was the closest alliance, the most important alliance I would say even today, although it’s been a weak end, but the closest alliance from the postwar. We closed because many Americans have familial ties, genealogical ties, language ties, history ties, religion. I mean it was the most important cultural, political and then because of NATO military alliance that the United States had.
And so Nixon I think seeing that something was changing by the late ‘60s, this thing called the post-war order was starting to move and what was gonna replace it. And so it was a way for him to sort of plan what would come in its place. What did we want to happen in the future? Sort of how did we wanna design that? And so he used that term, the “Atlantic Charter” to harken back to an earlier time rooted in transatlantic alliance when we decided sort of what do we wanna have come next?
Jonathan Movroydis: He talks about that new dimension of the alliance on April 10th, 1969 before representatives from NATO countries. We’ll play the clip right now.
Richard Nixon: For 20 years, our nations have provided for the military defense of Western Europe. For 20 years, we have held political consultations and now all the alliance of the West needs a third dimension. It needs not only a strong military dimension to provide for the common defense and not only a more profound political dimension to shape a strategy of peace. But it also needs a social dimension to deal with our concern for the quality of life in this last third of the 20th century.
Jonathan Movroydis: What does Nixon mean by a social dimension?
Luke Nichter: Well, you see the date, 10 April, 1969. This speech was given in Washington. You wouldn’t know it how old it is by the sound quality, is very good. But this isn’t the 20th anniversary of the NATO Treaty, which was signed in 1949 and the original NATO treaty had a clause in it that it was not an indefinite alliance. It was supposed to expire after 20 years. That’s hard to believe that any president would have let it expire. I mean, any president would have seen the utility of continuing it. But I think Nixon used the occasion of the 20th anniversary, an important symbolic but also substantive moment, to talk about…as the world is evolving beyond this thing called the post-war, how is our alliance to evolve beyond the post-Cold War? And in particular, how is NATO to evolve?
And so I think what you see here is Nixon sort of previewing what would be known later as “détente” in the speech. And the social dimension of NATO. I mean, NATO is a military defense organization. What does it know about social policy and even politics? It’s like what Nixon was trying to do here was… By the late ‘60s it didn’t seem likely that the United States was going to have a major nuclear armed war with the Soviet Union anymore.
I mean, not to say we were friendly, but I mean the hardest parts of the Cold War had almost turned hot. You can look at the Cuban missile crisis. You can look at the Berlin airlift in ’48, you know, and a few other moments where it seemed like the Cold War almost turned hot and started to.
By the late ‘60s, I mean ideologically the battle continued, but it seems less possible that World War III which was the major fear of the 1950s and 1960s would break out. And so I think what Nixon’s trying to do is if war is not likely to break out and if NATO was designed to be our alliance in the case of war, and if too many people get the idea that well, there’s not gonna be a war anyways. How do you continue it? How do you justify congressional appropriations?
How do you justify the unity needed to preserve the alliance? And so Nixon was giving the alliance something new to do because part of detente wasn’t just the absence of armed conflict. It was how do we reduce tensions between East and West? And so Nixon suggested in the speech and it took several months to work it out under Pat Moynihan and a new committee and a new structure for NATO.
What Nixon was suggesting was that NATO would be a forum to bring together Western nations and those under the Iron Curtain and talk about, even if we don’t agree, communism and democracy, even if we recognize all the things that we disagree about, one of the things we can talk about that we can agree, well, we all have societal problems and we have pollution, we have population control, we have roads and we have traffic fatalities. I mean, things that plague the whole world regardless of your ideology. And so Nixon was suggesting a sort of nonmilitary dimension of NATO. That was a radical idea that few people know about. I mean, NATO was a military alliance. So he proposed a nonmilitary structure of NATO, which he not only…it wasn’t just words, it was started later that year and it still exists today as a permanent part of NATO structure.
It became known as the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society, CCMS. It’s been renamed, but you can Google it today. It’s still part of NATO today. I mean, all presidents wanna leave their fingerprints on policy to a degree, but this was created, it worked and was valuable enough that has been preserved in NATO in 2017 today and continues forward.
Jonathan Movroydis: You see some of the stuff that Daniel Patrick Moynihan lists in his position paper for the CCMS and its technology transfers from higher developed nations, quality of life issues, public support for the Atlantic alliance, including the youth. How do you square this though, with the idea that in 1968, the Soviet Union squashes Czechoslovakia? How do you square this detente era policy for the fact that the Soviet Union still had it…aspects of the regime were still very, very aggressive?
Luke Nichter: Well, certainly being soft on the Soviets was not a very popular position after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in ‘68. I mean that was the time to get tough against the Soviets, not a time to get soft. But Nixon had a different view than the Johnson White House. Nixon wrote privately and wrote his memoirs and also talked about this later and it’s on the tapes that Nixon had the opposite view that the Soviet Union knew that it had gone too far in Czechoslovakia. Too far and it was viewed as reckless by world opinion. And Nixon actually predicted the Soviet Union would be eager to be more cooperative and maybe even friendly after Czechoslovakia.
So he took the opposite position of many analysts at the time. And many analysts at the time were saying, “Where do the Soviets invade next? Is it gonna to be Hungary? Is it going to be Poland?” I mean, there was a whole wave of opinion saying where would they stop after Czechoslovakia? And Nixon had the opposite. He said, “No, I think they’re gonna wanna return to a point where they’re more responsible because they realize they’ve gone too far.” And so Nixon was suggesting a way that they could bring them in. Of course, France had withdrawn from the integrated structure of NATO, the military structure in the ‘60s under de Gaulle. And so it was a way to kinda get the eastern bloc talking to the western bloc. It was a way to get France more involved that even if they didn’t agree on a lot of the defense structure, the command structure of NATO, you could still get them involved in other issues. And so Nixon was looking for a common denominator that would get more nations of the West to have buy-in and also nations of the east to have buy-in and to sort of improving quality of life for everyone.
And it was very much consistent in foreign policy, which is still what we’re talking about. These were very consistent messages at the time with what he was trying to do in domestic policy as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: On July 25th, 1969, Nixon is on the island of Guam and in a casual conference with news reporters he talks about his new policy in Vietnam. And he says this again in his November 3rd speech of 1969, which is when he talks specifically about Vietnam and he kinda outlines three planks. He says, “The United States will keep all treaty commitments. The United States shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of an allied nations, whose survival we consider vital to our security. And then in cases involving other types of aggression, the U.S. shall furnish military and economic assistance in accordance with the treaty commitments.” You make the point in your book that this policy wasn’t narrowly tailored towards Vietnam or Asia policy in general, that it was globally applicable even to Europe. How so?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, I argue and I think the…when you dig into the documents, it proves this, that the Nixon doctrine and, you know, it has been misinterpreted first by journalists who are there covering it and by many scholars as well as to only apply to Vietnam. And I think it was an easy thing to misunderstood. He was there at Guam to meet with President Thieu, South Vietnam. So it looked like everything was about Vietnam. That was when the astronauts returned. The astronauts had a splashdown. They had just returned from the lunar landing. The primary focus of his visit to Guam was Vietnam. But if you look and dig further in the documentation, especially the Nixon tapes are particularly good on this, you know, a lot of times doctrines, you know, not every president has one, but you can think of a few.
There is a Monroe doctrine. It’s a famous one. There was the Roosevelt Corollary, Teddy Roosevelt to the Monroe doctrine. You know, there’s a Truman doctrine, a little bit of a Kennedy doctrine. But not all presidents have and they tend to be presidents that are more focused on foreign policy. The Nixon doctrine is something named for them long after the fact, usually by scholars, not something they internalized at the time as being actually an instrument of policy. The Nixon doctrine is a little bit different. Now, this is in July of ‘69 and the taping system started in February of ’71. So we have a break there between the middle of ‘69 when the speech was given and when taping begins.
Nixon himself refers to the Nixon doctrine 23 times on the tapes and no one’s ever used those before. And there’s 23 mentions of the Nixon doctrine and how he planned to use it in terms of its link to policy. I would not say it’s a global doctrine. I don’t think any president has had a truly global doctrine. You can’t care equally about all parts of the world at all times. I mean just there’s too much going on. I mean, you can’t be the entire world’s policeman 24 hours a day. But Nixon clearly in these mentions in the Nixon tapes and in the other records that are available here at the library, he intends for the doctrine to be about Europe, about Vietnam, Latin America, about any place the United States has significant diplomatic or military commitments. And that’s really what the Nixon doctrine is. If you read the first line, it sums it up, “The United States will keep all of its treaty commitments.”
This is ‘69. The first withdrawal of troops had already occurred from Vietnam. The United States was already being accused of withdrawing from the world and becoming isolationists. So Nixon also had that to worry about. How does the United States stay engaged in the world, not in a way that’s criticized like Vietnam, but in a positive way? In the case of Europe, it’s much more positive. And so the first line is as the United States is pulling out of Vietnam, that it’s reminding our allies that we’re gonna stand by what we said and then treaty commitment is gonna include NATO. It can include bilateral agreements, political agreements, trade agreements, defense agreements and others. This was a reassurance to our allies and that must include Europe, is the very first line. And then it’s reinforced in the documentation and in the tapes that it had application to all parts of the world where the U.S. had commitments.
Jonathan Movroydis: In terms of the share of the military burden, you mentioned Vietnam. We had 500,000 troops in 1968 and 1969 we had 250,000 troops stationed in Europe. In terms of balancing against the Soviet threat, how much had Nixon and Kissinger want Europe to share the military…how much of the military burden that they want them to share against the Soviet threat?
Luke Nichter: I think this is a problem that Nixon and Kissinger inherited. I mean this was a common. As soon as the first troops were stationed in Germany, places like Wiesbaden and places in West Germany, you know, there were… it’s expensive. And throughout the 1960s, it ultimately threw off the value of the dollar, cost inflation, sometimes the host countries didn’t like it very much. And especially Germany accumulated lots of excess dollars they didn’t know what to do with. So it caused economic and monetary problems, too. And so I think beginning with the troops that were beginning with the Eisenhower administration, success of American presidents, including Nixon with the help of Henry Kissinger, tried to find ways to maintain a show of force in Europe and also make the host country happy, make Congress happy.
Congress was constantly concerned about the increasing cost of the appropriation to keep troops there. And I think what actually really helped and unknown savior, and it’s not really part of the book, but an unknown savior to the troops in Europe during the Nixon administration was China. And some of the early secret talks between China beginning in ‘71 and ’72, ’71, it was actually… I think Henry Kissinger and other Americans assumed that the Chinese would want us out of places like Vietnam, those are their neighbor. Or want us out of places where we were concentrated like Western Europe. And it was actually China that said, “Don’t leave too quickly.” They liked the idea of residual forces in Asia. They liked the idea of residual forces in Germany.
Because China as we were was also concerned about the Soviet Union and they liked the idea of kind of a counterweight force being there. And China had a great concern that if you pull out too quickly, you know, someone will fill that vacuum and it might be the Soviet Union. And so we had a whole push pole by the time of the Nixon administration, there was a series of things called the Mansfield amendments in Interim Mike Mansfield. And so every year when it got time to appropriations time, there were attempts to reduce the number of troops or to put strings attached to their continued presence in Europe. And so this is a constant, not just a foreign policy issue, but a domestic policy issue for Nixon and Kissinger.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon was very fond of French President Charles de Gaulle and he forged strong ties with de Gaulle and his successor George Pompidou. One of the things that Nixon and Kissinger forged was the…or helped forge was the nuclear program in France and they favored kind of this more bilateral approach rather than collective defense or collective security. Why did they prefer bilateral defense relations with countries like France?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of reasons. One of the things that Nixon understood, and you know, it’s not to say that it always worked out, sometimes it didn’t work out, but I think Nixon understood the shock of a nation like France. You look at a lot of these European nations had vast overseas territories in colonies. I think the most out of whack one might be the Belgians in terms of the size of the European country versus the size of the overseas empire. And I think Nixon understood because he had a sense of history that you have to treat these egos delicately. They have themselves gone through a great shock in their own history. And in the case of France withdrawing from Algeria just a decade before losing a number of their colonies, losing Vietnam, I mean Nixon was coming of age during the post colonial world and he understood why someone like de Gaulle would be very sensitive about this.
And especially, Lyndon Johnson who got along with, you know, British Prime Minister Wilson very well. But in case of de Gaulle, I don’t think fully understood the complexity of this issue. And so one of the first things that Nixon did… De Gaulle was a pariah in Washington. He’s a pariah across the world. He criticized our Vietnam policy. He blocked British entry twice in ‘63 and ‘67 to the European, what became the European Union. I mean, that was de Gaulle. He just wasn’t an easy person to get along with and somehow Nixon did it through the private talks beginning in 1969 and he did it a couple of ways. He liked bilateral negotiations because, I mean think about it. Would you rather sit across the table from one person and deal with one person or sit across from 15 and you have to make them all happy at the same time?
And if you’re Nixon or pick any president in the U.S., would you rather negotiate one on one with France, with Germany, with Britain or would you rather do it at a place like the European Union where you’re not even a member and don’t have a vote? Or a NATO, which is a little bit more friendly, but you still have the whole bilateral forum where if somebody gets a little bit more than somebody else, then you have problems diplomatically. And so bilateral was better for them. It was better for us. It was secretive and it was a way for Nixon to sort of on their terms, respect them for their past prestige, which was long gone by the late ‘60s. But I think that the French especially saw that as being very respectful and the French themselves had nuclear ambitions as a power, I think formally launched their nuclear program in ‘67 withdrew out of NATO.
And Nixon still thought it was important to keep France as an ally. Well, how do you do that when the primary forum to do that to NATO where they’re not part of NATO anymore? A number of these records are still not open. These are some of the latest, most highly classified records here at the library. And the story continues and Ford and Carter, and it still hasn’t been opened even at the Reagan, is how did the United States secretly, and in this case, the people you wanna keep it away from probably are allies who weren’t aware that we were working secretly with France to kinda bring them in secretly. Nixon started that process because he had a long relationship with the French and understood their history.
Jonathan Movroydis: In August, 1971 one of the big achievements for the Nixon administration was…before even the trip to China in ‘72 and a trip to Moscow was the Berlin Agreement between the four allied powers: The Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. What exactly did the Berlin Agreement achieve and really, how did it come about?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, philosophically, when a war ends, there’s usually a treaty that ends it. You know, the Vietnam in January ’73, it was the treaty in Paris. There’s lots of treaties in Paris. For some reason, they settled wars in Paris over and over and over. It’s just the place. You know, Korea was Panmunjom at the negotiations with World War II. What was the treaty that ended World War II? There’s a series of agreements and talks, but that you can’t really pinpoint to sort of one agreement. And so for Nixon coming to president, coming to the White House in the late ‘60s, realizing this still kind of a nerve, a wound that hasn’t been healed and part of the…and had to be broken up into phases. It couldn’t all be done in one treaty.
And one in particular was the Berlin Agreements, ‘70 and ’71, was even the recognition of the new borders between East and West Europe, hadn’t quite been settled in some places. And so it was beginning in the Berlin Agreement and leading up to ‘75 after Nixon was gone, Ford and Kissinger, the Helsinki Accords. There’s a series of agreements between, I would say…I would argue between the Berlin Agreement and the Helsinki Accords that really sort of represent the post-World War II peace agreement. There was a series of agreements. And these wounds need to be addressed, that Nixon ultimately, if your goal is to improve east-west ties, if you wanna be on the same page about where you’re headed, you’ve gotta be on the same page or close about your past and the war. That was the impetus that Nixon launched with these series of agreements.
And it was tricky because he wasn’t always in support sometimes because West Germany had a very activist prime minister, Willy Brandt and his assistant Egon Bahr and they… Germany also I think hoped to take over its traditional role of leadership and possibly to the fear of some to rearm a little sooner than some wanted. And the worst fear for some was that Germany would rearm, you know, run the European Union and it’d be in charge of the finger on the button, the nuclear weapons of the western alliance. And so that was a great fear. Again, how do you balance all of these concerns? How do you bring Germany in? How do you recognize the post-war reality and move forward? And so Nixon believed you had to look back first.
Jonathan Movroydis: Mentioning Donald Trump again during the campaign, he complained a lot about how the…complain is a strong word, but he talked about the idea that NATO wasn’t paying their fair…or the countries of NATO weren’t paying their fair share and they weren’t treating the United States very well on trade issues. Nixon and Kissinger felt that we should treat…or at least you write in the book that Nixon and Kissinger felt that we should treat the European somewhat like we treat the Soviets, this idea of linkage, that if we help them out with security, they should cooperate with us more on trade issues. Was this plan of linkage ever…this sort of trade off plan ever implemented?
Luke Nichter: I mean, Nixon and Kissinger had a lot of issues to deal with in transatlantic relations. They had to do something with NATO. The dollar was falling apart in terms of the gold standard getting into the summer of ’71, so you had to get major defense issues. You had major economic and monetary issues. You had major trade wars that were starting up beginning in ’73. Then on top of that, it was compounded by a war in the mid east in ‘73 and an energy crisis that ran through the next year of ‘74 and beyond and a worldwide recession on top of that. So Nixon had a host of different issues to address and some of them worked and some of them didn’t work.
But what he thought would be more successful was rather than go to a multilateral forum where each one of these is addressed far better, again, preferring his bilateral style of negotiations, meet with President de Gaulle or Pompidou or in Britain, Wilson or Heath or in Germany, Brandt and then later Schmidt and meet with them privately and say, “You know, we’ll give you a little more on the trade issue but help us out over here on the dollar issue and the gold issue.” And so I think Nixon wanted to kind of realize that there’d be some give and take in the agreements. And that was different because typically you have advisors who might work on trade and then economic advisors who work on gold and dollar, you might have NATO advisors who work on defense. So he was kind of breaking the old pattern of doing things and that rubbed some people the wrong way.
I think he thought that he could get the best deal for the country, this country, and also be more efficient if you could kind of bundle them together and link one to the other, sort of a give and take. And some people didn’t like that. In Nixon’s case he thought it was a more effective way when you have a variety of issues to deal with all at one time to link progress in one to the other and to the whole.
Jonathan Movroydis: Going to monetary policy, one of the least understood but at least one of the most impactful decisions that Nixon made was this August, 1971 to end Bretton Woods and close the gold window. First, what was the Bretton Woods system and why did Nixon make such a drastic move?
Luke Nichter: Well, Bretton Woods, it was a complicated regime. I mean, the basics are it’s a treaty, it’s a town, it’s a conference. It’s a whole bunch of things. But Bretton Woods in New Hampshire was the site of a treaty of a conference in 1944. A little like the Atlantic Charter in the sense that let’s look beyond the war. I mean, the war devastated economies, devastated currencies. And how are we gonna rebuild the world economy, the world currencies, which had gone… The rights mark is gonna be gone obviously after World War II. So how do you rebuild the biggest economies and currencies? And so a conference, a monetary conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, which culminated in this agreement, 1944 basically created a system of world currencies that were all linked to the dollar and ultimately the dollar was linked to the value of gold.
So every currency was linked. And some of you remember maybe traveling to Europe decades ago where exchange rates didn’t change that much. And even up until recently, you know, the Chinese Yuan was linked to an 8.28271 or whatever the long number was. And so the Bretton Woods set up this fixed, it provided stability. Currencies were linked to the dollar. The dollar was linked to the gold at $35 for an ounce of gold. And that had been at post-war constant from 1944 until… This is the weekend of this picture here at Camp David of August 13 to August 15th, 1971.
And this was the post-war stability until Nixon preempted bonanza at 9:00 on a Sunday night, August 15th and gave a 20-minute speech saying the system’s gotta change. That the U.S., which had been the fulcrum for the whole world economy and the currencies should no longer have the responsibility of being the fulcrum. These other nations have grown up, their economies have been repaired, their political systems are reestablished, their countrysides are no longer destroyed. And so Nixon was asking to be released on behalf of the United States as the fulcrum, this monetary system. And on top of that, we had no gold left. I mean, the way it was supposed to work was for every dollar in circulation, every paper dollar in your pocket, there were supposed to be the equivalent amount of gold at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
And for that I think, by the summer of ‘71, John Connally, who is seated on the couch to Nixon’s right, governor Connally, Democrat, Texas. Governor Connally advised Nixon, “We have $30 billion in circulation, paper dollars. We’re now down to less than 10 billion in gold.” And you know, back in that time you could exchange dollars for gold and the Department of Treasury called the cash room. You could go until 1975 in Washington and bring your dollars in and get the equivalent gold up until ’75. Nixon ended at ‘71. So there was a phasing period. And Connally advised Nixon, “You’ve gotta do something about this because these European nations are collecting billions at a time. We might run out of gold in a month or two.”
And so Nixon had to do something drastic that had to fix the short-term problem, but also to address this much longer-term instability in the Bretton Woods system by ending the gold standard. And he did it in two phases. In December of ‘71, there was an agreement called a Smithsonian agreement, which allowed the dollar to devalue slightly. We went from $35 per ounce of gold to 38 and the other nations moved along with us. And then in ‘73 Connally was out, George Shultz was in, secretary of the treasury. And so since ‘73, our dollar has floated. There’s no link at all between the dollar and gold or any other currencies as far as I know. And so it was based on nothing except for consumer confidence and the faith that we have in our nation, since ‘73.
And so it’s really complicated when you get into the details. It’s hard for me to understand sometimes the complexities of it. Most economists will say this was one of the most significant economic events of the entire postwar period, was the decoupling of gold and the dollar. And it happened under Nixon from ‘71 to ‘73.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the Europeans react to it?
Luke Nichter: Oh, they were traumatized by it. There’s some great conversations of Connally and… Connally would come back from these meeting international bankers and central bankers in Europe and he’d come back to Nixon in the Oval Office and say, “They’re scared to death. Gold’s like their Kryptonite, that they squirrel it away, they store it under their pillow and their mattress.” I mean, think about what Europe had been through during two wars, far more severe experience what the United States went through, certainly. And you know, Connally said, “They have an aversion. They don’t trust their governments. They don’t trust a currency that floats. What’s it based on?” And this has been a common, every once in a while this comes up in this country, the idea of returning to a gold standard.
And so the Europeans were petrified by this and just the idea of when to announce this, imagine the leak. And it was Paul Volcker who is still alive, who came in to the Oval Office one day. I remember this, he said, “If you tell me when you’re gonna make the announcement,” he said, “I can make you a billion dollars in the stock market that day with advanced knowledge.” And if you had that kind of knowledge about a… I mean, now, what do we wait for? A quarter interest rate with the Fed, it might go up or go down. This was a major announcement. Bretton Woods had been in place since 1944 and so Europeans anticipated that the United States was gonna make some kinda change. Weren’t quite sure how far they were gonna go, but they were scared to death.
The reason why Nixon chose…there was 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday, there was no perfect time because even 9:00 p.m., it was the ideal time and they spent hours talking about when do you make the announcement? You can’t make it when the markets are open because they’ll go crazy and they’ll close in an emergency. It’s better not to make it. Connally uses the phrase, “Don’t make it too late into the evening on Sunday because the market will start to boil over. It’ll be Monday morning already in Europe.” And so 9:00 p.m. was chosen because it did affect the Japanese in Tokyo, their markets. But 9:00 p.m. was chosen as sort of it would do the least amount of damage to really shake up the international system.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned some of these conversations happen on the Nixon tapes. You are the noted Nixon tapes expert. We have one from late 1972 after the summits in Beijing and Moscow and as the Vietnam war started to wind down.
Henry Kissinger: [inaudible 00:43:00] a lot of press almost as much as the Soviet part or as the European part. I’ve got a personal message from the president to each of these leaders saying the European relationships are to be given a new vitality that no matter how much progress they’re making, not even with Moscow picking that Europe is the [inaudible 00:43:39] about foreign policy and the president has [inaudible 00:43:42] the deputy going over there. I’m not sure what his specific plans are, but you can be sure that he’ll be intimate contact with these leaders. So I said, “Well, what do you have in mind?” And he said, “Well, we have a long philosophic decision [inaudible 00:43:59].
Jonathan Movroydis: This is three years into Nixon’s presidency. Why all over a sudden did the president and Dr. Kissinger decide that the next year was gonna be the focus of Europe?
Luke Nichter: Well, let me set the stage. So 16, September, 1972, it’s the Oval Office secret recording, primarily Kissinger, but Nixon and Hardeman is also in there. Kissinger had returned from a secret negotiating session in Paris less than an hour before. I mean, it sort of made for Hollywood. So you return from Paris negotiating with the North Vietnamese, you land at Andrews, you come right to the White House and where do you go? You go right to the briefing room and brief the press because they only knew about it after he came back. And so then after you brief the press, then you go in the Oval Office and Nixon asks, “How did it go?” And so he’s reporting to Nixon how the briefing went.
And I think the press were all expecting to be about Vietnam and they misread this great substance about Europe that I think is one of the most unknown aspects of the entire Nixon presidency was that the plan, looking ahead to the second term… This is ’72. Nixon was less than two months out from his 49th state landslide reelection in November of that year. They’re already looking into the second term and what are gonna be the key policies and proposals in the second term and Kissinger announces and obviously with Nixon’s blessing that Europe is to be a major centerpiece of foreign policy in the second term. Now obviously none of you have heard of that before. So it didn’t happen.
It’s one of the great lost opportunities of the entire Nixon presidency. After starting the presidency 20 days in in Europe. I think what changed was the foreign policy of the Nixon administration was supposed to be about Europe. Obviously it wasn’t. It was about China and Soviet Union. And what happened, what changed this I think is while Nixon and Kissinger were on that trip in ‘69 touring all the capitals less than a month into the presidency, they were getting intelligence reports that the Soviet Union and the Chinese were nearly at war with each other firing shots across the of Ussuri River. And all the people I’ve talked to and intelligence reports suggest that the points where they were firing shots between the Soviet Union and Chinese were all points of Soviet strength, which suggest that the Soviet Union was the aggressor.
Because when you’re on international trips, you can’t use the phones in places you’re staying.
They would return to Air Force One for secure communications, while they’re on this trip to Europe to deal with European policy to get briefings on how tense is the situation becoming in the Soviet Union and China. It’s my belief that it was during this time period that Nixon realized there was an opportunity here, a strategic opportunity to divide China and the Soviet Union. That they were not this communist monolith that all presidents thought they were, that there could be different kinds of communists, they could disagree with each other on things. And so in the first term, I would argue that this is what was meant to be a very strong policy toward Europe. Nixon and Kissinger had stronger preparation on Europe than any other part of the world.
That was their language background, their travel background, their professional background, the policy background. And because of this opportunity in the first term, it shifted to China and the Soviet Union. They seize that opportunity. In the second term they’re realizing the oversight. And that’s that paragraph. We need to shift back to our allies that no matter how many times we go to Pakeng or go to Moscow, we need to strengthen our allied relationships. And so Kissinger is making another great announcement about the position of Europe in the second term. Now, of course, that was also derailed, whether by continuing with Vietnam, by Watergate, war in the Middle East later that year, then energy crisis and ultimately Nixon’s resignation.
There’s been a few books written about this, no one’s really written about this because it’s sort of the dog that didn’t bark or the thing that didn’t happen and so no one studies those kinds of things. There was one time I remember meeting with Dr. Kissinger in New York in 2008 and telling him when I was working on my…this became my dissertation for my PhD and I told him, “Well, I have two chapters about the year of Europe.” And he said, “Oh,” sort of, “I wasn’t aware if anyone cared about that, you know, because it sort of didn’t end up happening.” And he said, “That was a great disappointment,” was his exact words.
After publishing his dissertation, my first book, his first book, were both on European policy. His first book was on the transatlantic world, came out in the early mid-1960s under the same publisher that I had with the Nixon tapes books. And so this was supposed to be a centerpiece of the Nixon policy, but ultimately for whatever reason didn’t quite work out that way.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talk about the relationship, that special relationship between the U.S. and Europe. Relationships don’t get any more special than the relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom. How did Nixon and Kissinger want to manage that alliance, especially the idea of a British integration?
Luke Nichter: Yeah, so here you have Nixon and you have British prime minister, Edward Heath or Ted Heath. And you know, typically the U.S.-United Kingdom relationship is arguably the closest that we have. It goes beyond just a common language. Some would say we’re divided by a common language, but it goes beyond the common language in terms of our ties and our history and nuclear arrangements and a whole sorts of other reasons. But this was surprisingly a very difficult period for U.S.- British relations for a variety of reasons. And I say in the book that some of the problems, and some of the wounds were self inflicted in terms of the American side and on the European side. But part of it’s just to go back to the other illustration I had in terms of the stars just weren’t quite aligned properly for a good U.S.-European relationship.
Ted Heath was arguably the first British prime minister who was not pro American. He was pro European. And he spent virtually all of his political capital getting Britain into the European Union or European community as it was called then. And preferred to do that as opposed to making relations with the United States a centerpiece. He’s the first prime minister arguably before or since who cared more about Europe than the United States. And it’s a fascinating story because we see this still going on today, this awkward relationship between Great Britain and the European Union. Their kind of as half in half out policy. And now they’re negotiating it again with Brexit if you’re following that. It’s heating up over there again after calming down for a little bit.
His book came out about a year before the term “Brexit” was coined, but this really was the first Brexit in ‘74 and ’75. Britain joined in ‘73. U.S. was encouraging but very concerned. And ultimately a year later in ‘74, Prime Minister Wilson comes back to power and has a national referendum in Britain pulling out just a year after they went into the European community. Top secret documents declassified for this book said that if Britain were to pull out of the European Union, and I say this to you because I think it’s probably close to U.S. position today, privately, US government position. That if Britain were to pull out of the European Union, its prestige is gone. There’s no more British Empire.
This is not a British Empire where the sun never sets. It’s from east to west. It’s all over the world. That Britain is a much smaller place now. A much smaller economy, I think comparable to the size of California all on its own. And so it’s not the same place it used to be under the British Empire. And so privately the diplomatic efforts by the U.S. were to keep Britain in Europe because at least then you had one vote. I mean, the British would represent your own views at the European Union where there was no American seat at the table. And so I think that’s privately what was going on while Nixon also negotiated bilateral treaties and trade treaties. But the time under Nixon and Heath was very unusual because both sides would typically gravitate toward each other. They’re natural allies, the United Kingdom and the U.S. But Nixon spent a lot of his time on China and on Vietnam and the Soviet Union and he spent a lot of time trying to get Britain into Europe. It was a very awkward phase for both nations.
Jonathan Movroydis: Final question. We’ll get to the audience questions, but this is sort of a question to legacy. How did Nixon subsequent resignation after Watergate affect transatlantic relations?
Luke Nichter: It’s a good question. You know, when a president resigns, it doesn’t happen very often, you know, how does it affect policy? And in Nixon’s case, I would say, it didn’t affect Transatlantic Policy a great deal primarily because Henry Kissinger stayed in place as secretary of state. He was there and stayed under Ford. He was aware of everything that he’d done under the Nixon years. He took Ford through the Helsinki Accords and actually by a year later by ‘75, I think relations between the U.S and Europe were pretty good again. The both sides had learned some lessons. Both sides sort of made up and apologized to the other. So I think things a year later were pretty good.
And plus in Europe, Europe was having its own problems. Heath was thrown out and Wilson came in and with Wilson came a very young… Heath was thrown out not only the prime minister’s residence but out the leadership of the Conservative Party and a new young female leader, Margaret Thatcher came to power as a result in the minority government still, in the minority against Prime Minister Wilson.
The French government turned over. The West Germany government turned over from Bronte to Schmidt. Just as our president was resigning, all their leaders were turning over. So there was a lot of turbulence in ’74 especially. By ‘75 things were calmed down a lot, and I think in part because Kissinger provided some degree of continuity from ‘69 all the way to ’77.
Jonathan Movroydis: And we’ll get to the audience’s questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Jon. Thank you, Luke. We will take a couple of questions if you guys have some. Afterward we’ll do a book signing. You have any questions? There’s one over here.
Man 1: In your studies of this situation with Richard Nixon really making Europe a centerpiece of his foreign policy, what are the lessons you learned that are most applicable to our time today?
Luke Nichter: Don’t try to do too much, I think is the big one. The Nixon White House was doing so many things simultaneously. I mean, think about it, getting out of the war and China and the Soviet Union, Europe, Latin America, all kinds of things simultaneously. And while I think Nixon and Kissinger were unsurpassed foreign policy experts, they’re still two human beings, and how much can two people do? And so I think Nixon foreign policy and its foreign policy energy were really directed where the excitement was and where the action was and the action was in China and doing something new there and Soviet Union. Especially Europe, that was much more inward looking and fighting and worrying whether or not to admit Britain and for a period wasn’t very concerned about having good relations with the U.S.
And so on the book I think I’m pretty even handed in terms of saying, you know, there are missed opportunities and some of them were American self-inflicted wounds because we were doing other things and some were European-inflicted wounds. But I think the biggest story of Europe is don’t do too much. Focus on a few things and get them right.
Moderator: One right here.
Man 2: Right now there’s a lot more countries in NATO than when Nixon was president, including Turkey and things. Did Nixon have some vision about expanding NATO to all the countries it would include today? What do you think he would think about Turkey being in NATO?
Luke Nichter: Well, Turkey has had a special status for a long time. It’s like a status with the European Union, which I think goes back to ‘62 or ’63. Not fully in, but having some kind of relationship. And I don’t know this, speculation, I would suspect that Nixon would have been more cautious. That Nixon would have said 2003, ‘04, ‘05, all these new states that were added to NATO, that were added to…well, it was a series of things, it was sort of WTO, it was NATO and it was also the European Union. So series of successive things to kind of bring them on to our side and make sure they stay there and don’t go back. I think that that happened quickly for the Russians especially. And I think that that caused some strain that we don’t even fully understand yet in U.S.-Russian relations.
And I think Nixon would have been more sensitive about not offending Russia and not doing too much too quickly as far as bringing them all in. I think he would have been very sensitive during the time he advised, you know, President Clinton on post-Soviet Russian policy. I think that’s one thing I think he definitely would have done differently.
Moderator: We got one last question here back of the room.
Man 3: So Nixon and Kissinger are kinda famous for this concept of linkage of understanding foreign policy as a web affecting each and every aspect of it. How important is Europe into like the larger foreign policy aspirations of Nixon and Kissinger, specifically China and SALT?
Luke Nichter: It’s a funny question because in the summer of ‘71, all the Europeans cared about is what’s the price of gold gonna be? What are you gonna do about the dollar? Making sure European economies aren’t gonna be hurt too much because when Nixon announced his Bretton Woods speech to suspend convertibility of dollars in the gold on August 15th, 1971, European markets, it shut them down. Some are closed for weeks because there was no basis to trade anymore. The whole markets had been interrupted. Nixon spent a lot of time preparing and Connally and Kissinger preparing for a series of difficult summits. Europeans were not happy because they did not get a lot of advanced warning about Nixon’s decision.
Again, in light of making $1 billion with 10 minutes of advanced notice, I mean, how much advanced notice can you really give for it to have the effect that you really want it to have. So it was a surprise announcement even against their allies. And I think Nixon was proud of that. So Nixon was planning for all these difficult summits with the Europeans, where can it go well in the fall. And instead they went really well because they just didn’t talk about the issue. What you see happening, to answer your question is a month before, Nixon liked these great moments that shocked people, caught them off guard. He called them Nixon shocks. And so August 15th was one, that was Bretton Woods.
And coincidentally, one month before July 15th was when he went on TV and announced he’d be the first president that would visit China. Didn’t say when yet, but in the coming future. And so in the fall, once Nixon finally got to these difficult summits with the Europeans, all they wanted to know about was China. And what are you gonna talk about and what’s coming next? They already moved on to the next subject. And so what you see Nixon doing is every time he’d have a major initiative with the Chinese or the Russians, he would be sure the Europeans came into the Oval Office and brief them, or he would go there or he would send Kissinger.
And so Europe became a place that as you were going out and making breakthroughs with adversaries, plainly enemies for a long period of time, make sure you keep coming back and keeping Europeans informed, at least to a degree. Didn’t tell them a lot sometimes, but keeping them informed and making sure that the Atlantic alliance remained strong and a foundation for values that we shared across the ocean and that would persevere into the future.
Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, Luke Nichter. Thank you, guys.
Luke Nichter: Thank you, too.