Podcast: The Nixon Doctrine at 50
President Nixon taking notes and studying briefing materials aboard Air Force One en route to his historic trip to China in 1972. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Experts Evaluate President Nixon’s Foreign Policy Philosophy and Strategy
This summer marks the 50th Anniversary of the Nixon Doctrine. One day after the Apollo 11 splashdown in the South Pacific, President Nixon articulated a foreign policy doctrine in an informal press conference on the island of Guam.
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’ve assembled a panel of experts to talk the doctrine — its evolution, the context of the Vietnam War as well as its global application.
Roham Alvandi, Associate Professor of International History, London School of Economics and visiting Associate Professor at Columbia University
Michael Cotten, Assistant Professor of History, Temple College (Texas)
Gregory Daddis, Associate Professor of History/Director of the Chapman University’s War and Society Program
Luke Nichter, Professor of History, Texas A&M Central Texas
Jonathan Movroydis, Moderator
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the pronouncement of the Nixon Doctrine. One day, after the Apollo XI splash down in the South Pacific, President Nixon articulated a foreign policy doctrine in an informal press conference on the island of Guam. On this edition of the “Nixon Now Podcast,” we’ve assembled a panel of experts to talk the doctrine. Its evolution, the context of the Vietnam War, as well its global application.
We’re joined by Michael Cotten, Assistant Professor of History at Temple College in Texas. Gregory Daddis, Associate Professor of History and Director of Chapman University’s Warren Society Program, and Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University – Central Texas. We’ll be joined later by Roham Alvandi, Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Visiting Associate Professor of History at Columbia University
Thank you all, gentlemen, for joining us.
Michael Cotten: Thanks for having us.
Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan.
Gregory Daddis: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, I’d like to go a little bit around the horn, Luke, to start off with you, what does a presidential foreign policy doctrine mean to you?
Luke Nichter: Oh, well, first of all, not every president has one. It tends to be presidents who focused or what we remember is primarily foreign policy presidents. So certainly, you know, during Nixon’s lifetime, we can talk about a Truman Doctrine. And Nixon himself talks about a Truman Doctrine on the tapes, a Kennedy Doctrine, and we’re here to talk about a Nixon Doctrine. It’s really a kind of way that you remember, it’s a way that a president shaped and crafted policy. Sometimes the ideas work, and sometimes they don’t. But, you know, it’s a rare thing that we remember a president for having it. It tends to be a president who had unusually original thought about policy about the place of the United States and the world at that time. So it’s kind of an organizing principle for the foreign policies that emanate from the administration.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on that?
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, I would agree with Luke on this. I think in one sense, if we think about presidential doctrine, a supportive of a larger national grand strategy, then in one sense, if that grand strategy is a framework for how the nation is moving forward, then to kind of quote George Kennan, then the doctrine and based on foreign policy objectives is really an indication I think of direction, maybe not necessarily an announcement of a final destination but I think it’s a President’s desire to move the country from a foreign policy perspective in a certain direction. And I think you see this, certainly, as Luke pointed out with the Truman Doctrine and clearly the Nixon Doctrine is hoping to move the United States in a different era of the Cold War in a different direction.
Jonathan Movroydis: Michael, your thoughts on what is a foreign policy doctrine?
Michael Cotten: Well, I agree with the idea that it is a direction for foreign policy and overarching framework by which foreign policy will be operated under. It’s interesting that certain presidents, of course, as Dr. Nichter mentioned, emphasize it more than others. And you the interesting thing you can see is how situations around the world and situations within the nation change the shape of that and the perspectives, and especially looking at the Truman Doctrine, and how things change between the Truman Doctrine, and the Nixon Doctrine and how the perspective of the foreign policy approaches change over time, especially if you look, take a long look the United States from the founding up to the Nixon Doctrine, you can see a great change in the role and the given the role of the United States and in how they construct foreign policy.
Jonathan Movroydis: The Nixon Doctrine comes at the peak of U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s. Previously, Kennedy and Johnson presided over the Vietnam War. What was the American government’s philosophy in the 1960s up until this point in 1969, about fighting Vietnam and the Cold War in general? I’ll start with you, Luke.
Luke Nichter: Well, I think if you look in terms of the decade, you look at the beginning of the decade, as it was laid out in President Kennedy’s inaugural address, in January of 1961, you know, I see…which did a number of things to the foreign policy of the United States. I see it in a way, one of the elements of it as being sort of an extension or expansion of the Truman Doctrine. So the Truman Doctrine, said, you know, the United States will be there, you know, at the side of those facing communist aggression. But I think what Kennedy Doctrine did was really emphasized that sort of global policeman, you know, responsibility.
But really underscored it even more by saying, you know, “We’ll go anywhere, sort of anytime, you know, anywhere we’re needed to help those who are being threatened by this communist aggression.” So it was really kind of stating that the United States had these truly global, you know, 24-hour a day, 7-day a week responsibilities. And so I think what Ben Johnson inherited and I think that’s what Nixon ultimately decided that he had to reckon with. And if that’s what I have to work with, you know, sort of where do we go from here?
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, you have any thoughts on that?
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, I think you certainly do see an evolution. I think by the time Johnson becomes president after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, that within the span of about 12 to 18 months that for a whole host of reasons, I think that Vietnam becomes a central locus for the larger global fight against communism. And I think there’s plenty of reasons for that, whether it’s tied to American credibility or a true belief that there’s a larger zero sum game at play here with the global Cold War. But I think, importantly, as it does become a central point in the larger focus of global containment that Vietnam arguably becomes a position that is far out of proportion to what’s worth in relation to the larger American foreign policy.
And in one sense, I think, you can make an argument that Nixon Doctrine is trying to rebalance that proportion and ensure that the United States doesn’t get locked down into these local conflicts in such a way that it pulls American foreign policy away from larger goals and objectives. So I think what you see throughout the 1960s is this arc where, you know, is the Eisenhower administration kind of turns Vietnam over to Kennedy, and then through Johnson and ultimately to Nixon, you see this level of importance for Vietnam rise and then ultimately fall in terms of its larger relation, American foreign policy.
Jonathan Movroydis: Michael, you wrote your thesis on the Nixon Doctrine. Could you give us a little background about how this informal conversation with newsmen in Guam came about? In the President’s public papers, it’s called an informal conversation. But did the doctrine evolve in the early administration? How did it evolve? Did he already have this doctrine lined out way comes into office in January of 1969?
Michael Cotten: President Nixon had written some papers prior to coming into office, where he talked about Vietnam and he talked about foreign policy. He mentions on the tape the conversation that he had not told Dr. Kissinger that he was going to release all this before he did so. And so the way that it came out, and as this informal setting, the policy itself, the press did run with it. And one of the one the topics of conversation is how much was it supposed to run and how much did he have to get pulled along to match what was out there? But I think the evidence shows that he had worked on a framework that eventually became…it was referred to as the Guam Doctrine that eventually became known as the Nixon Doctrine.
But I believe the framework for it was there. I think that he recognized that the stance of United States will fight everywhere at any cost, any expense, any burden was not entirely practical. And that the concept of the domino theory was something that had to be reanalyzed. And I think it’s interesting that the approach with the Nixon Doctrine was that it was going to put more of an influence on the nation’s themselves. Yes, the United States was still going to provide the umbrella and would be there to support but would not carry 100% of the burden in every situation around the world.
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, I’m not so sure I agree with Jeffrey Kimball’s assertion that that’s really the press that blows this speech way out of proportion at Guam. I agree more with Michael on this today. I think there’s a framework already established that both Nixon and Kissinger are thinking along these lines prior to the meeting at Guam. And I think I’d be very careful about just kind of placing blame on the press for blowing this out of proportion. But I think this brings up a really interesting, larger question, not just for the Nixon presidency but for all presidencies is why do they have to have a doctrine?
We seem to conflate this word “presidential doctrine” with grand strategy or national security strategy or just American foreign policy writ large. And it seems we’ve gotten to the point now, where that if you’re a president of the United States and you don’t have a doctrine with your name attached to it, somehow you don’t have a foreign policy, which I find fairly interesting.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, do you agree that the president needs a foreign policy doctrine?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, I don’t know. That’s a tough one because, yeah, I mean, foreign policies is obviously not going to be a sort of natural skillset of every single leader, you know, that we have any more than domestic policy is or any other, you know, particular type of expertise. You know, and I think, you know, politics is also cyclical. So I think that a skillset of a president, say, in an area, foreign policy, you know, part of what the Nixon Doctrine shows us is that that foreign policy is cyclical. So, you know, after a period of very, you know, perhaps, you know, over involvement in the world, there’s a unnecessary recalibration that takes place during the Nixon years, you know, that is itself suggest a kind of cycle of, you know, focusing more outward and then more inward.
I think another interesting point, too, is, you know, Jeffrey Kimball, who was mentioned, who’s a good Vietnam scholar was really sort of the leader of those who, you know, in one case, wrote an article in 1996 that question whether the Nixon Doctrine even existed. And, you know, when the article came out, there were basically no Nixon tapes available then. A couple years ago, I pointed out to him, I said, “Well, you know, you can’t deny that…” when you do a search of the Nixon tapes, the actual phrase and expenditure and shows up 60 times. And the taping didn’t begin until ’71. I mean, almost two years after the Nixon Doctrine is announced in Guam. And so presumably, in those first two years of the presidency, if we had tapes ’69 and ’70, there’d be even more mentions than just two years after the fact.
So, you know, confronted with that, you know, he said something, he sort of conceded, “Well, you know, tapes were unavailable and it’s really going to be the next generation of people who explore this more fully.” So I think even he has conceded that the interpretation we’re talking about now are sort of a natural evolution of this conversation.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, let me bring you in here. What was the situation like in Vietnam when the Nixon Doctrine was announced?
Gregory Daddis: I think, for all practical purposes, a stalemate on all sides, and a realization that the 1968 Tet Offensive, which from a noise perspective, was aspirational in the sense that it would hopefully achieve through a general offensive throughout South Vietnam, a general uprising among the South Vietnamese and that would demonstrate to not just those in Southeast Asia, but really around the world, that this was a true revolution against outsiders, and all Vietnamese were committed to independence and under Hanoi’s leadership. And when those aspirations failed and Nixon takes over in early 1969, I think there’s still a realization that the stalemate is simply continuing that, you know, this whole idea that that Tet was a military victory for the United States and South Vietnamese allies and a political defeat for them, I think, I’ve got some issues with that articulation of the way it happened.
But I think importantly here, there’s just a sense that Nixon says himself in his memoirs that total military victory was no longer possible. And he’s speaking about that in his memoirs as he’s entering office. So I think there’s an understanding that, from the American standpoint, that the overarching political objectives in South Vietnam have got to change because the military is not going to be able to present those political objectives to the incoming administration.
Jonathan Movroydis: When Nixon announces the doctrine, he travels to the South Pacific to watch the splashdown of Apollo. Then he gives the remarks in Guam and then he ventured out for a trip to South East Asia. Greg, what do you think the reason was the time and place of this right before a South East Asian trip?
Gregory Daddis: I think in part to send a fairly clear message to the Saigon regime that the American approach to Vietnam was evolving. And, you know, part of the…I think the issue of the Nixon Doctrine, when look through the lens of those who are running the government in Saigon is that they’re not part of the discussion early on. So what Michael mentioned earlier about this being a long term conversation within at least Nixon’s head, if not between Nixon and Kissinger before the announcements made in Guam, that the South Vietnamese are not fully a part of that conversation. So in one sense, from the local Vietnamese perspective, it’s an opportunity, I think, for Nixon to discuss with too that the American approach in South Vietnam is changing.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, this happens at the Apollo splashdown. In an interview I did a couple weeks ago with James Donovan, who recently wrote a book about Apollo, he said that the space race ended with the moon landing. Some had said that the trip to Southeast Asia following the Apollo mission was a mission of goodwill to sort of, you know, bask in the triumph of Apollo but also deal with the situation at hand in Vietnam. Do you subscribe to this to this theory?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think what we’re seeing with the Nixon Doctrine is, you know, that it has been applied because it was announced, you know, after the splashdown and it was announced, you know, on the way to a South East Asian, you know, a head of state meeting, I think Nixon Doctrine as we see it’s been primarily interpreted. You look into the secondary literature, and the work of scholars primarily as relating to those subjects, especially relating primary to Vietnam, that the thing that struck me, you know, on the tapes and even looking at Nixon’s writings in ’68 before winning in the fall, is that a lot of the ideas that had been in place for a while, you know, even going back to the Foreign Affairs article, Asia, after Vietnam in 1967.
You know, everyone, again, focuses on what kind of clues do we look for about Vietnam or about a potential new relationship with the PRC? And in that focus, you kind of lose sight of the fact that I think Nixon intended…you know, and not necessarily these the ideas we’re talking about, prior to the labels that were created, the Guam Doctrine or the Nixon Doctrine, but of the ideas were much broader. And I don’t know that they were meant to apply to all parts of the world because I, you know, certainly the Nixon tapes suggests that Nixon and Kissinger who centralize so much of foreign policy making process, I don’t think they spent as much time at all parts of the world equally, but certainly that the ideas we’re talking about, you know, so my earlier book on Europe, they’re not calling it, you know, the Nixon Doctrine yet, but in his summits in Euros, his first overseas summit tour a month after he becomes president in late February and early March, you know, those are the ideas of the Nixon Doctrine.
And you can look at his preparation for writing his keynote NATO speech in April, and looking at the draft, and a lot of the ideas not yet called the Nixon Doctrine are effectively just that. And similarly, on the tapes, you can look at policy with regard to, you know, the Middle East and Roham’s book, you can look at other parts of the world. And you can see that I think the application of the ideas we’re talking about was meant to be broader than just, say, space or just meant to be Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, Nixon, in the Guam remarks, discusses U.S. withdraw, as well as the security and future of U.S. involvement in Asia seems somewhat of a paradox. We’re talking about withdrawal but you’re also talking about engagement. What do you think he’s envisioning?
Gregory Daddis: And I think that’s the problem with all this is that balance? And, you know, I think to piggyback off what Luke said, I think what you’ve seen in much of the literature is kind of this conflation where the Nixon Doctrine, really what it means is Vietnamization . And I think Luke is corrected that I think that’s a perhaps faulty way to look at this that Vietnam is part of a much larger whole. And in one sense, I think the doctrine perhaps is asking a more fundamental question, which is who is responsible for global security and how. And if there’s this balance between the superpowers and local entities that we have to figure out this question of who is responsible for just that global security.
And I think the Vietnamization , at least on the ground, is challenging for those that are trying to implement it. You’re trying to leave something that’s credible behind at the same time that you’re withdrawing U.S. Forces, which according to Kissinger are one of your main leverage points from a negotiating standpoint. And, you know, my sense in at least from military strategy standpoint inside South Vietnam is that these competing imperatives of we’re trying at the same time that you’re trying to engage in negotiations and diplomacy at the same time that you’re trying to help pacify the countryside and stabilize not just the New South Vietnamese Armed Forces, but its government to balance all of those things is just outside the capacity and the capabilities of the military command insights at Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: Roham, let me bring you in here. What do you think Nixon and Kissinger’s philosophy is in terms of who was responsible for global security as well as their own these individual countries group of countries regional security?
Roham Alvandi: Well, I think essentially what they’re trying to do is resolve a fundamental dilemma, which is how do you assert global leadership is limited means? So it’s a question of means and ends. And I think for Nixon and Kissinger coming into office, it’s very clear, I think, from the early days that they have made a decision to try to focus the diminishing political capital that they have because of Vietnam on the question of detente and basically on superpower relations. What would become the rapprochement with China and detente with the Soviet Union.
But it in order to do that, they need to find a way of extricating the United States from what they considered areas of the world where the Cold War not be won or lost. And so I think that is essentially what the Nixon Doctrine was. And you have a president who has a great deal of foreign policy experience and has established relationships with a lot of these leaders in various regions, particularly anti-communist right wing leaders. And so it was really, you know, a logical extension of that strategy, that they would slowly begin to look for regional partners in various places, including, of course, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Nixon had actually visited Iran in 1967 when he was out of office, and he was doing this sort of global tour before his run for the presidency. And if you look at the notes that he made of those meetings, that meeting with the Shah in spring of 1967, you can see that all of these ideas about the Nixon Doctrine are very clearly enunciated in their conversation. He is, you know, clearly looking for a regional ally who sees the world in the same way, who shares the same concerns about the diminishing role of the United States and who could potentially fill that role in the Persian Gulf.
But the issue once they come into office, that takes quite a long time to fall into place. I mean, the Shah is lobbying Nixon and Kissinger for that role for almost two years before Washington agrees to essentially give the Shah a blank check during Nixon and Kissinger visits to Iran in May of 1972 on the tail end of their visit to Moscow for the summit meeting with Brezhnev. So it’s the ideas, I think, are there. I would agree the ideas are there before Nixon comes into office, but the actual application of these ideas takes some time.
Jonathan Movroydis: Michael, would you agree that the Nixon administration was actively seeking global partners in practice of the Nixon Doctrine?
Michael Cotten: Well, I can talk about what I heard on the tapes, processing the tapes is part of my thesis and it shows…the tapes start two years later. But what you see in the tape is that the President is having numerous conversations with various world leaders explaining what the Nixon Doctrine is, that it’s not the United States withdrawing from the world. But instead that it is reframing the circumstances in which we will continue to remain as part of the world as a whole. And you can see that this shift is large enough that it has foreign heads of states asking questions, and it really is a pretty large shift. And so the President spend a great deal of time talking with heads of state, explaining the importance of the United States remaining in certain areas. He makes reference to, of course, the Nixon Doctrine, the application of that.
And I would say going back to the other idea about how was applied, I think the tapes show that it was not a one-size-fits-all approach. And that even though it was an overall global strategy, the application of that strategy would vary from region to region. And in the tapes, there’s conversations where the President talks about how it would be applied in, say, Southeast Asia, how it would be applied in Central America and South America, how it would applied in Europe. And these conversations are not a one-size-fits-all approach. But a great deal of time is spent explaining how, yes, it is a change in the role for United States, but it is not the United States withdrawing from the world. But you can see what the tape that it is certainly a point of concern and discussion with the various heads of state.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, do you have any thoughts on the Nixon Doctrines application?
Luke Nichter: Oh, I mean, Michael is really even more so than me, I mean, Michael, when he was one of my graduate students in, you know, searching for a thesis topic, I said, you know, all the problem of this scholarly disagreement with regard to the Nixon Doctrine. And so we both went through this and learned, you know, at the same time. I mean, I knew that there was a number of mentions of the Nixon Doctrine on the tape. And so, you know, what I really learned also, as Michael went through the motions, was, you know, there was something like two dozen substantive conversations dealing with, you know, most parts of the world, and how it was to be applied.
And so it was clear to me from these tapes that Michael transcribed originally or in the appendix of a thesis that this…I think, well, that the sort of the general tone, the general ideas of the doctrine or the applied universally, I think how that actually happens in reality in different parts of the world was very, very different. And so, you know, I think it was both against kind of broad vision, but also to be implemented specifically in very different ways. And what’s interesting about the tapes is a lot of this doesn’t necessarily show up on kind of traditional paper memorandum of the administration. But it’s really on the fluid conversation of the Nixon tapes were Nixon’s going from this part of the world to that part of the world to this part of the world and showing how, in his mind, at least, you know, the ideas are connected from one part to another.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on that?
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, just from an application standpoint, I think what’s important here is that this is not just about superpower relations, but I think perhaps more importantly, how superpowers relate to much weaker allies. And so Nixon himself says that the part of this policy approach is that the United States is going to assist but not dictate. And I think that really raises a dilemma for American foreign policy makers, one that I would argue we’re still dealing with today is it raises a whole host of questions. How do you define aid for themselves if you’re not going to dictate? Or what happens when a weaker ally has their own visions and aspirations?
We clearly saw this much earlier in the in the Kennedy administration with [inaudible 00:30:22] during the early 1960s. What happens when your ally is not as pliable as you want them to be? And when that happens, does that lead to a more coercive foreign policy in general? And so I think that’s a key issue here in terms of application. And Luke is absolutely correct that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it really brings up a problem for American policymakers of trying to assist but not dictate in a way that doesn’t lead to an overbearing foreign policy, but also one that allows you have some influence on the global stage and numerous and very diverse, regional areas, if not conflicts.
Jonathan Movroydis: Roham, your case study with Iran sheds light on the pliability of allies in terms of the shot. Could you could you touch upon that?
Roham Alvandi: You have to remember that Nixon was vice president in the Eisenhower administration, which had supported and played a key role in the coup in Iran in 1953 that had overthrown the Mosaddegh government, and it sort of restored the Shah to power as a royal dictatorship rather than as a constitutional monarchy. So the relationship between Nixon and the Shah was very long standing one. And I think, coming into office, his view of the Shah was very much still based on, you know, those earlier memories of a rather young, week, inexperienced monarch. But of course, you know, in the subsequent decades, the Shah had evolved into a much stronger, much more autonomous, much more independent character.
So I think the application of the Nixon Doctrine in the Persian Gulf and in the case of Iran really was a process of convincing…the Shah trying to convince Nixon and Kissinger that he was really up to the job, that he could actually assume the mantle of responsibility for preserving the status quo in the Persian Gulf preventing the Soviet Union or any of its communist allies from gaining power in the region. And that took a while. I mean, there was resistance to that idea within the bureaucracy in Washington. Pretty much everyone other than Nixon and Kissinger themselves were quite skeptical of the idea. So it took quite a long time.
And it was really on a series of key issues where the Shah was able to sway them. One was the insurgency in northern Iraq by the Kurdish forces against the government in Baghdad. The Shah was able in 1972, to convince Nixon and Kissinger to covertly support the insurgency despite opposition from within the NSC staff, the CIA, Department Defense. So that really showed a kind of…that was the Nixon Doctrine in action. That was an application of indirect U.S. power. But of course, the net result was that, you know, in many ways, the Shah was using newfound influence, was using his leverage to bend American policy, according to Iranian interests, not necessarily American interests, which created a great deal of disquiet in Washington.
This whole Kurdish issue became a really controversial with the pike report of the hearings in Congress later on in the ‘70s. So you can see that I mean, there were a number of cases including Iran where these smaller allies, weaker allies with their own regional interests were able to present to Nixon and Kissinger their problems in Cold War terms, and in that way, recruit the United States to their side of whatever regional conflict they were involved with, even if that conflict really wasn’t fundamentally a Cold War conflict.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you see any other examples of this?
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, certainly, I think, too and South Vietnam clearly is not a passive actor who doesn’t have any agency because he’s a subordinate in the relationship with the United States I think throughout the American experience in Vietnam. It’s probably one of the key themes is this frustration with local leaders who have their own ideas and can influence American policy making by pulling the right levers, whether it’s, you know, presenting some possibilities of negotiating with the communists or ensuring that the South Vietnamese Armed Forces operate in a certain way outside of American influence or ensuring that the right political appointees are in key positions, whether it’s in out in the provinces or inside on itself.
So, to me, I think one of the most understudied aspects of the American experience in Vietnam is the South Vietnamese political scene. And I think we have clearly a lot more work to do, especially in Vietnamese sources to get a sense of how somebody is reacting to a major announcement like the Nixon Doctrine and trying to navigate his own way through how the future is going to unfold, with or without American assistance. And I don’t think that that’s a unique experience in South Vietnam. I think you see through many of the global regional relationships throughout this time period.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, do you have any additional thoughts on that? I mean, there’s other parts of the world, Pakistan, Europe. Do you have any additional thoughts on that?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think that of the ones you mentioned there, the part of the world that that I’ve looked at the most is probably Europe. And I think, you know, the way these ideas apply to Europe, certainly was Nixon coming to office and really asking just a lot of questions, and I’m not sure he knew all the answers to those questions. You know, I think he looked at things like, you know, how many troops is the right number to have stationed in Germany. You know, because it with Nixon believing firmly that kind of the most intense part of the Cold War was now ending. And, you know, he himself says, you know, “My presidency is sort of the beginning of the end of the post-war era. So how many troops do we still need in Germany? You know, how much should we be spending? What is the real nature of the ongoing communist threat in Western Europe?”
And so I think he’s asking a lot of questions and sort of reassessing and thinking throughout this recalibration that that takes place. And I think that’s also tied to other policies like Bretton Woods. You know, the U.S. had been sort of the fulcrum of the International Monetary System since 1944. And I think he ultimately concluded that the United States had, you know, a legitimate right, you know, not to bear that burden indefinitely, even while still providing some degree of leadership in the policy areas. And the question is what’s that leadership supposed to look like? So I think in a place like Europe, it was a military policy that was involved in political action, it was an economic and a monetary policy. So I think the ideas behind the doctrine in a place like Europe were applied in the in a sort of very broad sense.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, how does…you know, there’s a recalibration of foreign policy, there’s the finding of regional partners. But there’s also the big powers, Russia and China. What are the symmetry with the big powers Russia and China come into place with this, with the Nixon Doctrine?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think Nixon ultimately believed that the era in which he was president would present new opportunities. And the question was how do you seize that opportunity? You know, during the final months of the Johnson administration, I think it was a shock to the world to see the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And I think while a lot of people, and you look at the western response, you know, the NATO response, and it’s almost nothing, it’s sort of embarrassing. But I think while most leaders on the west were asking questions like, you know, where will the Soviet strike next and, you know, what’s the next Czechoslovakia? Nixon was thinking differently. According to his private writings, he was saying things like, “Actually, I think now the Soviets will return to a period of responsibility, that they’ll want to sort of make amends, you know, that they realized they had gone too far.”
So I think the most important thing I take away is, no matter the part of the world we’re talking about, I think Nixon believes he was becoming president at a time with new opportunities that had not presented themselves in earlier periods. And so I think he was sort of matching up the language of the Nixon Doctrine was the best way to take advantage of these opportunities. And I think also, you know, part of the Nixon Doctrine was to at least give nations around the world the sense that they had a hand in the policymaking and implementations of the Nixon Doctrine. I think sometimes these nations had actual greater say than others.
But I think part of the idea was, you know, to make Vietnamese feel like they had a greater role in their own self-defense to make Europeans feel that Germans were more involved in offset and can play a greater role in trade and economic and monetary relations, to make regional pillars, you know, like the Shah in Iran, I think, to establish partners, strategic partners, and not just sort of puppets. You know, while Nixon and Kissinger wanted to continue to call most of the shots, I think there was this concerted effort to make our allies feel like they had a say in the policy that resulted.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on that in terms of Vietnam War?
Gregory Daddis: I do. From a larger perspective, though, I think Luke hits on an important point here, and Kissinger himself says that we had to shift our foreign policy to new facts of life. And to me it’s always an interesting thought exercise here that was this even possible five years ago? That here you have a president of the United States who’s really articulate in a fairly major shift where communist enemies can now be negotiating partners. That’s a pretty big deal in terms of a shift in American thinking in the Cold War. And I’m not so sure that the articulation of this doctrine would have been even possible five years before. The only I guess pushback I might have from a Vietnamese perspective is that clearly from the Saigon perspective and those South Vietnamese that are fighting, they realize that they’ve been burying a pretty heavy load in terms of this fight for South Vietnamese independence.
And there’s always a bit of tension, I think, between Washington and Saigon over the burden that the South Vietnamese are buried in this fight. And the idea that, you know, this doctrine will allow them to better participate in their own future I think may have rankled some in Saigon because they already felt that they were obviously sacrificing quite a bit to hopefully maintain their independence.
Jonathan Movroydis: Roham, do you have any thoughts on this, especially from the perspective of the Shah in Iran?
Roham Alvandi: Well, I mean, we also have to remember that and I think both Nixon and Kissinger had, I would say, deeply pessimistic view of the possibility of democratic change in most of the Third World. I mean, they really did not have an expectation that Iran or Iraq or these, you know, underdeveloped countries like that were going to be able to be sort of recreated in any short-term in America’s image. So that in and of itself, I think, was a major change in the American view of the Cold War. It was a far more pragmatic, real politic realist approach to power and to dealing with these developing countries.
And so that encourages, I think, a point of view, where you look for a particularly strong figure or character to deal with, a reliable partner. The question really boils down to how reliable are they? And that was a view that became very, very heavily criticized, you know, for both from the left and the right in the United States, after Watergate and towards the end of the 1970s. But it was the premise upon which in many ways I think the Nixon Doctrine was built. It was a doctrine for stability at the end of the day, for maintaining the status quo. In a time when in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and a lot of places in the world, these societies, these developed…and a lot of these societies in the Middle East or in Asia or Latin America are actually undergoing…those states are undergoing profound stresses and challenges from their populations, particularly from young people because this sort of international counterculture movement.
What I found particularly interesting in a lot of the conversations between Nixon and the Shah is that here you have two very, very different men from very, very different contexts and backgrounds yet two men who have a very similar worldview and who really perceive the same social forces and changes as the dangers, you know, that they have to confront. And that, I think, is a product of, you know, a global phenomenon in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, that that leaders across the world were trying to address.
Jonathan Movroydis: On November 3rd, 1969, a little over three months after the Guam Doctrine is pronounced, Nixon gives his address to the nation, the Vietnam War, this is popularly known as the Silent Majority speech. He distills the doctrine on three distinct planks. But I want to play the audio clip, which I will do right now.
Richard Nixon: American troops were committed to Vietnam. A leader of another Asian country expressed this opinion to me when I was traveling in Asia as a private citizen. He said, “When you are trying to assist another nation defend its freedom, U.S. policy should be to help them fight the war, but not to fight the war for them.” Well, in accordance with this wise counsel, I lay down in Guam three principles as guidelines for future American policy toward Asia.
First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments.
Second, we shall provide a shield if a new nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us, or other nation whose survival we consider vital to our security.
Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.
After I announced this policy, I found that the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, other nations, which might be threatened by communist aggression, welcomed this new direction, an American foreign policy. The defense of freedom is everybody’s business, not just America’s business. And it is particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.
Jonathan Movroydis: There are two ways to look at this. And, Michael, I want to ask you this first, Nixon says that we don’t want to fight the wars for other countries. But he also says the defense of freedom is everybody’s business. Is this U.S. doctrine? Is this presidential doctrine? Touching kind of on what Roham said, is this a idealistic doctrine? Or is this more about real politic?
Michael Cotten: Well, that that is a very good question. I would have to say that, from my perspective, it seems that it is more of a realistic perspective in the sense that we can’t be everywhere at the same time and we can’t as a nation it would be difficult to defend every nation if the people themselves are not willing to do so. At the very least cooperating and the effort is required. To not have that would be undoable for the most part. I think the interesting thing about this is we talked about aiding those nations in their defense. And one of the things that, of course, we did not see was what, you know, what if the nations don’t pull their weight by whatever definition to apply that to.
And, I think, that’s, you know, how that would play out of something, of course, we won’t be able to see, we can speculate on it. But there was an expectation that they would be involved in that. And so I think that is pretty, you know, a realistic approach. It’s one that, especially when you’re trying to explain to the American people why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is it was a question that came up quite a bit. It seems easier to explain than something along the lines of the domino theory, which in a lot of ways seems to be, at least to some degree, rejected by this approach. Because each individual nation would be judged, you know, under the circumstances of itself. And it and it specifically does not say everywhere all the time to the last man. And so I think it is much more of a realistic approach and it’s a flexible approach.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on that?
Gregory Daddis: Yeah, this is the part of speech where I think Richard Nixon would have made a fine staff officer on David Petraeus’ staff during the surge, right? Because this is the essence of modern counterinsurgency doctrine, right? That less of a footprint is more. Don’t lead, assist. And this is the concept behind assistance brigades in a counterinsurgency fight. And so in one sense, you know, he’s predating some of the doctrinal theory that we’re operating on today in terms of our counterinsurgency approach.
The other thing I think it’s important here too is he says both military and economic assistance. So what’s clear here to me is that Nixon is thinking about these problems, not simply from a military standpoint, but from a larger whole of government approach that this is a political problem, it’s a social problem, it’s an economic problem, as well as a military problem. The issue here clearly, though, I think is that when he says that we’re going to be the shield for those nations that are vital to our security. That’s the crux, right? That by 1969 and into 1970, I think, I can make a fairly strong argument that South Vietnam is becoming less important and less vital to American national security in the larger concept of how Kissinger and Nixon are thinking about the Cold War.
And so the primary responsibility for Americans here is not to simply aid and assist the South Vietnamese, but it’s also drawn in a manner that maintains American credibility so Nixon can refocus American foreign policy on these bigger ideas of re-establishing and re-thinking about the relationships with China and the Soviet Union. And that’s kind of the undercurrent of the speech here that I think is important as well, and I’m not so sure of that too welcome the direction of this policy as much as Nixon, at least publicly, states clearly. I think both Kissinger and Nixon knew privately that the two had some serious issues with an approach that potentially was going to decrease American influence in the region and thus complicate South Vietnam’s fight against Hanoi.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, to Greg’s point about the whole of government approach, do you think in its application to Nixon doctrine and its foreign policy at large that there was a whole of government approach in its dealings with its partners?
Luke Nichter: Well, as articulated by the speech, the clip you played, I think there’s a whole another dimension to this. And it’s really the relationship between domestic policy and the Nixon Doctrine. You know, here if you can kind of imagine back to 1969, not think in 2019 terms, Congress has come back, you know, in September in ‘69. The honeymoon is over, as a new president, the honeymoon is over with Congress, controlled overwhelmingly by Democrats in both houses, the honeymoons over with the press.
He’s had his first few tastes of foreign policy and international symmetry and earlier in the year. And he comes back and he’s immediately really under pressure to articulate what the Nixon doctrine mean? What is your foreign policy? What’s your plan to get out of Vietnam? I mean, all at once. Congress wants answers and deserves answers in order to fulfill its oversight role. And what Nixon does just two months later, November 3rd, is produce the best speech of his presidency, which we normally focus on. You know, the Silent Majority and sort of these phrases become the 140 characters by which we remember the speech.
But I think what we also, the other dimension of this, is Nixon saying what he needs to say for a domestic audience. I mean, this is a domestic audience that wants out of Vietnam, this is domestic audience that is determined that during the 1960s we can’t have guns and butter, we’ve spent too much, that in LBJ’s final months of his presidency, we had a hard enough time just getting a small surtax passed to improve the budget situation. I think this is a domestic audience certainly on the hill that’s demanding answers and really wants to know.
So I think this is the other important element, to have a Nixon doctrine, is that I think it’s also a fit for its time in terms of domestic politics. I think Nixon understood this was probably going to be good politics. And this is what people wanted to hear. And it helped to stave off some of his worst critics when he made that speech.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke had mentioned that the Nixon doctrine has been mentioned about six times on the White House taping system. Michael, in your thesis, you talk about one particular tape where Nixon mentioned the doctrine on July 1st, 1971, Nixon says, “I would say the Nixon doctrine, as we know, is aimed at simply providing aid for those who aid themselves.” And here he’s talking about Taiwan vis-a-vis in its relationship to China just before Kissinger goes on his secret trip to China. In this case, how does the doctrine apply in, you know, say, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and the whole China initiative at large?
Michael Cotten: Well, and as you know that the entire China situation at this time period is fairly new and fairly delicate. Taiwan, of course, is a major sticking point on that. And President Nixon understands that it’s a delicate issue for China and for the Taiwan as well. And so in that conversation they talk about that. And so they’re having to be very careful that they mentioned about holding off on sending Agnew and Laird to Taiwan at that time because of the difficulties of that situation.
And just real quick, if I may, we were talking just a second ago about the economic aspects of the Nixon Doctrine. And on November 2nd of ‘71, President Nixon was having a conversation with Bill Rogers. And he talks about the absolute necessity of the economic assistance plan as part of the Nixon Doctrine suggesting that, yes, he understood that is not merely a military issue. That certainly it was an economic and foreign aid. And there was a component of that that was very necessary. In fact, he says that it will not work without it. He says that in reference to Korea and Thailand as well.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on that whether the role in foreign assistance and the application of Nixon doctrine, whether it works with or without it?
Gregory Daddis: The economic aspect?
Jonathan Movroydis: Correct.
Gregory Daddis: I think it’s fundamental. And especially in Vietnam, where the American presence is built up in a large sense, I would argue, a false economy that it’s crucial. And this is tied into so many factors in Vietnam, in particular, land reform and not just national identity, but local identity as it’s tied to the land and food production. And, you know, you’ve got this rice producing country that ultimately is importing in rice, which demonstrates the fragility of economies that are immersed in war. And I would argue that there’s nothing really new here in this particular sense. I think most Americans realized very early on even into the 1950s that, perhaps some even looking to South Korea, that for South Vietnam to survive in the modern era, that it was going to have to have economic stability, if not become an regional player from an economic standpoint for the state to exist.
Jonathan Movroydis: Roham, I want to bring you in here to talk a little about Iran and the Middle East and Central Asia. The very same month that Nixon announces the Guam Doctrine, Kissinger orders national security memorandum, study memorandum 66. And that question here is withdrawal but it’s not American withdrawal, it’s British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. What were they thinking ultimately about what to do for security in the Middle East in the Persian Gulf region?
Roham Alvandi: Well, they really only had two options. I mean, a variety of options were considered. But most of them were not either politically or economically feasible. For example, it was not feasible really to consider a significant American military presence in the Persian Gulf in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s because of Vietnam. So they really get boiled down to two options. One was to essentially continue with the policy of the Johnson administration, which had been to try to encourage a kind of balance of power in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two largest literal powers.
This actually was an idea created by the British as their power waned in the region. And the State Department under LBJ essentially continued that policy. And if it hadn’t have been for the close relationship between Nixon and the Shah, I think it’s most likely that that policy would have continued. But in effect they also considered the option of embracing Iran as the principal power in the region, a policy of Iranian primacy, I will call it. And what that really boiled down to, in practical terms was arm sales. But Iran was a country that had tremendous resources at its disposal because of oil. It had a large population so that there was no issue in terms of manpower, which was very different to, say, Saudi Arabia or any of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf with small populations.
And it was a country ruled by a man, Mohammad Reza Shah, who had huge ambitions for restoring Iranian greatness and Iranian power. He spoke in terms of new great civilization for Iran. And so really the question was whether this was all talk, or whether the Shah could actually live up to these ambitions. And it was essentially a win-win proposition for the Americans. Because unlike a lot of other countries that we’ve talked about in terms of the Nixon Doctrine, Iran was a country that from 1967 onwards was no longer considered a developing country by the United States and no longer received foreign economic assistance. This was a country with significant resources that was, by the mid-1970s, the single largest customer of U.S. arms anywhere in the world.
So you’re talking about billions of Petro dollars that would flow back into the U.S. economy would help the U.S. balance payments. So it was a win-win proposition from their point of view. And it all rested on the assumption that, you know, the Shah was a stable ruler, and that there was no danger of him falling from power. And that was not just the view of Nixon and Kissinger, that was the view of pretty much all observers of Iran, not only in the United States, but elsewhere, even in the opposition to the Shah. So for the decade or so that the Nixon Doctrine was in operation in Iran prior to the Iranian Revolution, it was from Washington’s perspective, very successful. But, of course, it all fell apart with the Iranian Revolution.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write something interesting in your book, after the Soviet summit in May of 1972. President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger go to Tehran and they talk, they have a private meeting with the Shah. Nixon tells the Shah to understand the purpose of American foreign policy and to, “Protect me.” What does it mean by this?
Roham Alvandi: Well, I think first you have to…I mean, if you look at it from the Shah’s perspective, it’s not just a matter of the Nixon Doctrine. It’s a matter also of superpower detente. And I think the fear of the Shah, and I suspect many other American allies in the developing world, the fear was that if there is going to be some kind of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union, and if they enter into negotiations with one another, that’s part of whatever deal is struck at the superpower level, that they will be sold out by their American allies. That, you know, for example, reaching agreement on arms control might come at the cost of selling weapon systems to, say, Iran.
And so I think part of the purpose of that visit in 1972 was really to reassure the Shah that detente does not mean any reduction in the American commitment to Iran’s defense. And, in fact, under the Nixon Doctrine, the U.S. would express a willingness to provide any arms, except for nuclear weapons that Iran needed in order to protect the interests of the United States and the free world in the Persian Gulf, which essentially meant keeping in power the pro-western Gulf rules, and maintaining the free flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, which is an issue until today.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any thoughts on the inverse relationship between detente and arms control and the Nixon Doctrine?
Gregory Daddis: Maybe not so much the relationship between detente and arms control. But maybe, I think there’s something important here about the balancing act that a president has to make in terms of articulating a foreign policy where in this case, Nixon is trying to at least reduce some of the means of American commitments abroad, and do so in a way that doesn’t leave him open to a political attack. And I think Luke brought up a really important point here about the domestic aspects of the Nixon Doctrine and how important they were that it matters here that the anti-war movement is still cresting inside the United States. And that dissented home is very much part of political calculations.
And it’s unfortunate, in one sense, I think that you see my estimation too many historians looking at this cynically that Nixon and Kissinger making these calculations because of the political Home front. Well, of course, they are. Any president makes calculations on their foreign policy based on the context of domestic politics. The challenge, I think, here for Nixon, whether it’s through the articulation of his doctrine, or more generally, his objective of detente is to do so in a way that doesn’t open him to political attack, not just from the Democrats, but from hardcore hawkish Republicans as well. And the fact that he’s able to pull back a little bit in terms of, again, the means of American commitment abroad, and still maintain support in his own party, if not more generally, for this policy, detente is actually, I think, pretty impressive.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, do you have any thoughts on the balancing act between detente and the application of the doctrine?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think, you know, to dovetail with what Greg is saying, you know, I think through our whole discussion here, we’re just seeing sort of how many moving parts there are and the doctrine. And I think Nixon has a kind of general feel for what these are and what needs to be included. And so I think it makes it difficult, you know, here we are, almost 50 years later. And as historians, we’re sitting in archives, and we’re turning pages, and we’re listening to tapes, and we’re trying to piece this together. But I think really, you know, the only person that who saw all the moving parts probably was President Nixon, because, you know, not everything makes it to a record or to a tape.
And so I think that’s our challenge today is, as we look back, and why we’re still trying to figure this out is because it was complex. I mean, Nixon became president at a very tumultuous time, domestically, internationally. And I think he knew that not just were new policies needed, but, you know, to hearken back to his, whether it be his inaugural address and his acceptance speech in Miami the year before. You know, I think what Nixon really argued was for a new tone in politics. And I think you can say a new tone in policy. And so I think what also made the speech important of November 3rd, was this was really one of the first times.
I mean, you don’t expect a president in their inaugural address to talk a lot about policy details. I mean, they’re still trying to figure these things out for a few months. And so these one other thing that makes it November 3rd speech important as not just for what it is, but kind of that first major address following the articulation in Guam of what we now know is the Nixon Doctrine is his chance to say, “You know, I know a little bit more now.” And so you think about the number of audiences he’s talking to, I mean, foreign leaders are listening to certain things in the speech, his critics on the right or on the left are hearing certain things.
People at home in their living rooms are hearing certain things. And so it’s to me, it’s just it’s sort of fascinating and almost bewildering to think about all these different things that he has to balance. And I think, you know, what makes this conversation so interesting is we each bring a different perspective to the conversation that maybe we weren’t totally aware of and to show just how complex it all is.
Gregory Daddis: I think what complicates that too, Luke, don’t you think is that the administration’s preference for privileging decision making among very few policy makers, right? So how much expertise can you truly have in issues related to arms control in South East Asia and India, Pakistan, and China and Russia, and Middle East that, as your consolidating decision making and planning among very few, that makes it even more challenging, right?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think that’s right. You know, Nixon and Kissinger it’s often pointed out how much together they centralized policymaking. And I think sometimes the critics are right, or at least ask the right questions whether they go too far. But I think here’s again, where the tapes also indicate in sort of all the areas of policy that they’re willing to concede and sort of push back to the departments. And I recall one tape where…I’m sure Michael and I had a good laugh about this. It was some point, where Nixon is complaining to Bob Haldeman sort of the nominal keeper of his schedule and directing traffic in and out of both people and paper in the Oval Office. And Nixon was complaining somehow that the Colombian minister of mines got 20 minutes on a schedule, and saying, “You know, that’s something for the State Department to worry about. You know, why is this person in here?”
And so I think the Nixon Doctrine in another degree is also a kind of lesson in administration and management of the president’s time that he’s sort of making a statement about, “These are the issues that we’re all going to focus on that need to be a focus of my presidency. But others can be handled more routinely elsewhere.” And he’s sort of deciding what the hotspots of the world are going to be, and having, you know, limited resources, and not I think often being one prone to micromanagement, although he does sometimes. I think this is also a sort of administrative statement about the parts of the world that he’s going to have time and he’s going to have resources to focus on.
Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, I want to focus a little bit more on the Europe aspect of the doctrine. In your book, “Nixon in Europe,” you talked about an address that Nixon made to the North Atlantic Council on April 10th, 1969, 3 months before the doctrine is announced. He says the following, “For 20 years, we have provided for the military defense of Western Europe. For 20 years, we have held political consultations. Now that Alliance needs a third dimension.” He’s talking here about a social dimension. But was Nixon trying to get away from the idea of collective security and especially in Europe?
Luke Nichter: Well, you know, I think this is a point that reasonable people can debate. You know, I argue in the book that the speech and the speech is given three by three and a half months, before what we know referred to as a Nixon doctrine was articulated. Yet, you know, sort of all the ideas are there, just kind of without arrows pointing to them. And so I make the argument in the book that this applies to Europe and the way the Nixon doctrine is applied to Europe, Western Europe, our allies, and to NATO, and our military forces stationed there. That Nixon is articulating or making a call for a kind of shift from collective defense to collective security.
And I think in his mind security, this is sort of a perfect thing to announce as we enter into the detente era. And the security isn’t just about sort of, you know, people and bullets and material. You know, security is about movements of people and pollution and crime and urban planning. And I think what Nixon is trying to extend out is a kind of olive branch to the Eastern Bloc, and say, “You know, we have these challenges too in our societies.” And ultimately, what this leads to is within six months, Daniel Patrick, one of him, creates, you know, who’s running, who’s heading the Urban Affairs Council in the White House. Ultimately, a similar type of device is introduced into NATO. And people are saying to Nixon, “You know, what does NATO have to do with this? That’s not what NATO is about.”
And so Nixon uses the speech as a tool to really reshape NATO and introduce its first, you know, really non-defense capabilities, or focus. And it’s a pillar of NATO that has lasted today. It’s been renamed once about 10 years ago, but the sort of non-defense pillar that, you know, even if we can agree on talking about detente, you know, superpower Cold War issues with the Eastern Bloc, we can get together and we can talk about how to rid our harbors of pollution, and things like that where I think it’ll be easier to find co-operation. And these types of discussions can become bridges to more strategic issues. And so, as I say, you know, a lot of the ideas were all here, you know, a few months before, they’re all present there. That ultimately become I think part of what is the Nixon doctrine really is.
Jonathan Movroydis: Michael, there’s something similar, exist on the Pacific side. In his remarks at Guam, Nixon says, “The United States involvement in war so often has been tied to our Pacific Policy or lack thereof.” Do you see similarities in that?
Michael Cotten: Well, there was concerns in regards to Japan in the Pacific and how the Nixon Doctrine would impact that. And the amount of assistance and aid and support that Japan received from the United States and the feeling was, “Okay if there’s not enough, then they may shift to the Russians as well.” And so there was some concerns. Now, as far as in the tapes, and in regards to, say, environmental issues and things like that, I didn’t run across anything along those lines, but there was certainly concerns in the Pacific in regards to the overall scheme of things that everything would have to remain in balance, because the idea of the bipolar world was beginning to change, but it had not totally disintegrated above this point.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg, do you have any additional thoughts on the idea of collective security and sort of a third social dimension to the doctrine and U.S. foreign policy during that time?
Gregory Daddis: I think in this particular case of Vietnam that there is a belief that the social component is part and parcel of this conflict that if this ultimately is a war over national identity in South Vietnam and in Vietnam more broadly, that the social component has to be part of American policy. And in this case, I think what you see here is a sense that military superiority, if it exists at all, depends on a complimentary political atmosphere. And that atmosphere clearly contains a social component. And so part of the process, I think, of applying the Nixon doctrine to Vietnam was also acknowledging the competing political and social aspirations of the South Vietnamese as the United States is trying to withdraw at the same time leaving behind something that will be staple after American departure.
Jonathan Movroydis: I’d like to ask you all one final question. And I’ll start with you, Luke, and we’ll work around. Ultimately, what is the legacy of the Nixon doctrine? Does is work in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think the Nixon Doctrine, you know, thinking about it sort of at a 30,000 foot altitude, I think really was about reexamining the relationship between the United States and the world. And I think for Americans at home, reassessing the relationship in a sense between the government and the governed. I mean, I think it was really a kind of call for a conversation about what we want the United States to be in this next phase of history. Nixon said that he believed the post war was now over. You know, we were entering a new sort of yet unnamed phase in history, kind of a latter part of the Cold War. And so I think, you know, I look at the Nixon doctrine as really being a time to stop, to reflect, to plan, and really have a conversation about what should the role of the United States be?
You know, in the Nixon’s time in our recent history, we’ve been, I think, on the wrong side and have been sort of too isolationist, maybe the ‘60s is the high tide of internationalism, maybe we went too far. And so I think in the course, this recalibration it’s really about kind of what’s the right place between those two extremes? So I think that’s really a lesson for me is that it was meant to be broad and it was really meant to have a very wide ranging conversation, which is probably the kind of conversation that we need to have periodically in the nation maybe at least once a generation, if not more often. And so I think looking back, that’s really the thing that stands out the most to me about the Nixon Doctrine.
Jonathan Movroydis: Greg.
Gregory Daddis: I think for me three things. The first is that at the end of the day, that this is an acceptance that there are limits to U.S. capabilities, if not U.S. power abroad, that the United States quite simply cannot do at all on the global stage. And I think with that is perhaps an understanding that there may be some conceptual flaws to a global policy of containment that over committing to a local conflict may not advance your own foreign policy. And I think in particular with Vietnam, it’s a way hopefully to demonstrate to the world that you want to disengage and withdraw from this local conflict in a manner that maintains American credibility and its reputation intact. So you can focus on bigger muscle movements of reconceptualizing a larger Cold War relationships.
Jonathan Movroydis: Michael?
Michael Cotten: Well, I would agree with Greg there that the Nixon Doctrine does is a policy that takes United States and we do look at the domino theory and recognize that the United States cannot be everywhere at the same time, nor does it necessarily need to be 100% in charge of defending the world and every place at all times. And so in that respect, it’s very important in what it does. I think it also is interesting that these policies, of course, presidents have for sometimes eight years. So even though a lot of them are grand, and scope, and design, and can have long-term lasting effects, some of the sub parts of the policies will go on beyond a president two terms or one term.
So they didn’t shake things beyond that, but they more often change as well. And they certainly can be reversed with any election, which is one of the difficult aspects of U.S. foreign policy is how much can change, even if it doesn’t always do that. And so the fact that we’re talking about the Nixon Doctrine all these years later, shows us a few things about it. It shows how remarkable it was and how much of a change it was from previous plans.
And we see how grand and scope and design it was, how radical of a change it was in some respects, and how we did stop and just look at the role of the United States in the world, what it could do, what it would do, possibly what it should do, or should not do. And so I think it’s a very interesting thing to study. It’s something that has practical applications that certainly could still be used today. Whether they are or not is a different story, but could be. And so I think it’s a very important part of U.S. foreign policy history in the sense that it is one of those transitions from earlier thinking to a different line of thinking regarding foreign policy.
Jonathan Movroydis: And Roham, your reflections of the Nixon Doctrine.
Roham Alvandi: Oh, well, I think it’s, first of all, we got whatever you think of Nixon doctrine, just the fact that the President would really have such a vision for foreign policy and be able to actually successfully carry it out is quite extraordinary on a global scale. That the idea that the United States would be able to choose which battlefields in the global Cold War it engages in and disengages from, you know, was a very ambitious, difficult notion in the midst of a global contest like the Cold War. And I think to that extent, it was a success. I mean, it was a successful way of reestablishing American leadership out of very difficult time for the United States.
But if we look at the legacy of the Nixon Doctrine in many regions, particularly in the third world, in the developing world, it’s a very mixed legacy and one that’s still heavily contested, because at the end of the day, by essentially farming out responsibility for regional security to local allies, you are giving those local allies tremendous leverage and tremendous power, tremendous influence over U.S. foreign policy. And we see a similar phenomenon today if there was the U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia, towards the UAE and the Persian Gulf. And the degree to which leaders in those states are able to exercise influence over U.S. policy to the region. And it’s a matter of debate whether that really serves U.S. interests. So I think it’s a mixed legacy, but you can’t contest the scale of the ambition.
Jonathan Movroydis: The topic of today’s discussion was the Nixon Doctrine at 50. Our guests today are Roham Alvandi, Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Visiting Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. Michael Cotten, Assistant Professor of History at Temple College in Texas. Gregory Daddis, Associate Professor of History and Director of Chapman University’s War and Society Program. And Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. Thank you all for joining us.
All: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check out for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.