Richard Milhous Nixon’s foreign policy was well-remembered for its anti-communist focus, primarily exemplified in the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia. Although the Vietnam War holds a looming role over his foreign policy and presidential legacy, he often used peaceful rhetoric when discussing foreign affairs. Nixon’s World War II service in the Navy stemmed from his hatred of Hitler, especially after Hitler’s attempted invasion of Russia. While Nixon initially felt conflicted in choosing to enlist in the Navy due to his Quaker background, he went to naval officer indoctrination school in August of 1942. Although Nixon was sent to an Iowan air station where he felt he couldn’t make any difference in the war, he was sent to active overseas duty in New Caledonia before the war was through. Nixon explains how he rationalized entering the war against Quaker pacifism:
It was a difficult decision to make, but I felt that I could not sit back while my country was being attacked. The problem with Quaker pacifism, it seemed to me, was that it could only work if one were fighting a civilized, compassionate enemy. In the face of Hitler and Tojo, pacifism not only failed to stop violence — it actually played into the hands of a barbarous foe and weakened home-front morale.Richard Nixon
The description Nixon uses to describe the Nazis and the Japanese are reflective of much of how Americans viewed these groups, especially the Japanese, who were perceived as sneaky and subhuman due to their attack on Pearl Harbor as well as other reasons stemming from mistrust and racism. Nixon served in Bougainville in 1944 where the Japanese launched an assault upon the island with heavy bombing. Since so many pilots came to Bougainville for flight missions and Nixon felt these pilots deserved the very best, he used resources to supply these pilots with meat and beer to remind them of home. Nixon doesn’t go into excessive detail about his combat experiences in the war, but he reflects on his role in it as he returns home, saying “I thought of all the men who were still out there fighting for these little bits of unfriendly and often barren ground, and I wondered, as I often had before, why Americans or the Japanese thought they were worth fighting and dying for.”
While Nixon understood how necessary control of these islands were in regards to the strategy of island-hopping, a major lesson he learned from the war was to avoid unnecessarily wasting American lives. When Nixon ran for president, he mentioned how he pledged that Americans could “win the peace” and that “the sooner that pledge can be redeemed: for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate in Paris.” He argued that Americans must unite for peace and against defeat to preserve American honor, and Nixon reiterated his lessons on the value of soldiers’ lives from World War II when he said “when the lives of our young men are involved, we are not Democrats, we are not Republicans, we are Americans.”
As president, Nixon had good intentions in some aspects of his foreign policy and was consumed by some others. His attempt at detente with the Soviet Union and establishing relations with China was notably positive while his continuation of the Vietnam War marred his legacy. During his presidency, Nixon confronted two foreign policy happenings: the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War.
The Vietnam War had been handed down to multiple presidents following involvement in Indochina in the 1950s and a dramatic escalation of the war under Lyndon Johnson. The war was fought with the United States supporting South Vietnam against the communists in North Vietnam who were led by Ho Chi Minh. With the war unpopular at home and with guerilla tactics being difficult to compete with, the United States evacuated from Saigon in South Vietnam and were defeated.
Nixon’s second foreign policy involvement was the Yom Kippur War, an invasion of Israel by Egypt and other Arab states with the intention of recapturing the Suez Canal and regaining territory lost in the Six-Day War. His defense and support of Israel would lead to Israeli victory and a weakening of Egypt as a threat to Israeli land.
Although Nixon and the U.S. were fighting the North Vietnamese and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnam War served as a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Being a staunch anti-communist, Nixon wanted to see the Soviets defeated, but he understood the consequences of excessive provocation of the Soviets, especially in the era of nuclear proliferation. Nixon was sure to take a careful and de-escalatory stance with the Soviet Union, discussing his policy of detente with Defense Secretary Laird in a letter, saying that “the tone of our public and private discourse about and with the Soviet Union should be calm, courteous and non-polemical.” Nixon believed that both nations should recognize each other’s interests while not allowing the Soviets to define American interests.
However, Nixon saved less benign words for North Vietnam. With many Americans wanting U.S. troops withdrawn from Vietnam, Nixon confessed that such an action would be easy and politically beneficial to him. However, he stated that “this will not happen,” and that “we shall do whatever is required to safeguard American lives and American honor.” Nixon then appealed to the American people and their ideals, saying “you want peace. I want peace. But, you want honor and not defeat. You want a genuine peace, not a peace that is merely a prelude to another war.” He makes an indirect reference to World War II in an attempt to justify U.S. involvement in Vietnam, saying “as so often in the past, we Americans did not choose to resort to war. It has been forced upon us by an enemy that has shown utter contempt toward every overture we have made for peace.”
In an address to the nation, Nixon attempts to invoke the concepts of a “good war” by telling Americans that “we have faced other crises in our history and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way out and taking the right way in meeting our challenges. Our greatness as a nation has been our capacity to do what had to be done when we knew our course was right.” Nixon might be referring to such hardships in World War II as the Normandy landings, island-hopping in the Pacific, and creation of the atomic bombs, all events which could have been avoided if the United States did not step up to the challenge and fight for what they believed to be right and just. Nixon also made a pro-interventionist argument, similar to those used by Franklin Roosevelt to bring the U.S. into the war, saying “let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism.”
In regards to Nixon’s policy in the Middle East, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 would be the most prominent event. Over 50,000 casualties resulted from the surprise invasion of Suez and the Golan Heights by Egypt and Syria. Richard Nixon took advantage of this war by diplomatically allying the United States with Israel who appeared to be favored to win the war. Nixon wrote that “we are now facing the best opportunity we have had in 15 years to build a lasting peace in the Middle East. I am convinced history will hold us responsible if we let this opportunity slip by.” With Nixon and Kissinger’s support of Israel and Golda Meir, Egypt and Syria were defeated, and Soviet influence in the Middle East was significantly reduced, and Egypt left the Soviet sphere of influence and became an American ally. Nixon’s head-first attitude toward the Yom Kippur War vaguely resembled the willingness shown by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II in taking quick, decisive action against the enemy. Historian Stephen Ambrose admires Nixon’s willingness to act, saying:
Had Nixon not acted so decisively, who can say what would have happened? The Arabs probably would have recovered at least some of the territory they had lost in 1967, perhaps all of it. They might have even destroyed Israel. But whatever the might-have-beens, there is no doubt that Nixon… made it possible for Israel to win, at some risk to his own reputation and at great risk to the American economy. He knew that his enemies… would never give him credit for saving Israel. He did it anyway…Stephen Ambrose
While using the Yom Kippur to further U.S. interests in the context of the Cold War, Nixon did so while utilizing the existing intergovernmental organizations and bodies such as the United Nations. Such consultation with the U.N. aimed to minimize any appearance of unilateral action by the U.S. by showing that America was willing to go through the proper channels in regard to its foreign policy despite its power on the world stage. In a message from Nixon to Egyptian President Sadat, Nixon acknowledges this, saying that the U.S. is “in urgent communication with the Israeli Government to establish precise conditions for the operation of United Nations truce supervisory personnel in the area” meant to maintain the truce agreed upon between Egypt and Israel. Such usage of the United Nations, especially in enforcement of ceasefires and monitoring of governments continued in future conflicts. In another message to Sadat, Nixon informs Sadat about the horrors that could arise if Soviet and American troops were to skirmish in Egypt, saying “I ask you to consider the consequences for your country if the two great nuclear countries were thus to confront each other on your soil.”
Nixon then demonstrates the power of alliances and international institutions, saying that “we will use out influence with Israel to bring about the strictest observance of the Security Council Resolution.” Nixon used several opportunities to strengthen alliances and practice diplomacy, such as his prominent visit to communist China in 1972. His usage of diplomacy and alliances are all intended to promote the goal of preserving the peace and opposing the unnecessarily wasting American lives. He was able to view the world from a realist perspective and invoked America’s past of creating alliances that further strengthened its security, saying “out of the wreckage of two world wars we forged a concept of an Atlantic community, within which a ravaged Europe was rebuilt and the westward advance of the Soviets contained.”
He believed a similar community could be made in the Asia-Pacific region in dealing with North Vietnam. Needless to say, Nixon faced opposition for his foreign policy led by both youth and soldiers, primarily for his continuation of the Vietnam War. In the Lewis McChord Free Press, a newspaper written by soldiers who opposed the Vietnam War and were stationed at McChord Air Force Base, the soldiers were skeptical about Nixon’s intentions in visiting China, saying “Nixon is going to China from a position of weakness. Faced with a military failure in Southeast Asia, a crumbling economy, the seating of China in the UN, and growing competition from the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany and other countries, Nixon hopes to neutralize one of his enemies and possible two by playing China and the Soviet Union off against one another.” While he appealed to some of the lessons he learned from World War II, Nixon still faced opposition by Americans for seemingly betraying those ideals.
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Kalb, Martin. The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2013.
“Nixon Goes to China,” Lewis McChord Free Press, February 1972.
Nixon, Richard M. “Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia,” 8 May 1972.
Nixon, Richard M. “Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam,” 3 November 1969.
Nixon, Richard M. “Asia After Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs. 46, No. 1, October 1967: 113-125.
Nixon, Richard M. “Backchannel Message From President Nixon to Egyptian President Sadat,” Undated.
Nixon, Richard M. “Backchannel Message From President Nixon to Egyptian President Sadat,” 24 October 1973.
Nixon, Richard M. Letter From President Nixon to Secretary of Defense Laird, 4 February 1969.
Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.
The Richard Nixon Foundation. “The Yom Kippur War: 40 Years of Survival,” 11 October 2016.