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Democracy Imperiled: Did the Foreign Diplomacy of the Nixon Administration Violate Democratic Principles?
History in Dispute, Vol. 6: The Cold War: Second Series, 2000. 
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Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 election as president reflected ambition, hard work, and the discrediting of Democratic rival Hubert H. Humphrey by his close association with the Vietnam War (ended 1975). Nixon, under no illusions about his personal popularity with an increasingly influential media, was correspondingly determined to bring America’s longest war to an end—but not as an end in itself. Nixon sought above all to develop a national strategy that would free the United States from the bipolar rigidity of the Cold War and the accompanying high risks of nuclear and conventional confrontation in places such as Vietnam. As his right hand, and eventual secretary of state, he chose Harvard professor Henry Kissinger.

Both men were committed to a new course. Ending the war was only the first step—but it took five years to accomplish. As Nixon reduced U.S. troop levels and sought to improve the self-sufficiency of South Vietnam, Kissinger fought diplomatically for a comprehensive withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country, followed by free elections. Both Vietnamese governments were sufficiently unhappy with those prospects, and that peace negotiations remained in gridlock. In turn this stalemate did nothing for the domestic credibility of the Nixon/Kissinger team—particularly in light of Nixon’s campaign promise that he had a plan to end the war. It was not exactly a lie, but the extension of the time frame left the president vulnerable to revived charges of being “Tricky Dick,” dishonest and conniving.

On other fronts Nixon and Kissinger achieved significant successes. Determined pursuit of détente seemed to soften U.S.-Soviet relations for the first time in decades. Arms-limitation talks were capped by a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, whose conclusion was facilitated by the unprecedented thawing of relations with China. Beginning with a ping-pong match, the process culminated in February 1972 with Nixon’s state visit to Beijing. For a while it seemed that the bipolar Cold War might mutate into a three-way balance of power.

That prospect, however, was too Orwellian for increasing numbers of domestic critics. On one level they opposed the clandestine nature of Nixon administration diplomacy. On a deeper plane they criticized what they called its amoral nature—its indifference, for example, to humanrights issues in the Soviet Union and its willingness to make deals with the most unsavory of Third World regimes. Nixon and Kissinger were both elitists. Neither was good at self-explanation. Their appeals to pay more attention to product than process rang hollow as the Watergate affair (1972) engulfed the administration and the emptiness of the finally signed Vietnamese peace accords (January 1973) became apparent. In the end Kissinger returned to Harvard, while Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment. Whether their foreign-policy achievements merited a better fate is the subject of this dispute.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Nixon/Kissinger method of conducting foreign policy undermined democratic principles with excessive secrecy and clandestine operations against elected Third World governments

President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state, followed a foreign policy that they saw as pragmatic and appropriate for the United States in a world where the war in Vietnam had proved American power had limits. Their pragmatism, however, was not tempered by principle. As a result, both within the United States and abroad, their foreign policy, successful or not, proved antithetical to democratic principles.

Nixon’s foreign policy began undermining democracy in the United States prior to his election in 1968. During his campaign he claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, but he could not reveal the details because that would tip his hand to the Vietnamese leaders. In reality he had no such plan, beyond a vague hope that he would be able to end the war quickly, much as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, under whom Nixon had served as vice president, was able to end the fighting in Korea shortly after his election. This lie deprived the American people of the opportunity to make an informed choice between Nixon and his Democratic opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey, who, as Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, supported the continuation of the war. All politicians promise more than they can deliver during an election campaign, but Nixon disguised his lie by proclaiming that national-security interests were involved. It was the first time Nixon’s penchant for secrecy would prove incompatible with participatory democracy, but not the last.

Electoral politics again led to deceit during Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. With the election fast approaching, the Vietnam peace talks stalled. Afraid that voters might reject a president who proved unable to end the war in four years, Kissinger made public pronouncements implying progress was being made and a final end to the war could be expected soon. This reassurance, which in no way represented the reality of the talks, again deprived the American people of the information they needed to choose a president.

Nixon’s most egregious assault on democracy occurred between the two elections. In 1969 Nixon, responding to the advice of U.S. military leaders to attack the supply lines leading from North to South Vietnam, authorized the secret bombing of Cambodia. As the assault could hardly have been kept veiled from opposing military forces, the only ones deceived were the American people. The ability to decide between war and peace is at the heart of sovereign power. American citizens have chosen to exercise that power through the mechanism of the Constitution, which requires congressional consent to go to war. While the president holds constitutional authority as commander in chief, Nixon’s use of that power to expand the war to Cambodia, without even informing Congress or the people, was an abuse of that authority and antithetical to democracy.

The Nixon/Kissinger way of conducting foreign policy also proved antithetical to democracy abroad, an ironic result given that the promotion of the democratic way of life, as opposed to totalitarian communism, was in theory a chief aim of U.S. foreign policy. Around the world the United States supported anticom-munist thugs and compliant dictators, acting to promote what Nixon and Kissinger considered to be the chief American interest abroad: stability, not democracy.

The most infamous assault on democracy abroad during the Nixon/Kissinger years was the overthrow, and possible murder, of Salvador Allende Gossens, the democratically elected president of Chile. In 1970 Allende formed a coalition of socialist and other Marxist parties to support his campaign for president. Seeing not a nation searching for answers to pressing social and economic questions but rather a challenge to American authority—a dubious concept at best outside the United States—Nixon ordered that the election of Allende be stopped. He applied economic pressure by cutting off aid. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began pouring money into Chile, both as bribes and to buy anti-Allende propaganda. The CIA even made contact with conservative military leaders in hopes that someone could be persuaded to stop Allende’s election by force of arms. None of these efforts had its desired impact, and Allende was elected in a narrow race.

“Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly,” cabled the American ambassador, as quoted by Walter LaFeber in The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750 (1989). In the opinion of the official U.S. representative on the scene, democracy was in effect in Chile. Nevertheless, Nixon was outraged by Allende’s election and was determined to overthrow him. The CIA continued to channel funds to anti-Allende forces and launched an all-out propaganda blitz, supporting anti-Allende newspapers and politicians. Nixon increased economic pressure by blocking loans to Chile. The CIA worked with U.S. businesses to stop the shipment of spare parts for American-built machinery. Allende was unable to weather the storm and fell to a coup in 1973. He either committed suicide or was murdered shortly thereafter. American money and pressure had overturned the results of a democratic election. Nixon and Kissinger, not the people of Chile, had won.

In the case of Africa, Nixon and Kissinger ignored the principles of democracy in establishing their policies. Officially, U.S. policy was to encourage racial harmony in the white-minority-dominated states of Portuguese Angola, South Africa, and Rhodesia. Nixon and Kissinger, however, strengthened political and economic ties with such minority regimes, even going so far as to violate the United Nations (U.N.) embargo of Rhodesia. Many were aware of the hypocrisy of American policy in Africa, which prompted one resignation from the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.

Even after Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on 9 August 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal, Kissinger continued to exercise a great deal of control over U.S. foreign policy, continuing as secretary of state under the new president, Gerald R. Ford. Kissinger was the key figure in the increasing U.S. involvement in Angola, as Portugal abandoned its attempts to maintain control and the country moved toward independence. Three factions in Angola, separated by ethnic and ideological differences, battled for control. The United States, along with China, South Africa, and several other countries and private organizations, covertly aided one faction, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola or FNLA) against a Marxist-Leninist group, the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA). The third faction, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola or UNITA), also received support from China and South Africa. None of these groups had particularly strong democratic credentials. Instead, Kissinger sought to make the expansion of Soviet influence expensive, both in money and lives, again without informing the American people. Even had the U.S.-backed faction triumphed, which it did not, it seems unlikely that a democratic regime would have been established.

Many historians consider Nixon and Kissinger’s foreign policy to have had two great triumphs: the opening of China and détente with the Soviet Union. Whether or not one considers those two achievements to have been successful in the long term, it is clear that democratic principles played no part in their development. To make his approach to China, Kissinger went through such questionable channels as the leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, and the president of Pakistan, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, neither of whom had any democratic credentials. All approaches were conducted in secret. Once again Nixon and Kissinger deprived U.S. citizens of the opportunity to judge the policies of their leaders. Instead, the two policy makers presented America with an already accomplished fact when Nixon announced he would go to China.

In achieving détente with the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kissinger saw the relationship solely in terms of power politics. Both were surprised, and Kissinger was outraged, when members of Congress declined to make unconditional deals with an authoritarian, communist state. Congress’s chief concern was the right of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel or other more hospitable areas. The Nixon/Kissinger team found it simply incomprehensible that some would place the rights of Soviet citizens above a deal that had the potential to stabilize Soviet-American relations.

Nixon and Kissinger considered themselves realists or pragmatists, adapting to the changing world of limited U.S. power. The way they practiced power politics, however, proved antithetical to democracy, both abroad and in the United States.


Viewpoint: No. The effective diplomacy of Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger depended on timing and confidentiality that precluded congressional debates and media investigations

The question of the “undemocratic” nature of the Nixon/Kissinger approach to U.S. foreign policy owed something to Henry Kissinger’s doubly alien status, as a Harvard professor and an immigrant with a German accent. His Jewishness, in passing, played almost no role—a sign of the virtual disappearance of anti-Semitism from the public discourse. Of more significance in structuring the myth of damage resulting from the foreign policies of the Nixon administration was the near-existential loathing many Americans, not all of them liberals, felt for Richard M. Nixon—to the point that it was seriously discussed in certain faculty circles whether he might not seek to suspend the presidential elections in 1972. More specifically, “Tricky Dick” was widely associated with unspecified dark deeds done in secret—somewhat in the pattern of Harvard faculty meetings. In short, the two men were natural magnets for the kinds of anxieties fostered by the Vietnam War (ended 1975) and its aftermath.

In hindsight, and in the light of the tawdry realities of Watergate, the attacks on the alleged antidemocratic nature of Nixon’s foreign policy may have a strong touch of melodrama. Yet, they were not whole-cloth invention. Nixon and Kissinger, his chief adviser and later secretary of state, shared a belief in the importance of leadership, insisting on the necessary role of great men in shaping events. They believed in the importance of doctrine, principle, and planning—all requiring high levels of intellectual ability—as opposed to the bureaucratic/pragmatic approach Kissinger in particular considered characteristic of former Cold War policy makers. Nixon and Kissinger were unabashed elitists who consistently asserted that the egalitarianism characteristic of American domestic life was a recipe for international disaster. Finally, both men downplayed the value of charisma—arguably because neither possessed it in any conventional sense. Kissinger said it best when asked about his relationship with a starlet decades his junior: “power is the best aphrodisiac.” For Kissinger, the exile, and for Nixon, whose entire life was an uphill struggle against himself, approval came not for who one was, but from what one did.

Nixon’s choice of Kissinger a his chief foreign-policy adviser reflected the new president’s conviction that the bipolar world of the Cold War was changing, in good part because of the growing mutual weariness of the superpowers. The challenge was to use that tectonic shift to create and stabilize a new world order friendly to the United States, and more generally to those Western moral and political values Nixon and Kissinger both prized over anything else.

In a post-Vietnam America, where appeals to “come home” were reiterated as far up the political ladder as 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, Nixon, and Kissinger spoke for involvement. Army Chief of Staff and





After his fourth trip to Beijing, from late February to early March 1973, Henry Kissinger sent a memorandum covering his conversations with the Chinese, including discussions about the U.S.S.R., to President Richard M. Nixon.

The next day I purposely detailed our proposed force reductions on Taiwan and then made a more sweeping analysis of our policy toward the Soviet Union. I said that the nature of our relationship meant that we had to pursue a more complicated policy than the PRC which could oppose the Soviet Union outright on issues. We were making several agreements with Moscow, but we would not let these constrain us in the event that our interests were Jeopardized. I pointed out that the USSR could follow one of two courses. If they truly wanted peace, we would welcome that course, and the agreements we were making, might contribute to that end. if, however, as seemed more likely, they were bent on a more threatening road, we had shown in the past that we would react strongly if our interests were jeopardized. In any event, I emphasized, we should maintain strong defenses and improve our strategic forces so long as the Soviet buildup continued. And on issues of direct concern to Beijing we would take Chinese interests into account, such as on the Soviet initiative on a nuclear understanding, where we have been fighting a delaying action ever since last spring.

Zhou and then Mao, however, both replayed the theme that we might be helping the Soviet Union, whether or not purposely. Whereas we saw two possibilities, i.e. that the Soviet Union would either pursue a peaceful or menacing course, the Chinese saw only the latter. They were spreading their influence everywhere with the help of their satellites, like India, and were out to isolate the Chinese. The “new czars” were neurotic and omnipresent. It was the Chinese duty to try and expose their designs wherever possible, however lonely their efforts in a world enamored with false détente.

Mao even went so far as to suggest that we might like to see the Russians bogged down in an attack on China; after wearing themselves out for a couple of years, we would then “poke a finger” in Moscow’s back. I rejoined that we believe that a war between the two Communist giants was likely to be uncontrollable and have unfortunate consequences for everyone. We therefore wished to prevent such a conflict, not take advantage of it.

Given Mao’s and Zhou’s skeptical comments on the issue, I treated it at considerable length the day after my meeting with the Chairman. I said there were three hypothetical US motives in a policy that contributed to pressures on the PRC from the USSR. First, we might want the Soviet Union to defeat China. I stressed emphatically that whether Moscow defeated China or Europe first, the consequences for us would be the same; we would be isolated and the ultimate target. Thus this could never be our policy.

The second possible motive was the one Mao mentioned—our wish for a stalemated Moscow attack on Beijing, so as to exhaust the Soviet Union. I pointed out that even partial Soviet dominance of China could have many of the consequences of the first option. In any event, such a major conflict would have unpredictable consequences. The Soviet Union might take rash actions if they were stymied as the Chairman claimed we had been in Vietnam. And we would be forced either to demonstrate our impotence and irrelevance, or make a series of extremely complex decisions.

The third possibility was that we might contribute to a war between China and the Soviet Union through misjudgment rather than policy. This I recognized as a danger despite our intentions. I then analyzed at length our policy around the world, with emphasis on Europe, to demonstrate that we plan to maintain our defense, continue a responsible international role and work closely with our allies. In short, while seeking relaxation with Moscow, we would also ensure that if it did not choose a peaceful course we and our friends would be in a position to resist and defend our national interests. And I made it evident that we would consider aggression against China as involving our own national security.

It is not clear that we have fully allayed Chinese suspicions. While they have nowhere else to go in the short term, they will certainly watch our Soviet moves with wariness, and take out insurance with Japan and Europe.

Source: William Burr, ed., The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top Secret Talks With Beijing and Moscow (New York: New Press, 1998), pp. 113–114.

later Secretary of State George C. Marshall once declared that no democracy could fight a seven-year war. Vietnam seemed to prove that at least a democracy could not win such a war as long as it depended on certain kinds of crusading zeal to generate public support. Often criticized by contemporaries, and later critics, for abandoning the moral basis of U.S. foreign policy, Kissinger and Nixon instead sought to redefine that basis by pruning the sentimentality that had grown around it since World War II. To recognize the principles of proportion and double effect was not to cast aside morality but to return it to philosophical and metaphysical roots that were starkly unsympathetic to feelings as opposed to reason. It was no less moral to insist on a cohesive worldview based on the interaction of events than it was to stigmatize particular events as unique manifestations of evil, to be eradicated whatever the potential cost.

Neither Nixon nor Kissinger accepted the concept of “convergence,” made popular during the 1960s by scholars such as Daniel Bell and exemplified in the novels of John Le Carré. Instead they regarded Soviet and American systems as fundamentally different. Because of that difference, their diplomatic relationship was best managed by agreements that were best negotiated on specific issues. Progress in one area could then be extended to others—a concept given the name “linkage.” As linkage developed, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) would be enmeshed in a web of its own consensual weaving, whose rupture would cause losses demonstrably greater than the projected gains of a return to confrontation.

This scenario was just one side of détente. Simultaneously—and the credit for this contribution belongs to Kissinger—the United States would abandon its historical traditions of commitment followed by isolation, of enthusiasm giving way to cynicism. Instead Americans, or their leaders, would come to realize that impetuosity of any kind was counterproductive in a nuclear age. They would realize as well that, to borrow Sigmund Freud’s aphorism, much may be achieved in a state of moderate misery. Superpower détente was only part of a new flexibility in international relationships. In Europe, in northern Asia, and throughout what was then called the Third World, nations were developing their own identities and strengths. As they became better able to act autonomously on their own behalf, so too must the United States tailor its commitments to its interests, rather than the other way around.

That approach marked the end of an “era of containment” based heavily on the combined threat of conventional intervention and nuclear retaliation. Neither Nixon nor Kissinger expected the Soviet Union to abandon, on its own accord, international behavior patterns generated by its domestic structure. Instead détente would encourage modifying aggressive behavior on grounds of rational self-interest. Should those incentives prove insufficient, Nixon and Kissinger proposed to develop a system in which the United States stood at the center of a network of relationships involving both allies and adversaries. Not merely flexible but consistently changing, that network would be the matrix of a world order stable enough to defy even nuclear-tipped challenges.

Implementing the vision required not merely activist diplomacy but also activist statecraft. Nixon and Kissinger ignored the traditional foreign-policy agencies in favor of a system focused on the National Security Council (NSC). That body drew on information gathered by the bureaucracy to develop proposals for action that were presented to the president and implemented in contexts of shuttle diplomacy, back-channeling, and general secrecy that generated drama and surprise that Nixon and Kissinger in turn used to increase their own auras as statesmen. The 1972 “opening” to China was marketed as a personal tour de force by the president. Kissinger was featured briefly in a nationally syndicated comic strip as superhero “Hennery the K,” complete with cape. The Strategic Arms Limitation agreements (1972) and the Middle East negotiations (1973-1974) seemed, at least to their supporters, almost to justify the appellation.

The concept of a bipartisan foreign policy was eroding even before Vietnam. Afterward no president, especially one with Nixon’s list of domestic enemies, could expect simple admiration for his pattern of virtuoso performances. Apart from criticism of particular policies, a general question emerged. How could Congress, which represented the American people, judge the appropriateness of a foreign policy whose formulation and postulates they barely understood? The answer was that effective diplomacy in the new contexts depended on degrees of timing and levels of confidentiality that precluded congressional debates and press investigations. Fewer and fewer people were willing to listen to this argument. Nevertheless, as Watergate engulfed his administration—and after Kissinger left a sinking ship and returned to Harvard—Nixon continued to follow his chosen approach to foreign policy. By the time of his resignation in 1974 it had become shadow diplomacy for a shadow president.

The Nixon/Kissinger team had pushed the envelope of the conduct of international affairs. It was open to the charge of substituting logic for observation: not for more than another decade would the Soviet Union seriously consider détente as anything more than another ploy in a mortal contest for supremacy. In a new century “multipolarity” remains an unrealized abstraction. While Nixon and Kissinger’s methods made them objects of suspicion abroad as well as at home, being considered too clever for everyone else’s good is a long way from subverting the democratic process. In the final analysis, the team of Nixon and Kissinger did the right thing from the wrong postulates. They maintained U.S. global involvement at a time when history and experience indicated a return to isolation—a return that, however temporary it may have been, might well have ended too late in the context of Soviet ambitions.



Warren I. Cohen, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, volume four, America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945–1991 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993);

Joan Hoff, “Nixon’s Innovative Grand Design and the Wisdom of Détente,” in Major Problems in American Foreign Relations: Documents and Essays, volume two, Since 1914, fifth edition, edited by Dennis Merrill and Thomas G. Patterson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), pp. 496–511;

Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750 (New York: Norton, 1989).

Source Citation:
"Democracy Imperiled: Did the Foreign Diplomacy of the Nixon Administration Violate Democratic Principles?" History in Dispute. Ed. Dennis Showalter and Paul du Quenoy. Vol. 6: The Cold War: Second Series. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 85-91. Global Issues In Context. Web. 25 July 2016.
Gale Document Number:CX2876600021