Chapter 5 – U.S. “Détente” Strategy from Nixon to Ford - 1969 to 1977

President Ford and Growing Detente Doubts. When Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon as president in August 1974, the Democratic Party-controlled Congress cut the ground from under what remained of the faltering U.S. détente strategy in Vietnam and elsewhere. They deeply slashed most planned U.S. military and economic assistance to South Vietnam, which fell to an all-out North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975. They also seriously reduced and restricted overall U.S. defense and intelligence capabilities. Ford’s subsequent U.S.-Soviet strategic arms framework agreement in Vladivostok in November 1974 and the multilateral Helsinki Final Act in August 1975 were both influenced by growing concerns about Soviet exploitation of U.S. weakness as the Soviets further increased their strategic and conventional force buildups and stepped up subversion and imperial pressure in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The U.S. Department of Defense, the “Team B” report, and other independent non-government assessments confirmed such concerns but were not taken seriously over the next three years by Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, who only in his last year began to consider seriously overdue U.S. defense modernization.

1. Nixon’s “Détente” Strategy—Objectives, Strategic Arms Control, and the SALT and ABM Treaties of 1972

In 1968, a volatile year of shocks reviewed in the preceding chapter, Richard Nixon, a Republican, campaigned against his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. Nixon presented himself as an experienced statesman with proven leadership abilities and a comprehensive vision to provide effective domestic and foreign policies. He had earlier served as a Senator from California and then as U.S. Vice President during President Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential terms from 1953 to 1961. Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to Democrat John F. Kennedy and in 1962 lost a campaign for governor of California. Since then he had written articles, given speeches, and traveled widely, touting his experience and ability to unite his party as Humphrey could not do for the Democrats. Pointing to prospects of new U.S. strategies at a time of national division and crisis, Nixon planned to address long-standing issues at home and abroad, in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. He would focus especially on meeting key Cold War challenges in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and potentially involving a new relationship with the People’s Republic of (Communist) China.

Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign was often overshadowed by the year’s most dramatic events. These included Communist North Viet Nam’s Tet Offensive; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights demonstrations in U.S. cities; and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Throughout this period, Nixon was determined to bring new approaches to the American people and Congress, and to the domestically stagnant, but internationally aggressive, Soviet Union.

The New “Détente” Strategy. In December 1968, Nixon appointed Henry A. Kissinger as his National Security Advisor. Kissinger, a nationally known professor of government at Harvard University and advisor to past U.S. presidents and European heads of state, was to head a newly invigorated National Security Council (NSC) at the White House. After Nixon’s inauguration in January 1969, Kissinger and his NSC staff took the lead in systematically reshaping U.S. strategy and coordinating administration policies throughout the U.S. government, notably including the Departments of State and Defense as well as in the areas of intelligence and international economics. The NSC led the preparation of analyses, assessments, and policy options for a new framework of U.S.-Soviet relations. Areas of focus included Vietnam, arms control, U.S. defense modernization, alliance consultations, the Soviet Union, and China. The new Nixon-Kissinger U.S. Cold War policy framework and strategy were soon described as “détente.”

Nixon Doctrine and Détente Focus. Over the next three years, Nixon substantially reshaped U.S. policies toward its allies, the Vietnam War, and the two largest Communist powers—the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China (PRC). Negotiations with Moscow and Beijing produced a series of bilateral agreements, following intensive discussions personally conducted at their most sensitive stages by Kissinger, who preferred to work through special secret channels rather than through Department of State diplomatic channels that were traditionally backstopped by the larger interagency system.

Beginning in a press conference on the Pacific U.S. island of Guam on July 25, 1969, Nixon advanced what came to be called the so-called Nixon Doctrine. This alliance doctrine in the context of superpower détente was subsequently elaborated in other statements on Nixon’s general foreign policy and national security strategy. Such statements included a comprehensive presidential report to the Congress prepared by the

[Book pg. 98]