As president, his hard, clear view of the world prevailed

April 24, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Richard M. Nixon was as brilliant in foreign affairs as Metternich and as brutal as Bismarck.

His knowledge of the way states interacted with one another in the world was deep enough to move even the Teutonic calm of Henry A. Kissinger, who worked loyally with him during his presidential years and was the instrument of his policies.

"I think he was a very clear observer of the outside world. He was a man who not surprisingly had a hard view of international politics," said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"He was always shrewd and had an understanding of what motivated statesmen. He introduced a vein of Realpolitik into American foreign policy that still lingers."

With all that, he was never truly a popular president, even when his performance ratings with the public were shooting through the ceiling, as they were before the presidential election of 1972.

But even during the depths of Watergate, people in Europe and leaders of other countries could hardly understand the intensity of the animus directed against him -- by the press, by his political opponents and by former friends who turned away from him.

What was a constitutional crisis to many here was to them a mystery. How could Americans turn against a president who had achieved what Mr. Nixon achieved?

Of those achievements, two leap to mind. A third may be more controversial.

The Soviets

The first was to initiate the detente between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Nixon, in engineering the accord with this country's most powerful enemy, quite literally made life just a little safer for millions within the generation that largely hated him and improved the prospects for their children's future.

The breakthrough occurred in the spring of 1972. Mr. Nixon journeyed to Moscow and signed a limitation on strategic armaments with Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev. It was the first such accord between the two superpowers.

It was widely hailed and happily received at home, but not by everybody. Said Ambassador Paul H. Nitze, a disarmament negotiator for successive administrations in Washington: "It was too short, only five years."

Mr. Nitze said Mr. Nixon could have probably gotten a better deal with the Soviets.

Even so, it was a first, and many people had faith in it, not least because of the nature and personal history of the man who engineered it. Mr. Nixon had a reputation as a hard-liner against the Soviet Union, going back to the days of his famous "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev.

Thus, it was widely believed that an accord agreed to by such a man would have no slack in it for the Soviets.

It was this same perception of Mr. Nixon that provided the auspicious atmosphere for the most dramatic and theatrical stroke of his long career.

China

Virtually from the moment he came into office in 1969, Mr. Nixon had begun the secret cultivation of the leaders of Communist China, who, since 1949 and the expulsion of the Nationalists to Taiwan, had closed their country off to much of the Western world.

It was a rigidly doctrinaire regime, for years implacably hostile to the United States. It was, it turned out, precisely the kind of regime Mr. Nixon knew how to deal with.

Before the great opening, there was the visit to Beijing by an American table tennis team. There was Mr. Kissinger's secret flight to the Chinese capital and, finally, Mr. Nixon's visit in February 1972.

Meeting with the world's pre-eminent, if doddering, revolutionary, Mao Tse-tung, toasting with Chou En-lai in the Great Hall of the People, Mr. Nixon declared that "this was the week that changed the world."

No one, at home or abroad, was ready to deny that, or deny him the credit for it. Said Mr. Nitze: "The China thing, he did something good there."

Even an opera has been written about it.

The Vietnam War

About the Vietnam War, the world was not so generous. Mr. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with a promise to end the war. He vowed he had a secret plan.

If such a plan ever existed, it took more than four years to implement and seemed to involve enlarging the war by bombing Cambodia in order to end it.

The president's strategy, such as it was, was contained in the word Vietnamization. Gradually the fighting was turned over to the Vietnamese as U.S. troops were withdrawn: from more than a half-million in Indochina in 1969 -- Mr. Nixon's first year in office -- to 30,000 in 1972, on the eve of his second term.

During the years of Vietnamization, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia and on the streets of America. When the United States finally withdrew, there was very little good will left for Mr. Nixon.

Of this, said Mr. Cohen: "The disengagement from Vietnam, despite all the turmoil, did not leave the country incapable of acting overseas. He got us out of that about as cleanly as he was able to."

The central fact was, and remains, that U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended on Mr. Nixon's watch, just as the Soviet Union finally came round to a true and final detente with the United States on Ronald Reagan's.

And those will probably be the most salient facts about these events that history records.

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