The Day Nixon Began His Comeback

Richard Nixon’s triumphant march to the presidency began on July 29, 1967, along the shores of a small, wooded lake an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.
The former California legislator and vice president of the United States had been invited to give the Lakeside Address to the Bohemian Club, a selective, somewhat secretive all-male society, which meets annually amid the redwood trees of Northern California. For Nixon, the invitation represented both a great honor and a priceless moment for personal reinvention. His political career had been seemingly derailed by two shattering electoral losses: in the 1960 presidential campaign, and the 1962 California gubernatorial election.

Former President Herbert Hoover had, for many years, given the Lakeside Address. Stepping into Hoover’s shoes was, Nixon later reflected, both an “emotional assignment for me” and an “unparalleled opportunity to reach some of the most important and influential men” in America.

Nixon didn’t say much about the Vietnam War; he promised his audience that he would “take the long view,” rather than dwelling “on current issues like Vietnam.” But the war hovered at the periphery of his remarks. It had to: Hours before, a freak accident aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal, on station in the Tonkin Gulf, culminated in a horrific fire that claimed the lives of 134 sailors. The pilot and future senator John McCain was among the survivors.
Nixon’s speech offered only partial hints of the course he would adopt as president. It suggested the possibility of negotiations with the Soviet Union, but not with the People’s Republic of China. It offered no real clues of the course Nixon would adopt toward the Vietnam War, although his established reputation as a stalwart anti-Communist would have probably sufficed for much of the audience.

If the Bohemian Club speech gives little hint of the dramatic feats of the Nixon years — high-wire superpower diplomacy, the invasion of Cambodia or the effective abandonment of South Vietnam — it still speaks to a sharp and profound change in America’s approach to the world, and tells us of Vietnam’s broader consequences.

Nixon’s speech painted a dismal picture of American prestige in the world. “Twenty years ago, after our great World War II victory,” he intoned, “we were respected throughout the world. Today, hardly a day goes by when our flag is not spit upon, a library burned, an embassy stoned some place in the world.” The global backlash against the Vietnam War was the preponderant, although not the sole, cause of this anti-American wave. True to form, Nixon advised a tough, straightforward response: punishing America’s foes and rewarding its friends, and dividing the world starkly into opposing camps.

Of course, many Americans had been doing so since the beginning of the Cold War, but the strains of warfare and the growing torrent of criticism pushed this tendency toward its outermost extreme. This, in turn, greatly complicated America’s relations with the leaders of the nonaligned states. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito and Indonesia’s Sukarno had rejected Cold War alignment. To this rising caucus of national leaders, the greatest problem confronting the world was not the East-West contest, but the international struggle against colonialism in all its forms.

Successive presidents had used varying combinations of carrots and sticks toward uncommitted states. Dwight D. Eisenhower began his presidency confronting them, but shifted toward a more conciliatory approach over time, recognizing that strong nonaligned governments could be preferable to shakily governed allies. John F. Kennedy made a sustained effort to engage the leading nonaligned states, forging interpersonal ties with their leaders, offering them substantial economic aid and sometimes even taking anticolonial positions.

Kennedy’s policy began to fray after his assassination, however. Outreach toward the likes of nonaligned India risked the antagonism of allies like Pakistan. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, exhibited a deeply felt preference for allies, but shared the anti-poverty passions held by many leaders in Africa and Asia. Nonaligned leaders often baffled and frustrated Johnson, but some potential for concord still existed.

Vietnam shattered that possibility. Few Asian or African leaders shared the Communist beliefs of Ho Chi Minh, but most looked to North Vietnam as a fellow anticolonial state, recalling the long Vietnamese struggle against France after the Second World War. North Vietnam had far outpaced its southern rival in its quest for international legitimacy — to the great frustration of the American government. As Johnson Americanized the war in South Vietnam, he faced an uphill struggle to explain the conflict to uncommitted states.

The Vietnam War put the nonaligned states in a bind. North Vietnam’s close solidarity with the People’s Republic of China alarmed them. Yugoslavia and India were particularly opposed to Mao Zedong, viewing his revolutionary agenda as a fundamental threat. Neither could they, however, countenance the American bombing of North Vietnam, even as they valued decent relations with Washington.

And so they attempted to coax the combatants toward the negotiating table. In April 1965, shortly after the commencement of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, a group of 17 nonaligned states released a cautiously worded appeal, calling for immediate negotiations and an immediate halt to the fighting. India even suggested deploying an Afro-Asian peacekeeping force between the two Vietnams, in advance of negotiations.

To Johnson, these calls represented both a challenge and an opportunity. He was eager to put his Communist foes on the defensive diplomatically, to depict them as aggressive and intransigent. Doing so entailed taking nonaligned appeals and offers to mediate the conflict seriously, even if this meant halting the bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson declared a weeklong bombing pause in the spring of 1965. This was insufficient — either to advance negotiations, or to placate his critics.

Months later, at the end of 1965, Johnson announced a second bombing pause, linking it to his “peace offensive.” He dispatched special envoys around the world, to nonaligned and Communist capitals, seeking a diplomatic opening that might enable direct negotiations with North Vietnam. Nonaligned states responded promptly, offering to convey messages to Hanoi — or perhaps to act in a mediating capacity. Algeria, which enjoyed deep ties to the ruling party in Vietnam, offered to help. Yugoslavia’s Tito — who knew far more about the schisms within the Hanoi government than Johnson did — advised playing on those divisions. Nonaligned states could not influence the battlefield, but their own diplomatic networks and revolutionary experiences gave them perspective sorely absent in Washington.
The halt could not last. Unimpressed by the results, unpersuaded by nonaligned appeals for more time, Johnson announced the resumption of bombing on Jan. 31, 1966. Would-be mediators lost no time proclaiming their outrage, suspecting that Johnson had cynically used them. In the following months, relations between the United States and the nonaligned world worsened dramatically.

To be sure, other factors were in play. Regional conflicts, such as deepening Arab-Israeli tensions and the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, had their own fallout. Yet Vietnam became a universal source of acrimony. An embattled Johnson lashed out when nonaligned governments criticized his war, suspending or reducing foreign assistance to states that had offended him.

If he thought these acts of retaliation would end the criticism, he was sorely mistaken. Recipient governments tended to value their own domestic stability and standing within the nonaligned group over their aid relationships. In a worsening spiral, punitive aid policies only intensified the growing sense of isolation felt by Americans. The mutual discord had reached unprecedented heights by the time Nixon stepped up to the lakeshore podium.
Nixon offered a fundamentally reassuring prescription to his audience, one that would resonate long after the defeat of South Vietnam and the sudden end to his own stormy presidency. Black and white were the only colors; there was no longer room for the gray hues of the nonaligned states. He spoke strictly of “friends” and “enemies.” He lauded stalwart allies like Iran, Thailand and Taiwan. He spoke of strengthening regional allies as anti-Communist bulwarks.
This entailed less concern for how they were governed — he had told the Bohemian Club that American-style democracy was “not necessarily the best form of government” for peoples in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Yet he bet heavily on anti-Communist autocrats like the shah of Iran or Pakistan’s Yahya Khan, equating ruthlessness with reliability.

The Bohemian Club speech became a blueprint for how Nixon would govern. The rhetoric and policies of the Nixon years bifurcated the world into friendly and hostile camps, as did the growing identification of African and Asian peoples with North Vietnam and its southern allies.

Emerging from the bitterness of the Vietnam years was a deep and sustained mutual antipathy between the United States and the nonaligned world, which continued long after troops departed South Vietnam. Previous Cold War presidents had paid what Thomas Jefferson described as “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Nixon’s manichean worldview framed the incessant criticism of the period as a justification for a wholesale rejection of global opinion and a defiant unilateralism that endures today — reminding us of the myriad, unforeseen ways by which war alters our relationships with the world around us.

Source By: nytimes.com