Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Voice from the Wilderness: Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, 1964-1966

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

A Voice from the Wilderness: Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, 1964-1966

Article excerpt

Upon ascending to the presidency in January 1969, Richard Nixon commented that he had inherited a war not of his making from his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson.(1) Admittedly, the United States faced an increasingly difficult situation in Vietnam at the time of Nixon's election. Yet, Nixon was being too modest by assigning responsibility for the war in Vietnam to the Johnson administration alone. Indeed, during his years "in the wilderness" as a private citizen following his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon consistently criticized Johnson's Vietnam policy. As a respected voice in foreign affairs and as arguably the Republican Party's leading spokesman on Vietnam, Nixon forced the administration to acknowledge and respond to his rhetoric, which spurred Johnson to greater involvement in the war. Thus, Nixon should be held at least partially responsible for the situation he confronted on his inauguration; he helped to create it.

Nixon's hawkishness on the Vietnam conflict during 1964-66 has been largely ignored by students of the war.(2) Given Nixon's role in the denouement of the war--and indeed in America's involvement in Southeast Asia during virtually the entire period from Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to the fall of Saigon in 1975--an understanding of Nixon's views during the years preceding his election seems critical to a complete understanding of Nixon's presidential decisions on Vietnam. This article will address those issues, focusing specifically on Nixon as a critic of America's Vietnam policies during the Johnson administration's escalation of the American presence in the conflict in Southeast Asia. In addition, it will examine and reaffirm the importance of domestic politics in the making and understanding of U.S. foreign policy.(3)

Rising from the Ashes

On November 7, 1962, Richard Nixon's political career appeared to be at an end. Having just been defeated by Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election, the former vice president declared, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," sounding like a man who planned to fade into the footnotes of history. Yet, Nixon returned almost immediately to the public spotlight and began his long journey back into contention for the presidency. First, he relocated to New York in an effort to establish a base for his political ambitions. He then became the senior partner in an old, conservative, and respected Wall Street law firm, which enabled him to rub shoulders with domestic and international VIPs from business and politics. Nixon also began to travel extensively, making contacts with foreign dignitaries, enhancing his knowledge of foreign affairs, and honing his rhetorical and campaign skills.(4)

As a visible New York attorney, Nixon positioned himself in an ideal situation for a political comeback. He could criticize political insiders without being responsible for the consequences of his actions. His nonincumbency gave him an important advantage over Johnson in particular. He was free to state his objections to policy without having to account to Congress or the electorate. Nixon had the luxury of being forthright, unencumbered by the restraints of office.(5) As a result, he could rehabilitate his public image without running the risk of losing another election or being rebuked by an official constituency.

In Lyndon Johnson, he had a convenient and stationary target. Constrained by the demands of the presidency and preoccupied with building the Great Society and other domestic political concerns, Johnson could not afford to devote all of his personal and institutional resources to foreign policy and Vietnam--and indeed did not want to do so.(6) Nixon, on the other hand, could hammer away at the administration's indecisiveness and lack of initiative. Despite these handicaps, Johnson retained the advantages of his office. The president of the United States has the ability to set the national agenda and to focus attention away from problems--if those problems do not become too critical or pressing. …

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