The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding

By Kimball, Jeffrey | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding


Kimball, Jeffrey, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Conventional wisdom holds that President Richard M. Nixon came into office in January 1969 with a new set of foreign-policy principles that were later dubbed the "Nixon Doctrine." Many who have heard of the doctrine--including most specialists in the field of foreign relations--understand that its key principle was that the United States would call on its allies and friends to supply their own manpower to "defend" themselves against "Communist aggression," while America provided only advice, aid, and arms. Another generally held view is that the doctrine guided Nixon's actions in Indochina and elsewhere and represented a major shift in American foreign policy, overturning the interventionist practices of previous presidents, who had frequently sent American troops abroad to fight for "peace" and "freedom." In the Indochina theater, as the story goes, Nixon implemented the new doctrine through "Vietnamization," by which means he sought to withdraw American armed forces from Indochina while simultaneously defending South Vietnam, winning the war, achieving peace, and preserving American "honor." (1)

These customary understandings of the Nixon Doctrine are erroneous in whole or substantial part. The Nixon Doctrine did not constitute a foreign-policy doctrine in the sense of having been a grand strategy or a master set of principles and guidelines controlling policy decisions. Whether it truly was a doctrine or not, however, Nixon did not practice its principles consistently or even intend to do so when he first announced them. The so-called doctrine, moreover, did not represent a major shift in U.S. foreign policy: previous administrations had applied or attempted to apply the Nixon Doctrine's core principles in selected areas of the world. In Indochina, Vietnamization was not the main component of Nixon's strategy, and he secretly valued other, more militant approaches. Vietnamization was not even a Nixon administration invention. It diffusely originated with the antiwar movement, congressional doves, and agency staffers during the period of President Lyndon B. Johnson's direction of the war, and it was a topic candidates and parties discussed during the 1968 election campaign. In addition, Nixon did not begin to implement Vietnamization in earnest until many months into his presidency, and he did so only after other components of his strategy failed to produce victory and as members of his own administration and the public demanded that he withdraw American troops more rapidly. At the very moment Nixon announced the "doctrine," the measures for which it stood were secondary to others he had in mind for dealing with the Vietnam War, Asia, and the world.

What Nixon Said in Guam

Nixon delivered his first public comments about what would later become known as the Nixon Doctrine in Guam on the evening of July 25, 1969. The island was at the end of the second leg of a thirteen-day around-the-world political and diplomatic voyage, on which Nixon had embarked from Washington, DC on July 23. The president and his entourage had landed at Johnson Island that same day and--after crossing the international dateline aboard the U.S.S. Arlington--had rendezvoused by helicopter with the aircraft carrier Hornet on July 25. From its bridge Nixon had watched the splashdown and recovery of the Apollo XI space capsule, which was returning to Earth from its historic mission to the moon. After a greeting ceremony for the triumphant astronauts, an exuberant Nixon had flown to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. On July 26, the morning after his press conference, he continued on his journey for brief visits with the heads of state of the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, South Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and Romania. On August 3 he began his return to the United States via England, while Henry A. Kissinger, the president's special assistant for national security affairs, flew to Paris to meet with Xuan Thuy on August 4--the first of many, though intermittent, secret meetings Kissinger was to have with North Vietnamese negotiators. …

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