The Illusion of Peace

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Tad Szulc was for many years a highly respected diplomatic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times and has several notable publications to his credit. His account of President Nixon’s foreign policy, therefore, might well be expected to arouse interest, despite the fact that it involves a largely familiar story. Many publications covering this fascinating period in American foreign relations have appeared in recent years. It is the story of the relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union, known as détente; the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT); Henry Kissinger’s hectic shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East; the stunning diplomatic overture to Mainland China; and the Paris negotiations over the war in Vietnam, to mention some of the highlights of the period. It is, also, the story of the bizarre world of the Nixon White House, a setting in which key officials distrusted and spied on one another, and in which a climate of hostile suspicion deeply affected the policy-making process.

Szulc strives to shed some additional light on the available record. He incorporates into his account information from unpublished official papers and a large number of interviews with high government officials, public figures, and diplomats. This plan does allow for occasional revealing “inside” perspectives, spotlighting the contrast between the public and the private attitudes of the Nixon administration. Szulc’s expressed objective is the exposition of Nixon’s preoccupation with images: specifically, the creation of images which had little or no relationship to reality and obscured the truth. In the final analysis, according to Szulc, President Nixon’s proclaimed achievement of a “structure of peace” was no more than the illusion of peace. Incidentally, the phenomenon of illusion has been noted in other assessments of the Nixon administration. Nevertheless, Szulc’s basic theme indicates his intent to provide a fresh and more searching coverage of the Nixon years.

The two dominant figures, the President and Henry Kissinger, special assistant on national security affairs and later the Secretary of State as well, formulated major new policies and made consequential decisions. Some of these turn out to have been flawed, but most still await proper historical assessment. Nixon and Kissinger complemented each other remarkably well. The President had a deep interest in international relations and considerable practical experience, while Kissinger was known for his brilliance of mind and impressive scholarship on foreign and security affairs. Both shared a strong distrust of the bureaucracies and were in full agreement on by-passing the State Department and establishing direct communication links with foreign governments in vital policy areas. Kissinger had a free hand in reorganizing the National Security Council. He made it the instrument through which he would assume complete control of foreign policy. It enabled him to neutralize or to diminish the influence of the two most important traditional actors, the Secretaries of State and Defense.

Szulc recounts the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy in strictly chronological order, dividing his material into six books, one for each year of the Nixon administration. Such a diarylike treatment seems inappropriate for the subject matter and the considerable amount of material involved. The reader has much difficulty grasping from the thicket of detail the grand policy designs and the linkage between such important policy areas as détente, the opening of relations with China, and the Vietnam peace settlement. Thus the lack of an effective organizational framework must be noted as an unfortunate shortcoming.

When Nixon began his term in office, the Vietnam war assumed the highest priority in United States foreign policy. The “Vietnamization” of the war was the formula designed to deal with the most critical public irritant over the conflict, the loss of American manpower. The administration was able to withdraw sizable American troop contingents. However, this policy was accompanied by an escalation of the use of air power over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Previously imposed constraints were removed, and the enemy was subjected to unprecedented levels of punishment. These moves were designed to entice the enemy into serious negotiations and, at the same time, to give the South Vietnamese the opportunity to become more self-reliant. While much of the public resentment abated in apparent proportion to the decline in American casualties, many college campuses exploded into hostile demonstrations protesting the escalation of the air war. These student protests, compounded by the Kent State University shootings, posed...

(The entire section is 1932 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, June 26, 1978, p. 23.

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1124.