For my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, I’ll talk about whether Watergate hindered President Nixon in terms of his foreign policy.
Nixon says a couple of times in this book that he was afraid that Watergate would undermine the Chief Executive and thereby reduce his leverage in terms of negotiating foreign policy. There were people in the press at the time who thought the same sort of thing: that Nixon would not be able to arrive at a good arms deal with Brezhnev of the Soviet Union because Nixon would probably make too many concessions to the Soviets for the reason that he needed a success in foreign policy to alleviate the domestic difficulties he was experiencing, or because the Soviets would hold out because they’d know that Nixon wouldn’t be President for much longer and thus they might get a better deal from his successor. In the eyes of Nixon’s detractors in the press, Watergate was taking away any negotiating leverage Nixon might have to deal with the Soviets.
Nixon himself was apprehensive that Watergate could undermine his foreign policy. That, Nixon seems to imply, is one reason that he resigned the Presidency rather than submit to six months of impeachment hearings. And yet, Nixon also appears to argue that, notwithstanding Watergate, his foreign policy was still going all right. He said that Henry Kissinger was being attacked as a perjurer because “even while the full-scale attempt to impeach me was under way, he had the effrontery to show the nation and the world that the United States under my leadership was still able to command respect in the world and achieve significant results despite the drag of Watergate” (page 584).
Regarding Brezhnev, Nixon narrates that Brezhnev respected Nixon for being a fighter, that Brezhnev expected for Nixon to remain in office until 1976, and that Brezhnev thought it was important that he and Nixon do what they could for the cause of peace. And, even though Nixon and Brezhnev did not arrive at a SALT agreement at Summit III, they still made some progress, particularly on arms control: “the threshold test ban, further restrictions on ABMs, agreements to seek controls on environmental warfare and for cooperation in energy, the opening of additional consulates in both countries, and, most important, the oral agreement I made with Brezhnev for a mini-summit before the end of 1974 for the purpose of reaching agreement on limitations of offensive nuclear weapons” (pages 620-621). (Nixon on page 611 defines a threshold test ban: “nuclear weapons could be tested as long as they did not cross a certain threshold of size and force.” According to Nixon, “on-the-ground verification” was unnecessary to ensure compliance with this ban, for seismic equipment could determine when there were infractions.)
Nixon does not believe that Watergate hindered Summit III, but rather that there were other factors: that Brezhnev may have had difficulty defending detente to Soviet conservatives because Nixon failed to get Most-Favored Nation trade status for the Soviet Union (due to political problems that existed prior to Watergate), and because people in the U.S. were making a big deal about the Jews who were trying to leave the Soviet Union. Plus, the military establishments in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did not particularly want arms control. This discussion by Nixon was ironic, for, on page 607, Nixon quotes a diary entry in which he (Nixon) said that the Secretary General of the Soviet Union could carry out a decision that he makes, for he doesn’t have to concern himself a great deal with public opinion, whereas the President of the United States can’t be certain that his “decision will be carried out.” Nixon may be admiring the Soviet system, here! And yet, Nixon later in the book seems to indicate that even Brezhnev on some level had to concern himself with public opinion, particularly the views of Soviet conservatives and the military establishment.