For my write-up today on Richard Nixon’s 1994 book Beyond Peace, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on page 136.
“By the time of my initial visit to Beijing in 1972, China was still repressive domestically, but except for its brief invasion of Vietnam, it was no longer a direct military threat to its neighbors. Of the three remaining communist states, North Korea clearly remains a serious, active threat, not only to South Korea but to the peace and security of the entire Pacific Rim. It has not yet crossed the threshold that I set more than twenty-five years ago for China. Until it ceases to be a threat, we should treat it as a pariah nation that its leaders still persist in making it. Vietnam and Cuba are like North Korea in that both are still run by repressive communist regimes…But neither presents an active threat to the peace internationally.”
In his 1992 book, Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World, Nixon said that “The United States must insist that [Cuba and Vietnam] each meet specific political and human rights conditions before establishing diplomatic or trade relations” (page 259). In my third blog post on Seize the Moment, I expressed confusion: Nixon, when talking about China and the Soviet Union, supports trade with those countries as one way to encourage their liberalization on human rights. Why, then, does Nixon not advocate the same sort of policy for Cuba and Vietnam?
I still have this question. And yet, the passage on page 136 of Beyond Peace does demonstrate at least some consistent thread that runs through Nixon’s proposals on how the U.S. should interrelate with Communist countries, be they China, Vietnam, or Cuba. That thread is this: if the Communist countries are aggressive against other countries, then the U.S. should be hesitant to establish diplomatic or trading relations with them.
On pages 164-165 of Seize the Moment, Nixon details the considerations that led him to support normalization of U.S. relations with Communist China. From 1959-1963, Nixon narrates, alienation was increasing between Red China and the Soviet Union, as both disputed with each other about whose “brand of Communism was purest”, and as China wanted to be more than merely a junior partner in its alliance with the U.S.S.R. As a result of the rift, China “found itself isolated and surrounded by hostile powers by the late 1960s”: Japan was a challenge due to its economic strength; India had a large population, had Soviet support, was developing nuclear weapons, and had border clashes with China in the past; and the Soviet Union had first-strike capability against China, maintained military divisions on China’s border, and in the past had clashes with China over territory that was disputed. The Chinese had to rely on themselves rather than foreign aid to develop economically, and they also decided to scale back “their adventurist policies abroad” (page 165). Nixon thought it was time to reach out to Communist China.
Regarding Cuba and Vietnam, Nixon’s views on whether or not the U.S. should trade with these countries changed between Seize the Moment and Beyond Peace, and the reason is that these countries’ situations changed during that time. In Seize the Moment, on pages 260-261, Nixon notes examples of these countries’ foreign policy that (in his opinion) do not serve the interests of the United States: Cuba was providing military supplies to the rebels in El Salvador, obstructing the peace talks there and perpetuating a war that was resulting in an immense loss of lives and was causing economic damage; Vietnam was economically and militarily supporting its client dictatorship in Cambodia; and the Vietnamese in Laos were using chemical weapons against the Hmong in the south. According to Nixon in Seize the Moment, Vietnam was seeking to maintain its own empire in Indochina.
In Beyond Peace, which was published two years after Seize the Moment, Nixon presents a different picture of Cuba and Vietnam. According to Nixon, the “global network of communist aggressors” of which Castro was a part “vanished”, presumably with the fall of the Soviet Union, and so it was unlikely that Cuba would be aggressive (page 138). Vietnam was becoming open to economic liberalization and was focusing less on aggression against foreign countries. Nixon, therefore, was for greater economic openness on the part of the U.S. towards these countries, even though their human rights record remained horrible. For Nixon, this policy could promote liberalization in these countries in the direction of greater respect for human rights.
I still have a question, though. Was it Nixon’s consistent policy to link American willingness to trade with Communist countries with the countries scaling back their aggression? In Nixon’s memoirs, Nixon talks about how he supported MFN with the Soviet Union and normalization of relations with China, and yet he acknowledges here-and-there in the memoirs that both countries were playing a role in other nations: Red China was supporting Pakistan and North Vietnam, and the Soviets were backing India, Arab nations, and North Vietnam. If aggression entails providing economic and military supplies to forces in other countries, which is what Nixon criticizes Cuba and Vietnam for in Seize the Moment, then was not Nixon supporting a policy of trade and diplomatic relations with aggressors in his approach to Red China and the Soviet Union?
Nixon would probably say that this was different: he couldn’t just ignore or effectively isolate Red China and the Soviet Union, due to their vast size, their huge populations, and their significant influence on the rest of the world. He had to deal with them, as bad as they were. But he could pressure Cuba and Vietnam by withholding privileges (i.e., trade, diplomacy), since they were smaller.