On page 223 of The Final Days, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein say the following about President Richard Nixon’s negotiations with the Soviets to slow down the arms race:
“The President had often confided to Kissinger his most telling reason for slowing down the nuclear-arms race. He feared that the United States would lose it. Continued military competition was too expensive. The country might not be able to sustain the costs of a prolonged cold war. America, the President felt, was too likely to buckle under the pressure. Besides the economic weakness of the country, Nixon perceived a weakness of will. Too many of the same political critics who were pushing him to the wall on Watergate would not support a tough posture toward the Russians, he said.”
In this post, I’ll just assume that Nixon felt this way, even though I don’t know for sure if that was the case.
It sounds as if Nixon saw detente as second-best, as if he would have preferred for the United States to have the guts to be tough with the Soviets and to win the nuclear arms race. Not only did Nixon admire guts, but, reading some of his foreign policy books, Nixon looked back with apparent pleasure at the days when the United States had nuclear superiority and could appeal to that to get the Soviets to back off from some of the adventures that they were pursuing. Nixon considered that to be keeping the peace!
But I think that there was another side to Nixon. Nixon in his memoirs, especially the first volume, depicts himself as someone who wants peace. He wanted peace when his father and his brothers fought. He saw some of the horrors of war. And he admired pacifists, even if he did not go so far as to be a pacifist himself. I have my doubts that this side of Nixon saw detente merely as second-best.
Moreover, Nixon argues that he as President spent more money on domestic concerns than on military defense. Maybe Nixon here is simply presenting himself as progressive, against liberal critics, and his point is that he has done more to further liberal concerns than liberals themselves have. Or perhaps a part of Nixon had a sense that the arms race was costing the United States money, money that could be used to help people.
I admire guts, but I also don’t think that peace and negotiation should be considered second-best. I think that the best option is what Nixon said detente was: negotiation, but not negotiation that allows others to walk all over you. Detente is tough negotiation, according to Nixon.
I would like to mention one more thing. On page 222, Woodward and Bernstein say: “The Soviet press had largely ignored Watergate. When the matter was referred to, it was portrayed as a plot to destroy d[e]tente.” That actually overlaps with the argument of the book, Silent Coup: that there were military people in Nixon’s Administration who did not like being shut out of the decisionmaking process, and who did not care for detente, and they contributed to President Richard Nixon’s downfall.