GADDIS ON NIXON AND MAO
“A professor of history at the University of Toronto, soon to move to Oxford as warden of St. Antony’s College, MacMillan in her earlier book defended the peacemakers of 1919 against the charge that they had failed. The outbreak of a new world war two decades later, she argued, resulted not from their mistakes but from those of their successors. She has little need, in “Nixon and Mao,” to defend the peacemakers of 1972, for in the three and a half decades since they met, regrets have been remarkably few. An event that seemed inconceivable before it happened was instantly regarded by almost everyone after it happened as having made perfect sense. Rarely has foresight been so at odds with hindsight.
When Nixon took office in 1969, he inherited a war in Vietnam that was costing the United States far more in lives, money and reputation than is the current war in Iraq. The strategic arms balance had shifted in favor of the Soviet Union, whose leaders had crushed dissent in Czechoslovakia and were promising to do so elsewhere. Meanwhile race riots, antiwar protests and an emerging culture of youthful rebellion were making the United States, in the eyes of its new president, almost ungovernable: the nation, Nixon worried, was on the verge of going “down the drain as a great power.”
Playing the “China card” did not resolve these difficulties, but it did regain the initiative. With this single act, Nixon and Kissinger dazzled their domestic critics, rattled the Soviet Union, impressed allies (despite their exasperation at not having been consulted) and set up an exit strategy for a war that had become unwinnable: the United States might indeed “lose” South Vietnam, but it would “gain” China. Despite its implications for the unfortunate Vietnamese, this was an outcome with which it was hard to argue. “
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