Nixon the Nation-Builder? Strategic Understanding in the Vietnam War



A new book from Evan Thomas reminds us – as if we needed it – of the peculiarities of President Richard Nixon. Brilliant, reclusive, and disturbed, Nixon ought to defy caricature even though he has often been the subject of it. His foreign policy partnership with Henry Kissinger reflected this. By marginalizing groups which traditionally held greater sway over American foreign policy – like the regular State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies – and concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, Nixon and Kissinger created a system that reflected their own highest qualities and most glaring defects.

I had a chance to see this system in action when I delved into the records of the Nixon White House while researching a book on the history of U.S. nation-building efforts during the Vietnam War. Most of what has been written about the administration’s Vietnam War policy focuses on…

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