Commentary Magazine

A Tangled Web by William P. Bundy

A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency
by William Bundy
Hill and Wang. 647 pp. $35.00

Richard Nixon’s presidency ended in the self-immolation of Watergate. But before he resigned from office in disgrace, the 37th President spent six years guiding the ship of state through some of the cold war’s most perilous waters. How well did he navigate?

Considering the precarious position of the United States at the moment Nixon was elected in 1968, several years into the agonizing war in Vietnam, even modest success would have been enough to establish his reputation as a foreign-policy savant. But together with his national-security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon achieved far more, extricating the U.S. from Vietnam, opening the door to Communist China, extinguishing major conflagrations on the Indian subcontinent and in the Middle East, and entering into a détente with a menacing nuclear-armed adversary. So, at least, many observers, including many of Nixon’s political opponents at the time, have come to conclude in hindsight.

In A Tangled Web, William Bundy, the editor of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1984 and a former high-ranking foreign-policy official, dissents from this positive view. Having sifted through the innumerable biographies, memoirs, specialized monographs, and declassified diplomatic and CIA cable traffic, and not hesitating to offer praise where he thinks praise is due, he nevertheless frames a powerful indictment. By any standard, Bundy concludes, including the one Nixon set for himself, and notwithstanding the immense difficulties the U.S. faced, the administration’s conduct cost America dearly in blood, treasure, and standing in the world.

Bundy is not, it should be made clear, a heedless dove. Rather, he more closely resembles a repentant hawk Though he now judges America’s role in Vietnam a disaster from beginning to end, he himself helped bring the disaster about, serving first in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s CIA and then, when the going in Indochina began to get rough, moving on to become one of the “best and brightest” running the war from successive high-level perches in the Defense and State Departments under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

On the other hand, Bundy is also not a reflexive Nixon-hater. He rates the President highly, at least in some respects, judging him “an extremely energetic and intelligent American of his generation” whose “exposure to the world and to foreign leaders stood near the top among the political figures of his time and among 20th-century candidates for the presidency.” Yet Bundy also finds that, for all of Nixon’s preparation, the same internal demons that caused his presidency to unravel—an instinctive mendacity, a predilection for subterfuge, a disdain for constitutional niceties—caused him to stumble in foreign policy. And nowhere did he stumble harder than in Vietnam.



When Nixon assumed office in January 1969, American soldiers were dying in that land at the rate of nearly 200 a week. Though the conflict had already bitterly divided the United States and thoroughly demoralized Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, Bundy reminds us of a fact today all but forgotten: in his first fifteen months in office, the newly-elected President enjoyed a remarkable degree of public support for his handling of the war. In particular, his policy of Vietnamization—the phased withdrawal of American troops—had broad appeal. But in carrying out that policy of disengagement, Nixon, from the very start, made a number of critical and characteristically Nixonian mistakes.

For one thing, out of misplaced personal loyalty to South Vietnam’s leader Nguyen Van Thieu, a loyalty whose low political origins Bundy traces in close detail, the President never made a determined effort to get the lackluster South Vietnamese authorities to shape up, to demote incompetent officers, to promote proficient ones, and to eradicate widespread graft. This failure was decisive, in Bundy’s view, for if South Vietnam could not defend itself without American soldiers, how could the U.S. ever disengage without precipitating Saigon’s collapse?

For another thing, Nixon opted fairly quickly for a dramatic expansion of U.S. involvement, first by secretly beginning massive B-52 bombing raids on Cambodia in 1969 and then, in April 1970, by dispatching 32,000 U.S. troops into Cambodia. This expansion of the war was arguably not the contradiction in terms it might have seemed; rather, Bundy suggests, it could have been presented as an indispensable step to protect Saigon’s western flank, paving the way for Vietnamization to proceed. But, in a speech Bundy rates as “the most extraordinary” in a generation (drafted by Patrick J. Buchanan), Nixon gave the Cambodia operation “a far more lurid and drastic coloring than it warranted,” sparking widespread domestic protest, the shooting deaths of four demonstrators at Kent State, and a firestorm of media and congressional criticism.

Then, in the face of unrelenting pressure, Nixon did what in his speech he had said he would never do—he “caved” and cut the Cambodian action short, dismaying his hawkish supporters and the Pentagon, winning no points from doves, and showing weakness all around. In the event, Bundy asserts, the military gains secured by the truncated Cambodia incursion turned out to be “minimal,” and were achieved at the cost of alienating “critical sectors of public and congressional opinion beyond recovery.”

Bereft of political support for his policies, Nixon next chose to wrap key decisions in secrecy and outright lies as the U.S. role in the war dragged on for another three years. Though Nixon and Kissinger would later blame their inability to hold fast in South Vietnam on the erosion of authority caused by Watergate, Bundy contends that Nixon’s credibility had been destroyed long before the scandal sapped the powers of his presidency. With even longtime congressional stalwarts of U.S. engagement in Indochina galvanized into revolt, Saigon’s fate was inescapably sealed.

The end-game was swift in its completion. The Paris Accords of 1973, as Bundy and others before him have shown, constituted not a genuine peace agreement but a face-saving measure allowing the administration to secure a “decent interval” between American exit and South Vietnamese collapse. The South Vietnamese would be “lucky [if] they can hold out for a year and a half,” Kissinger predicted in an unguarded moment, and so it came to be. Bundy’s grim conclusion is that all Nixon achieved in Vietnam was to prolong U.S. involvement in the war, greatly increasing the numbers of Americans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians who lost their lives while reaping only national humiliation and ignominious defeat.



Is this critique on target?

Bundy puts forth a very strong case that Nixon handled the domestic political side of the war terribly, in effect amputating his own legs by antagonizing public and congressional opinion with secrets that never remained secret for long and unnecessary deceptions that were unraveled with speed and regularity. Even so, however, things are not quite so simple.

Already under Lyndon Johnson, the dying being done by American boys in Vietnam had begun to tear the country’s political life asunder—indeed, to break Johnson’s presidency itself. The orderly American retreat that was the essence of Nixon’s policy, insofar as it required the initial application of tremendous force, would inevitably entail even more dying. And with soldiers falling in open view of the television cameras, and the roar of combat amplified by the antiwar campaign of a press and an intellectual class that had always despised Nixon, the political consequences were bound to be both treacherous and incalculable.

Nor was the pressure coming only from the media or from students calling for Communist victory. It was also coming from policymakers in and freshly out of government—colleagues of Bundy’s—some of whom, having shipped American soldiers off to an unwinnable war, began to denounce Richard Nixon as he was searching for a way to bring them home. Though Bundy points a finger of blame at liberals who sought in dishonest ways to make political hay from Nixon’s troubles, there is something unseemly in the lack of sympathy—the lack, really, of historical imagination—with which this former draftsman of our Vietnam policy judges the man who was struggling to clean up the terrible consequences of his predecessors’ decisions while preserving a modicum of national honor.



Nor is this all that is wrong with A Tangled Web. There are serious problems with its assessment of Nixon’s diplomatic and military strategy itself, both in Vietnam and in the larger contest in which Vietnam formed a pivotal theater.

Bundy argues, for instance, that Nixon, a “true believer,” was hobbled by “a predominantly ideological view of Communist nations and movements.” This led him to disregard the way in which their behavior was shaped not by Marxism-Leninism but by nationalism. Mistakenly concluding that the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge were nothing more than marionettes of Moscow and Beijing, the Nixon administration unnecessarily jeopardized the chance to improve relations with the two Communist giants in an effort to force them to do what could not be done, i.e., rein in their clients.

This notion that the Communists of Indochina were really closet nationalists, a notion recited to incantatory effect by many liberal critics of the war, happens to be false in itself, as we know from the kinds of totalitarian regimes they set up once they took power. But it is also a red herring. As the evidence compiled by Bundy’s own narrative shows, both Moscow and Beijing enjoyed enormous leverage over the Vietnamese and the Cambodian insurgents, not by virtue of their status as ideological patrons but simply through their position as providers of arms.

Not that the USSR or China ever chose to exercise that influence. Instead, both countries, to bleed the United States and to stay abreast in their own bitter rivalry, simply kept the military-supply spigot fully open. But the point is that, far from being the unlettered anti-Communist that Bundy suggests, Nixon had excellent reasons to hold the USSR and China accountable for the bloodshed, even if he never succeeded in getting either to restrain the dogs of war.

Bundy’s error here, it must be stressed, does not simply consist in wrongly emphasizing the nationalism of the North Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge. Rather, his treatment of this core ideological issue reflects what is perhaps the least convincing and—in an analyst of his caliber—the most disappointing aspect of A Tangled Web: its softheaded treatment of détente with the USSR.

Bundy’s fundamental thesis about Soviet-American relations is as follows. If Nixon’s national-security team had been better and had made more use of the professionals in the Departments of State and Defense and less use of the grandstanding and power-grabbing Henry Kissinger, and if Nixon himself had been less flawed and more resolute, a genuine thaw might have been achieved in relations with the USSR. This in turn would have saved the U.S. and the world from the frightful dangers and stupendous military costs of the last years of the cold war.

Bundy’s elaboration of this thesis is hardly devoid of value. With the same meticulous care he devotes to every other aspect of Nixon’s foreign policy, he traces the ups and downs of detente, producing an authoritative account of who said what to whom, to what effect, and why. And he once again succeeds in showing that Nixon and Kissinger made mistakes of considerable consequence, bungling opportunities to channel the arms race in ways favorable to the United States and fumbling the ball in economic relations.

But while Bundy documents a great deal of sheer sloppiness—whether more or less than could be documented in other presidential administrations is a question apart—the evidence he adduces to show that the Kremlin was serious about a genuine thaw is mixed to say the least. He makes far too much of what he describes as a shift in orientation undertaken by Moscow in 1971, writing without any sustainable foundation that “Soviet policy thereafter reflected a wide-ranging ‘Peace Program’ reaching into every facet of Soviet foreign and domestic policy.” Much more on the mark is his very different observation elsewhere that “there is little reason to believe that [Soviet archives] will show Soviet policy in a more pacific light than it was perceived at the time”—which is to say, not a very pacific light at all.

Bundy’s confusion about Soviet behavior is compounded by a refusal to reflect on the way in which the cold war, a decade and a half after Nixon left office, actually came to an end—a subject hardly without relevance for an understanding of Nixon’s efforts to forge a rapprochement with the USSR. For the Soviet Union was pushed onto the path of self-destruction in the 1980’s not by an American policy of friendship and embrace like the one Nixon here stands accused of having pursued too half-heartedly, but rather by a posture—adopted by Ronald Reagan in the face of relentless fear-mongering and scorn—of unbridled competition in the ideological, economic, and military spheres. In counterpoint to Bundy’s claim of what the world would have been spared by a more aggressive pursuit of detente, a better question is what it might have been spared—one thinks of such traumas as martial law in Poland and the invasion of Afghanistan—had Nixon opted to employ Reagan’s bold confrontational strategy, or at least elements of it, a decade earlier.

The answer, of course, is not obvious: the shape of things changed considerably between the time Nixon stepped down and Reagan came to office. Still, Bundy, who blithely appears to assume that détente was an absolute and unquestionable good, declines to explore the territory at all, berating for their “zealot tendencies” those (like Senator Henry Jackson) who pushed at the time for a harder line and who, in raising the flag of human rights, prematurely (as it were) challenged the Soviet Communist party’s right to rule. Though he concludes A Tangled Web with a chapter entitled “What Came After,” Bundy fails to draw any lessons from, to come to terms with, or even to discuss the implications of what did in fact come after: namely, the collapse of the USSR.

This is a serious defect in a book with its share of other serious defects. Yet it would be wrong to conclude without also noting that A Tangled Web is a thoroughly engrossing work, written in a reasoned voice and, despite its defects, full of insight into the complexities of Richard Nixon’s statecraft. Even its errors, and I have by no means enumerated all of them, have much to teach.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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