As president, Nixon belied his earlier reputation as an uncompromising anticommunist, restructuring the international pattern of U.S. alliances by playing the China card and moving toward recognition of the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) while using the new Sino-American rapprochement to extract concessions on détente and arms control from the Soviet Union. In doing so, Nixon worked closely with his energetic national security advisor, Henry A. Kissinger, restricting Secretary of State William P. Rogers largely to routine diplomatic business. Kissinger finally replaced Rogers in August 1973.
In 1968 the inability of the United States to achieve victory in the controversial Vietnam War, despite increasingly high deployments of troops, dominated the political agenda. Nixon, promising that he had a plan to end the war expeditiously, won the presidency. He accelerated the program of Vietnamization begun under President Lyndon B. Johnson, gradually withdrawing American troops while providing Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) forces with massive amounts of war supplies intended to enable them to defend themselves. In August 1969 Kissinger embarked on protracted negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam). To win time for Vietnamization, Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia as well as a ground invasion of that country that helped bring the communist Khmer Rouge to power there later. At Christmas 1972 Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam to pressure its leaders to accept a settlement. Some assailed him for winning a peace settlement that effectively assured South Vietnam only a decent interval before a North Vietnam takeover two years later.
American withdrawal from Vietnam was only part of the broader strategic realignment that Nixon and Kissinger termed their Grand Design. The Nixon Doctrine, announced in July 1969, called upon American allies to bear the primary burden of their own defense, looking to the United States only for supplementary conventional and, when necessary, nuclear assistance.
Conscious that their country no longer enjoyed the undisputed supremacy of the immediate post–World War II period and that growing economic difficulties mandated cuts in defense budgets, Nixon and Kissinger hoped to negotiate arms limitations agreements with the Soviet Union. To pressure the Soviets, whose relations with communist China had become deeply antagonistic by the early 1960s, Nixon began the process of reopening American relations with China, visiting Beijing in 1972, where he had extended talks with Chinese communist Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and preparing to de-emphasize the long-standing U.S. commitment to the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and recognize the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) in its stead.
These tactics alarmed Soviet leaders and facilitated a relaxation of Soviet-American tensions, broadly termed détente. At a May 1972 Moscow summit meeting, Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed two arms limitations treaties, jointly known as SALT I, that took effect the following October. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limited antiballistic missile defense sites in each country to two, with neither hosting more than a hundred ABMs. The Interim Agreement froze for five years the number of nuclear warheads possessed by each side. Détente did not mean the end of Soviet-American rivalry, however.
After winning a second presidential victory in 1972, Nixon hoped to move toward full recognition of the PRC and further arms control agreements. The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, however, diverted his administration's attention from these plans. The war precipitated an Arab oil embargo on Western states that followed pro-Israeli policies, contributing to an international spiral of skyrocketing inflation and high unemployment that afflicted the United States and Western Europe throughout the 1970s.
Presidential summit meetings with Brezhnev at Moscow and Yalta in June–July 1974 brought no immediate results, in large part due to Nixon's own calamitous domestic problems, even though they set the stage for the Helsinki Accords and additional arms control agreements under Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford. The Watergate political scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974, aborted all his ambitions for further progress in overseas affairs.
Nixon devoted his final two decades to writing his memoirs and numerous other books and essays on international affairs, part of a broader and reasonably successful campaign to engineer his political rehabilitation and to win respect from contemporaries and a place in history for his presidential achievements and foreign policy expertise. In Nixon's final years, several presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and William Jefferson Clinton, sought his insights on various international subjects, especially relations with the PRC and the Soviet Union. Nixon died in New York City on 22 April 1994.
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Burr, Willliam, ed. The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top-Secret Talks with Beijing & Moscow. New York: New Press, 1998.; Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1994.; Greene, John Robert. The Limits of Power: The Nixon and Ford Administrations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.; Hoff, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. New York: Basic Books, 1994.; Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.; Litwak, Robert S. Détente and the Nixon Doctrine: American Foreign Policy and the Pursuit of Stability, 1969–1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.; Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.