The Day Nixon Began His Comeback

If the Bohemian Club speech gives little hint of the dramatic feats of the Nixon years — high-wire superpower diplomacy, the invasion of Cambodia or the effective abandonment of South Vietnam — it still speaks to a sharp and profound change in America’s approach to the world, and tells us of Vietnam’s broader consequences.

Nixon’s speech painted a dismal picture of American prestige in the world. “Twenty years ago, after our great World War II victory,” he intoned, “we were respected throughout the world. Today, hardly a day goes by when our flag is not spit upon, a library burned, an embassy stoned some place in the world.” The global backlash against the Vietnam War was the preponderant, although not the sole, cause of this anti-American wave. True to form, Nixon advised a tough, straightforward response: punishing America’s foes and rewarding its friends, and dividing the world starkly into opposing camps.

Of course, many Americans had been doing so since the beginning of the Cold War, but the strains of warfare and the growing torrent of criticism pushed this tendency toward its outermost extreme. This, in turn, greatly complicated America’s relations with the leaders of the nonaligned states. India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito and Indonesia’s Sukarno had rejected Cold War alignment. To this rising caucus of national leaders, the greatest problem confronting the world was not the East-West contest, but the international struggle against colonialism in all its forms.

Successive presidents had used varying combinations of carrots and sticks toward uncommitted states. Dwight D. Eisenhower began his presidency confronting them, but shifted toward a more conciliatory approach over time, recognizing that strong nonaligned governments could be preferable to shakily governed allies. John F. Kennedy made a sustained effort to engage the…

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