Nixon believed the Grand Design, his name for the strategy of playing China and the Soviet Union off of one another, would one day overshadow the Watergate scandal and his resignation. That has yet to happen, but his great power diplomacy is often treated as a gold standard for modern American foreign policy. President Obama once downplayed expectations of his own foreign policy by saying that Nixon’s opening to China was a one-in-a-generation type of accomplishment. Historian H. W. Brands said that Nixon’s foreign policy was one of the three most important diplomatic events of the twenty century, the other two being the World Wars. Nixon wanted to be remembered as a giant on the world stage, like his heroes: Disraeli, Wilson, the Roosevelts, Churchill, and de Gaulle. He advanced world peace largely because he wanted it as his legacy.
(image by Britannica)
The Grand Design is not without criticism. China has become the second largest economy and arguably the world’s greatest threat to liberal democracy. Its access to the global market is also partly responsible for the Covid 19 pandemic. Nixon’s detente with the Soviet Union has been blamed for the Soviets gaining nuclear parity and for America’s inaction as they gained covert momentum across the Third World in the 1970s.
Then there’s the Vietnam War. Nixon inherited the situation from Johnson, including half-a-million soldiers in Vietnam and large social protests domestically. Nixon tried to disrupt Johnson’s peace negotiations in 1968 in part because he wanted to keep the war alive as a campaign issue, and although the negotiations likely broke down from independent causes, his action remains highly immoral. It took Nixon four years to broker an armistice and while it took all of his efforts, including heavy bombings and the Grand Design, to force Hanoi’s hand, Nixon’s Oval Office tapes also imply that he did not want to risk South Vietnam’s collapse until after his 1972 reelection.
There are several other controversies I could discuss, from Pakistan to Chile to Cambodia, but I’m trying to keep these posts short and so I’ll summarize my thoughts as simultaneously bothered by Nixon’s ruthlessness but still appreciative of his efforts to enhance global stability by exploiting the Sino-Soviet Split and constructing a trilateral balance of power between America, China, and the Soviet Union. Doing so required greater vision than most Presidents possess and for this I think Nixon deserves a spot on this list.