Nixon and the Cold War
Though Nixon was a staunch anticommunist, he set out to ease tensions with the Communist block after becoming president. The arms race with the Soviets had grown dangerously out of control during the 1960s. In part, this was due to a new strategic doctrine embraced by the United States. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara introduced the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. Calling on the United States to develop its retaliatory, or second-strike, capabilities, McNamara argued that the nation must be capable of delivering a punishing response to a first strike by the Soviet Union. In other words, McNamara hoped to eliminate any benefits the Soviets hoped to gain from a potential first-strike against the United States. The development of nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles meant that the United States, and later, the Soviets, possessed second-strike capability. If Soviet missiles destroyed the United States, American submarines could still launch their missiles against the Soviets. In the end, there would be no winner.
Hoping to curb the arms race, Nixon and his National Security Adviser (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger set out bring the Cold War under control. For Nixon and Kissinger, the goal was not to try and win the Cold War but to manage it. Nixon and Kissinger sought to improve relations between the United States and its two communist opponents: the Soviet Union and China. While Americans viewed all communist nations as a united enemy, the relationship between the Soviet Union and China showed signs of strain by the early 1970s. Kissinger decided to use this widening rift to his advantage. If the United States improved its relationship with China, the Soviets would have no choice but to cooperate with the U.S., or risk become isolated.
Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) with Nixon
Relations with China
In 1971, Nixon lowered restrictions on trade with China, and the Chinese responded by inviting an American ping-pong team to tour their country. This simple exchange opened the door for Nixon to visit China in 1972. The visit, which officially ended over twenty years of tension between the two countries, lasted for a week and included meetings with Mao and visits to historical landmarks. Highly publicized, the event sent a clear message to everyone watching, including the Soviets, that China and the United States had taken the first steps in forming a new relationship. After Nixon’s visit, the Union Nation’s accepted the People’s Republic as China’s representative, and in 1973, the United States and China exchanged diplomatic missions.
Relations with the Soviet Union
Brezhnev and Nixon
As anticipated, relations with the Soviet Union improved. Nixon visited the Soviet Union in May 1972 and met with Russian President Leonid Brezhnev. Nixon told Brezhnev that he hoped the two countries could live and work together. Brezhnev, needing to reduce military spending to save his country’s ailing economy, agreed. The two countries signed the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT I), which set limits on the production and deployment of ballistic missiles and antiballistic missiles. Though it accomplished little, the treaty represented a significant first step in improved relations between the world’s superpowers.
Nixon’s handling of the Soviet Union and China ushered in a new chapter in the Cold War. Known as détente, the new era was one of relaxed tensions and cooperation between the world’s superpowers. By playing one communist power against another, Nixon had created a balance of power among the world’s strongest countries.