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Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Century

By David F. Schmitz, Rowman and Littlefield, 2014

The shadow of the Watergate scandal, and President Richard M. Nixon’s subsequent resignation, dominates most studies of his ill-fated presidency. In a far second place are examinations of his diplomatic overtures toward the Soviet Union and Communist China. Often forgotten is the central event of his first few years in office, the Vietnam War, and even rarer are those works that manage to tie all three together in any length shorter than 1,200 pages. David Schmitz focuses on the conflict and the evolution of Nixon’s attempts to end the war on terms favorable to the United States; Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War is a concise and excellent overview of the era, especially 1969-71.

The key point of the work is Nixon’s changing attitudes toward the war, beginning with his 1968 election. Nixon ran on a platform of ending the war; how he planned to do it was somewhat vague. Pro-peace voters thought Nixon would use diplomacy, while hawks expected a stronger military response. In effect, the next few years would show Nixon doing both. In the beginning, Nixon took an aggressive approach, hoping to win a decisive military victory. This culminated in 1970 with the invasion of Cambodia. It became the turning point for Nixon’s strategy of winning a military victory in Vietnam. After Cambodia and the domestic protests in the United States, he shifted toward a diplomatic solution but did not hesitate to use military action to force a diplomatic agreement. In essence, after 1970 Nixon was searching for a way out of Vietnam without making it look like an American military defeat.

The post-Cambodia events outlined in the work is where Schmitz excels, noting how Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, built new diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and Communist China, motivated as much by Nixon’s desire to withdraw from Vietnam as by Cold War international politics. The author clearly sees Vietnam as part of the overall Cold War, a welcome view that offsets other studies of the war that ignore the greater East-West competition.

The publisher categorizes the work as “military history” when it is clearly about diplomatic and political history. Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War would make an outstanding choice for an upper-level undergraduate or graduate course. The author has presented a tight argument of the interwoven problems of domestic and international politics in a limited war environment—a lesson well worth remembering in the first decades of the 21st century.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.