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The military power deployed at the top of the system ran into . . . even greater power based on popular will at the bottom. As in Alice in Wonderland ’s croquet game, in which the mallets were flamingos and the balls were hedgehogs, the pawns in the [Cold War] game, mistaken for inanimate objects by the [superpowers], came alive in their hands and began, universally and unstop- pably, to pursue their own plans and ambitions.


Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution.


October 13, 1964

KHRUSHCHEV WAS GRASPING for straws when he made this comment, on the day his Kremlin colleagues announced their intention to depose him. “I’m . . . glad that the party has gotten to the point that it can rein in even its first secretary,” he added. “You smeared me all over with shit, and I say, ‘You’re right.’ ”

The charges made against Khrushchev more than merited his characterization of them. He was accused of rudeness, distraction, arrogance, incompetence, nepotism, megalomania, depression, unpredictability, and growing old. He had allowed his own cult of personality to develop, and no longer listened to his advisers. He had ruined Soviet agriculture while bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. He had authorized the construction of the Berlin Wall, a public humiliation for Marxism-Leninism. He had long since become an embarrassment to the country he had tried to lead, and to the international communist movement he had sought to inspire. And as his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, felt it necessary to add, Khrushchev had once described members of the Central Committee as “dogs peeing against curbstones.”2 It was a crude and undignified way to remove the leader of the world’s second most powerful state, but no blood was shed, no one was sent to prison, no one went into exile. Khrushchev was allowed a peaceful—if painfully obscure—retirement. Always the optimist, he came to see as his most significant accomplishment the fact that he had not been able to keep his job. During his years in power, constraints had developed on the wielding of power. It was no longer possible for a single leader to demand, and to expect to receive, unquestioning obedience.

Khrushchev’s fate reflected, in microcosm, that of the Soviet Union and the United States during the late 1950s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s. The international system during those years appeared to be one of bipolarity in which, like iron filings attracted by magnets, all power gravitated to Moscow and Washington. In fact, though, the superpowers were finding it increasingly difficult to manage the smaller powers, whether allies or neutrals in the Cold War, while at the same time they were losing the authority they had once taken for granted at home. The weak were discovering opportunities to confront the strong. The nature of power was changing because the fear of power, as traditionally conceived, was diminishing. Mallets were indeed beginning to turn into flamingos, and balls into hedgehogs.


THE FIRST signs that this was happening came with the decline and eventual demise of European colonialism, a process that began before the Cold War started, paralleled its early development, and only gradually affected its subsequent evolution. The European domination of the world dated from the 15th century, when Portugal and Spain first perfected the means of transporting men, weapons, and—without realizing it—germs across the oceans that had hitherto kept human societies apart.3 By the end of the 19th century, there was little territory left that was not controlled by Europeans or their descendants. But in 1905, Japan, a rising non-European power, won a war it had started with Russia, one of the weakest of the European empires: that victory shattered the illusion that the Europeans, if challenged, would always win.

The Europeans themselves then shattered another illusion—that of unity among themselves—by going to war in 1914. World War I, in turn, produced two compelling justifications for an end to colonial rule. One came out of the Bolshevik Revolution, when Lenin called for an end to “imperialism” in all its forms. The other came from the United States. When Woodrow Wilson made the principle of self-determination one of his Fourteen Points his intent had been to undercut the appeal of Bolshevism, but the effect was to excite opponents of imperialism throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Among those excited were Mohandas Gandhi in British India, Ho Chi Minh in French Indochina, Syngman Rhee in Japanese-occupied Korea, and an obscure young librarian in China named Mao Zedong.4 It took World War II, however, to exhaust colonialism once and for all: the war set in motion processes that would, over the next two decades, end the age of European empires that had begun five centuries earlier. The collapse of colonialism coincided, therefore, with the onset of the Cold War, but the Cold War did not cause that development—its roots lay elsewhere. For just as Thomas Paine had pointed out, in 1776, the illogic of an island indefinitely ruling a continent,5 so it was also highly improbable, in 1945, that a continent devastated by war could continue indefinitely to rule most of the rest of the world. That would have been the case even if the wartime Grand Alliance had never broken up.

Nor did decolonization become a significant issue during the early Cold War. The Soviet Union remained anti-imperialist—how could it not be?—but advancing revolution in what was coming to be called the “third world” was less important to Stalin in the immediate postwar years than recovering from the war and attempting to spread his influence as widely as possible in Europe. The United States, for its part, was not about to defend European colonialism either. Its own history had begun in rebellion against an empire, and although the Americans had taken colonies of their own at the end of the 19th century—the Philippines being the most significant—they had never been comfortable with colonialism, preferring instead to exert their influence abroad by economic and cultural means. Neither Moscow nor Washington lamented the decline of European empires, therefore, nor did the power vacuums that were developing outside of Europe, as a result, at first preoccupy them.

That situation, however, could hardly last. By the end of 1949, the Soviet-American contest for Europe had become a stalemate, and that created temptations to exploit opportunities elsewhere. Stalin had succumbed to these when he allowed Kim Il-sung to attack South Korea, while simultaneously encouraging Ho Chi Minh’s war against the French in Indochina. The old dictator knew little about the “third world,” however, and undertook no sustained effort to project Soviet influence into it. Khrushchev was more energetic: unlike Stalin, he loved to travel abroad and rarely missed a chance to do so. Among his favored destinations were the newly independent countries that were emerging from European colonial rule. “I’m not an adventurer,” Khrushchev explained, “but we must aid national liberation movements.”6 The Americans feared precisely this. Colonialism, they believed, was an antiquated institution that could only discredit the West in the regions where it had existed, while weakening its practitioners in Europe, where they needed to be strong. But the United States could not detach itself from its British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese allies just because they still maintained colonial possessions: restoring security and prosperity in postwar Europe was too important. The risk that “third world” nationalists would associate the Americans with imperialism was thus high. Nor was there assurance that the resentments colonialism had generated over so long a period would not make communism an attractive alternative. Marx might have exaggerated capitalism’s contradictions, but the self-destructiveness of imperialism was plain for all to see. It was awkward for the United States—even dangerous—that colonialism was ending as the Cold War was intensifying, for the sins of allies in the past could easily create vulnerabilities in the future. Certainly that was Khrushchev’s hope.

What all of this meant, then, was that the choices newly independent states made could yet tip the balance of power in the Cold War. One of the most shocking things for the Americans about the Korean War had been the rapidity with which a peripheral interest—the defense of South Korea—had suddenly become vital. To allow even an underdeveloped country with no industrial-military capacity to fall under communist control could shake self-confidence throughout the non-communist world. This was what Eisenhower had in mind when, in 1954, he invoked the most famous of all Cold War metaphors: “You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and . . . the last one . . . will go over very quickly. So you could have . . . a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”7 “Dominos” could topple as a result of external aggression, as in Korea, or internal subversion, as was happening in Indochina. But they could also do so if states emerging from colonialism chose to tilt toward the Soviet Union or China. That put decolonization in a new context: the emergence of nationalism, from Washington’s perspective, could cause as much trouble as the persistence of colonialism. The Cold War was becoming global in scope; but the paradoxical effect was to empower the people—only recently without any power at all—over whom it would now be fought. Their method was “non-alignment.” II.

“NON-ALIGNMENT”provided a way in which the leaders of “third world” states could tilt without toppling: the idea was to commit to neither side in the Cold War, but to leave open the possibility of such commitment. That way, if pressure from one superpower became too great, a smaller power could defend itself by threatening to align with the other superpower.

Yugoslavia—not a “third world” state—pioneered the process. Tito had not sought Stalin’s condemnation in 1948: he was, and remained, a dedicated communist. But he was determined not to sacrifice sovereignty for the sake of ideological solidarity, and unlike most other East European leaders at the time, he had no need to do so. Noting how quickly the Americans offered him economic assistance after his break with Stalin, Tito saw the possibility of a lifeline: would the Russians risk using force against the Yugoslavs if this might lead to war with the Americans? With the United States Sixth Fleet operating just off the long Yugoslav coast, there were good reasons for Stalin to think twice about attempting an invasion, and there is evidence that he did so, contenting himself instead with assassination plots—all of them unsuccessful.8 At the same time, though, Tito saw that it would not do to become too dependent on the United States. Could he be sure that NATO would defend him? Or that the Americans would not seek, as the price for their aid, to restore capitalism? It made sense, therefore, to leave the way open for reconciliation with the Soviet Union, and when, after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev traveled to Belgrade to apologize for his predecessor’s behavior, the Yugoslav leader received him with respect— but also as an equal. From this time on, Khrushchev felt obliged to consult: the most striking example came during the 1956 Hungarian crisis, when he and Malenkov made a hair-raising flight in a small plane in horrendous weather and then a sickening voyage in a small boat through rough seas, all to secure Tito’s approval of the Soviet decision to suppress the uprising. Tito had been “vacationing” on his island in the Adriatic, and could not be bothered himself to come to Belgrade or to Moscow. “Khrushchev and Malenkov looked very exhausted,” one of Tito’s advisers recalled, “especially Malenkov who could hardly stand up.”9 It was a vivid demonstration of the leverage “non-alignment” could provide.

Tito’s interest in “non-alignment” went well beyond Eastern Europe, however. Sensing the rising tide of nationalism in Asia, he had already associated himself by then with two leaders from that part of the world, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Zhou Enlai of China—each of whom had his own reasons for resisting superpower hegemony.

Nehru’s had to do with the United States and Pakistan. The British had granted India and Pakistan independence in 1947, and Nehru had hoped to keep the subcontinent they shared out of the Cold War. The Pakistanis, however—concerned about Indian ambitions—had sought support from the Americans by portraying themselves as tough anti-communists with a British-trained military who could provide bases along the sensitive southern border of the U.S.S.R. The contrast with Nehru—also British-trained, but socialist, pacifist, and determined not to take sides in the Cold War—could hardly have been greater. By the end of 1954, Pakistan had maneuvered its way into the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), both designed by Secretary of State Dulles to surround the Soviet Union with American-sponsored military alliances. For Nehru, aligning India with “non-alignment” was a way to rebuke the Americans and the Pakistanis, while also making the point, to the rest of the “third world,” that there were alternatives to taking sides in the Cold War.10 Zhou Enlai’s reasons for supporting “non-alignment”—they were, of course, those of Mao Zedong—also had to do with the fear of hegemony, which from China’s perspective could come from either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. Washington had continued to support Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists after they had fled to Taiwan in 1949: the threat of a Nationalist effort to retake the mainland, supported by the Americans, could not be written off in Beijing. But Mao was not prepared to rely, for deterrence against this danger, solely on the 1950 Sino-Soviet alliance. It made sense, therefore, for China to align itself with nationalists in former colonial and dependent regions: “[T]heir victory,” Zhou wrote Mao, “would be in the interest of the socialist camp and . . . would thwart all attempts of the western imperialists to complete their encirclement of the eastern camp.”11 It was this convergence of interests, if not ultimate objectives, that led Tito, Nehru, and Zhou to convene the first conference of “non-aligned” nations at Bandung in Indonesia, in April, 1955: its purpose was to expand autonomy by encouraging neutrality in the Cold War. Among those invited was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who would soon prove to be the most skillful of all the practitioners of “non-alignment.”

Egypt had never formally been a colony, but Great Britain had controlled it since the 1880s: the Suez Canal, which lay wholly within Egyptian territory, was a critical link to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. A nationalist revolution in 1952 had deposed the notoriously complaisant King Farouk, however, and two years later the British agreed to dismantle their remaining military bases in Egypt, reserving the right to reintroduce their forces to protect the canal if it should ever be in danger. Nasser, by this time, had seized power in Cairo, with aspirations to become the principal nationalist leader in the Arab world.

He could hardly do that by aligning Egypt with the United States, for although the Americans had supported him, they were too visibly tied to the Europeans and therefore fearful, as Nasser put it, “of annoying some colonial power.”12 He resolved, in the spirit of Bandung, to remain neutral, but he would also exploit the hopes held among leaders in both Washington and Moscow that they might bring him within their respective spheres of influence. He persuaded the Americans to fund the construction, on the Nile, of the Aswan High Dam, a project crucial to Egyptian economic development. He also decided, though, to buy arms from Czechoslovakia. These two decisions set off the first great Middle East crisis of the Cold War.

Already uneasy over Nasser’s presence at Bandung, Dulles worried that the Czech arms deal might make Nasser “a tool of the Russians,” in which case “we might have to consider a revision of our whole policy.” Then Egypt extended diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Nasser had “made a bargain with the Devil with the hope of. . . establishing an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean,” Dulles fumed: shortly thereafter the Americans canceled financing for the Aswan Dam. But Nasser had already arranged, by then, to have the Soviet Union fund the project, leaving him free to retaliate against the United States by nationalizing the Suez Canal.13 This in turn alarmed the British and the French, who, without consulting Washington, hatched a plot with the Israelis to have them attack the canal, thereby giving London and Paris the right to “protect” it—the real intention was to depose Nasser altogether. As Prime Minister Anthony Eden put it, “we shall never have a better pretext for intervention against him than we have now.”14 The Anglo-French-Israeli invasion took place at the end of October, 1956, just at the height of the crisis over Poland and Hungary.

Ill-conceived, badly timed, and incompetently managed, the invasion almost broke up the NATO alliance. Eisenhower was furious: at having been surprised, at the distraction from what was happening in Eastern Europe, and at the appearance, at least, of a resurgent European colonialism. “How could we possibly support Britain and France,” he demanded, “if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”15 The president insisted on the withdrawal of British and French forces from the canal, as well as the Israeli evacuation of the Sinai, or the United States would apply severe economic sanctions.16 Khrushchev, by then, had already threatened to attack the invaders with nuclear missiles if they did not immediately cease military operations. The real winner, though, was Nasser, who kept the canal, humiliated the colonialists, and balanced Cold War superpowers against one another, while securing his position as the undisputed leader of Arab nationalism.

The Americans then gave him even more power through their own incompetence. Eisenhower announced, in January, 1957, that the United States would work with the states of that region to keep it free from communism. Given this implied lack of confidence in the staying power of nationalism, the “Eisenhower Doctrine” won little support. As the Central Intelligence Agency noted several months later, it was “probably believed by almost all Arabs to indicate American preoccupation with Communism to the exclusion of what they consider to be the more pressing problems of the area.”17 The United States made one final attempt to contain Arab nationalism through a hastily organized landing of Marines in Lebanon in July, 1958, following the unexpected overthrow of a pro-western government in Iraq. It too achieved little, though, and Eisenhower shortly thereafter drew the appropriate conclusion : “Since we are about to get thrown out of the [Middle East], we might as well believe in Arab nationalism.”18 What Nasser showed, then—along with Tito, Nehru, and Zhou Enlai—was that being a Cold War superpower did not always ensure that one got one’s way. There were limits to how much either Moscow or Washington could order smaller powers around, because they could always defect to the other side, or at least threaten to do so. The very compulsiveness with which the Soviet Union and the United States sought to bring such states within their orbits wound up giving those states the means of escape. Autonomy, in what might have seemed to be inhospitable circumstances, was becoming attainable. Tails were beginning to wag dogs.


“NON-ALIGNMENT” was not the only weapon available to small powers seeking to expand their autonomy while living in the shadow of superpowers: so too was the possibility of collapse. There was no way that staunch anti-communists like Syngman Rhee in South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan, or Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam could plausibly threaten to defect to the other side (although Diem, desperate to hang on to power as the Americans were abandoning him in 1963, did implausibly attempt to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese).19 Nor could such dedicated anti-capitalists as Kim Il-sung in North Korea or Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam credibly raise the prospect of alignment with the United States. What they could do, though, was encourage fears that their regimes might fall if their respective superpower sponsors did not support them. The “dominos” found it useful, from time to time, to advertise a propensity to topple.

Korea’s history after the Korean War provides a clear example. Rhee had adamantly opposed the 1953 armistice that left his country divided, and in an effort to sabotage it, had released thousands of North Korean prisoners-of-war so that they could not be sent home against their will. Washington was as outraged by this as was Pyongyang, for Rhee acted on his own. He did not succeed in scrapping the armistice, but he did signal the Eisenhower administration that being a dependent ally would not necessarily make him an obedient ally.20 His most effective argument was that if the United States did not support him—and the repressive regime he was imposing on South Korea—that country would collapse, and the Americans would be in far worse shape on the Korean peninsula than if they had swallowed their scruples and assisted him.

It was a persuasive case, because there was no obvious alternative to Rhee. The United States could “do all sorts of things to suggest . . . that we might very well be prepared to leave Korea,” Eisenhower noted gloomily, “but the truth of the matter was, of course, that we couldn’t actually leave.”21 And so Rhee got a bilateral security treaty, together with a commitment from Washington to keep American troops in South Korea for as long as they were needed to ensure that country’s safety. This meant that the United States was defending an authoritarian regime, because Rhee had little patience with, or interest in, democratic procedures. South Korea was what he, not the Americans, wanted it to be, and to get his way Rhee devised a compelling form of Cold War blackmail: if you push me too hard, my government will fall, and you’ll be sorry.

The Soviet Union, it is now clear, had a similar experience with Kim Il-sung in North Korea. He was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khrushchev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere. That country became, as a result, increasingly isolated, authoritarian—and yet totally dependent on economic and military support from the rest of the communist world. It was hardly the result Khrushchev or his successors would have designed, had they had the opportunity. They did not, however, because Kim could counter each suggestion for reform with the claim that it would destabilize his government, and thereby hand victory to the South Koreans and the Americans. “[I]n the interests of our common tasks, we must sometimes overlook their stupidities,” one Soviet official explained in 1973. 22 Both Washington and Moscow therefore wound up supporting Korean allies who were embarrassments to them. It was a curious outcome to the Korean War, and another reminder of the extent to which the weak, during the Cold War, managed to obtain power over the strong.

Nor were the Americans and the Russians successful in controlling their respective Chinese allies. Chiang Kai-shek had insisted on retaining several small islands just off the Chinese coast when he evacuated the mainland in 1949: they would be, he claimed, staging areas for an eventual effort to retake all of China. The Truman administration was skeptical, having made no commitment even to defend Taiwan. But when Mao began shelling the offshore islands in September, 1954—apparently as a show of force following Chinese and North Vietnamese concessions at the Geneva Conference on Indochina—Chiang insisted that the psychological effects of losing them would be so severe that his own regime on Taiwan might collapse. Eisenhower and Dulles responded as they had to Rhee: Chiang got a mutual defense treaty that bound the United States to the defense of Taiwan. But it left open the question of defending the offshore islands.

This provided an opening to Mao, who responded by taking one of the islands and building up his military forces across from the others. Convinced that their own credibility as well as Chiang’s was now at risk, Eisenhower and Dulles let it be known early in 1955 that they were now prepared to defend the most important islands, Quemoy and Matsu, if necessary with nuclear weapons. Mao then moved to defuse the crisis, but two significant points had been made. One was that another ally had extracted a security commitment from the United States by advertising its weakness. The other was that Washington had relinquished the initiative to Mao, for as the Chinese leader later explained, by sticking their necks out over Quemoy and Matsu, the Americans had handed him a noose, which he could relax—or tighten—at will.23 Mao chose to tighten the noose again in August, 1958, in an apparent effort to deflect attention from domestic economic failures and, curiously, to protest the American military landing in Lebanon the previous month.24 As he began shelling the offshore islands, Chiang reinforced them, and the United States found itself again threatening the use of nuclear weapons in order to defend, as an irritated Dulles had earlier put it, a “bunch of rocks.”25 But it was not just the Americans who found this crisis alarming. Mao had neglected to consult the Russians, who were thoroughly rattled when he casually suggested to them that a war with the United States might not be such a bad thing: the Chinese could lure the Americans deep into their own territory, and then Moscow could hit them “with everything you’ve got.” The offshore islands, Mao later boasted, “are two batons that keep Eisenhower and Khrushchev dancing, scurrying this way and that. Don’t you see how wonderful they are?”26 Khrushchev, in the end, responded to the American nuclear threats over Quemoy and Matsu with one of his own, but not until he was certain that the crisis was about to be resolved.27 The offshore islands confrontations of 1954–55 and 1958 gave the Americans, as well as the Russians, yet another lesson in the limits of superpower authority. No one in either Washington or Moscow had instigated these events: Chiang and Mao had done that. Nor did any American or Soviet leader think the offshore islands worth a war in which nuclear weapons might be used. They were, however, unable to avoid threatening each other with just such a result, because they lacked the means of controlling their own “allies.” On Taiwan and the offshore islands, as in Korea, tails had again wagged dogs.

Much the same thing happened, with far more devastating results, in yet another East Asian country the Cold War had left divided, Vietnam. After Ho Chi Minh’s victory over the French in 1954, they, together with the Americans, the British, the Russians, and the Chinese Communists, had agreed at Geneva that the country should be partitioned at the 17th parallel. Ho then established a communist state in the north, while the Americans took over the search for an anti-communist alternative in the south. They finally settled, in 1955, on Ngo Dinh Diem, an exile untainted by cooperation with France whose Catholicism, they expected, would make him a reliable ally. But Diem, like Rhee, was also an authoritarian, and by the beginning of the 1960s his South Vietnamese government had become an embarrassment to the Americans—and a target for renewed insurgency from North Vietnam. Aware that Washington’s credibility was on the line once again, Diem—following the examples of Rhee and Chiang—warned that his regime might collapse if the Americans failed to increase their support for it. “We still have to find the technique,” Kennedy adviser Walt Rostow commented in 1961, “for bringing our great bargaining power to bear on leaders of client states to do things they ought to do but don’t want to do.”28 In South Vietnam, though, there turned out to be limits on how far threats to collapse could go. Diem’s regime had become so brutal—but at the same time so ineffective—that the Kennedy administration eventually convinced itself that he had to be removed. Accordingly, it cooperated with a group of South Vietnamese colonels who overthrew the South Vietnamese president, but then murdered him, early in November, 1963. Shocked by this unexpected outcome, and then by Kennedy’s own assassination three weeks later, American officials had given little thought to what to do next. They were left with a deteriorating situation in South Vietnam whose importance their own rhetoric had elevated to one of global significance—but which they had no strategy for resolving.

The administration of Lyndon B. Johnson gradually improvised such a strategy over the next year: it obtained Congressional authorization to take whatever measures were necessary to save South Vietnam, and then—after Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election—it began a major military escalation. This took the form, first, of bombing North Vietnamese port facilities and supply lines, but by the summer of 1965 it also involved the dispatch of American ground forces to South Vietnam. By the end of the year, 184,000 were in place with many more on the way.29 “If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam,” Johnson proclaimed, “then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in . . . American protection.”30 The very weakness of an ally had driven the United States—with reluctance and, on the part of the president, deep foreboding—into making an all-out commitment to its defense. By July, 1965, as his wife Lady Bird recorded, Johnson was talking in his sleep: “I don’t want to get in a war and I don’t see anyway out of it. I’ve got to call up 600,000 boys, [and] make them leave their homes and families.” And he knew the consequences: “If this [war] winds up bad, and we get in a land war [in] Asia,” he told her a few days later, “there’s only one address they will look for. . . . Mine.”31 Curiously, though, Soviet leaders were no happier with this development. Khrushchev had sought to improve relations with the United States in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis—which had itself grown out of his fear that an ally might collapse—and his successors, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, had hoped to continue that process. Once the war in Vietnam began, though, they felt obliged to support the North Vietnamese, partly for reasons of ideological solidarity, but also because they knew that if they did not do so, the Chinese communists, who were by now hurling open polemics at them, would make the most of it. As Tito, a close observer of the situation, explained: “The Soviet Union cannot fail in its stand of solidarity with Hanoi since it would otherwise expose itself to the danger of isolating itself in Southeast Asia and [with] Communist parties elsewhere.” 32 And so this early effort to relax Cold War tensions failed—despite the fact that Washington and Moscow wanted it to succeed—because the actions of smaller powers locked the superpowers into a confrontation from which they lacked the means, or the resolve, to escape. “The situation was absurd,” Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin later acknowledged: “[T]he behavior of our allies . . . systematically blocked any rational discussion of other problems that were really of key importance to both of us.”33

I V.

TH AT WAS true enough, but the frustrations of the superpowers were by no means confined to their relations with Asian and Latin American allies. The United States and the Soviet Union possessed disproportionate military and economic power within NATO and the Warsaw Pact—and yet they did not find it easy to control these alliances either. The problems the Americans and the Russians faced in dealing with their respective German clients best illustrate the pattern.

Postwar Germany had been both strong and weak at the same time. Because it had been the strongest nation in Europe prior to 1945, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was ready to run the risk that a reunified Germany might align with its principal adversary. The division of the country, in this sense, was imposed from without and became unavoidable once the Cold War was under way. But once their country was divided, the Germans’ weakness itself became a strength. By being on the verge of collapse—and, as time went on, by simply appearing to be—West and East Germans could raise the specter of a former enemy falling under the control of a future enemy anytime they wanted to do so.34 In West Germany, the danger lay, from Washington’s perspective, in the possible defeat at the polls of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic government. Adenauer had made it clear, since taking office in 1949, that he preferred the continued division of Germany to its possible reunification, since there seemed to be no way that could happen without detaching West Germany from NATO and hence from its guarantee of American protection. It was far better, he claimed, to have a prosperous, democratic portion of Germany closely tied to the United States and to the other democracies of Western Europe than to risk the uncertainties that any effort to unify Germany would surely involve. Adenauer would not reject negotiations with the Soviet Union looking toward unification—to do so would risk losing domestic support—but he would see to it that they did not succeed. He would, as one of his aides put it, “feign flexibility in order to be free to go with the West.”35 Adenauer’s chief rival, the Social Democratic leader Kurt Schumacher, argued strongly for such talks, even if the price for success turned out to be withdrawal from NATO and neutrality in the Cold War. That prospect was sufficiently alarming to the Americans that Adenauer was able to use it to obtain leverage for himself: by 1955, he had gained a virtual veto over whatever negotiating positions the United States and his other NATO allies might put forward on the German question in general, and on Berlin in particular. Eisenhower speculated after Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the United States that he could probably “strike a bargain” with the Soviet leader, “but our allies would not accept [our] acting unilaterally. . . . [W]e could not, even though tempted to accept, give it consideration, because it would be death to Adenauer.”36 A similar pattern developed in East Germany, although here the threatened collapse was not of a political party—for there was effectively only one—but of an entire regime. Soviet intervention had saved Ulbricht in June, 1953: paradoxically, though, that demonstration of weakness had given him strength, because the near collapse had been sufficiently frightening in Moscow that the post-Stalin (and post-Beria) Kremlin leadership felt that it had no choice but to do whatever was necessary to prop Ulbricht up. The East German leader therefore had the capacity, whenever he wanted, to blackmail his Soviet counterparts.

Ulbricht was playing this card as early as 1956. Taking advantage of growing unrest in Poland and Hungary, he warned Khrushchev that insufficient economic assistance from the Soviet Union “would have very serious consequences for us,” and “would . . . facilitate the work of the enemy.” The raw materials and consumer goods Ulbricht requested, which the U.S.S.R. could ill afford to provide, were nonetheless forthcoming.37 By the fall of 1958, he was pressing Khrushchev to resolve the problem of the East German refugee flow through West Berlin, to the point of citing with approval Mao Zedong’s recent shelling of Chinese offshore islands: Quemoy and West Berlin are not only misused as centers of provocation by those forces which currently exercise force over them, but are simultaneously developing as areas . . . unjustifiably separated from their hinterland. . . . Both positions have not only the same goals, but also the same weaknesses. Both are islands and have to carry all the consequences of an island location.38

Khrushchev, who was already worrying about controlling Mao, cannot have found this analogy reassuring. Nevertheless, he issued his November, 1958, ultimatum on Berlin largely in response to Ulbricht’s urgings—perhaps also because he feared that a failure to tighten the “noose” around Berlin might elicit contempt from the increasingly critical Chinese. What good were Khrushchev’s missiles, Mao was beginning to ask, if they could not extract western concessions somewhere? 39

The same thought had occurred to Ulbricht, who found Khrushchev’s subsequent unwillingness to enforce his own demand for a Berlin settlement exasperating: “[Y]ou only talk about a peace treaty,” he told the Kremlin leader bluntly in November, 1960, “but [you] don’t do anything about it.”40 Ulbricht had by then begun doing some things himself: he protested Anglo-American-French policies in West Berlin without consulting Moscow; he unilaterally modified procedures for crossing into East Berlin; and in January, 1961, he sent an official delegation to China—the Russians found out about it only when the East Germans stopped over at the Moscow airport. Whether deliberately or not, he also managed to increase the refugee flow in June by publicly acknowledging for the first time the possibility of building a wall—even though he insisted that no one had any intention of doing so. “[O]ur friends . . . sometimes exercise impatience and a somewhat one-sided approach,” the Soviet ambassador in East Berlin acknowledged shortly before this happened, “not always studying the interests of the entire socialist camp or the international situation at the given moment.”41 Khrushchev concluded, as a result, that he had little choice but to confront Kennedy with a new Berlin ultimatum at the Vienna summit. And after Kennedy made it clear that he, like Eisenhower, was prepared to defend West Berlin, even at the risk of nuclear war, Khrushchev became convinced that the only way out was to allow Ulbricht to do what the East German leader had promised not to do: to wall East Germany off from the capitalist enclave in its midst. Khrushchev’s hope had been to detach West Berlin from West Germany, not East Germany from West Berlin. Now, though, there were no options left: the wall dramatized the extent to which the Soviet Union had chained itself to a weak ally—who was able to use that weakness to get its way.

What allowed German weakness to become German strength was, of course, the preoccupation with credibility that dominated thinking in Washington and Moscow. Having installed their respective clients and then attached their own reputations to them, neither American nor Soviet leaders found it easy to disengage when those clients began pursuing their own priorities. The United States and the Soviet Union therefore fell into the habit of letting their German allies determine their German interests, and hence their German policies.


ADENAUER AND ULBRICHT were not the most difficult allies, though: that distinction belonged to Charles de Gaulle and Mao Zedong. France and China had both benefited from their relationships with the superpowers. The United States financed French reconstruction after the war, ensured French security through NATO, and quietly supported the development of a French nuclear weapons capability.42 The Soviet Union had provided the ideological inspiration for China’s revolution, and after Stalin’s death, it generously sent economic and military aid as well as technical assistance for Mao’s efforts, beginning in 1955, to build a Chinese atomic bomb.43 And yet, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, de Gaulle and Mao set out to dismantle the alliances that had nurtured their states and embraced their regimes. Their goal was nothing less than to break up the bipolar Cold War international system.

The Fourth French Republic, formed after France’s defeat and occupation by the Germans in World War II, had been an economic success but a political basket case. Unstable coalitions shuffled in and out of office with such depressing frequency that constitutional reform became unavoidable: only de Gaulle, the wartime leader of the Free French, had the authority and the prestige to bring it about. The new Fifth Republic, established in 1958, gave de Gaulle the power he needed—with the blessing of the Americans, who hoped for firmer and more predictable leadership in Paris. “France presents a twelve year history of almost unbroken moral, political, and military deterioration,” Eisenhower commented at the time. The record “almost demanded the presence of a ‘strong man’—in the person of de Gaulle.”44 The new French president certainly brought firmness, but not predictability. There were few objections in Washington as de Gaulle skillfully liquidated France’s long but futile effort to retain its last large colony, Algeria. The war there, the Americans believed, was draining French resources, fueling Arab nationalism, and could never be won. That was all Washington found to approve of, though, because de Gaulle soon made it clear that his next objective would be to thwart United States policy in Europe wherever he could. The fact that he did this while expecting the continued protection of the NATO alliance only added to the Americans’ exasperation; but exasperation, it seemed, was precisely what de Gaulle had intended. It was as if he was determined to show the United States that, in an age of muscle-bound superpowers, there was room for France not only to assert its autonomy, but to flaunt it. By the middle of 1959, Eisenhower was fuming over de Gaulle’s “Messiah complex”: he was a “cross between Napoleon and Joan of Arc.”45 The list of de Gaulle’s offenses was long. He refused to coordinate France’s nuclear strategy—the French tested their first atomic bomb in 1960—with that of the United States and Great Britain: rather, the small French force de frappe would be designed for “defense in all directions,” with the apparent intent of unsettling both adversaries and allies. 46 He vetoed British membership in the European Economic Community, thereby humiliating a close American ally and setting back the movement toward European integration by at least a decade. He tried to persuade the aging Adenauer to loosen West Germany’s ties to NATO by arguing that the Americans could not be relied upon to resist Soviet pressure on Berlin. He then proclaimed a vision of Europe that would extend “from the Atlantic to the Urals”: where that would leave the Americans—or for that matter the West Germans—was left uncomfortably unclear. De Gaulle extended diplomatic recognition to Mao Zedong’s China in 1964, while vociferously criticizing American escalation in Vietnam. And in 1966, he withdrew France altogether from military cooperation with the NATO alliance, forcing the relocation of NATO headquarters from Paris to Brussels, as well as the withdrawal of American troops from the country they had helped liberate in World War II. President Johnson ordered his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, to ask de Gaulle: “Do you want us to move American cemeteries out of France as well?”47 Washington’s response to these provocations was on all counts ineffective. De Gaulle rebuffed repeated efforts at reconciliation, while remaining impervious to pressure: he had shrewdly calculated that he could detach France from NATO, but that the United States and its other allies could not detach themselves from the need to defend France. He was the ultimate free rider, a “highly egocentric” leader “with touches indeed of megalomania,” as one American diplomat put it, who welcomed confrontation with the United States as a way to regain France’s identity as a great power.48 In the end, Johnson concluded, there was nothing the United States could do: it would just have to put up with de Gaulle. “We’ve really got no control over their foreign policy,” Senator Richard Russell told the president in 1964. “That’s right,” Johnson acknowledged, “none whatever.”49 The Americans’ difficulties in dealing with de Gaulle, however, paled in comparison to those Khrushchev encountered in trying to manage Mao Zedong. The sources of Sino-Soviet tension lay, first, in the long history of hostility between Russia and China, which commitment to a common ideology had only partially overcome: Khrushchev and Mao had all the instincts and prejudices of nationalists, however much they might be communists. Stalin’s legacy also posed problems. Mao had defended the dead dictator when Khrushchev attacked him in 1956, but the Chinese leader also cultivated—and frequently displayed—his memory of each of Stalin’s slights, affronts, or insults. It was as if Stalin had become a tool for Mao, to be used when necessary to bolster his own authority, but also to be rejected when required to invoke the dangers of Soviet hegemony. At the same time, Mao treated Khrushchev as a superficial upstart, neglecting no opportunity to confound him with petty humiliations, cryptic pronouncements, and veiled provocations. Khrushchev could “never be sure what Mao meant. . . . I believed in him and he was playing with me.”50 Mao did so, at least in part, because picking fights abroad—whether with adversaries or allies—was a way to maintain unity at home, a major priority as he launched the Great Leap Forward.51 That had been one of the reasons for the second offshore island crisis, which had brought China to the brink of war with the United States during the summer of 1958. But Mao had already by then picked a separate fight with the Soviet Union. The Russians had made the mistake of proposing the construction of a long-wave radio station on the China coast, together with the establishment of a joint Sino-Soviet submarine flotilla. Mao responded furiously. “You never trust the Chinese!” he complained to the Soviet ambassador. Moscow might as well be demanding joint ownership of “our army, navy, air force, industry, agriculture, culture, education. . . . With a few atomic bombs, you think you are in a position to control us.”52 When Khrushchev hastened to Beijing to try to smooth things over, Mao accused him of having lost his revolutionary edge. “[W]e obviously have the advantage over our enemies,” Mao told him, having already put the imperfectly aquatic Khrushchev at a disadvantage by receiving him in a swimming pool. “All you have to do is provoke the Americans into military action, and I’ll give you as many divisions as you need to crush them.” Struggling to remain afloat, Khrushchev tried to explain “that one or two missiles could turn all the divisions in China to dust.” But Mao “wouldn’t even listen to my arguments and obviously regarded me as a coward.”53 Defying the logic of balancing power within the international system, Mao sought a different kind of equilibrium: a world filled with danger, whether from the United States or the Soviet Union or both, could minimize the risk that rivals within China might challenge his rule.54 The strategy succeeded brilliantly. Despite a degree of mismanagement unparalleled in modern history—if such a euphemism can characterize policies that caused so many of his countrymen to starve to death during the Great Leap Forward—Mao survived as China’s “great helmsman.” What did not survive was the Sino-Soviet alliance, which had, as far as Mao was concerned, outlived its usefulness. Khrushchev, fearing the implications, tried desperately to reconstitute it right up to the moment he was deposed in 1964, despite repeated insults, rebuffs, and even instances of deliberate sabotage from Mao.55 But in the end even he had to admit—revealingly—that “it was getting harder and harder to view China through the eager and innocent eyes of a child.”56 How was it, then, that de Gaulle and Mao, the leaders of medium powers, were able to treat the superpowers in this way? Why were the traditional forms of power itself—military strength, economic capacity, geographical reach—so useless in this situation? Part of the answer has to do with the new kind of power balancing that was taking place here: de Gaulle’s strategy of “defense in all directions” was not that different from Mao’s of giving offense in all directions. Both saw in the defiance of external authority a way to enhance their own internal legitimacy. Both sought to rebuild national self-esteem: that required, they believed, the thumbing of noses, even the biting of hands that had previously provided food and other forms of sustenance.

Part of the answer as well, though, involved the disappearance of fear. By the 1960s France and China had become sufficiently strong within the framework of their respective alliances that they no longer suffered from the insecurities that had led them to seek such alliances in the first place. In both the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 and the Sino-Soviet Treaty of 1950 superpowers had sought to reassure smaller powers: by this standard, at least, the behavior of de Gaulle and Mao a decade later meant that the alliances had achieved their purposes. Distinctive personalities played a role in all of this as well: not every leader would have used reassurance as a foundation for arrogance to the extent that they did. The French and Chinese leaders were very much alike in understanding the uses of chutzpa, a word with no precise equivalents in either of their languages. It might well be defined as doing high-wire acrobatics without a net. It required—de Gaulle and Mao were masters of this art—not looking down. 57 VI.

EVENTUALLY, though, they did look down, and what they saw shook them badly. In July, 1967, Zhongnanhai, Mao’s leadership compound in central Beijing, came under siege from thousands of youthful Red Guards. Several of his closest associates were publicly humiliated, even assaulted, and Mao himself had to flee from the city of Wuhan, where he had gone to try to quell growing unrest. “They just don’t listen to me,” he complained incredulously. “They ignored me.”58 De Gaulle had a similar experience in May, 1968, when, fearing that growing street protests by university students might overthrow his government, he abruptly flew from Paris to a French military base in West Germany. France, he admitted, was suffering from “total paralysis.” He was “not in charge of anything anymore.”59 Both Mao and de Gaulle recovered their authority, but never again their high-wire chutzpa. Nor were they alone in feeling beleaguered. During that same summer of 1968, Brezhnev and his advisers were preparing the invasion of a fraternal socialist state, Czechoslovakia, for the purpose of reversing reforms they themselves had encouraged: as in East Germany in 1953 as well as Poland and Hungary in 1956, these had gone beyond what Moscow had intended, with results that threatened to destabilize Eastern Europe, possibly even the U.S.S.R. itself. “What we are talking about,” Ukrainian party chief Petr Shelest warned, “is the fate of socialism in one of the socialist countries, as well as the fate of socialism in the socialist camp.” Ulbricht, an experienced hand in assessing the possibility of collapse, was even more emphatic: “If Czechoslovakia continues to follow [this] line, all of us here will run a serious risk which may well lead to our downfall.”60 West German leaders could take little comfort in Ulbricht’s discomfort, though, because they were also under siege. Their universities had been in an uproar for over a year, with the biggest disruptions—directed chiefly against United States involvement in Vietnam—centered in the city so long defended by the American military, West Berlin. The Free University, established with Washington’s support in the midst of the 1948 Berlin blockade, had become a beehive of revolutionary activity, while America House, created to encourage cultural contacts with the United States, was now the regular target of hostile demonstrations, often physical attacks. The United States and its West European allies had become “imperialists,” student leader Rudi Dutschke announced. It was necessary now for German students to join with Vietnamese villagers—in the spirit of Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro—to “revolutionize the masses.”61 In the United States that summer, opposition to the Vietnam War had grown so intense that all sources of authority—governmental, military, corporate, educational—were under siege. There were, by then, some 550,000 American troops fighting the war. Most were draftees, and more would soon be needed. Young Americans had both principled and personal reasons for protesting the war: it was, many of them believed, unjust and unwinnable, but they were still expected to fight it. Student deferments offered some protection, but only at the price of watching the less fortunate fill the resulting vacancies. Meanwhile, race riots were breaking out at home, and assassinations had taken the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy—two leaders especially admired by the young.

President Johnson, having decided not to seek re-election, was virtually a prisoner inside his own White House, surrounded by noisy demonstrators day and night, unable to make public appearances outside of carefully protected military bases. The Democratic Party convention in August turned into a riot, with the Chicago police battling thousands of angry, disillusioned, and—by then—thoroughly cynical young people who could hardly have been less moved by the ill-conceived campaign slogan of Johnson’s hand-picked nominee Hubert Humphrey: “the politics of joy.”62

Richard M. Nixon, who defeated Humphrey for the presidency that fall, inherited a world in which the traditional instruments of state power seemed to be disappearing. It was as if the United States had reached the point, Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger later recalled, “when the seemingly limitless possibilities of youth suddenly narrow, and one must come to grips with the fact that not every option is open any longer.”63 The president put it more bluntly. “We live in an age of anarchy,” he told the nation on April 30, 1970:

We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed. . . . If, when the chips are down, the United States of America acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.64

Nixon used that speech to announce an American and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, one of several measures he had undertaken to try to break the Vietnam military stalemate. But this expansion of the war set off new waves of domestic protest and, for the first time as a result, the loss of life: on May 4th, Ohio National Guardsmen shot four students dead at Kent State University. The nation itself, along with its universities, seemed about to come apart.

Five nights later, unable to sleep, the president of the United States, accompanied only by his valet and a driver, slipped out of the White House to try to reason with students maintaining a vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon was nervous to the point of incoherence, rambling on about Churchill, appeasement, surfing, football, his own environmental policies, and the advantages of traveling while young. The students, surprised by this unexpected nocturnal apparition, were nonetheless polite, self-confident, and focused: “I hope you understand,” one of them told the most “powerful” man in the world, “that we are willing to die for what we believe in.”65 So what was going on here? How was it that kids managed to treat the leaders of most of the major Cold War powers as if they had been parents: that is, by reducing them to sputtering ineffectiveness, pointless fury, frequent panic, and the unsettling realization that their authority was no longer what it once had been? How did the young—with so little coordination among themselves—accumulate such strength at the expense of the old?

One explanation is simply that there were more young people than ever before. The post–World War II “baby boom” was an international phenomenon that stretched well beyond the United States. As birth rates rose, mortality rates declined—partly because peace had returned, but also because health care had improved.66 By the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the postwar generation was in its late teens and early twenties : old enough to make trouble if it wanted to do so.

Paradoxically, governments had given it means and motives. States had long considered education a worthy end in itself, but the Cold War placed a particular premium on higher education: it was necessary to stay competitive in a geopolitical contest that relied increasingly on advanced science and technology. Enrollments in American colleges and universities tripled between 1955 and 1970, with much of the expansion financed by the federal government. In the Soviet Union the number of students grew by a factor of two and a half. In France it quadrupled, and even China saw university enrollments more than double by 1965, before plummeting in the wake of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which wrecked Chinese education for well over a decade .67 What governments failed to foresee was that more young people plus more education, when combined with a stalemated Cold War, could be a prescription for insurrection. Learning does not easily compartmentalize : how do you prepare students to think for purposes approved by the state—or by their parents—without also equipping them to think for themselves? Youths throughout history had often wished to question their elders’ values, but now with university educations their elders had handed them the training to do so. The result was discontent with the world as it was, whether that meant the nuclear arms race, social and economic injustice, the war in Vietnam, repression in Eastern Europe, or even the belief that universities themselves had become the tools of an old order that had to be overthrown. This was something never before seen: a revolution transcending nationality, directed against establishments whatever their ideology.

Only in China did it happen by design: Mao had launched the Cultural Revolution, in the summer of 1966, as yet another of his periodic maneuvers to eliminate potential rivals. “I love great upheavals,” he chuckled at the time.68 This time, though, the upheaval was domestic rather than international—and having set it in motion, Mao had great difficulty shutting it down. With his encouragement, Red Guards attacked the very institutions of government, party, and education that he had put in place: his purpose, Mao claimed, was to prevent bureaucratic ossification, and the consequent loss of revolutionary zeal. But somewhere between 400,000 and a million people died in the resulting violence, his government for the most part ceased to function, and China conveyed the appearance, to the outside world, of a state that had gone completely mad.69 It was as if, in an effort to relieve stiff joints, Mao had prescribed the most potent chemotherapy available: the cure quickly became worse than the disease.

From as early as 1967, then, he was seeking to regain control of the movement he had unleashed. The nation must “resolutely overcome lack of discipline, or even, in many places, anarchy,” he insisted early in 1968. By the end of 1969, he had mostly restored order, but only through the drastic expedient of sending several million former Red Guards—the educated elite of China—to the countryside. It was “absolutely necessary,” the People’s Daily explained, for “young people to . . . be re-educated by workers, peasants, and soldiers under the guidance of the correct line [so that] their old thinking may be reformed thoroughly.”70 It is all the more curious, then, that youthful radicals throughout Western Europe and the United States—themselves safe from reeducation at the hands of workers, peasants, and soldiers—regarded Mao as a hero, a distinction he shared with Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, who had bungled an attempt to start a Cuba-like insurgency in central Africa and then gotten himself captured and killed, in Bolivia in 1967, by the Central Intelligence Agency.71 Competence, however, was not the quality admired here. Revolutionary romanticism was, and for that, Mao, Fidel, and Che provided potent symbols.

That helps to explain why the revolutionaries of 1967–68 accomplished so little. To be sure, they shook establishments everywhere. But, in the end, they overthrew none of them: instead they convinced those establishments that they had better cooperate to ward off such challenges in the future. Among those persuaded were the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, East Germany—and also that of the ever-flexible Mao Zedong.


IN MARCH, 1969, fighting broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops along the Ussuri River, the border their nations shared in Northeast Asia. Soon it spread to the Amur River, and to the Xinjiang-Kazakhstan boundary. By August, there were rumors of all-out war between the world’s most powerful communist states, possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons. Mao ordered that tunnels be dug and supplies stored in preparation for a Soviet attack. And then he called in his personal physician, Li Zhisui, and presented him with a problem.

“Think about this. . . . We have the Soviet Union to the north and the west, India to the south, and Japan to the east. If all our enemies were to unite, attacking us from the north, south, east, and west, what do you think we should do?” Li confessed that he did not know. “Think again,” Mao told him. “Beyond Japan is the United States. Didn’t our ancestors counsel negotiating with faraway countries while fighting with those that are near?” Li was shocked, recalling the long history of Sino-American hostility: “How could we negotiate with the United States?” Mao replied:

The United States and the Soviet Union are different. . . . America’s new president, Richard Nixon, is a longtime rightist, a leader of the anti-communists there. I like to deal with rightists. They say what they really think—not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.72

One wonders what Mao’s youthful admirers in the United States and Europe would have made of this conversation, had they known about it. But this was not the only surprising conversation that took place in the summer of 1969.

Another occurred in Washington, where a mid-level Soviet embassy official posed a question of his own, over lunch, to a State Department counterpart: what might the American response be if the U.S.S.R. were to attack Chinese nuclear facilities? The query could only have been made on instructions from Moscow, and its recipient, having no answer, could only pass it up the line to his superiors, who passed it on to the White House—where it had already been answered. Several days earlier, President Nixon had startled his Cabinet by announcing that the United States could not let China be “smashed” in a Sino-Soviet war. “It was a major event in American foreign policy,” Kissinger later commented, “when a President declared that we had a strategic interest in the survival of a major Communist country, long an enemy, and with which we had no contact.”73 It is unlikely that Mao had highly placed spies in Washington that summer, or that Nixon had them in Beijing: there was as yet little communication between them. What they did have, however, was a convergence of several interests. One, obviously, was concern about the Soviet Union, which appeared to both of them to be increasingly threatening. Its August, 1968, invasion of Czechoslovakia seemed to have been a ruthlessly successful operation, an impression reinforced in November when Brezhnev claimed the right to violate the sovereignty of any country in which an effort was under way to replace Marxism-Leninism with capitalism: “[T]his is no longer merely a problem for that country’s people, but a common problem, the concern of all socialist countries.”74 Meanwhile, the U.S.S.R. had at last achieved strategic parity with the United States: if there was to be a “missile gap” now, the Americans were likely to find themselves at the short end of it. Finally, there was Moscow’s saber-rattling against China, which suggested that the Brezhnev Doctrine, together with Soviet nuclear capabilities, might actually be put to use.

Another shared Sino-American interest had to do with the war in Vietnam. Nixon wanted out of it, but on terms that would not humiliate the United States: that would be the point of his “pitiful, helpless giant” speech the following spring. North Vietnam could not be expected to help, but China—until now a major supplier of military and economic assistance to Hanoi—had a different perspective. It could hardly wish to see fighting drag on along its southern border while facing the prospect of a larger and more dangerous conflict with the Soviet Union. Early in 1970 Kissinger pointedly reminded Hanoi’s chief negotiator, Le Duc Tho, that North Vietnam might not continue to enjoy “the undivided support of countries which now support it.”75 The Chinese had already signaled their diminished enthusiasm for the war, and with the passage of time the messages became more direct. “As our broom is too short to sweep the Americans out of Taiwan,” Mao told the North Vietnamese late in 1971, “so yours is too short to do the same in South Vietnam.”76 Nixon and Mao had one other interest in common at the time: it was to restore order in their respective countries. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s foreign minister, hinted at this when Kissinger made his first—and highly secret—visit to Beijing in July, 1971. Zhou went out of his way to assure Kissinger that the Cultural Revolution was over. He also promised that China would try to help Nixon improve his own position at home: no other western leader, and certainly no other American politician, would be received in Beijing prior to the president himself.77 Nixon did come to China in February, 1972, and immediately established a meeting of minds, not only with Zhou, but also with Mao Zedong.

“I voted for you,” Mao joked, “when your country was in havoc, during your last electoral campaign. . . . I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come to power.” “[T]hose on the right,” Nixon acknowledged, “can do what those on the left talk about.” When Kissinger suggested that those on the left might also oppose Nixon’s visit, Mao agreed: “Exactly that. . . . In our country also there is a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you.” The following exchange then took place:

MAO: I think that, generally speaking, people like me sound a lot of big cannons. That is, things like “the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries . . .”

NIXON: Like me. . . .

MAO: But perhaps you as an individual may not be among those to be overthrown. . . . [Kissinger] is also among those not to be overthrown personally. And if all of you are overthrown we wouldn’t have any more friends left.

“History has brought us together,” Nixon said, in bidding Mao farewell. “The question is whether we, with different philosophies, but both with feet on the ground, and having come from the people, can make a breakthrough that will serve not just China and America, but the whole world in the years ahead.” “Your book,” Mao responded, referring to Nixon’s pre-presidential memoir Six Crises, “is not a bad book.”78


IT WAS a remarkable moment—but what would Moscow make of it? Nixon and Mao had certainly intended to unsettle the Russians. They had little sense, however, of just how unsettled the Kremlin leadership already was, because appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it too was deeply worried about maintaining its authority in a world in which traditional forms of power seemed no longer to carry the weight they once had. Its traumatic experience had been the one that seemed to suggest such brutal self-confidence to everyone else: Czechoslovakia. Brezhnev had ordered the invasion out of a sense of vulnerability—the fear that the “Prague spring” reforms could spread—but the intervention itself had appeared, from the outside at least, to have solved the problem: why else would Brezhnev have turned it into a doctrine that was meant to apply elsewhere?

But the invasion had not gone well. Red Army officers almost lost control of their troops when they were jeered rather than welcomed—as they had been told they would be—in the streets of Prague. It had taken longer than expected to find Czechs who were willing to take power under Soviet occupation. The invasion sparked protests from the Yugoslavs, the Romanians, and the Chinese, as well as from communist and other left-wing parties in Western Europe that normally deferred to Moscow’s decisions. There had even been a small demonstration in front of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, an unheard-of event confirming what Kremlin leaders had long suspected: that much greater discontent lay beneath the surface inside the Soviet Union itself.79 The Brezhnev Doctrine, then, was a brave front: Soviet leaders were well aware of the price they would pay if they ever had to put it into effect. Their chief priority during the 1970s was to ensure that they would not have to, and that required improving relations with the United States and its NATO allies. The reasons had to do with the failures of Marxism-Leninism to meet the expectations held out for it: states like Poland, Hungary, and East Germany now faced a stagnant, even declining, standard of living—all the more depressing when contrasted with the prosperity of West Germany and the rest of Western Europe. Military intervention could never solve that problem; indeed it would probably worsen it by provoking western economic sanctions. It made sense, then, to seek détente with the United States, for only that could ensure the continued stability of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

The West Germans had already paved the way by suggesting that if Germany could not be unified, then perhaps East Germany, Eastern Europe, and even the Soviet Union itself could in time be changed. A carefully controlled flow of people, goods, and ideas across Cold War boundaries might lower tensions, expand relationships, and over the long term moderate the authoritarian character of communist regimes. The primary goal would be geopolitical stability, but Ostpolitik, as the policy came to be known, could also provide social stability by reducing the frustrations that were sure to arise within both Germanys as it became clear that they were to remain divided. Willy Brandt, Ostpolitik’s chief architect, became West German chancellor in 1969, by which time there was yet another reason to pursue this scheme: it could undercut the position of protesters, not just in his country but elsewhere in Europe, who had come to regard a frozen Cold War as the most oppressive of all the “establishments” they confronted.80 Nixon and Kissinger were initially wary of Ostpolitik, probably because they had not thought of it first. But they quickly came to see how it could fit within a wider strategy: economic necessity could combine with the opening to China to push the Soviet Union into negotiations with the United States on a range of issues—limiting strategic arms, negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, increasing East-West trade—that would at the same time defuse the domestic critics who had come so close, in the last years of Johnson’s presidency and the first years of Nixon’s, to paralyzing American foreign policy. The conditions were right, in short, for a new strategy of containment. This one, however, would be jointly set in motion by the major Cold War adversaries themselves. They would aim it at the threat from youthful rebels within their own societies whose actions—rather in the way the danger from nuclear weapons had also done—had put them all in the same boat.

President Nixon had come into office in January, 1969, determined to extricate the United States from the Vietnam War, to regain the initiative in the Cold War, and to restore the authority of government at home. As the November, 1972, election campaign drew to a close, he could credibly claim to have achieved the first two objectives, and to be well on the way toward accomplishing the third. A peace settlement with North Vietnam was, as Kissinger, put it, “at hand.” A slow but steady withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam, together with the elimination of the military draft, had taken the steam out of domestic anti-war protests. And with his “opening” to China, Nixon had placed the United States in the enviable position of being able to play off its Cold War adversaries against one another. He had, earlier that year, become the first American president to visit both Beijing and Moscow. He could exert “leverage”—always a good thing to have in international relations—by “tilting” as needed toward the Soviet Union or China, who were by then so hostile to one another that they competed for Washington’s favor. It was a performance worthy of Metternich, Castlereagh, and Bismarck, the great grand strategists that Kissinger, in his role as a historian, had written about, and had so admired.

Vindication came on election day, November 7th, when Nixon annihilated his Democratic opponent, George McGovern, by a 61 to 37 percent majority in the popular vote. The electoral vote margin was even more impressive: 520–17, with McGovern carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. It was not the result one might have expected two and a half years earlier, when a haunted Nixon had warned of a helpless United States. As Kissinger wrote his boss, flatteringly, but not inaccurately, it had been quite an achievement to have taken “a divided nation, mired in war, losing its confidence, wracked by intellectuals without conviction, and [given] it a new purpose.”81 Power, or so it seemed, was reasserting itself.

But the nation would soon see Nixon haunted again, this time irreversibly, not by Vietnamese insurgents or radical students but by the legal consequences of a petty burglary that would drive him from office. The rule of law, within the United States at least, outweighed the accomplishments of grand strategy. And Watergate was just the tip of an iceberg, for over the next two decades the course of the Cold War itself would be driven by a force that went beyond state power: the recovery, within an international system that had long seemed hostile to it, of a common sense of equity. Morality itself, in the evolving Alice-in-Wonderland-like Cold War game, was becoming a mallet.

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