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President Richard M. Nixon declared in his inaugural address on January 20, 1969, that “after a period of confrontation, we are entering an era of negotiations” with the Soviet Union. Privately, he told the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, that in the United States “whenever elections approached, political leaders were tempted to take a belligerent anti-Communist line,” but that Nixon himself “did not consider such an approach to be in the interests of world peace or of Soviet–American relations.”
These conciliatory words toward America’s Cold War rival seemed surprising at the time, since Nixon had played important parts in Congress from1947 to 1952 and as vice president from 1953 to 1961 in shaping confrontational American policies toward the Soviet Union and Communism. As president, Nixon put aside his earlier criticism of the Communist system, choosing to focus instead on expanding areas of common interest between the Cold War rivals in order to promote what he characterized as a “structure of peace.” He developed personal relationships with Soviet leaders, and the United States and the Soviet Union reached a series of agreements on arms control, commercial relations, and political cooperation that fostered a fragile détente between them.
It used to be obvious. History happened. People's memories were true or false or some mixture of the two. The historian's task consisted of discovering what happened and shaping a coherent narrative. That job often involved exploring participants' memories of actual events. But historians regularly affirmed that contemporaneous, documentary (customarily written) evidence gave a truer, more faithful, or more accurate account of what actually happened than did individuals' fallible memories. Historians considered the written record produced at the time to be rich and immutable. Traditionally-trained historians did not dismiss or ignore personal memories, but they were on their guard to consider them malleable, fragile, and, worst of all in the positivist tradition, inaccurate.
We now know that this traditional view of the relationship between events, documents, memories and history is not so much obvious as it is simplistic. As Peter Burke, a historian who made uses of popular and collective memories, observed in 1989 “both history and memory are becoming increasingly problematic.” Where once remembering the past and writing about it were considered to be straightforward, transparent activities, now “neither memories nor histories seem objective any longer.” Historians and others engaged in recollecting the past consciously and unconsciously make judgments about what is important, and therefore worth recalling, and what is trivial. History and memory are both considered socially conditioned.
Domestic divisions over the war in Vietnam helped Richard M. Nixon win the presidency in 1968. Paradoxically, continuing discord over the course of American policy in Vietnam contributed to Nixon's disgrace and downfall in 1974. During the five and a half years of his presidency, Nixon ignored, abused, and fought with members of the Democratic-controlled Congress on a variety of domestic and international issues. The competition was especially intense on the subject of Vietnam, and it deepened as time went on. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser (and, from September 1973, his Secretary of State) enjoyed wide congressional support for their policy of détente with the Soviet Union and opening relations with the People's Republic of China.
But Congressional endorsement of Nixon's conduct of U.S. foreign relations did not extend to the war in Vietnam. Nixon's policy toward the world other than Vietnam seemed fresh and forward looking in 1969. His efforts in Vietnam, however, appeared to many in the general public and in Congress a continuation of the past. In 1969, most Americans were eager for the war to end. Nixon enjoyed a year-long “honeymoon” on Vietnam, but the U.S. expansion of the war in Cambodia in April, 1970, ignited some of the loudest protests of the war. After Cambodia, more and more members of both houses came to distrust Nixon deeply. They made their displeasure known by introducing and sometimes passing a variety of resolutions and laws limiting the president's authority to carry on the war.
In 1990, at the end of a long doctoral oral exam, I tried to lighten the load of the Ph.D. candidate. “Of the hundreds of books you read in preparation what are the worst and the best,” I asked. He groped about for the worst: he could think of many contenders, but his award for the best came swiftly: Raymond Garthoff's Détente and Confrontation. I gulped, thinking the student was trying some transparent flattery. I customarily spend a couple of weeks in a graduate reading seminar analyzing Détente and Confrontation. “Not the heaviest, but the best,” I said.
The student then explained what makes Garthoff's book so good: Its reflections by a participant who is refreshingly modest, not a know-it-all; its vast command of available U.S. and Soviet sources; its masterful grasp of the interplay between domestic and foreign policy considerations; its demonstration that Soviet policy, like American, resulted from a complicated mixture of internal and external forces. I probed deeper. “Don't you believe it is really three books, one on the Nixon-Ford period, one on the Carter administration, and one on Reagan? The first section, down to 1976, is splendid, but the analysis in the last six hundred pages may not stand the test of time. Wouldn't many historians resist the predictions in the last section decrying the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet bluster?” Alright, he agreed, maybe the sections on the Nixon-Ford period were so richly detailed that the discussion of the Carter years suffered by comparison, and the account of the Reagan administration's early belligerence toward Moscow did not completely predict the future.