Review of Richard Moss’s "Nixon’s Backchannel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente"

tags: book review, Richard Moss, Nixon’s Backchannel to Moscow

Brian Robertson is an Assistant Professor of History at Texas A & M University Central Texas.   

In a 1987 National Archive oral history interview with H.R. Haldeman, conducted by archivists Fred Graboske and Ray Geselbracht, Richard Nixon’s first chief of staff speculated that the public release of Nixon’s secretly recorded tapes would focus on sensational conversations and ultimately, the totality of the historic content of the conversations would be lost. As Haldeman saw it, historians would go through the Nixon materials and “find stuff,” but “the unfortunate thing is that the world in general and the public in general will not know what the historians put out.” Rather, “what they will know or believe is what the journalists find and put out, because that’s what will come to their attention. Any given history book is not going to be read by too many people.” 1

In the short term, Haldeman proved to be correct. As historian David Greenberg noted, “Whenever new Nixon tapes are released, the next-day stories invariably highlight the most outrageous tidbits, which typically include some anti-Jewish slurs,” and in 2002’s chronological release of tapes, “Nixon’s apparently unserious threat to nuke North Vietnam.” While the release of the tapes have confirmed the criminality of Nixon’s inner circle and highlighted the crass, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic conversations that took place over forty years ago in his court, historians and a handful of research minded journalists—such as Evan Thomas, John Aloysius Farrell, Rick Perlstein, James Rosen, and Ray Locker—have been trying to prove Haldeman wrong.

In recent years, historians Luke A. Nichter and Douglas Brinkley published the largest selection yet of tape transcripts for public consumption. Jeffrey Kimball’s The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (2004) and Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (2015), co-authored with William Burr, relied on Haldeman’s own declassified diary entries, the tapes, and exhaustive research to produce the most comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the “mad man” theory, the “decent interval,” global credibility, and the political calculation that made up the administration’s Vietnam policies. Another Presidential tape’s expert—Ken Hughes of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center—produced Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, The Chennault Affair, and The Origins of Watergate (2014) and Fatal Politics: The Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection (2015). Chasing Shadows introduced the plausible and credible theory that Nixon’s interference with President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 peace initiative drove Nixon to order an illegal break-in to recover a rumored classified file on the incident at the Brookings Institution. Fatal Politics relied on the tapes and Haldeman’s diary to further illustrate the political timing of U.S. troop withdrawals after 1971.

Richard A. Moss’s Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente is the latest essential addition to the new Nixon historiography which relies on the examination of recently declassified documents and tapes. Moss, a graduate from George Washington University presently serving as an Assistant Research Professor (vice assistant) at the U.S. Naval War College, previously worked as a historian for the U.S. Department of State, and as a military capabilities analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has also helped make the tapes available to the general public through his work at—the largest collection of digitized Nixon tapes.

A taut read running at 396 pages, Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow reexamines détente by focusing on the secret back channel maintained by Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The back channel, Moss argues, proved very effective in minimizing national security leaks, overcoming time consuming bureaucratic red tape, protecting confidential diplomacy at the highest levels, and—in the short run at least—managing détente.

He is aware that he is reexamining a voluminous and often contentious historiography, but notes most scholars “agree that the use of confidential channels was inseparable from and essential to facilitating reduced Soviet-U.S. tensions” (6).

The book makes several noteworthy additions, including his observation that one of the original purposes of the White House’s Special Investigation Unit— or the “plumbers” put together by Nixon’s inner circle to plug undisclosed leaks—was to protect the vital back channel. Moss contends that the formation of the Special Investigation Unit was based on legitimate national security concerns. It was only later that the “plumbers” went off the rails, perhaps at Nixon’s urging, and descended into a web of illegal activity that culminated in the Watergate scandal.2

The back channel proved to be indispensable in the peaceful resolution of the Cienfuegos crisis, the negotiations over submarine launched ballistic missiles, management of triangular diplomacy with the Chinese and Soviets, and the general evolution of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties. Moss also revisits Kissinger’s “flaps” with Secretary of State William Rogers, proving that Nixon’s reliance on the backchannel created internal dissension within the administration. While Moss does not entirely ignore the relationship between Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger, it would be interesting to see how secret negotiations over Vietnam affected policy. As Jeffrey Kimball has noted, Laird’s politically attuned sensibilities led him to accelerate troop withdrawals out of political expediency, while Kissinger argued for troop withdrawals at a much slower rate to buy the administration and the South Vietnamese more time.3

Moss also makes good use of recently declassified materials to reexamine the Indo-Pakastani War of 1971, as the historiography of the conflict has been divided between critics of the administration and Nixon and Kissinger’s own strident defenses in their respective memoirs. “Although Nixon and Kissinger superimposed a Cold War distortion on a regional situation, tried to spin stories in the media, and allowed personal biases to flavor their responses,” Moss writes, “they responded logically and perhaps justifiably when seen in the broader context of U.S. Soviet Relations” (148). Moss leaves the administration’s subsequent failure to respond to the Bangladesh genocide to Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (2013).

A large chunk of the book is also devoted to the backchannel and the Vietnam War. In contrast to Ray Locker, who has argued that Nixon and Kissinger pursued a decent-interval exit strategy as early as 1969, Moss uses Dobrynin’s account of a conversation with Kissinger and concludes, “Dobrynin’s report of the conversation with Kissinger does not support the ‘decent interval’ in this instance” but rather, “clearly referred to a political solution contingent on the reunification of force.”4 In Moss’s telling, the back channel helped salvage Soviet-U.S. relations, détente, and the 1972 Moscow Summit after the North Vietnamese spring invasion of South Vietnam, known as the “Easter Offensive.” Nixon pushed for an escalation of aerial interdiction, strategic and tactical bombing, and mined Haiphong harbor. Ultimately, the summit was salvaged and Saigon, for the time being, was saved.

The success of the back channel, however, was short-lived. Although it proved productive from 1969 to 1975, the back channel proved ill-suited to manage Soviet-U.S. relations for the long term, as the Cold War once again heated up in the late 1970s. Furthermore, Moss reminds the reader, “the same mentality and modus operandi—a reliance on secrecy, distrust of public discourse, desire for political gain—that led to the use of back channels destroyed Nixon’s Presidency when it was applied to domestic politics” (307).

1 Harry Robbins Haldeman, interview with Ray Geselbracht and Fred Grabowski, transcript, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 13 August 1987, p. 27-28.

2 In 1997, Stanley Kutler published a tape transcript showing that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institution to recover rumored classified documents relating to the Johnson Administration’s election eve bombing halt. The Brookings institution break-in never occurred. No evidence has emerged showing Nixon ordering the illegal activities of the Special Investigations Unit or the Watergate burglaries. See: Stanley I. Kutler, Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Free Press 1997) p. 3.

3 Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon Era Strategy (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2004), 21-22.

4 See Ray Locker, Nixon’s Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration (New York: Lyon’s Press, 2015) p. 29.

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