Détente and Its Discontents: The New Right Takes on Nixingerism and Grapples with Its Legacy

AHA Session 277
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin
David Greenberg, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Session Abstract

Numerous historians and journalists have chronicled multiple facets of the rise of the New Right from the political wilderness of Barry Goldwater’s landslide November 1964 defeat to the triumph of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral landslide. Yet the path to power was hardly linear, particularly under the two intervening Republican presidential administrations, and especially in the underexplored area of foreign policy. Here, success seldom seemed foreordained. In the time of détente, conservatives appeared very much in retreat, and more isolated than ever before. One-time red-hunter Richard Nixon embarked on the interconnected policies of deescalation in South Vietnam, arms control with the Soviets, and a path-breaking rapprochement with the communist Chinese. Like his older incarnation, this “New Nixon” needed to maintain the support of conservative Republicans, or at the very least their grudging acquiescence. For the most part, and most of the time, on at least most of these matters, the New Right complied. The movement’s early collaboration fed later recriminations which both led to the rise of Ronald Reagan in opposition to the policies established by Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford and fed misgivings about Reagan’s own conservative bona fides. Once betrayed, this powerful and growing political faction could not help but remain suspicious even of its most beloved tribune.

Sandra Scanlon describes how conservative hawks at first welcomed Vietnamization because it promised to open the way for more aggressive attacks on the North Vietnamese and seemed to increase the chances for eventual victory. Furthermore, Nixon’s new approach appealed to their inherent ambivalence towards Lyndon Johnson’s troop-intensive tactics in a Cold War theater they believed to be strategically peripheral. Its summary failure helped fracture the movement. Similarly, James Cameron notes how early conservative support for arms control dissolved into disappointment when Soviet concessions appeared insufficient. Jeffrey Crean chronicles how conservatives affiliated with the Committee of One Million allowed themselves to be misled by Nixon until it was too late. Cameron and Crean both demonstrate how Nixon secured the isolation of the conservative rump in Congress and their supporters beyond Capitol Hill, at least for a time. Nixon courted conservatives until he no longer needed them, at which point he felt free to ignore them. In a fitting and necessary epilogue, Danielle Holtz shows how after conservatives struck back by abandoning Nixon’s successor and embracing Reagan’s 1976 insurgency, they never fully saw the ever-optimistic and rhetorically messianic Gipper as one of their own. By the time President Reagan embraced his own version of neo-détente, previous fissures in the movement reappeared, along with renewed fears of betrayal and abandonment. This panel should be of note to anyone interested in the rise of the New Right and the development of neoconservatism, as well as the multifaceted and sometimes overlooked aspects of the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy in a tumultuous era.

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