KC Johnson

Nixon on Realism/Idealism

The transcribed clip below comes from a 1 March 1973 meeting between Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Simcha Dinitz about Middle Eastern affairs. In this section, the President functions as an amateur diplomatic historian, offering offers his perspective on the tension between realism and idealism in US foreign policy, and how that pattern applied to Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles Treaty.

Below the clip is the (untranscribed) audio of the entire meeting, with the notes from the Nixon Library for use in following the conversation. The overall quality of the recording (and even sections of the embedded clip below) sometimes isn’t that great.

President Nixon: Well, we work toward the ideal, but we have to work for it pragmatically. That’s really what it comes down to.


President Nixon: Woodrow Wilson, you know . . . He was probably the most religious, idealistic man ever to ever sit in this office. But before it all, when it finally came down to it—he had great impact. He brought us into the war, the Fourteen Points—again, when he goes over to the Versailles Conference, the pragmatists of Europe gobbled him up in about two bites.

Prime Minister Golda Meir: Yes.

President Nixon: And the world was very unsafe as a result, correct?

As a matter of fact, I think if the Versailles Treaty had come out differently, that you’d never [have] had a Hitler. You know? You really look what produced that fella—it had to start with Versailles. It had to start with Versailles. You can’t take a . . .

If, for example, the attitude toward the Germans after World War I had been the attitude that we took after World War II, there might have been a different situation.

Henry Kissinger: But I think Versailles was either too soft or too tough. [Unclear cross-talk.]

President Nixon: I thought it was too tough, actually.

Kissinger: But it was . . . It . . . It created the possibility of humiliating the Germans, while not leaving them enough.

President Nixon: You can’t do that. If you’re going to humiliate somebody, you must destroy him. Otherwise, he’s going to be able to destroy you. You never strike the king unless you kill him.

Kissinger: That’s true. [Unclear] France, which had been demoralized by the war, because Russia couldn’t come to . . . So Versailles was a disaster.

President Nixon: That’s right.

Full meeting clip:

Nixon Library Notes:

Prime Minister Golda Meir, Rabin, and Simcha Dinitz entered at 11:06 am. The White House photographer and members of the press were present at the beginning of the meeting. The
unknown man left at 11:06 am.
Kissinger’s schedule
[Photograph session]
-Rabin’s birthday
-President’s first meeting with Rabin
Ziegler, the White House photographer, and the press left at 11:10 am.
Dinitz’s [?] work with Meir
Presidential gifts
International security
-US role in world
-American idealism
-President’s meetings with Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-lai
– Leonid I Brezhnev
-Scientific exchanges
-Changes in world
-Chances of peace
-Vietnam Settlement
-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR]
-People’s Republic of China [PRC]
-Reduction of US armaments
-Spending on Ghettos
-Mutual reductions
-Israel’s idealism
-Need for realism
-Public optimism
-Vietnam settlement
-Dialogue with PRC
-Willy Brandt
-Need for realism
-European socialists
Europe’s leadership
-Edward R. G. Heath
-Georges J. R. Pompidou
-Giulio Andreotti
US defense posture
-Need to maintain
-Cold War
-Golden rule
Peaceful coexistence
Vietnam cease-fire
-Socialist International
-Meir’s role
-Kissinger’s press conference
-United Nations [UN] observers
-Meir’s view
Socialist conference
-Alaf Palme
-Bruno Kreisky
-Shadow cabinet
-Great Britain
-[First name unknown] Wilson [?]
-[First name unknown] Gallager [?]
Idealism and pragmatism
-[Thomas] Woodrow Wilson
-World War I
-Fourteen points
-Versailles conference
-Effect on Germany
-Adolf Hitler
-Compared with US role in reconstruction
-World War II
Kissinger’s talk with Rabin
Libyan airplane incident
-President’s viewpoint
-Israel’s statements
-Uneasy truce
-Israel’s intentions
-UN resolution
-John A. Scali
-State department
-Israel’s UN ambassador [Yosef Tekoah]
Black September
-Suicide bombing
-Tel Aviv, Bersheeba
-Japanese terrorists at airport
Airplane incident
-Israel’s explanation
-Meir’s reaction
-US concern
-Israel’s standing in world
-US bombing of North Vietnam
-Non-military targets
-US-Israeli cooperation
-Public relations
Israel’s raid in Lebanon
-Airplanes compared with ground troops
-Terrorist training camps
-Proximity to refugee camps
-Soldiers and civilians
US arms and economic aid to Israel
-US government’s position
-Administration’s commitment to Israel
-Arab-Israeli negotiations
-Israel’s position
-US commitments
-Arms for self-defense
-Prevention of war
-Suez Canal
-Egyptian front
Arab-Israeli negotiations
-US involvement
-Vietnam war
-Intentions of Arabs
-Israel’s negotiating position
-Deputy foreign minister’s visit to Israel
-Meeting with Sadat
-Meir’s visit to Bucharest
-Meir’s response to Nicolai Ceausescu
-Sadat’s reply
-Israel’s desire for peace negotiations
-Proximity talks
-Domestic opinion
-Hussein Ibn Talal [King of Jordan]
-Message to Meir
-Two tracks
-Public talks
-Pressure to succeed
-Private talks
-US dealings with PRC and USSR
-Exploratory discussions
-Israel’s position
-US position
-Energy crisis
-Israel’s bargaining position
-Middle East, USSR
-Desire for settlement
-Egypt’s desire for settlement
-Opening to US
-USSR’s desire for settlement
-Egypt’s position
-Kissinger’s role
-Private talks
-Egypt, USSR
-Brezhnev’s visit
-Change in position
-Talks with Andrei A. Gromyko, Brezhnev
-Troop withdrawal
-Egypt’s position
-Overall settlement
-Sovereignty, security
-Interim settlement
-Kissinger’s role
-Chou’s remarks about Kissinger
-President’s two-track plan
-US contacts with USSR and Egypt
-Israel’s strength
-Egypt’s goals
-US consultation with Israel
-Security compared to sovereignty
-Egypt’s goals
-1967, 1947 territorial borders
-Yassar Arafat
-Suez Canal
-Israel’s withdrawal
-Interim step
-Peace treaty
-natural border
-Israel’s need for air force
-Clearing and operation
-Civilian reconstruction, rehabilitation
-Technical support
-Police presence
-Israel’s right of transshipment
-Egypt’s recognition
-Israel’s use of canal
-Interim settlement talks
-State Department
-Proximity talks
-Public talks
-State Department
-Israel’s withdrawal from Suez Canal
-Private talks
-Overall agreement
-Egypt’s position
-Hafez Ismail
-USSR’s role
-Kissinger’s talk with Hafez Ismail
-US role
-Egypt’s proposals
-Gromyko and Brezhnev
-US position toward USSR
-Analoyiy F. Dobrynin
-Effect on Israel
-Ismail’s visit to moscow
-USSR’s position
-Brezhnev’s promise
-Training of pilots
-Information exchange
-1957 negotiations
-Support for radicals
-Syria, Iraq
-Equipment from USSR
-Mammar Qaddafi
-US-Israeli contacts
-Kissinger’s role
-Dinitz’s role
-Access to Meir
-Israel’s production
-Defense Department
-Israel’s needs
-US military aid
-Phantoms, Skyhawks
-Confidentiality of decision
-Negotiations at later date
-State Department, Defense Department
-US position
-Public statements
-Balance of power
-Private agreement
-Airplane delivery
Israel’s production of airplanes
-Israel’s economy
-Israel’s situation
-Technological knowledge
-US corporations
-Spare parts
-US commitments
-Defense Department
-Elliot L. Richardson
US-Israeli economic relations
-Israel’s finance minister’s meetings with George P. Shultz
-US budget problems
-Aid to Israel
-Emigration to Israel
-Condition of Jews
-Treatment of Jews requesting emigration
-Exorbitant fees
-Loss of employment
-Legal status as parasite
-Eugene Lyons
-American Jews
-US role
-Talks with Dobrynin
-Most Favored Nation [MFN]
-American Jewish communities
-Vietnam War
-December 1972 bombing
-US concern
-Inhumane treatment
-Private negotiations
-Confrontation on Cuba
-Treatment of Jews
-Russian people
-President’s attitude
-Public pressure
-Strategic Arms Limitation Talks [SALT]
-Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson
-Meir’s appeal to American Jewish communities
-Soviet Jews
-Exit visas
-Soviet policy toward Jews
-Jackson amendment
-Israel’s influence on Congress
-Proper use of US influence
-Confrontation with USSR
-“Mutual suicide”
Meir’s appearance at National Press Club
-Questions on Libyan airplane incident
-Rabin’s birthday
The President, et al., left at 12:39 pm.

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