Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled

At a press conference, President Richard M. Nixon unveiled a new foreign policy: While the United States would continue to provide economic and military aid to its allies, it would expect them to undertake the primary responsibility for their own security by providing their own military manpower.

Summary of Event

Upon entering office in January, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon inherited a war in Vietnam Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement that had seen the loss of more than thirty thousand American troops. As a result of the events of the previous year, the war was viewed by U.S. officials as a stalemate at best, yet almost one-half million troops remained stationed in South Vietnam. Acting on a recommendation from Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, Nixon announced in June, 1969, that twenty-five thousand U.S. troops would be withdrawn from South Vietnam by August 31 of that year. By early July, 1969, Nixon and the special assistant to the president for national security affairs (commonly known as the national security adviser), Henry Kissinger, contemplated how they could withdraw troops while still fulfilling the United States’ commitment to South Vietnam. Their difficulties were compounded by the deteriorating military situation on the ground and growing disenchantment with the war at home. Nixon Doctrine
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[kw]Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled (July 25, 1969)
[kw]Doctrine Is Unveiled, Nixon (July 25, 1969)
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[g]Pacific;July 25, 1969: Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled[10360]
[g]Micronesia;July 25, 1969: Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled[10360]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 25, 1969: Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled[10360]
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[c]Vietnam War;July 25, 1969: Nixon Doctrine Is Unveiled[10360]
Nixon, Richard M.
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Laird, Melvin R.

On July 25, 1969, President Nixon gave his answer to this quandary at a press conference at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, which was the second stop in a two-week presidential trip abroad. He articulated his vision of the United States’ proper role in Asia, which he had written about a few years earlier in a foreign policy magazine. He advocated keeping U.S. treaty commitments with friendly nations in a way that would not lead those nations to depend too heavily upon the U.S. military for their defense. In other words, the United States would help its allies fight their foes, but it would not fight their wars for them. Initially referred to as the Guam Doctrine, this policy soon became known as the Nixon Doctrine.

The president again articulated his doctrine in a November 3, 1969, address to the nation, at which time he listed its three main components: The United States would honor its treaty commitments; it would shield any nation threatened by a nuclear power, if that nation’s survival was vital to U.S. security; and, in cases of aggression against a friendly country, the United States would furnish military and economic assistance rather than manpower. The Nixon Doctrine was also the primary topic covered in a February 18, 1970, message to Congress.

Applied to Vietnam, the Nixon Doctrine became known as “Vietnamization,” Vietnamization a term first used by Defense Secretary Laird in 1969. Nixon authorized more equipment and other material aid to be given to the South Vietnamese forces. He also ordered U.S. troops to expand their training operations in the country. His goal was to ensure the ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves, as the number of U.S. military personnel in their country gradually decreased.

The United States took several other actions designed to prepare for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. The bombing of strategic targets in North Vietnam was increased. U.S. forces invaded Cambodia in 1970 in order to ferret out communist troops using that country as a sanctuary. A pacification program was created to coordinate military, intelligence, and civilian operations. Hanoi and Haiphong harbors were mined in 1972. After successfully repelling North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive, U.S. and South Vietnamese officials were optimistic about the future of Vietnamization. By the end of 1972, just 24,200 American troops remained in South Vietnam, which was roughly equivalent to the number of troops that had been stationed there at the end of 1964.

President Richard M. Nixon (right) with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.

(Library of Congress)

Both diplomatic correspondence and captured North Vietnamese documents indicated that the communists were well aware of the objectives of the Nixon Doctrine, even referring to the policy by name. In response, the North Vietnamese government stepped up efforts to sway American domestic opinion, to infiltrate the South Vietnamese government, and to recruit Viet Cong guerrillas. Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January, 1973, President Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal. The communists took full advantage of Nixon’s August, 1974, resignation and Congress’s denial of continued military and economic support for South Vietnam. Blatantly violating the Paris agreement, North Vietnam launched a January, 1975, offensive. Within four months, it had routed South Vietnamese forces and unified Vietnam under communist control.

Originally conceived as a reaction to the Vietnam conflict, the Nixon Doctrine was later applied to other areas of the world, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. U.S. military assistance to those countries was regarded as crucial in the always volatile Middle East, which witnessed two major crises in 1973 alone—the Yom Kippur War and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo. More than a decade after his presidency ended in disgrace, Richard Nixon discussed the meaning of the doctrine named after him. He stated that it was not a formula for American withdrawal from Vietnam or other developing nations, but rather a basis for remaining in such countries in a different capacity.

Nixon argued that Vietnamization should have begun at the outset of large-scale American military participation in the Vietnam War, rather than four years into the conflict. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger—who had also served as secretary of state during Nixon’s abbreviated second term—contended that the policy of avoiding intervention in civil wars was conventional wisdom rather than something new. Still, he complimented the clarity of the Nixon Doctrine in enunciating the criteria for distinguishing between friends and adversaries.


The Nixon Doctrine provided both advantages and disadvantages to President Nixon and his administration. On the positive side, it gave coherence to the foreign policy of the Nixon White House in dealing with foreign conflicts. In so doing, it served as an alternative to a simplistic Cold War superpower strategy. Its utilization in the Vietnam conflict temporarily diluted opposition to the war, as it appeared that American military involvement would be lessened as a consequence. The doctrine became a liability when war critics accused Nixon of violating its tenets, citing the invasion of Cambodia among other instances. Some scholars have disputed whether President Nixon intended to advance a comprehensive foreign policy doctrine at his Guam press conference, as his remarks were not intended for direct quotation.

The actions taken under the Nixon Doctrine had consequences that affected subsequent administrations. For instance, U.S. support of the shah of Iran during the 1970’s eventually led to the Iranian Revolution in January, 1979, and the seizure of American embassy personnel in Tehran in November of the same year. These actions, which occurred during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, were a reaction to the repressive policies of the shah, who after being deposed was allowed to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. Further, the assistance to Saudi Arabia provided by the Nixon administration was continued by Ronald Reagan, who sent the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to that country to help it defend itself. Perhaps most important, the fall of South Vietnam to the communists colored U.S. foreign policy for several decades, as any potential large-scale military involvement was inevitably referred to by politicians and the media as “another Vietnam.”

The Nixon Doctrine itself likewise influenced the foreign policy doctrines articulated by President Nixon’s successors. The Carter Doctrine, for example, was promulgated in January, 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although it promised direct military intervention if American vital interests were threatened, the doctrine was aimed at the same Persian Gulf region where the Nixon Doctrine had been implemented. The Reagan Doctrine, first explained in 1985, was designed to counteract the Soviet Union’s influence by backing anticommunist rebels. The form taken by this backing—military aid rather than U.S. troop deployment—was thoroughly consistent with the Nixon Doctrine. Nixon Doctrine
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Further Reading

  • Colby, William. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. This book, written by a former director of central intelligence, explains the application of the Nixon Doctrine in Vietnam, particularly as it related to Vietnamization and the pacification program.
  • Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon’s Vietnam War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. The most comprehensive treatment of the Nixon Doctrine, including the doctrine’s background together with its impact on the Vietnam War.
  • Kissinger, Henry. Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Discussion of U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam by the former national security adviser and secretary of state. Includes the North Vietnamese reaction to the Nixon Doctrine.
  • Nixon, Richard. No More Vietnams. New York: Avon Books, 1986. Contains the explanation and defense of the Nixon Doctrine by the president who established it.
  • Willbanks, James H. Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Encompasses the views of Nixon administration officials on the objectives of the Nixon Doctrine.

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