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Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente

by Richard A. Moss foreword by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

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Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace
418 pages  Pubdate: 01/17/2017  6 x 9  20 b&w photos

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Most Americans consider détente—the reduction of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union—to be among the Nixon administration’s most significant foreign policy successes. The diplomatic back channel that national security advisor Henry Kissinger established with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin became the most important method of achieving this thaw in the Cold War. Kissinger praised back channels for preventing leaks, streamlining communications, and circumventing what he perceived to be the US State Department’s unresponsive and self-interested bureaucracy. Nixon and Kissinger’s methods, however, were widely criticized by State Department officials left out of the loop and by an American press and public weary of executive branch prevarication and secrecy.

Richard A. Moss’s penetrating study documents and analyzes US-Soviet back channels from Nixon’s inauguration through what has widely been heralded as the apex of détente, the May 1972 Moscow Summit. He traces the evolution of confidential-channel diplomacy and examines major flashpoints, including the 1970 crisis over Cienfuegos, Cuba, the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), US dealings with China, deescalating tensions in Berlin, and the Vietnam War. Moss argues that while the back channels improved US-Soviet relations in the short term, the Nixon-Kissinger methods provided a poor foundation for lasting policy.

Employing newly declassified documents, the complete record of the Kissinger-Dobrynin channel—jointly compiled, translated, annotated, and published by the US State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry—as well as the Nixon tapes, Moss reveals the behind-the-scenes deliberations of Nixon, his advisers, and their Soviet counterparts. Although much has been written about détente, this is the first scholarly study that comprehensively assesses the central role of confidential diplomacy in shaping America’s foreign policy during this critical era.

Richard A. Moss is an associate research professor at the United States Naval War College's Center for Naval Warfare Studies. Moss earned his doctorate from the George Washington University, and he specializes in U.S.-Russia relations and the Nixon presidential recordings. Dr. Moss previously served at the U.S. Department of Defense and as an historian with the U.S. Department of State.

This narrative is often quite gripping, with wonderfully revealing quotations from the key actors. The author puts the reader on the shoulders of these men and their Soviet counterparts as they maneuver through three years of negotiations, posturing, and policy activities. -- Jeremi Suri, author of Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow will become an instant classic. For all of the books that mention the back channels--Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s most important foreign policy tools--this is the first to exhaustively mine the archives to explain their origin, how they were used, and to what end. Lucidly written and superbly researched, future works on Nixon foreign policy will have no choice but to consult this essential work. It is a must read to understand the era. -- Luke Nichter, author of Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World

Drawing back the curtain of history, [Moss] repeatedly shines light on high-stakes conversations that participants cryptically alluded to only in other memoranda or in their memoirs. -- Passport

With engaging narrative and impeccable research, Moss has produced an important addition to Nixon historiography. Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow sheds further light on what once had been mysterious and shrouded in shadows. It is an indispensable book for students of the Nixon years and those interested in the cost-benefit of back channel contacts. This book could not be more timely. -- Parameters

Whereas many histories of the Nixon years describe the back channel, they do so in order to study issues such as Vietnam, arms control, or the Cold War more generally. Moss, by contrast, is interested in the back channel itself. By focusing on the institution, Moss is able to describe the advantages and liabilities that emerge from secret communications between leaders passed through a short string of intermediaries. This approach makes Back Channel to Moscow important for understanding significant modern political issues.

This book raises interesting questions about democratic process and governmental effectiveness that merit attention, especially in a world in which foreign policy has become hyper politicized. -- H-Diplo

Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow provides a dispassionate look at informal diplomacy in the era of detente, and a careful assessment of its successes and some of its pitfalls. Moss’s matter of fact approach to President Nixon and Kissinger’s policies is a refreshing contribution to a field that is still obsessed with judging them. -- International Affairs

Moss's in-depth historical study offers rich insights for enduring debates over the effectiveness of private diplomatic communication in international relations literature; while private communication that occurs out of general view is often considered as cheap talks, some scholarship has indicated that privately conveyed messages are not always cheap but could carry credible signals. Nixon’s confidential diplomacy suggests how private communications function as an effective instrument for crisis management.

Moss’s book must be widely read by diplomatic historians, international relations scholars, and practitioners. It would certainly provide abundant historical findings and implications for foreign affairs under a democratic government. -- Political Science Quarterly

In Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow, Richard A. Moss reconstructs, expertly and in detail, the most enduring of the Nixon-Kissinger back channels: the secret link to Moscow via Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

The author’s impressive command of the relevant sources—American and Soviet—and his ability to identify the inconsistencies in how the two sides represented what actually happened between Kissinger and Dobrynin is a valuable addition to one of the best-documented episodes in Soviet-American relations
during the Cold War.

[This] is a fascinating read for those who wish to learn more about how Nixon and Kissinger secretly conducted American foreign policy during the early years of détente. -- Journal of American History