After Vietnam the role of military power in American foreign policy became less pronounced than it had been previously, a clear sign of popular misgivings over the war and of diminished confidence in military solutions to problems abroad. Indicative of the trend was the decision by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (1969-1973) in 1970 to cease prefacing his annual reports to Congress with foreign policy reviews, as had been the custom during McNamara’s tenure. Nevertheless, the Defense Department continued to figure prominently in the foreign policy process through its representation on interagency committees and the secretary’s membership on the National Security Council. As a rule, the Defense Department supplied two representatives-one from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, another from the Joint Chiefs of Staff-to each interagency forum while providing many of the action officers who made up the National Security Council staff. Although it was entirely conceivable that the president and his staff could have curtailed their contacts with the military, relying more on civilians from the State Department or elsewhere for advice, it was practically impossible to do so. The resulting policies may have been less overtly military in character, but they were still subject to military involvement in their development and execution.
One reason why the Pentagon acquired a lower foreign policy profile after Vietnam was that defense-related security problems in the 1970s gave way in importance to political and economic problems. The major exceptions were the SALT negotiations with the Soviet Union, which required military participation on technical as well as policy grounds, and ongoing U. S. involvement in NATO and foreign military assistance programs to American client states like Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the Philippines. But otherwise attention focused on such matters as inflation, energy shortages, and other disruptions to the global political economy that were not normally high on the Pentagon’s agenda. At the same time, a general improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow, known as détente, lessened the more overt dangers of an East-West confrontation.
The growing range and complexity of problems abroad invited the Defense Department to acquire more sophisticated means for approaching and handling foreign affairs. This included the staffing of a net assessment office in 1973, which operated under a broad charter to initiate studies of current and projected U. S. and foreign military capabilities; and the appointment in 1977 of an undersecretary of defense for policy, to oversee politico-military affairs, arms control, and the integration of defense plans and policies with basic national security policy. At the command and staff colleges run by the armed services and at the National Defense University in Washington, D. C., lectures and courses on national security affairs became more commonplace alongside traditional studies in military science. Language training likewise received closer attention at service schools.
The net effect was to generate a far greater appreciation within the military for the complexities of foreign affairs than at any time in the past. Many junior officers who had served in Vietnam were highly critical of what they found to be their superiors’ simplistic and naive views on foreign policy; as these younger officers rose to prominence in the late 1970s and 1980s they brought with them a keen interest in developing U. S. policies less wedded to Cold War stereotypes. A case in point was the Pentagon’s more flexible attitude toward the communist regime on mainland China during the 1970s and early 1980s and its ready acquiescence in dropping support for Taiwan, once a bulwark against communism and a stalwart American ally.