The ambivalence regarding Vietnam of many in the American Establishment itself as well as in the American electorate was evident in the election in November 1968 of Richard M. Nixon, a Californian Republican semi-outsider and former hard-line cold warrior, to the presidency. Declaring the purpose of "peace with honor," President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a celebrated professor of government at Harvard, carried out a strategy of gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces ("Vietnamization") while using air strikes to demonstrate America's will, even while engaged in peace talks with representatives of Hanoi in Paris. The effort was institutionally and politically very complex, requiring emotional balance as well as brain power.
In order to help hold the government and country together, and possibly also to gain personal reassurance as well as policy confirmation, Kissinger in particular cultivated the elite, among whom, however, he carefully picked and chose. "On a personal level I can never forget the graceful—I might almost say gentle—way in which Dean Acheson welcomed me to Washington when I arrived as national security adviser, and the wisdom and patience with which he sought thereafter to bridge the gap between the perceptions of a Harvard professor and the minimum requirements of reality," as Kissinger recalled in White House Years (1979). He was particularly gratified when Ambassador David K. E. Bruce, scion of an old Maryland family who had served as U.S. representative in London, Paris, and Bonn, agreed, at the age of seventy-two, to represent the Nixon administration in the difficult peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in France. "We were on a long road, certain to be painful," Kissinger wrote. "But with David Bruce as a companion its burdens would be more bearable. And any effort to which he was willing to commit himself had a strong presumption of being in the national interest." The importance of the sustainment that Kissinger, an immigrant to America, received from his association with Establishment figures like the aristocratic Bruce, who seemed to represent as well as recognize the U.S. national interest, was surely profound, if difficult to estimate precisely.
With the very different administration of Jimmy Carter, an almost complete outsider from Plains, Georgia, who had been a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy and a pro–civil rights governor of his home state, the Establishment seemed to have lost out. This would be a mistaken impression. In an attempt to formulate a completely new, post-Vietnam foreign policy consensus for the country on a different basis from the essentially power-oriented, "geopolitical" focus of the Nixon and subsequent Gerald Ford presidencies, President Carter emphasized human rights, nuclear disarmament, and "interdependence."
This last was a concept associated with the Trilateral Commission, a nongovernmental group of North American, European, and Japanese leaders who were focusing not on East-West competition but on North-South cooperation. Intellectually, its approach appealed to Carter. The initiative (and the resources) for the formation of this elite group came from David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations, following his return from a Bilderberg Conference in Holland early in 1972. With Zbigniew Brzezinski of Columbia University as executive secretary, the Trilateral Commission enlisted some 145 "commissioners"—bankers, industrialists, labor leaders, lawyers, politicians, academics—from the three Trilateral regions. Among the politician members invited (co-opted, a skeptic might say) to join the U.S. group was James E. Carter, Jr., as his name then was listed. Carter was grateful for the chance. As he wrote in his campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best? (1976), "Membership on this commission has provided me with a splendid learning opportunity, and many of the other members have helped me in my study of foreign affairs." As Leonard and Mark Silk reported, when Carter became president, some 40 percent of the U.S. members of the Trilateral Commission became members of his administration (the cooptation was mutual).
One of these was the New York corporate lawyer and former high-ranking Defense Department official Cyrus R. Vance. "If, after the inauguration," President Carter's closest aide from Georgia, Hamilton Jordan, had injudiciously said in a widely quoted statement, "you find Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed." Indeed, it did seem as if the Carter people had been forced to give in. "There can be no doubt today," commented Robert A. Manning in the nonestablishment journal Penthouse, "that David Rockefeller and his Trilateral Commission have succeeded in seizing control of America's foreign policy." Such fears should have been partially laid to rest, commented the Silks, when National Security Affairs Adviser Brzezinski and Secretary of State Vance started feuding over arms control and other issues.
These internal differences within the Carter administration notwithstanding, the Trilateral concept, and the international associations that came with it, broadened the purview of American foreign policy, making it more truly global. In place of the shifting "triangular" diplomacy handled, sometimes arbitrarily, by Nixon and Kissinger alone in a way that seemed to place America's relations with Moscow and Beijing on the same, or even higher, plane than its established relations with London, Paris, Bonn, Rome, Ottawa, and Tokyo, there would now be a new emphasis on working with neighboring Canada, the western European powers, and Japan in a more structured and reliable trilateral formation. The policy aim was to coordinate the decisions of the so-called industrial democracies so as not only to stabilize their own economies but also to enable them to grow consistently in order to absorb more of the primary and other products of developing countries. Newer issues such as protection of the global environment and the universal promotion of human rights also were placed on the agenda. That radical critics of Trilateralism, such as Holly Sklar and others (1980), saw it as "elite planning for world management" bothered but did not deter David Rockefeller and his fellow commissioners, outside government or in.