The Nixon Presidency

In March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term, a decision due at least in part to the strong showing of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota in the New Hampshire primary. After Johnson's announcement, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race, and soon he and Senator Robert Kennedy of New York were the main contenders for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968 after his victory in the California primary, and Humphrey won the nomination at the violence‐marred Democratic convention in Chicago in August. The Republicans turned to Richard Nixon, who had made a remarkable political recovery following his defeats in the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 gubernatorial race in California. Nixon chose Spiro Agnew, the little‐known governor of Maryland, as his running mate. While Humphrey defended the Johnson Administration's Vietnam policy, Nixon emphasized law and order and his “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. American Independent party candidate George Wallace of Alabama appealed more directly to conservatives who were frustrated with the counterculture and the inability of the United States to win the war. Although his standing was damaged somewhat by the demonstrations at the Democratic convention, Humphrey gained popular support as the election drew near. Nixon won by a narrow victory in the popular vote, with just over 500,000 votes separating him from Humphrey; Nixon's margin was much more decisive in the electoral college, where he had 301 votes to Humphrey's 191. Wallace ran a national campaign, but his base of support was primarily in the Deep South, where he took five states. The Democrats remained in control of both the House and the Senate.

Nixon's major accomplishments were in foreign policy. He formally ended the more than 20‐year freeze in American relations with the People's Republic of China and promoted closer ties with the Soviet Union through détente, the use of increased contact between countries to reduce political tensions. Nixon's domestic agenda included the New Federalism, a policy that sought to limit the power of the federal government, and the challenge of keeping inflation under control while the country drifted in and out of recession. Whatever successes Nixon had on the world scene or at home were overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, which ultimately cost him his presidency.

Nixon and Vietnam. Nixon's secret plan for ending the war was Vietnamization, in which the South Vietnamese gradually took over the fighting while the United States withdrew American troops, intensified the bombing of North Vietnam, and continued to provide financial support to South Vietnam for the war effort. Between 1969 and 1972, U.S. forces shrunk from 500,000 to 30,000, and peace talks continued in Paris. Although Vietnamization allowed the United States to extricate itself from the war, the policy did little to weaken the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the field. Nixon was also responsible for expanding the war. In March 1969, the United States began bombing North Vietnamese supply routes in Cambodia, and ground troops invaded the country in April 1970. Widening the war to a neutral country provoked new demonstrations on college campuses, and four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

There appeared to be a breakthrough at the Paris Peace Talks as the 1972 elections approached, but it did not materialize. In December 1972, Nixon ordered heavy bombing of the North and the mining of the Haiphong harbor. Although this “Christmas bombing” was widely criticized, it led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. Under the terms of the accords, the last American combat troops left Vietnam in March, and North Vietnam released the final group of U.S. prisoners of war. U.S. involvement in the war had cost 58,000 Americans lives and $150 billion. A few months after the cease‐fire went into effect, the fighting resumed between North and South Vietnamese forces. North Vietnam launched a major offensive in the spring of 1975 that led to the fall of Saigon in April and the subsequent unification of Vietnam under northern control.

China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East. In 1969, Chinese and Russian troops clashed along their common border, and the long‐standing rift between the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union seemed to be widening. Nixon recognized that the old view of a monolithic communist world was obsolete and saw an opportunity to play China and the USSR against each other to the advantage of the United States. He also believed that improving relations with China might lead China to put pressure on North Vietnam to end the war. An American table tennis team was welcomed in China in 1971, and this incident of “ping‐pong diplomacy” paved the way for a secret visit by Nixon's top foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, in July. In February 1972, the president himself visited China and normalized relations between the two countries. Formal diplomatic relations were not established until 1979, but trade and cultural exchanges increased almost immediately.

Just a few months after his China visit, Nixon met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. In addition to agreeing to a sale of surplus American wheat to the USSR, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (or SALT) agreement was signed. Both countries agreed not to develop new antiballistic missile (ABM) systems and to limit the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles each country was able to deploy. The Soviet Union had achieved rough parity with the United States in nuclear weapons, and the parameters of the agreement forestalled a costly new arms race that the Russian economy could not have afforded.

The SALT I agreement (there would later be a second set of SALT negotiations, known as SALT II) did not mean that the Cold War was over. When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in October 1973, the United States provided massive aid to Israel that helped turn the tide of the Yom Kippur War, while the Soviet Union supported the Arab states. The most important consequence of the conflict was the decision of the Arab countries to place an embargo on oil shipments to the United States. The embargo lasted from October 1973 to March 1974 and was accompanied by a substantial increase in crude oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Americans faced a major fuel shortage (which underscored how dependent the country had become on foreign oil), and gasoline prices skyrocketed, contributing to rising rates of inflation.

Nixon's domestic policy. An important element of Nixon's domestic policy was the restoration of power to state and local governments. At the heart of his New Federalism was revenue sharing. Congress passed revenue sharing legislation in 1972, which allowed Washington to provide grants to states and cities to use as they saw fit, rather than having the federal bureaucracy set the priorities. The president also tried, with less success, to overhaul the welfare system. Key parts of the plan, drafted by liberal sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called for providing recipients with a minimum annual income and requiring them to work or enter job‐training programs. Despite his stand against big government, Nixon supported programs that increased federal regulatory authority. He backed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was passed in 1969 and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, and he endorsed the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971 to enforce appropriate workplace standards to protect labor. Nixon was less sympathetic to minorities than Johnson had been. Believing that integration was moving too far too fast, he wanted to delay the desegregation of the schools in Mississippi and opposed court‐ordered busing. The four justices Nixon appointed to the Supreme Court where not judicial activists, and the Court became more conservative on social issues.

The most daunting domestic issue Nixon faced was the economy. Fighting the war in Vietnam and paying for Johnson's Great Society had led to inflation, which Nixon first tried to control by increasing interest rates and cutting federal spending. Inflation remained high and unemployment increased, a condition that economists labeled stagflation. Early in 1971, Nixon accepted a deficit budget that he hoped would stimulate the economy. He then instituted wage and price controls in August that remained in effect until January 1973. When most of the controls were lifted, inflation returned and worsened with the onset of the energy crisis later in the year. Economists and the government would grapple with the problem for most of the decade.

Watergate. In June 1972, five men were arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. After it was revealed that one of the men arrested was James McCord, the security coordinator for the Committee to Re‐Elect the President (CREEP), the White House denied any culpability for the break‐in. Nixon went on to win a landslide victory for a second term over Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, but the Watergate scandal would not go away.

The investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post prompted the Senate in February 1973 to open hearings on the administration's involvement in the burglary. Televised Watergate hearings began in May 1973, and the American people were shocked as the widening scandal unfolded with testimony about the Nixon administration's enemies list, misuse of government agencies, and trading for political favors. When the Senate committee learned about the taping system in the Oval Office in July 1973, it demanded that the tapes be turned over. Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to give them up. In October 1973, he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the matter for the Justice Department. Richardson refused and resigned, as did the deputy attorney general. When Nixon ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox, Bork complied, and Leon Jowarski replaced Cox. The resignations and dismissal became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

As the Watergate scandal continued, Vice President Agnew resigned and pleaded no contest to charges of income tax evasion and bribery in a case stemming from his term as governor of Maryland. Nixon named Congressman Gerald Ford as the new vice president, and Congress confirmed the appointment. After a year of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court ordered the president to turn over the Oval Office tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering impeachment, in July 1974. The committee approved three articles of impeachment covering obstruction of justice and abuse of power, and it was clear that the full House of Representatives would vote for impeachment. Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974, and Gerald Ford became president.