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american history

richard nixon

*richard nixon was elected in 1968 through his southern strategy and his promises to the silent majority of law and order and peace with honour.


*he brought american peace by vietnamizing the war, but he was able to do this in part because he and his national security advisor henry kissinger adopted a new approach to american foreign policy.


*they believed in realpolitik, the politics of reality:  america might not like the ussr or red china, but both could be good trading partners.  furthermore, during the 1960s the sino-soviet split divided the world’s communist countries between those that preferred the ussr and those that preferred china (with some, particularly yugoslavia and eventually north korea, seeking their own paths), and nixon thought he could take advantage of this. 


*by working with the people’s republic of china, nixon felt he could deepen the sino-soviet split and play the soviets and red chinese off against each other and also get china to put pressure on north vietnam to end the war.  nixon and kissinger began secret talks with china about normalising relations with chairman mao and premier zhou enlai.


*it is possible that no earlier president could have done this.  not only had the sino-soviet split not been obvious enough before, but no other president would have dared open up to china out of fear that he would look soft on communism.  nixon, however, had built a career out of being very tough on communists, so no-one thought he was giving in.


*in 1971, the us ping-pong team was invited to china for a tour of the country and a series of exhibition matches (which the chinese won).  the next year, a chinese team visited the united states.  soviet table-tennis players were not invited in either case.


*ping pong diplomacy allowed more open diplomacy to begin.  in february, 1972, richard nixon visited china and met mao and zhou, and even learned enough chinese ahead of time to make a toast.  this set america and china on the path to fully normal relations, and in 1979, the us recognised the people’s republic of china (the un had done so in 1971).


*because leonid brezhnev, leader of the ussr, feared that nixon and mao might begin working together against him, he invited nixon to visit the soviet union after he got back from his trip to china.  in may, 1972, nixon went to moscow.


*in moscow, nixon and brezhnev planned a joint us-soviet space mission, which eventually took place in july, 1975 when nasa and the soviet space programme co-operated in the apollo-soyuz test project, in which an american space capsule docked with the soviet space station, soyuz.  this may be considered the end of the space race.


*even more important was the strategic arms limitation treaty (salt i), signed during nixon’s visit in 1972.  it placed limits on the number of icbms each country could have.  although both sides got around the limits by creating more dangerous types of missiles, salt i was an important step towards ending the arms race.


*in short, richard nixon, a man who had built his career hunting communists during the red scare, began a period of détente (reduced tensions) with the soviet union that lasted for the rest of the decade.


*nixon’s presidency also saw the passage of the xxvi amendment in 1971, allowing people above 18 (instead of 21) to vote.  people had complained that young men could be drafted who couldn’t vote.  the hope had been to raise the draft age, but they lowered the voting age instead.

this page last updated 21 november, 2009.
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