American History

Watergate

 

*Richard Nixon’s first term as president was amazingly successful.  His visit to China opened it to the rest of the world while his visit to the USSR began a period of détente that would last for the rest of the decade.  He ended the college deferment system, making the draft fairer by sending more middle-class white boys to war.  He began the process of Vietnamization, withdrawing American troops from Vietnam.  Had he not won re-election, he would probably be remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents.

 

*In 1972, however, Nixon won re-election by the widest margin (18 million votes) in American history.  He carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia (which had gained presidential electors through the XXIII Amendment in 1961).

 

*Nixon won by appealing to the silent majority of Americans who were disgusted by the free-loving, war-protesting, acid-dropping hippies and by the race riots in Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.  This helped him win the traditionally Democratic working-class vote.  He also won using a Southern Strategy, becoming the first Republican to win every Southern state (which he did partly be exploiting racial divisions—for example, he put less pressure on schools to desegregate). 

 

*Although did not support school desegregation—most famously by ending the policy of forced bussing, in which students were bussed across town to make sure there was a mix of races throughout each school district—he also created the Philadelphia Plan, which supported affirmative action in labour unions and among federal contractors.

 

*Nixon had problems, though.  Government spending on the Great Society and the Vietnam War put a lot of money into the economy, creating inflation.  However, high taxes to pay for this spending and competition from foreign imports (particularly in heavy industry like steel and automobile production) hurt American businesses, leading to a recession.  Typically during a depression or recession, prices go down, but in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, American experienced ‘stagflation,’ when the economy stagnated but prices inflated.

 

*Congress tried to deal with American stagflation through a 90-day wage and price freeze in 1971.  Because price freezes meant that some products could only be sold at a loss, some things (particularly meat) were simply not sold at all.  Although freezing prices temporarily helped American consumers, ultimately it did not help the economy.

 

*Another problem for the American economy began in the Middle East.  In 1973, Egypt and Syria (and later Jordan and Iraq) began the Yom Kippur War against Israel to try to get back the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, lost in the Six-Day War of 1967.  The war was largely a draw, but the US (and some other countries supported Israel), and in retaliation, OPEC cut off the supply of oil to those nations.  The price of oil immediately quadrupled.


*In the
USA, oil was rationed, the speed limit was lowered, and daylight savings time was extended.  This still did not stop many places from running out of oil, or the entire world from falling into a deep recession—Japan responded by moving away from many oil-intensive industries and into electronics, except in automobile manufacturing, as their more fuel-efficient cars began to sell well in the United States and elsewhere.  In the end, though, the embargo also hurt OPEC and it ended in 1974 (although there was another—unintentional—disruption in oil markets causing another energy crisis in 1979).

 

*By 1973 Nixon was having problems.  His vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was imprisoned for accepting bribes and not paying his income taxes.  Nixon chose House Minority Leader Gerald Ford as Agnew’s replacement and the Senate confirmed him (according to the XXV Amendment).

 

*Furthermore, some of Nixon’s actions during the 1972 presidential campaign were coming back to haunt him.  Always paranoid, he had hired a group of group of men with undercover experience to stop leaks in the President’s system.  They were called plumbers.   In June, 1972, he sent his plumbers to break into the Democratic National Committee chairman’s office in the Watergate Hotel.  They had to go back after the first trip, and were caught.  The money they carried could be traced to the President, or at least to CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.  Nixon immediately tried to quiet the plumbers down.  Bribes and threats were both offered.

 

*Despite this, an FBI agent named Mark Felt (although his identity was not known for over 30 years, as he insisted the reporters use the code name Deep Throat), began leaking information to Bob Woodward and Edward Bernstein of the Washington Post.  Soon the Post began publishing damaging articles about the Watergate Scandal.

 

*Beginning in January 1973, Congress began investigating and trying people known to be involved in the Watergate break-in.  The plumbers refused to talk until offered a short stay in prison as opposed to 40 years.

 

*The Senate held hearings all 1973 and Nixon put all his effort into hiding any evidence he had been involved in burglary, intimidation, or other criminal activities.  They found out that Nixon had a secret recording system in the White House that had taped all his conversations during his presidency.  The special prosecutor chosen by the Senate committee asked for the tapes, Nixon refused, and fired him.  Nixon gave the next prosecutor transcriptions of part of the tapes, but that was not enough.

 

*Congress had seen and heard enough evidence to feel sure that Nixon had broken the law somewhere, probably many places.  Breaking and entering, wiretapping, using the power of the government to abusing people on his enemies list, and Nixon’s other problems had led even Republicans to oppose him.  It was only a matter of time until Nixon would be tried and removed form office.

 

*To preserve his dignity, Nixon did not want to be impeached and imprisoned.  He knew there would be the 2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate to impeach and convict him, so instead he resigned on 9 August, 1974, saving the nation the trouble of a presidential impeachment.

 

*Gerald Ford was sworn in the same day as Nixon, and said ‘our long national nightmare is over.’  Ford planned to do a different kind of job than Nixon had done.  He also told people to stand by their government because even during the Watergate Scandal, the government ultimately worked.  Unfortunately, after Nixon, no-one would ever fully trust a president again.


 
This page last updated 30 November, 2009.