Nixon and Watergate

*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.

*Unlike many previous presidents, Nixon did not listen to his cabinet much.  Although they were supposed to be his top advisors, many of them were political appointees chosen by the party rather than people Nixon personally knew or trusted.  Consequently, he initially relied on his personal staff who he could trust.  Some of these later were given cabinet positions, but most started out as political allies who had campaigned for Nixon.  After all these years, the spoils system still worked.  Perhaps the most important of Nixon’s advisors, though, was one he had not known outside the White House, his national security advisor and later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who helped shape Nixon’s foreign policy.

*As promised, Nixon brought American peace by Vietnamizing the War, but he was able to do this in part because he and 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 US.  Soviet Table-Tennis players were not invited either time.

*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 capsule, 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 and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) 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.

*Nixon achieved these goals through both compromise and bribery—not only did the United States accept the same arms limitations the Soviets did, but Nixon also began shipping vast amounts of grain to the Soviet Union (and also the People’s Republic of China), where collectivised farming had failed, plunging the country into famine.

*In short, Richard Nixon, a man who had built his career hunting Communists during the Red Scare, began a period of détente with the Soviet Union that lasted for the rest of the decade.

*One reason Nixon was willing to end the space race was that, in a way, America had already won.  On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong made one small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind.  Along with Buzz Aldrin, he spent two hours walking around the surface of the moon, the first humans to ever do so, having finally beaten the Soviets at something in the Space Race.  In the midst of anti-war protests and economic uncertainty, the Apollo 11 moon landing gave Americans something to be proud of.

*Nixon’s presidency also saw the ratification 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.

*Nixon responded to the environmentalist movement by creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

*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.  As soon as the freeze ended, prices went up again.  Although freezing prices temporarily helped American consumers, ultimately it did not help the economy.

*In 1970 and again in 1971, the US government also tried to prop up the economy by printing more money to pay overseas debts.  This led West Germany, a country that understood the dangers of inflation, to pull out of the Bretton Woods System of fixed exchange rates, because it did not want an inflating dollar to drag the Deutschmark down.  In response, Nixon took the US off the gold standard completely (the US went off a true gold standard in 1934, but the US dollar had usually been convertible to gold at a rate of $35 per troy ounce ever since, which had kept the world economy stable as long as other countries did not try to cash in their dollar reserves for gold--as France began doing in the 1960s).  This completely destabilised the old system of currency exchange in what was called the Nixon Shock.  Over the next few years, most government of capitalist countries ceased trying to control their exchange rates, and currency trades based on confidence in various countries economic strength, particularly their trade deficits or surpluses.

*In late 1971, Nixon convinced the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (against his better judgement) to lower interest rates.  This discouraged saving and encouraged borrowing, both of which promoted spending.  This led to a short-term boom in the economy that boosted Nixon's popularity in the election year of 1972, but in the long run simply led to even more inflation over the rest of the decade.

*Aside from these underlying economic problems, in many ways, 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.

*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).

*During Nixon's second term, 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 prices remained higher than they had been before the crisis, and Congress banned the export of most crude oil from the United States, a policy that lasted from 1977-2015.  There was another disruption in oil markets in 1979 caused by a revolution in Iran and other issues in the Middle East that caused another energy crisis.

*However, some of Nixon’s actions during his first term and especially during the 1972 presidential campaign were coming back to haunt him. 

*After Daniel Ellsberg, a former defence department official, gave away secret papers from the Pentagon to the New York Times, Nixon had to do something.  The Pentagon Papers contained a study the Pentagon had done on the war, which showed that the US Government had lied to the American people about the progress of the War in Viet-Nam.  Nixon was furious, and had to get revenge.

*Nixon had a long history of using the power of the government against members of his enemies list, using the FBI, CIA, and especially the IRS to target his enemies.

*Now, Nixon and CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, hired a group of men with undercover experience to stop leaks in the President’s system.  One of their jobs was to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist office in case he had anything would discredit him.  They also dug up dirt and made up lies about many of Nixon’s other opponents.

*In June, 1972, the plumbers to broke 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, a high-ranking FBI agent named Mark Felt, angry about Nixon’s use of the FBI to attack his enemies, began leaking information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.  He asked them to keep his identity secret, and the reporters referred to him by the code name Deep Throat (to his annoyance) and to his true identity was not known for over 30 years.  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 throughout 1973 and 1974, and the House began investigations in 1974 as well. 

*Nixon put all his effort into hiding any evidence he had been involved in burglary, intimidation, or other questionable or outright criminal activities.  Eventually, he started looking for a scapegoat, and White House Counsel John Dean began to fear—correctly—that it would be him, so he turned on Nixon, and in June, 1973, began to testify before Congress.

*During the questioning of John Dean, perhaps the key question was asked by a former Nixon ally, Republican senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker:  ‘What did the President know, and when did he know it?’

*Not long afterwards, other testimony revealed that Nixon had a secret recording system in the White House and had taped all his conversations during his presidency (it had been there, and used, by every president since FDR, although FDR, Truman, and Ike almost never used it). 

*Soon, things got worse for Nixon.  His vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was accused of accepting bribes and not paying his income taxes, and resigned on 9 October, 1973, and the next day was put on trial and eventually imprisoned. 

*I accordance with the XXV Amendment, ratified in 1965, defining the line of presidential succession and how to choose a new vice-president if the office is vacant, Nixon chose House Minority Leader Gerald Ford as Agnew’s replacement and the Senate confirmed him.

*Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor chosen by the Senate committee asked for the White House tapes, but Nixon refused, and ordered Attorney-General Elliot Richardson to fire him.  On 20 October, 1973, in what was known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Richardson refused and resigned instead, as did the Deputy Attorney-General. Finally, Solicitor General and acting head of the Justice Department Robert Bork fired him.  Congress just chose a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, however, and Nixon gave the next prosecutor transcriptions of part of the tapes, but that was not enough.

*The House Judiciary Committee attempted to subpoena the tapes, but Nixon claimed that his executive privilege allowed him to keep them.  In July, 1974, in United States v. Nixon the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn the tapes over, and he did.  However, 18½ minutes of conversation had been erased.

*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 from 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 1 December, 2020.
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