UNITED STATES HISTORY
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
*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
*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
*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.
*While Nixon largely pursued a policy of détente, he sometimes
returned to his roots as a red hunter. When the Marxist
Salvador Allende with close ties to the Soviet Union was legally
elected president of Chile in 1970 the United States began working
to undermine him, and in 1973, the CIA supported a military coup
against him. As the army surrounded the presidential palace,
Allende gave a farewell address by radio and committed suicide
using an AK-47 that he had received as a gift from Fidel
Castro. He was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, who
ruled until 1990 and made the country prosperous, but also killed
and tortured many people to maintain power, and the CIA’s
assistance in a military dictator replacing a legally elected
president, even a communist one, embarrassed many Americans.
*Richard Nixon’s presidency also saw, arguably, the last battle of
the Indians Wars. The American Indian Movement as founded in
1968 (although partly based on earlier movements organized to
oppose Eisenhower’s Indian policies), and included many Urban
Indians who had left the reservations to seek work in cities
(accounting for perhaps 70% of the American Indian
population). They want better treatment, more opportunities,
and justice for Indians who are victims of crimes by non-Indians
(who often get light punishments for crimes against
Indians). They famously seized Alcatraz Island from
November, 1969 to June, 1971, briefly occupied Mount Rushmore
(built in sacred Sioux land in the Black Hills) in 1971, and in
1973 fought with Federal agents at Wounded Knee, South Dakota--2
Indians and 2 Federal agents died there at the site of what had
been the last battle of the Indian Wars in 1890.
*Furthermore, 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
*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
*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.
*In 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
*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
*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
*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
This page last updated 14 April, 2021.