PRESIENT RICHARD NIXON
*Richard Nixon had been Eisenhower’s Vice-President 1952-1960. He had run against Kennedy and lost in 1960, in part because he came across poorly in their debate—the first ever televised. Nixon was respected for his political experience, even though he was often cold and distant in person, and known to have a mean streak. Nixon was always very vindictive towards his enemies, and would do anything to defeat them totally. He took this to the point of paranoia, which ultimately ended his presidency.
*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 works. Perhaps the most important of Nixon’s advisors, though, was one he had not known outside the White House, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who helped shape Nixon’s foreign policy.
*Although the Viet-Nam War absorbed a great deal of Nixon’s attention, he also had many domestic problems to face. The government had spent so much money during the 1960s, mostly on the Viet-Nam War that there was too much money in circulation, causing inflation. Incongruously, there was also rising unemployment. Nixon wanted to cut government spending to stop inflation, but this would likely increase unemployment. Nixon tried to spend more money than the government had (called deficit spending), but this did not solve anything. He also tried the 90-day freeze on wages, prices, and rents, but as soon as the freeze ended, prices went up again.
*In 1973, Israel and Syria went to war. The US backed their ally Israel, who won. All the Arab nations hated the US for helping Israel, and used their power in OPEC to place an embargo on oil shipments to the US. Soon the US ran low on oil, and gasoline prices shot up from 25 cents a gallon to 65 cents. The higher cost of gas meant it cost more to ship things, so everything soon cost more. Therefore people bought fewer things and spent less money, which led to a recession.
*Nixon also cut back Johnson’s Great Society and its spending on welfare, which Nixon said made people lazy. However, he supported some welfare, mostly provided by the states, to keep his working-class supporters happy.
*Nixon did not see any reason to support civil rights. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he said ‘I’ll have the niggers voting Democrat for the next two hundred years.’ Nixon saw that only about 12% of blacks voted for him in 1968, so he decided it would be better to go after white votes in the South by slowing down (but not stopping or reversing) desegregation. This policy of appealing to the South was called the ‘Southern Strategy.’ Nixon stopped funding the agencies that enforced the fair housing laws. He made it easier for schools and other institutions to meet the desegregation requirements and even stopped punishing those that didn’t comply. A big problem was forced bussing—sending students across town to end de facto segregation in schools. Many people resented this, and numerous whites boycotted the school buses. Nixon ended forced bussing.
*Nixon appointed three Supreme Court justices, including the current Chief Justice, William Rehnquist. At the time they were moderate conservatives, but Blackman grew more liberal in his old age.
*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.
*In 1961 Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. 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.
*Watch video clip.
*In international relations, Henry Kissinger used realpolitik, the politics of the real. He put idealism and morality behind the practical needs of the country. He was the most important representative of the US at the Paris Peace Talks, and in 1973 got the Nobel Peace Prize for his work creating the Paris Peace Accords. He had earlier helped convince Nixon to widen the war by attacking Cambodia, ignoring the fact that the bombing campaign there killed over half a million people. His work in Paris, though, made him a celebrity and hero, and his stories were so valuable the press did not dare make him mad.
*Perhaps Kissinger’s greatest success was helping to create détente, a relaxation of tensions, between the USA and the USSR, led by Leonid Brezhnev, and Red China. Nixon had gotten his political start attacking Communists, but now he learned how to work with them. As a practical matter in realpolitik, the USA had to deal with these two huge powers.
*In some ways, America’s most perplexing foe was the People’s Republic of China. The USA still recognised the ROK in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Peking was not admitted to have any power. However, in 1970, Nixon began to speak with Chinese leaders. He used the proper name of the country publicly, lifted trade restrictions, sent ping-pong players to China (where they were beaten badly, but made friends) in ping-pong diplomacy, and in July 1971, Nixon went to China as a goodwill gesture. This amazed the country, because Nixon had hated China for so long. Nixon toured the Great Wall, met Mao Tse-tung and began the long process of treating China as an equal on the world stage. Soon, Taiwan would lose its seat in the UN and Red China would get it.
*Nixon also had meetings with Brezhnev. Together they tried to find a way to limit the arms race. Both had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet, so why not say that was enough. Starting in 1969 and signed in 1972, the SALT I, or Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, froze the level of ICBMs and SLBMs. This was not entirely popular either at home or in the USSR, but most people were glad to see the production of these weapons limited. However, but the USA and USSR, limited in the number of missiles they could own, started building better missiles that could carry multiple warheads. Even more important than what the meeting actually did was the simple fact that the USA and USSR were talking after years of Cold War.
*Ever since becoming president, Nixon had used wiretaps to listen in on the phone lines of his enemies, and his friends so he would know if they tried to betray him. It looked as if someone had leaked information from the National Security Council, so these taps were legal, but they were later used illegally to spy on Nixon’s friends and enemies. In addition, Nixon used the IRS, Post Office, and other forces against people on his ‘enemies list.’
*Nixon had a problem with information leaking out, which really bothered him to the point of obsession. 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 to get revenge he 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. With that mission statement, they were called plumbers. 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 opponents.
*In the 1972 Presidential Election Nixon was the clear favourite over Hubert Humphrey and won in a landslide, winning every state but Massachusetts. The problem is, Nixon, always paranoid, did not think he would win, or at least feared he light lose or get hurt in the election. Therefore, he sent his plumbers to break into the Democratic National Committee chairman’s office and check on wiretaps in the phones. They had to go back after the first trip, and there were caught. The money they carried could be traced to the President, or at least CREEP. Nixon immediately tried to quiet the plumbers down. Bribes and threats were both offered.
*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.
*At the same time, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post were following the story. While hearings dragged on in the Senate, they investigated the Watergate business very thoroughly.
*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.
*In 1973, Nixon lost 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.
*Congress had seen and heard enough evidence to feel sure that Nixon had broken the law somewhere, probably many places. Breaking and entering, wiretapping, abusing personal enemies with the power of the government, 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 will not be impeached and imprisoned. He knows there will be the 2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate to do it, so instead he resigns on 9 August 1974, saving the nation the trouble of a presidential impeachment.
*Gerald Ford is sworn in the same day as Nixon, and says ‘our long national nightmare is over.’ Ford plans to do a different kind of job than Nixon has done. He also tells people to stand by their government because even here, it ultimately worked. Unfortunately, after Nixon, no-one will ever trust a president again.
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This page last updated 9 December, 2003.