Richard Nixon in Office
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968.
His conservatism appealed to a nation weary from a tumultuous decade
of social activism and political reform. Nixon opposed racial integration,
denounced the liberal Supreme Court, and promised a return to order,
stability, and decency in America. In office, he scaled back progressive
reforms, eventually pulled U.S. troops out of Vietnam, and focused
on détente between the U.S. and its Cold War enemies.
Despite all these activities, Nixon is best remembered for the Watergate scandal
that ended his presidency.
In the election of 1968, Nixon portrayed himself as the
representative of the “silent majority,” a label he
used to designate American citizens who had grown tired of progressive
reforms, student protests, and racial integration of schools. However,
to the Republicans’ dismay, Democrats in Congress blocked many of
Nixon’s conservative efforts and succeeded in pushing through progressive
reforms, including bills to extend social welfare programs and protect
the environment. One of the most telling signs that the 1960s’ spirit of
liberalism and youth activism still held strong was the Woodstock
Festival, a three-day music festival attended by thousands of young
liberal Americans in August 1969.
Although many of Nixon’s conservative initiatives failed
in Congress, including his attempt to hold off the integration of
Mississippi schools and his opposition to the extension of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965, his efforts did succeed in winning the support
of the white South. This support proved key to Nixon’s crushing
defeat of ultra-liberal Democrat George McGovern in the election
Vietnamization of the Vietnam War and Détente
The Vietnam War was perhaps the most pressing issue Nixon
faced upon coming to office. The war, now widely opposed by the
American public, was sapping the nation of military strength and
economic resources. Nixon and his top adviser on foreign affairs,
National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, Henry
Kissinger, devised three main strategies to “Vietnamize”
(or “de-Americanize”) the Vietnam War. First, he gradually pulled
American ground troops out of Vietnam, reducing the U.S. forces
from about 500,000 in 1968 to about 30,000 in 1972. As a corollary
to these efforts, he announced the Nixon Doctrine, which
pledged a change in the U.S. role in the Third World from military
protector to helpful partner. His second tactic to Vietnamize the
war was to send Kissinger to North Vietnam to negotiate a treaty.
Third, he authorized a massive bombing campaign in March 1969, which
targeted North Vietnamese supply routes throughout Cambodia and
Laos. (The Kent State protests covered in the last chapter were
in response to the bombing in Cambodia.)
The Paris Accords, signed in January 1973,
finally settled the terms of U.S. withdrawal, ending the war between
the U.S. and North Vietnam but leaving the conflict between North
and South Vietnam unresolved. The last American troops left South
Vietnam in March 1973. By the time U.S. involvement ended, 58,000
Americans had died, 300,000 had been wounded, and conditions in
Vietnam were as unstable and war-torn as ever. The war in Vietnam
continued until 1975, when North Vietnam won control of the entire
U.S. participation in the Vietnam War effectively
ended in January 1973 with the signing of the Paris Accords.
The gradual reduction of U.S. troops in Vietnam was an
integral part of Nixon’s plan to achieve détente, an
easing of tensions between the U.S. and its Cold War enemies. In
April 1971, the communist People’s Republic of China hosted the
U.S. table-tennis team, and in February 1972 Nixon visited China
for a highly publicized tour and meetings with Mao Zedong,
China’s leader. Though official diplomatic relations between the
two nations were not established until 1979, this visit resulted
in greatly improved communication between the two nations.
In May 1972, Nixon went to Moscow, where he signed the
first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). SALT
I limited each of the superpowers to 200 antiballistic missiles
and set quotas for intercontinental and submarine missiles. Though
largely symbolic, the agreement sparked hope for cooperation between
the two powers.
Nixon’s presidency ended with the Watergate scandal.
During the 1972 presidential campaign, Nixon created the Committee
to Re-elect the President (CREEP). In June 1972, burglars—later
found to be employed by CREEP—were caught breaking into Democratic
National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex
in Washington, D.C., to plant bugs. A massive cover-up effort began,
with Nixon vowing that no one in his administration was involved
in the break-in. Attempts to destroy paperwork and bribe key individuals
were gradually exposed, most prominently in a series of articles
in the Washington Post. Reporters Carl Bernstein
and Bob Woodward unmasked the Nixon administration’s corruption
and attempted cover-up, having received much of their information
from an unnamed informant known as Deep Throat. Top
officials from Nixon’s administration resigned, including Vice President
In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee adopted an
article of impeachment charging Nixon with obstructing justice.
In August, Nixon turned over tapes of conversations proving his
involvement in the cover-up and resigned as president before impeachment proceedings
began. Gerald Ford assumed the presidency (Ford had
been appointed vice president following Agnew’s resignation). Coming
on the heels of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal inflamed
the American public’s mistrust of the national government.
Facing impeachment because of his involvement
in the Watergate scandal cover-up, Nixon resigned as president on
August 9, 1974.