Richard Nixon in Office
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 of 1972.
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 country.
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.
Watergate
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 Spiro Agnew.
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.
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