Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
The election of Richard Nixon Represented the citizenry's reaction against the Vietnam War, the democratization of American life, and the difficulty of adjusting to rapid change. Nixon was elected with the expectation that traditional values would be defended, that changes would be examined, and that they would be consolidated after weeding out those which had proved unworkable.
Return to Republicanism
Foreign affairs were Nixon's consuming interest and in his view of himself, his field of main expertise, Though Nixon had been a devoted cold warrior who had criticized Kennedy and Johnson as inadequately militant in their Cuba and Vietnam policies, he was also a realist, willing to make deals with those who had power.Nixon's task was to adjust American policy to changing international realities as well as to mounting domestic revulsion against the war in Vietnam. Security, as he saw it, demanded no longer the rollback of communism but rather the reestablishment of the classical balance of power.
In his faith in peace through the balancing of power, Nixon seemed to minimize the need for international institutions designed to accommodate the interests of the powerful and protect the interests of smaller states. Instead, he worked with the great powers and preferred secret negotiations to public diplomacy in the belief that those who had power did not want scrutiny of their actions. His boldest step in pursuit of the balance of power design was his reversal of American policy towards the Chinese People's Republic, Kissinger to Peking in July 1971 followed by Nixon to China in February-March 1972--for nearly a week—an unprecedented length of stay for a State Visit. While there, he signed a declaration saying that Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek still ruled, was part of mainland China, that US forces would eventually withdraw from Taiwan, and that the island's future "was to be settled by the Chinese themselves. In essence, he was throwing Taiwan to the wolves, ironic because he had criticized Democrats in the past for not supporting Taiwan strongly enough.
His new China policy was a notable shock to Japan and India, America's older friends in Asia and the prospective makeweights against Chinese domination. Neither had even been notified. Further compounding the problem was the Indian-Pakistan War of December, 1971. Nixon tilted towards Pakistan. India, the world's largest democracy, strengthened its ties with the USSR as a consequence.
His policy towards the Soviet Union was to intensify efforts to control the arms race. In the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT talks), initiated in 1969, the two nations reached an agreement, concluded by Nixon in Moscow in May 1972, to freeze the number of offensive strategic missiles in a treaty to restrict each nation to two Anti-Ballistic Missile deployments. Thus, the US acquiesced in Soviet superiority in Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, submarine-based missiles, and total missile megatonnage while keeping its 3-1 advantage in the number of warheads. This raised the possibility of a qualitative arms race. The Moscow summit did not solve the Middle East rivalry of two powers, one of its stated purposes. The USSR continued to expand its Mediterranean fleet and aiding Arab nations, such as Iraq. The US aided Israel.
In Guam in July 1969, the US said that it would not try to solve all the problems of all world. This presumed retreat from overseas activity reflected the national mood for US citizens were tired of the Vietnam War and feared that the country was trying to do too much. By 1971, however, Nixon was warning of the danger" of "under involvement" and emphasized that the Nixon Doctrine did not mean the precipitate shrinking of the US role in the world. The Nixon doctrine seemed to apply primarily to Asia. In other places, Nixon's policy moved in generally conservative directions. New friendship was expressed for the military dictatorship in Greece and for right-wing regimes in Spain and Portugal. He was a strong supporter of the white governments in Africa. He supported the quasi-fascist military dictatorship in Brazil.
In November, 1968, North Vietnam had responded to the start of negotiations in Paris by withdrawing 22 of 25 regiments from the northern 2 provinces of South Vietnam. President Johnson kept up the bombing pressure, and the withdrawals ceased. Thieu of South Vietnam stalled at sending delegates; he was afraid the South would lose.
When his delegates finally arrived, they stalled for five more weeks by arguing over the shape of the table. Nixon replaced Averill Harriman with Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge quit having the private meetings with the Viet Cong.
Nixon had campaigned that he had a "secret plan" to end the war. Wits said that he should reveal the secret immediately so as to save lives but, of course, he waited until he took office in 1969. It turned out that he was going to reduce US casualties by having the South Vietnamese assume the responsibility of fighting their own civil war. Nixon proposed to "wind down" the war through this Vietnamization. US ground troops declined from a high of 543,400 (April 1969) to a low of 60,000 (September, 1972). This move resulted in lower US casualties and fewer draftees in Vietnam; thus sharply diminishing the political impact in the United States.
Nixon widened the war, however. He defined victory as the preservation of a non-Communist government in Saigon. To achieve victory, he adopted measures long advocated by the military but rejected by Johnson. In March, 1970, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia was overthrown, probably by the CIA, and the right-wing General Lon Nol took his place. As a result, North Vietnamese troops poured into interior Cambodia. On April 30, 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia. Although the US had been secretly fighting there, this invasion was a widening of the war.
The Cambodian invasion sparked serious protests. The anti-war movement had been quiet for most of 1969, giving the new president a honeymoon as he began implementing his "secret plan." In October, 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee brought 500,000 to Washington, DC to protest the war and encourage Nixon to end it. The Nixon administration condemned the protest meeting. It indicated that anti-war sentiment had grown substantially. Nixon became even more anxious to win the war. When Cambodia was invaded in April and May, 1970 one and one-half million students protested on 1200 campuses. On May 4th, four students, on their way to class, were killed by National Guard troops who had been called into action by the governor because of the anti-war demonstrations on the Kent State campus. On May 14th, two Jackson State students were murdered by Mississippi Highway Patrol officers who fired on a dormitory when students there protested the war and racism.
Many Americans were outraged while many others believed that the students had asked for it. These incidents were further evidence of how the war was tearing the nation apart. Congress began raising questions about the constitutionality of the invasion and repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, one of the few legal props for the war.
The Cambodian invasion failed to cut off North Vietnamese and Viet Cong progress and Congress refused to fund Nixon's planned invasion of Laos. In February, 1971, Nixon used US air power to support a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. This, too, failed.
As US troops were being withdrawn, Nixon stepped up the use of US air and naval power. From 1969 to the end of 1971, the US had dropped 3.3 million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, more than Johnson had dropped in five years and more than the US had dropped on Europe and the Pacific in World War II. Nixon was trying to bomb the enemy into submission but it did not work. In the Spring of 1972, North Vietnamese forces launched an offensive which pushed back South Vietnamese forces. Nixon widened the bombing of North Vietnam and mined its harbors but the war was lost.
The Nixon administration had been engaging in secret negotiations between 1969 and 1971 as Henry Kissinger made thirteen trips to France to meet with North Vietnamese diplomats. The US proposed a cease fire in advance of any political settlement and the preservation of the Thieu regime. Nixon had asserted that Thieu was one of the four or five greatest political leaders of the world, and supported Thieu in the 1971 presidential election, one so fraudulent that all of his opponents withdrew. But in 1972, shortly before the US presidential election, Nixon announced progress towards a cease fire. The war ended in 1973. Nixon resigned in 1974 so he did not preside over the rout of the South Vietnamese in 1975 when the North Vietnamese armies took over the entire country.
The war was costly. One and one-half million died in Indochina of whom 58,000 were Americans. Millions more were maimed. Some 500,000 people became refugees. From 1965-1971, the US spent $120 billion dollars directly on the war but other costs raised this amount to $400 billion. Costly, too, was its effect on the US military which thought itself invincible and had difficulty accepting the fact that it was not. Of course, the War of 1812 was a draw, at best, but Americans only paid attention to recent events. It was a long war but not as long as the War on Drugs or the perpetual war that the War on Terrorism promises to be. The Vietnam War left open wounds on the US psyche.
When he ran for president in 1968, he promised to reduce federal spending and regulation, unleash the powers of "free enterprise," end crime in the streets, increase employment, end the war, and unite the country. He said he represented the "silent majority." Since it was silent, no one knew who was in it. The point was that Nixon was elected with the expectation that he would defend and restore traditional values against the democratization of the United States. His supporters thought that Kennedy and Johnson had brought too much change too fast, especially in helping ethnic and/or racial minorities have equal rights. His Southern strategy was designed to get the votes of whites who saw their power being diluted.
Many people resented the growth of one portion of the welfare state, aid to poor people; they did not mind the growth of give away programs to corporations, farmers, and others. The program, Aid to Families of Dependent Children, had grown between 1961 and 1970 to the extent that the caseload had gone from 921,000 cases to 2,200,000. The bill has grown from $2.1 billion in January, 1960 to almost $8 billion in January, 1969. By 1969, almost 6% of the nation, or 7.3 million people, were on AFDC. The increase had occurred in part because War on Poverty officials had taught people how to apply but some of the increase was because Nixon's anti-inflation program of 1969-71 had swelled the rolls. The difficulty in dealing with the problem was that 49% of the recipients were white, 46% were black, and 5% other groups. Making matters worse for those who wanted to say that welfare recipients were lazy bums or cheats was that 55.5% were children. Obviously, no fair minded person could blame a six-month old or an eight-year-old for being poor. Old people comprised 15.6% of those on welfare and the blind and disabled 9.4%. Mothers of working age comprised 18.6% and 20% of those were working on in work training and 40% were unemployable. Until society decided that mothers should not raise their children (which it had by the 1980s), it meant that someone else, private or public day care, would have to raise these children if the policy were changed. The Nixon administration, after it looked at the facts, realized than less than 1% of welfare recipients were unemployed adult males. In Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, children constituted 73.6% of those receiving welfare in 1982 and the average monthly payment to individuals was $30.48, to families $88.52.
In 1969, Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan to replace AFDC; it would provide a guaranteed family income and would cover the working poor as well as the poor who received welfare. This liberal proposal did not pass Congress, however,
In his State of the Union Address in January, 1972, Nixon spoke of a New American Revolution. One element was reform of which poor people got federal government subsidies. Another was reorganization of the executive branch. A third was helping people afford health care. The fourth consisted of anti-pollution measures. The fifth was revenue sharing. Only the last two got much Congressional support and only revenue sharing made an impact. Back in the 1830s when the US had a surplus, the federal government shared revenue with the states but, in Nixon's time and for some years thereafter, the US government was increasing its deficit by giving money to states. For state politicians, it was a no-brainer; they would have money to spend but Washington would get the heat for collecting the taxes or borrowing the money to pay for the program. Nixon and his republican Party wanted it because it enabled them to claim that they were enabling states to have more power.
Nixon had vowed to create a conservative Supreme Court. He appointed Warren Burger but his nominations of Clement Haynesworth of South Carolina and G. Harold Carswell of Florida, men who were accused of racial bias or of not being very smart; he clearly was trying to pay off his conservative, white Southern constituency. When those were rejected, he nominated Harry Blackmun and William Rehnquist, both able men. He made the Court a conservative bastion.
The Republicans did not do well in the 1970 Congressional elections even though Nixon, a popular president, campaigned for them. They lost nine House seats and eleven governorships while gaining two in the Senate.
The economy bedeviled the country. Nixon had inherited inflation from the Johnson administration because of the Vietnam War. Nixon's Vietnam/Indochina War continued inflation. He advocated a tough monetary policy with tight money and high interest rates. The problem of implementing these policies was that they created unemployment as factories and businesses began to let people go when the cost of money rose. Unemployment rose from 3.35 at the end of Johnson's administration (in 1968) to 5.8% in 1970, representing 4.6 million people. Moreover, the value of all goods and services produced in the nation (the Gross National Product) declined but inflation continued. From January, 1960 to August, 1971, the cost of living increased 14.5% and the value of the dollar declined 8.5%. In 1971, the balance of payment deficit hit a record $29.6 billion. Although Nixon had said in mid-1970 that there would be no wage and price controls, in August, 1971 he imposed a 90-day freeze on wages and prices, suspended the convertibility of dollars into gold, and imposed a 10% surcharge on some imports. The last was seen as an specific effort to aid US automobile makers who were unable to compete with the Japanese automobile industry. Although there were three more phases to his economic plan, none had a resounding success. The federal deficit went from $30.2 billion in 1971 to $38.8 billion on 1972. Nixon twice devalued the dollar.
Nixon won an easy re-election in 1972 and not because minimum age for voters was lowered to 18 by the 26th Amendment. The giant Communist powers, China and the USSR, wanted him because they understood hs hard-nosed foreign policy and that he was no threat to them. So they aided his reelection by providing him wiuuth diplomatic coups. He would have won regardless because he and Spiro Agnew ran against George McGovern of South Dakota and Thomas Eagleton and then Sargent Shriver as the vice presidential candidate. That McGovern had to switch vice presidential candidates revealed how inept his candidacy was. He campaigned against Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia, the US role in overthrowing the democratic government of Chile, the special deal the Nixon administration had given the Soviets which cost the US consumer, financial scandals in the Nixon administration, and that the Nixon administration was engaged in illegal political espionage and sabotage. Nixon labeled McGovern a radical and convinced most Americans that he, Nixon, was the only safe candidate. He carried every state except Massachusetts and South Dakota. Although voter turnout was only 55%, the lowest since 1948, Nixon won a resounding 60.85%, second only to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. However, the Democrats gained in the Senate and maintained control of the House.
Nixon's downfall came because he was violating the Constitution and would surely have been impeached and, perhaps, convicted. The long Watergate hearings revealed that the Nixon administration, with the full knowledge and participation of Nixon had violated numerous laws as well as the Constitution. Besides his "political" crimes, it became clear that he had even cheated on his income taxes. He resigned in 1974, turning the Presidency over to Gerald Ford.