Richard Milhouse Nixon: The 37th Retrospective
Richard Nixon had a tightrope to walk while campaigning for the presidency in 1968. He wanted to keep the Vietnam War going as to not give a diplomatic victory to Democrats, making him the architect of his own “October Surprise,” but he also had to placate a war weary nation. So Nixon led on to the South Vietnamese that if they could hold on, the U.S. would come and back them no matter what was said during the election. These kinds of illicit acts marked one of the most shameful presidential downfalls in history
Nixon’s “Secret” Plan
Actually, “secret plan” wasn’t Nixon’s term; a reporter on deadline used it as he covered Nixon’s speech promising quick victory in that vastly unpopular war. But recognizing the power of those deceiving words, and politics being politics, Nixon never corrected the journalistic shortcut.
At a private session with a half-dozen surprised and skeptical editors in the spring of his campaign, Nixon unveiled his get-out-of-the-war plan. Much to their surprise, Nixon said that, upon becoming president, he would (1) arrange a summit meeting with the Soviet leaders to gain their help in ending the Vietnam War, and (2) seek to “de-Americanize” the Vietnam conflict.
There never was a summit with the Soviets. There was no plan to “de-Americanize” the war. Indeed, in speeches and statements, Nixon continued to give the “hawks” in this country reason to believe he would carry on the war – perhaps even, as they hoped, stepping up our involvement. Not surprisingly, they fully backed him.
Yet Nixon was sharing plans to get out of the war. He continued to talk along this same line in “background” sessions with other liberal-minded editors during the months before the election. Behind the scenes, he was reaching out to the “doves.”
The “secret plan” story got around and was a factor in the election, but it’s probably not true. Nixon had been “playing a little politics.” It was a good example of the devious, crafty Nixon at his best – or, more aptly, at his worst.
He was one of the most experienced Presidents we’ve had. He had been a Congressmen, U.S. Senator and Vice President. On his ascension up the political ladder, he accumulated many enemies. In fact, Nixon had an enemies list. This in part would cause him to see the presidency as a vehicle for punishing them, along with rewarding his friends and promoting his own image.
Nixon bore deep resentments against his enemies and thought they were everywhere. This caused him to be obsessed with power, needing to be in control of all time. He bypassed the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense so that he and Henry Kissinger could run foreign policy out of the White House. He believed they were smarter about foreign policy and it would be much more secretive. Indeed, the vast majority of Nixon’s presidency would be him publicly advocating ending involvement in the Vietnam War while privately escalating the war.
The Bombing of Cambodia
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized secret bombing raids in Cambodia, a move that escalated opposition to the Vietnam War across the country. Nixon believed North Vietnam was transporting troops and supplies through neighboring Cambodia into South Vietnam. He hoped that bombing supply routes in Cambodia would weaken the United States’ enemies.
The bombing of Cambodia lasted until August 1973. While the exact number of Cambodian casualties remains unknown, most experts estimate that 100,000 Cambodians lost their lives, with an additional two million people becoming homeless. Enhancing the destruction, in April 1970, President Nixon ordered United States troops to occupy parts of Cambodia. Nixon claimed that the soldiers were protecting the United States’ withdrawal from South Vietnam. American soldiers quickly withdrew, but their presence, along with the air strikes, convinced many Cambodians to overthrow their government, leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a communist and despotic government.
Many Americans opposed the Vietnam War. When media outlets publicized the events in Cambodia, critics of the war became more vocal. College students across the United States became increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the war. At Kent State University, students set fire to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building. Governor James Rhodes called out the Ohio National Guard to restore order at Kent State. The National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters at the campus, with four students dying. Students on college campuses across the country continued to protest the Vietnam War and its escalation into Cambodia.
When the New York Times revealed the secret bombings, Nixon authorized widespread wiretapping of government officials and journalists. This was the beginning of in house wiretapping and of what we now know as “Watergate.” While Nixon did everything he could do to intensify the conflict in Vietnam, he also pursued a radical new plan to end it.
Nixon contended that the communist world consisted of two rival powers — the Soviet Union and China. Given the long history of animosity between those two nations, Nixon and Kissinger decided to exploit that rivalry to win advantages for the United States. That policy became known as triangular diplomacy.
The United States had much to offer China. Since Mao Zedong’s takeover in 1949, the United States had refused recognition to the communist government. Instead, the Americans pledged support to the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. China was blocked from admission to the United Nations by the American veto, and Taiwan held China’s seat on the Security Council.
In June 1971, Kissinger traveled secretly to China to make preparations for a Presidential visit. After Kissinger’s return, Nixon surprised everyone by announcing that he would travel to China and meet with Mao Zedong. In February 1972, Nixon toured the Great Wall and drank toasts with Chinese leaders. Soon after, the United States dropped its opposition to Chinese entry into the United Nations and groundwork was laid for the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations.
As expected, this maneuver caused concern in the Soviet Union. Nixon hoped to establish a DÉTENTE, or an easing of tensions, with the USSR. In May 1972, Nixon made an equally significant trip to Moscow to support a nuclear arms agreement. The product of this visit was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). The United States and the Soviet Union pledged to limit the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles each side would build, and to prevent the development of anti-ballistic missile systems.
Nixon and his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev, also agreed to a trade deal involving American wheat being shipped to the USSR. The two nations entered into a joint venture in space exploration known as APOLLO-SOYUZ.
Arguably, Nixon may have been the only president who could have accomplished this arrangement. Anticommunism was raging in the United States. Americans would view with great suspicion any attempts to make peace with either the Soviet Union or China. No one would challenge Nixon’s anticommunist credentials given his reputation. His overtures were chiefly accepted by the American public. Although the Cold War still burned hotly across the globe, the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger led to a temporary thaw.
Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and strategic arms limitation were the great achievements of his presidency. These breakthroughs with the communist world secured his landslide reelection in 1972. There was a ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973, but secretly and without consent of Congress, Nixon promised to start re-bombing if Hanoi violated the agreement.
Nixon’s wiretapping of reporters, the infiltration of the student movement, the infiltration of the Black Panther Movement, and the overthrow of the Chilean government only increased the focus on Watergate which had been building for years.
Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. The prowlers were connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and had been caught while attempting to wiretap phones and steal secret documents. While historians are not sure whether Nixon knew about the Watergate espionage operation before it happened, he took steps to cover it up afterwards, raising “hush money” for the burglars, trying to stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from investigating the crime, destroying evidence and firing uncooperative staff members. In August 1974, after his role in the Watergate conspiracy had finally come to light, the president resigned. His successor, Gerald Ford, immediately pardoned Nixon for all the crimes he “committed or may have committed” while in office. Although Nixon was never prosecuted, the Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading many Americans to question their leadership and think more critically about the presidency.
The origins of the Watergate break-in lay in the hostile politics of the 1960s. By the time of Nixon’s reelection in 1972, the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided internally. In such a harsh political climate, a forceful presidential campaign seemed essential to the president and some of his key advisers. Their aggressive tactics included what turned out to be illegal espionage. In May 1972, as evidence would later show, members of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, stole copies of top-secret documents and bugged the office’s phones.
The wiretaps failed to work properly, however, so on June 17 the group returned to the Watergate building. As the prowlers were preparing to break into the office with a new microphone, a security guard noticed that they had taped the building’s locks. The guard called the police, who arrived just in time to catch the spies red-handed.
It was not immediately clear that the burglars were connected to the president, though suspicions were raised when detectives found copies of the reelection committee’s White House phone number among the burglars’ belongings. In August, Nixon gave a speech in which he swore that his White House staff was not involved in the break-in. Most voters believed him, and in November the president was reelected in a landslide.
It later came to light that Nixon was not being truthful. A few days after the break-in, for instance, he arranged to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” to the burglars. Then, he and his aides hatched a plan to instruct the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to impede the FBI’s investigation of the crime. This was a more serious crime than the break-in: It was an abuse of presidential power and a deliberate obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, seven conspirators were indicted on charges related to the Watergate affair. At the urging of Nixon’s aides, five pleaded guilty and avoided trial; the other two were convicted in January 1973.
By that time, a growing handful of people — including Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, trial judge John J. Sirica, and members of a Senate investigating committee —had begun to suspect that there was a larger scheme afoot. At the same time, some of the conspirators began to crack under the pressure of the cover-up. Some of Nixon’s aides, including White House counsel John Dean, testified before a grand jury about the president’s crimes; they also testified that Nixon had secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office. If prosecutors could get their hands on those tapes, they would have proof of the president’s guilt.
Nixon struggled to protect the tapes during the summer and fall of 1973. His lawyers argued that the president’s executive privilege allowed him to keep the tapes to himself, but Sirica, the Senate committee and an independent special prosecutor named Archibald Cox were all determined to obtain them. When Cox refused to stop demanding the tapes, Nixon ordered that he be fired, leading several Justice Department officials to resign in protest. (These events, which took place on October 20, 1973, are known as the Saturday Night Massacre.) Eventually, Nixon agreed to surrender some — but not all — of the tapes.
Early in 1974, the cover-up began to fall apart. On March 1, a grand jury appointed by a new special prosecutor indicted seven of Nixon’s former aides on various charges related to the Watergate affair. The jury, unsure if they could indict a sitting president, called Nixon an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
In July, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. While the president dragged his feet, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up and several violations of the Constitution. Finally, on August 5, Nixon released the tapes, which provided undeniable evidence of his complicity in the Watergate crimes. In the face of certain impeachment by the Senate, the president resigned on August 8.
Six weeks after the new president Gerald Ford (1913-2006) was sworn in, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes he had committed while in office. Some of Nixon’s aides were not so lucky: They were convicted of very serious offenses and sent to federal prison. Nixon himself never admitted to any criminal wrongdoing, though he did acknowledge using poor judgment. His abuse of presidential power had a negative effect on American political life, creating an atmosphere of cynicism and distrust. While many Americans had been deeply dismayed by the outcomes of the Vietnam War, Watergate added further disappointment in a national climate already soured by the difficulties and losses of the past decade.
Nixon’s legacy is divided. While he was a brilliant strategist, he will always be tarnished by Watergate. He still remains the only president to resign.
If you don’t like career politicians nor Washington insiders, Nixon would not have been your man. If you are not a fan of politicians who say one thing publicly but do another thing privately, then he would not have been your man either. Nixon was smart and his “partner in crime” Henry Kissinger was also extremely intelligent, so citizens who wanted transparency would not receive it as the White House felt it was smarter than you and need not reveal what they were doing to the public. Finally, if you are leery of presidents whose paranoia about their enemies factors into their decision making as the leader of the executive branch, Nixon was not for you either.
LBJ would precede him
Gerald Ford would follow him
It all started with George Washington.