Richard Matthew Pious. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
On 9 August 1974, Richard Nixon arose in the White House and, after meeting briefly with the household staff and his cabinet, took a helicopter from the lawn to Andrews Air Force Base, where he boarded a presidential plane for a trip with his family to the West Coast. But this trip was different from all others, for at exactly noon, while Nixon was flying over Jefferson City, Missouri, his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, delivered a letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that read, “Dear Mr. Secretary: I hereby resign the Office of the President of the United States. Sincerely, Richard Nixon.” The thirty-seventh president of the United States had become the first in American history to resign the office in disgrace. The tragedy of the Nixon presidency lies not in its politics or policies, or even in its confrontation with Congress and the courts over the extension of presidential prerogatives, but rather in its use of unconstitutional, illegal, and illegitimate means to achieve its ends.
Politics as War
Nixon had always played politics not merely as a game against worthy opponents but as a war against enemies. His first campaign for a congressional seat, in 1946, in California was conducted against Jerry Voorhis, a five-term Democratic liberal. Nixon linked Voorhis with a left-wing representative from New York City, Vito Marcantonio, and falsely claimed that Voorhis had been endorsed by a political action committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He won the election and two years later, taking advantge of the California primary law, entered and won both the Democratic and Republican primaries, thus avoiding potential defeat in an election year that favored Democrats. In 1950, Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas for a California seat in the United States Senate with the same techniques: he linked Douglas to Marcantonio by distributing the infamous “pink sheet,” which tied their voting records together.
Nixon propelled himself into national politics through his skills as a tactician. A member of the California delegation to the 1952 Republican National Convention, he convinced the delegates to vote in favor of the “fair play” resolution that settled a dispute over credentials of rival Taft and Eisenhower delegates in favor of Eisenhower, thus ensuring the general the nomination. As a result, Nixon’s name appeared on the shortlist of acceptable vice presidential candidates that Eisenhower submitted to a group of Republican leaders at the convention. The group recommended Nixon, because his anti-Communist credentials and tough campaign tactics would complement Eisenhower’s political assets and because Nixon would help Republicans in the West.
Nixon took the low road in the presidential campaign, referring to Adlai Stevenson as an appeaser whose election would be welcomed by the Kremlin. In the midst of the campaign it became known that a group of seventy-six southern California businessmen had contributed to a secret fund that paid Nixon $900 per month (a total of $18,168.87 up to that point). Nixon defended himself by misrepresenting the uses to which the money had been put, claiming it was for office expenses only. In a nationwide television address on 23 September 1952, he claimed that he and his wife did not live well and that Pat Nixon did not even own a fur coat like corrupt Democrats but only “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” Revealing that someone had given his children another gift, a dog that they had named Checkers, he said defiantly, “Regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.” When the so-called Checkers Speech met with overwhelming public approval, Eisenhower realized that he would be better off keeping Nixon on the ticket. At a meeting a few days later, he announced, “You’re my boy.” The two were swept into office in November.
The Vice Presidency
Nixon was given no substantial responsibilities as vice president. He presided occasionally over the Senate and chaired the President’s Commission on Government Contracts, which dealt with racial discrimination by government contractors, and the Cabinet Committee on Price Stability for Economic Growth, a group with a long title but short reach in the councils of the administration. The extent of Nixon’s influence on administration policy can be judged by Eisenhower’s answer at a press conference when asked for an example of Nixon’s contributions: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
During Eisenhower’s convalescence from a heart attack in 1955, an ileitis attack in 1956, and a stroke in 1957, Nixon handled himself with restraint. The vice president chaired nineteen cabinet sessions and twenty-six meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), but the reins of government were held by the principal White House aides. The Eisenhower-Nixon agreement on succession in the event of presidential disability served as a model for later administrations, as did Nixon’s conduct in these situations.
Nixon was an integral part of the White House political operation. He campaigned for Republican members of Congress in 1954 and 1958. He criticized the Democratic-controlled Congresses. He was part of the White House operation that successfully contained Senator Joseph McCarthy attacks on the administration for being soft on Communism and helped devise the strategy that gave McCarthy enough rope to hang himself with his Senate colleagues. Nixon also participated in the negotiations with Senator John Bricker over changes in the Bricker Amendment, a proposal to place limits on the powers of the president to frame treaties and to ensure that treaties are consistent with domestic law. Eventually the amendment failed to pass Congress.
Nixon positioned himself as a moderate “Eisenhower Republican” on most issues, as well as a unifier within his party. A 1958 trip to Latin America during which he braved the wrath of street demonstrators and, a year later, his famous “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow with Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union also boosted his public standing. By late 1959 half the electorate believed he would make as good a president as Eisenhower or better, and most thought he would be better than Truman. Nineteen Gallup polls of Republican rank-and-file voters all ranked him first among contenders for the 1960 Republican presidential nomination.
Nixon won the nomination easily but ran a poor election campaign, allowing his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to take the offensive on issues, catch up in the polls, and win the first of four televised debates, which subsequent surveys indicated helped contribute to Nixon’s subsequent defeat. The recession and Eisenhower’s failure to take strong measures to stimulate the economy also contributed to the results. Nixon believed that voting irregularities in Cook County caused him to lose Illinois, but he was statesmanlike enough not to contest the results. Kennedy’s popular-vote total was only 118,574 more than Nixon’s. In the electoral college, the results were 303-219.
Nixon returned to California and ran for governor in 1962 in a fierce and somewhat underhanded campaign that included a fraudulent “poll,” supposedly conducted by a group of Democrats but actually prepared as a form of campaign literature by the Nixon camp. A court injunction put a stop to this “dirty trick,” and Nixon lost the election. In a postelection news conference, Nixon concluded a series of self-pitying remarks by observing that the press would not “have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” After his defeat, Nixon moved to New York City, where he joined a large law firm and continued his activity on behalf of Republican candidates in the 1966 congressional campaign. He continued to travel extensively, sharpening his knowledge of world affairs with wide-ranging discussions among leaders of other nations. By 1967, his financial backers, organized as Richard M. Nixon Associates, were raising funds to bankroll another drive for the White House.
The 1968 Presidential Contest
Nixon was one of several viable contenders for the nomination. Moderates supported George Romney and later Nelson Rockefeller, while Ronald Reagan bid for conservative support. Nixon, situated as a centrist, had to dispel notions that he was a loser and then build a coalition consisting of professional party politicians, personal loyalists, and groups from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party. Nixon’s tactical skills again brought success. He made a deal with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, promising the South that he would appoint “strict constructionists” to the federal judiciary, name a southerner to the Supreme Court, oppose court-ordered busing, and pick someone acceptable to the South for the vice presidency. With this deal set, Nixon was able to win much southern conservative support and head off Reagan. A series of successes in primaries dispelled the loser image, and his standing in the preconvention polls indicated he could win the election, thus undercutting Rockefeller’s premise that to back Nixon was to concede the election.
The election results put Nixon in the White House, but under inauspicious circumstances. The third-party candidacy of George Wallace left Nixon with only 43 percent of the vote, hardly a popular mandate. Nixon received 31.7 million popular votes (301 electoral votes); Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, won 30.8 million votes (191 electoral votes); and Wallace’s American Independent party drew 9.4 million votes (46 electoral votes). Nixon won what political scientists call a deviating election—that is, one in which the advantage in party identification remains with the party that lost the election. In Congress, Democrats enjoyed a 57-43 advantage in the Senate and a 243-192 advantage in the House, with Republicans picking up just five House seats to go along with their gain of six in the Senate. Nixon would face a Congress controlled by the opposition and could not rely on a party-based legislative strategy. Instead, he would have to put together shifting coalitions: sometimes center-right, linking most Republicans with the southern Democrats to pay off his debts to the South or to support his foreign policies, and sometimes center-left, with moderate Republicans joining liberal Democrats to pass his own version of modern and progressive Republican social welfare, economic, and environmental legislation. At least in domestic affairs, the Nixon presidency promised to be eclectic and unorthodox.
Nixon never improved on this weak political position. His 1972 victory over George McGovern, with 59.7 percent of the vote, provided him with the support of the “Silent Majority” or “Middle America,” as he called it, but he did not lead his party to victory. There were no appreciable changes in Democratic advantages in party identification and voter registration. In 1970 midterm elections the Republicans picked up two Senate seats but lost twelve in the House, and Nixon’s strident campaign speeches contributed to this disaster, although the president claimed that he had won an “ideological majority” in the Senate. In 1972 the party lost the two Senate seats but regained the twelve in the House. By 1974 the Watergate investigations (see below) left the party in shambles: Republicans lost four Senate seats and forty-nine House seats, and held less than one-third of governorships and state legislative seats. Republicans did not make a comeback until 1978 and 1980.
Nixon refused to follow the Eisenhower pattern of consolidating Democratic programs and attempting to run them more efficiently. He was prepared to make major departures, in part to conciliate the South on race; in part to build a new coalition with policies on aid to parochial schools, opposition to abortion, and support for school prayer, all of which would appeal to Roman Catholics; and in part to appeal to his traditional Republican constituencies with attacks on President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society welfare policies.
Race was the most important domestic issue. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) stalled on implementing desegregation of southern school districts until prodded by federal court orders. By 1970 the administration had bowed to the inevitable, with Nixon setting the tone by declaring that legal segregation was inadmissible; almost all of the all-black southern schools were merged into unitary school districts by 1970, and less than 10 percent of black school-children attended all-black schools by that time, a major advance from the preceding administration.
The president remained strongly opposed to court-ordered busing and came out for the concept of the neighborhood school. He proposed that Congress ban court-ordered busing, ordered the Justice Department to oppose busing orders in pending lawsuits, and called for a $1.5 billion program of new federal aid for school districts in the process of dismantling their segregated facilities. These proposals bogged down in Congress, which did pass several measures, sponsored by southern Democrats, to end the use of federal funds for busing.
Nixon’s proposed amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, up for renewal in 1970, were tilted toward the South. The president proposed that its provisions be extended to all states so as not to “discriminate” against one region and that voting-rights lawsuits be tried first in state courts, a change that would have diminished the prospects of effective enforcement of the law. A group of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee scuttled the Nixon draft, and a bipartisan coalition substituted its own extension of the bill, which also included provisions for granting the vote to eighteen-year-olds.
An unusual departure for the Nixon administration was the plan developed by Secretary of Labor George Shultz to provide training and employment openings for minorities on federally funded construction projects. The government, especially Labor Department and HEW officials, began using racial classifications and numerical goals in implementing their desegregation programs—the first example of “affirmative action.”
Law and order was another administration priority. Antiwar and civil rights demonstrations and civil disturbances on the campuses and streets created a backlash among the constituencies Nixon was courting. With children of the post-World War II baby boom coming of age, the crime rates soared. The administration responded with the vigorous use of four measures: the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act (1968), the Organized Crime Control Act, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970), and the District of Columbia Criminal Procedures Act. Provisions emphasized wiretapping, preventive detention, and other measures that aroused the opposition of civil libertarians. No appreciable dent was made in the crime rate, which was the province of local law enforcement, and a war on illegal drugs also had little success.
Other Nixon initiatives involved attacks on several of the most visible Great Society programs, which Republicans had strongly opposed. In January 1975, Nixon eliminated the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the coordinating agency for the so-called War on Poverty, begun in 1964. The controversial Community Action Program was reorganized, other OEO programs were moved to other departments, and funding for some activities was cut.
The Nixon administration had its own proposals to fight poverty. It rejected two approaches that were being considered at the end of the Johnson administration—nationalizing the existing welfare program or instituting a guaranteed minimum income through a negative income tax—and instead proposed a program of family allowances developed by the Urban Affairs Council under the direction of Daniel Moynihan. The program was eventually defeated in the Senate in 1970 by an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals. The administration did succeed in passing a welfare reform measure that gave the national government complete control over welfare programs for the aged, blind, and disabled, and that provided more than $2 billion in additional payments in the welfare programs annually.
Because Nixon was pragmatic in domestic matters, he could be persuaded or pressured into new initiatives. Bar associations, acting in concert to salvage the Legal Services Program from the wreckage of the Great Society, managed in 1972 to get Nixon to lift his veto threat against legislation converting the Legal Services Program into the Legal Services Corporation with a larger budget and an autonomous board of directors, in spite of Nixon’s initial decision to curtail the program severely to please his conservative supporters. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was greatly expanded to provide billions of dollars of purchasing power to the nation’s needy, through the efforts of Senator Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, and a coalition of farm-state senators and urban liberals. Nixon proposed the New Federalism program in response to the pleas of governors and mayors, hard hit by demands for new services and revenue shortfalls caused by recession. Various narrow categorical grants were consolidated into “block grants” to give states more flexibility in programming funds, although by the time Congress finished with the Nixon proposals, the new grants looked suspiciously like the older narrow grants. Congress also passed a Nixon initiative to provide the states and cities with $30 billion in federal revenues over a five-year period. Responding to the demands of environmentalists, Nixon proposed legislation that led to the creation of the Council on Environmental Quality (1969), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), and the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). New laws provided tougher standards for water and air quality.
Nixon’s domestic record was neither liberal nor conservative, but politically pragmatic. His civil rights policies, judicial appointments, and unsuccessful attempts to appoint southerners to the Supreme Court all represented political payoffs to the South. Nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell were blocked by a coalition of legislators sensitive to charges by civil rights organizations that these men, while on the federal bench, had either demonstrated opposition to Supreme Court case law protecting the rights of blacks or demonstrated incompetence in applying the law. In spite of well-publicized attacks on some Great Society programs, transfer payments to the poor, the sick, and the elderly increased greatly. Federal expenditures for intergovernmental grants soared. Early in the Nixon presidency, Attorney General John Mitchell, meeting with a group of civil rights leaders, suggested that they “watch what we do, not what we say” in judging the performance of the administration. By that standard, the Nixon presidency must be adjudged innovative and responsive in practice, although it seemed conservative and uncaring in its rhetoric.
Like most presidents, Nixon had little grasp of complex economic issues but a clear understanding of his political stakes in them. At all costs a recession and high unemployment were to be avoided going into the reelection year of 1972.
The president inherited a mess. Johnson had not followed the advice of his economists, and the result was soaring inflation (up to 5 percent in the last quarter of 1968, double the average rate since 1956). Unemployment was low, at 3.3 percent. Given a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation, Nixon would accept higher unemployment rates in order to cool down the inflation, provided it would lead to prosperity by 1972.
Early economic policies, set by Treasury Secretary David Kennedy, Under Secretary Paul Volcker, and Labor Secretary George Shultz, called for a relatively tight budget and a moderately restrictive monetary policy by the Federal Reserve Board. A tax bill passed in 1969 incorporated several Nixon initiatives, including a repeal of the investment tax credit and removal of 2 million of the nation’s poor from the tax rolls. But by 1970 it was clear that the program was not working. In June of that year the Council of Economic Advisers began issuing “inflation alerts.” By July a shortfall in revenues led Nixon to embrace the concept of the “full employment balanced budget,” which provided for large deficits if the amount of expenditures did not exceed the revenues that would have been obtained under conditions of full employment. When Nixon submitted his budget to Congress in January 1971, he used this concept to justify a proposed $11.6 billion deficit and even publicly embraced Keynesian economic principles to argue that government expenditures would pull the nation out of recession. For a Republican president, all this was quite unorthodox, as Democrats gleefully pointed out.
With inflation and unemployment both on the rise, Nixon’s appointee to chair the Federal Reserve, Arthur Burns, shifted from a tight-money policy. Early in 1971 the president began to criticize unions and management for agreeing to excessive wage increases in the steel industry. Nixon established the Tripartite Committee to monitor union settlements in the construction industry. By late spring, recently appointed Treasury Secretary John Connally was convinced that bold new measures were needed. By early summer the balance of trade had deteriorated so much that a full-scale flight from the dollar ensued. Unemployment was over 6 percent and climbing.
Meetings held at Camp David in mid-August produced agreement on a new economic program. As outlined by Nixon to the nation on 15 August in a nationwide television address, it included the closing of the gold window and the ending of the convertibility of the dollar into gold; actions that amounted to an 8 percent devaluation of the dollar against other major currencies, thus stimulating American exports; a 10 percent surcharge on foreign imports to discourage their consumption; and measures to stimulate the domestic economy, including an end to the excise tax on automobiles, a 10 percent tax credit for business investment, and a speedup in the personal income tax exemption, to be reflected in reduced withholding taxes in workers’ paychecks. To counter the inflationary psychology, Nixon announced a ninety-day freeze on wages and prices (under authority granted to him the year before by the Democratic Congress) and the establishment of the Cost-of-Living Council. These measures, dubbed the “Nixon shocks,” were taken without any prior consultation with America’s allies, which caused severe strains in relations with them. Inflation was halted temporarily and then slowed as a second phase was implemented on 14 November 1971, with creation of the Pay Board and the Price Commission, which could monitor compliance with guidelines for increases in wages and prices.
By the beginning of 1972, with 2 million more people out of work than in 1969, the administration began to stimulate the economy. The budget sent to Congress in January provided for a $25.2 billion deficit. Government agencies accelerated their purchases from businesses. The Federal Reserve Board expanded the money supply by 9 percent in the election year, leading to charges (which Burns vehemently denied) that Nixon and Burns had made a deal to ensure Nixon’s reelection and Burns’s reappointment. By the autumn the economy seemed to be turning around. Inflation remained under control, unemployment was dropping, and the recession had ended. Later the American public would pay the price for these election-year arrangements. Inflationary forces could not long be suppressed by wage and price controls, and when they were lifted, the effects of increased deficits, an expanded money supply, and the rise in oil prices made themselves felt: inflation increased to 8.8 percent in 1973 and 12.2 percent in 1974, beginning a decade of exceptional price instability marked by increasing inflation rates through the end of the Carter presidency.
The Vietnam War
The priorities of the Nixon presidency lay not in domestic social or economic policies—which were simply the means to the end—but in reelection through creation of a majority coalition. What really interested Nixon was statecraft, the application of American power and diplomatic influence to regional and global problems.
The key problem for his presidency clearly would be the Vietnam War. It had driven his predecessor from office, and if it were not resolved in a way that could be turned to political advantage, it would drive him from office as well. Two months after Nixon assumed the presidency, American combat deaths exceeded thirty-six hundred, and there seemed no end in sight. Nixon was in a dilemma, for during the campaign he had said that he had a “secret plan” to end the war but could not divulge it because it might upset the Paris peace negotiations. If his plan involved escalation, Democrats could charge that he was abandoning attempts to reach a peaceful solution and could point to mounting American casualties and prisoners of war. If he negotiated a solution that led to the fall of the government in Saigon, Democrats could charge that he had abandoned an ally. Nixon had to find a way to cut American commitments while preserving the non-Communist government in South Vietnam—at least for a “decent interval” so that the overthrow of the regime could not be blamed on the United States.
Nixon, his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird settled on an approach with several elements. First, the Laird policy for “Vietnamization” was adopted. Responsibility for fighting would be turned over to the Vietnamese, in order to reduce American casualties. Gradually American forces would be withdrawn. This would buy time on the home front. Second, a variant of the “madman” approach in international relations would be adopted. The administration would warn the North Vietnamese that unless they settled soon they would be subjected to carpet bombing of cities, mining of harbors, and even the spread of radioactive debris to halt infiltration of the South. Irrigation dikes would be destroyed and forests defoliated. Third, Nixon and Kissinger would apply the principle of “linkage” in dealing with the Soviet Union: the arms and trade agreements to be proposed to the Soviets (see below) would require a quid pro quo—Moscow would have to pressure Hanoi to agree to a settlement.
The Vietnam policy failed. Nixon announced the withdrawal of a half million troops, and by May 1972 no American forces were on combat missions. By January 1973, only twenty-five thousand American troops remained in Vietnam. The level of fatalities and injuries dropped. But the combat effectiveness of the South Vietnamese did not improve. The invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces not only was ineffective but turned into a rout, leaving little doubt that they would be no match for the North Vietnamese.
The escalation of the air war also failed. In mid-March 1969 a secret bombing campaign against Cambodia began; it was kept secret from Congress and the American people for two years. The Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, which supplied the Communists in the south (Vietcong), was also bombed, and the number of targets in South Vietnam was increased. In the spring of 1970 bombing was renewed over North Vietnam (reversing a halt ordered by President Johnson in 1968) in the industrial complex between Hanoi and Haiphong.
Ground actions were also stepped up. Incursions into Laos doubled in 1969. South Vietnamese and American troops made incursions into Cambodia in April and May 1970 to clear out enemy units and headquarters in the “Parrot’s Beak” salient, which was dangerously close to Saigon. The main effect of the intervention was to drive Cambodian Communist units to the west, into the heart of Cambodia, where together with their North Vietnamese allies they prepared for the overthrow of the existing pro-American regime. Not only was this policy unsuccessful militarily, but it triggered renewed antiwar protests at home. At a demonstration on 4 May at Kent State University, National Guardsmen killed four protesters. A huge antiwar demonstration was then held in Washington, D.C., between 6 and 9 May, at which Richard Nixon, in the middle of the night, visited the Lincoln Memorial to talk with some of the protesters about college football, campus life, and other trivialities, not reaching their concerns about the war and the direction of American foreign policy.
North Vietnam meanwhile had its own plans. It prepared for a general offensive in 1972, timed to put pressure on the Nixon administration to settle the war on Hanoi’s terms prior to the presidential elections. In view of the failure of Vietnamization, neither the Soviet Union nor North Vietnam had any intention of giving to American negotiators in Paris what the South Vietnamese could not win on the battle-field. The linkage tactic would not work.
Nixon fared better in the home-front battle for public opinion. Although there were large antiwar demonstrations, including the November 1969 “March on Washington,” the May 1970 Cambodia protests, and the April 1971 “Mobilization Against the War,” there was rising support for Nixon’s policies. Escalation of the bombing and the withdrawal of American combat forces resulted in a significant increase in presidential-approval ratings.
Peace negotiations dragged on throughout Nixon’s first term. Even before entering office, Nixon had passed word to the South Vietnamese that he could probably get better peace terms for them than the Johnson administration. But in 1969 and 1970, each side rejected the other’s eight-point peace plan. In November 1971 peace talks were suspended by Washington, and in 1972 each side in turn temporarily suspended its participation in the talks.
Talks resumed on 19 July 1972, and by the end of the summer two things had become clear to the negotiators: American escalation of the bombing could not induce the North Vietnamese to settle for terms that would require their withdrawal from the South, and no pressure from either the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China could induce the North Vietnamese to settle. But although the North Vietnamese had made major gains with their spring offensive, they had not achieved all their objectives, and they had been dislodged from several of the cities they had taken. Both sides, having played their hands, were now ready for a settlement.
Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho, reached an agreement on terms on 12 October 1972, and two weeks later Kissinger announced, “Peace is at hand.” But when the South Vietnamese objected to the terms (chief of which involved a cease-fire in place, recognition of the territory controlled by each side, and preparation for a political settlement involving sharing of power), Nixon held up the agreement. Instead, he ordered massive bombing of North Vietnam after his reelection. The purpose seems to have been twofold: to convince the North Vietnamese that the United States would not allow the regime in Saigon to be overthrown and to convince the South Vietnamese that secret commitments (made in an exchange of letters between Nixon and President Nguyen Van Thieu) would be honored after American forces withdrew under terms of the proposed agreement. After more negotiations, an agreement was concluded on 27 January 1973, paving the way for an end to American participation in the war and an exchange of prisoners.
Nixon’s commitments to Thieu could not be kept. Congress had imposed restrictions on presidential war-making powers in Southeast Asia, beginning in 1970 with the Cooper Amendment, which provided that no combat troops could be sent to Laos or Thailand, followed by the Cooper-Church Amendment (1970), which prohibited the reintroduction of ground forces into Cambodia, and culminating with passage of the Eagleton Amendment, which called for a halt in all American land, sea, and air military operations in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam after 15 August 1973. Any attempt by Nixon or his successors to use American armed forces to guarantee the survival of the Saigon regime would be illegal. Moreover, the War Powers Resolution, passed by Congress over Nixon’s veto in 1973, required any American president to obtain congressional approval within sixty days for any military action; this presented yet another problem in shoring up the South Vietnamese government. The Nixon commitments to Thieu were therefore not honored by the Ford administration in 1975, which resulted in the reunification of North and South Vietnam under Communist rule.
The China Card
Vietnam was the great failure, and China the great success, of Nixon’s diplomacy. He recognized the advantages that could accrue to the United States by exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift. Peking might put pressure on Hanoi to settle the Vietnam War, while American-Soviet relations might also be affected if Americans and Chinese achieved a détente. During his bid for the presidency Nixon argued, in an article published in the journal Foreign Affairs (October 1967), that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” These comments were surprising, coming from a politician who had made a career of attacking as “soft on Communism” any American political leader who dared to suggest similar ideas.
Hostilities broke out in March 1969 between Soviet and Chinese troops along the Ussuri River, giving Nixon his chance to pursue a diplomatic opening. The first step, recommended by the National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department, was to lift travel and trade restrictions. Then, on visits to President Yahya Khan of Pakistan and General Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, Nixon hinted that he would like better relations with China. By 1970, Walter Stoessel, the American ambassador to Poland, was meeting with Chinese diplomats in Warsaw. In April 1971, signs of a thaw between the two powers became public knowledge, as an American table-tennis team was invited to play in China and was received by Premier Chou En-lai. Later a Chinese team was sent to the United States as part of this “Ping-Pong diplomacy.” By the end of April the Chinese indicated privately they would receive a high-ranking emissary from Washington, and Nixon decided to send Henry Kissinger in secret to make arrangements for a summit meeting. On 2 August, Secretary of State Rogers said that the United States would withdraw its opposition to the seating of Communist China in the United Nations, which occurred in October 1971; but the United States resisted the expulsion of Taiwan unsuccessfully. During the summer Nixon announced that he would visit China early in 1972, and Kissinger was then sent to Beijing for another trip. Kissinger and Chou negotiated the outline of a statement dealing with the outstanding issues dividing the two nations.
Nixon’s visit to China, which began 21 February 1972, was a field day for the news media. The Chinese permitted American television crews to set up modern studio and transmitting facilities. For ten days the world press followed Nixon as he spoke with Chinese leaders and toured the country. Meanwhile, Kissinger and Deputy Foreign Minister Chiao Kuan-hua continued work on the statement that was to be issued by the two sides at the conclusion of the visit.
The final document, known as the Shanghai Communiqué, summarized points on which the two nations could agree. One point was that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of China. Another was that the Taiwan issue must be settled peacefully by the Chinese. A third was that the United States was committed to “the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan” in the context of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.
Each of these points contained some ambiguity. The communiqué did not mention which government, the Communist one on the mainland or the Nationalist one on Taiwan, was the legitimate government of “one China.” Neither did it mention American treaty commitments to the government on Taiwan. It did not specify a timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Taiwan but only committed the United States to the objective of withdrawal and linked it to a peaceful settlement. Nevertheless, the agreement was the beginning of a new era in Sino-American relations. Trade, tourism and cultural contacts increased.
The new relationship did little to help American diplomacy in other matters. The Chinese were unwilling or unable to bring pressure to bear on Hanoi. The China opening may have convinced the Soviets to negotiate an arms agreement, but it is more likely that it convinced them that a plot to encircle them could be countered only by a massive military buildup. Soviet shifting of forces to the East did bring about an advantage to the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a brief time until the effects of the Soviet buildup in conventional arms were felt.
Détente with the Soviet Union
Extrication from Vietnam and the opening to China were two strategies of Nixon’s statecraft designed to produce a more favorable balance of power in the East. In the West, a policy of political and military détente with the Soviet Union, coupled with expanded East-West trade, formed the cornerstone of Nixon’s diplomacy.
Prior to entering the White House, Nixon had been identified with the hard-line anti-Communist politics of the Republican right because of his confrontations with Soviet leaders while vice president and his role in the Alger Hiss case. (Nixon, as a first-term member of Congress, had pursued an investigation of a former State Department employee, Alger Hiss, which had resulted in Hiss’s conviction on a perjury charge.) But Nixon had been part of an administration in the 1950s that had negotiated an end to the war in Korea, participated in the accord that led to the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from Austria, held summits with Soviet leaders, and proposed major arms-limitation initiatives. Nixon had seen firsthand the political advantages of summit conferences in the Eisenhower administration, as well as observing the worldwide acclaim given to President Kennedy for negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. From the first days of his administration, the major goat of his diplomacy was to conclude an arms-limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, to be capped by a successful summit conference. The enticement was to be the prospect of increased trade; pressure was to come from the Soviet fear of a successful American opening to China.
The first moves toward détente were made by Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany. His Ostpolitik led to the Moscow Treaty of 1970, in which Bonn recognized the territorial adjustments of World War II and renounced German territorial claims in the East. By April 1971, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in a speech to the Communist Party Congress, signaled Soviet interest in an arms control agreement. Further negotiations by the West Germans culminated in a treaty between East and West Germany, signed in December 1972.
American arms negotiations with the Soviets were formally conducted in Helsinki, Finland, where Ambassador Gerard Smith, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), led the American delegation. But the real negotiations were conducted between Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and chairman of the NSC’s Verification Panel, and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Kissinger, rather than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was responsible for intelligence estimates and the reports reaching the president about Soviet capabilities and intentions in the arms race. These reports painted a grim picture of rapid Soviet escalation, which was not always shared by other agencies, particularly the State Department, the CIA, and the ACDA.
In May 1971, Kissinger and Dobrynin reached preliminary agreement. In the summer they agreed that a summit conference could take place in the spring of 1972. At the Moscow summit, Nixon and Kissinger conducted the crucial negotiations. No representatives from other agencies were allowed in the negotiating rooms, and even the translators were supplied by the Soviets, thus freezing out Secretary of State William P. Rogers, ACDA director Smith, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
The first set of strategic arms limitation talks (SALT I) agreements, concluded in Moscow in 1972, limited the deployment of antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses to two sites, one of which would be the capital of each nation. This was advantageous for the United States, since the Soviets were considerably ahead in the development and deployment of ABM systems. An interim agreement, to last five years, placed a limit on the number of missiles (referred to as launchers) that each side could deploy. The United States was limited to 1,710 missile launchers, which at the time consisted of 1,054 land-based and 656 sea-based missiles. The Soviets were limited to 2,328 missile launchers; at the time the agreement went into effect, these included 1,607 land-based and 740 sea-based missiles.
The numerical disparity favoring the Soviets had several factors. American rockets were considered more accurate, and more of them were equipped (or soon would be equipped) with “multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles” (MIRVs), or war-heads that could be targeted with great accuracy on several different sites. The Soviets had bigger war-heads and more powerful rockets but were behind in accuracy and had not yet deployed the MIRV missiles they had been developing. The agreement left the United States with 3,500 war-heads and the Soviets with 2,350 warheads.
In several respects the agreement was not very advantageous to the United States. For one thing, it dealt with the quantity but not the quality of launchers or warheads. Each side could equip its missiles with MIRVs and improve their accuracy, a situation that would have a destabilizing effect as each side moved closer to a first-strike capability in the late 1970s. The agreement did provide that neither side would substitute heavy for light launchers (which would increase the payloads) but did not define terms. The Soviets deployed the SS-19, a heavy launcher, in silos designed for the SS-11, an action that led some commentators in America to charge that they were violating the agreement. These charges, in turn, would make it impossible for the Carter administration to secure Senate approval of the SALT II agreement.
The American side made several other concessions to obtain the agreement. Although the Soviets had 42 operational submarines for sea-launched missiles, of which a number were obsolete, the agreement set the number on the Soviet side at 48, which would allow them to finish construction of 6 additional vessels without violating the accord. Moreover, under one of the terms, the Soviets could build additional launchers, up to a maximum of 950 launchers for 62 submarines, provided they dismantled as many as 210 of their land launchers. The United States would be permitted to substitute sea launchers for its 54 obsolete Titan missiles. Kissinger, defending these terms, argued that unless an agreement had been reached, the Soviets would have constructed more than 80 submarines with as many as 600 additional missiles. Critics argued that this overstated Soviet capabilities and that the Soviets could not have built more submarines or sea-launched missiles than the agreement permitted, so in effect there was no real arms limitation for the Soviets in the accord.
Finally, the American side gave up its option to convert the obsolete Titans into 3 new submarines, in return for a Soviet agreement to count 30 missiles on their H-class submarines that had not until then been included in their ceilings. The Soviets also agreed to dismantle some of their obsolete ICBMs at the beginning of the agreement and wait until the end before taking advantage of their option to increase their total number of launchers to the ceilings permitted. During the life of the agreement, the Soviets modernized their forces, gained a much more effective sea-launching capability, and improved the accuracy of their MIRVs, but so did the United States. By the end of the first five years, the United States would have 9,000 warheads, and the Soviets, 4,000.
Along with the SALT I accords, Nixon and Kissinger negotiated a major grain deal (with financial credits) at the summit. The secrecy surrounding the negotiations enabled grain dealers to buy large amounts of grain early in the spring from American farmers at depressed prices and then reap windfall profits from their inventories when the Soviet Union entered the grain markets late in 1972. These purchases were followed by a rise in food prices, which in turn contributed to an increase in the cost of living. In the years following, however, American farmers benefited from rising grain prices and exports.
The Moscow summit also produced a memorandum on “Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations.” The two governments agreed to work for the peaceful resolution of disputes and the reduction of tensions in various areas. There is little evidence that either side paid much attention to them when formulating its approach to regional conflicts. The Soviet resupply of Egypt and Syria during the Mideast war of 1973, the American nuclear alert and resupply of Israel, and successful attempts to freeze out the Soviets from Mideast peace negotiations indicate the limited utility of détente in dealing with regional crises.
The final product of détente was the agreement to hold a conference on European security the following year at Helsinki. Two years of talks there eventually resulted in various agreements between the Warsaw Pact and NATO groupings, most of which would ratify the status quo in Europe. But it also produced the accords on human rights, which the Soviets may have intended as a sop to the West but which became a standard by which public opinion judged repressive regimes all over the world.
The Nixon statecraft had a profound effect on the American military establishment. Withdrawal from the Vietnam quagmire would provide the opportunity to modernize the forces, upgrade the caliber of the men and women serving, and reorient the military toward new missions. The administration went ahead with a new generation of strategic submarines (the Trident program) and increased funding for strategic forces by 15 percent the year after SALT I was concluded. But it also reduced the size of the armed forces from 3.5 million to 2.3 million, withdrew units from several Asian nations, cut the army from nineteen to thirteen divisions and the marines from four to three divisions, ended the draft, and reduced the number of ships in the navy and wings in the air force. The military was ordered to prepare for one major war and one minor war, rather than for two major wars and one minor war, as in the Kennedy and Johnson years.
Prerogatives and Power
Having won a deviating election without the support of an electoral majority and confronted with a Congress controlled by the opposition party, Nixon could not rely on either party leadership or public consensus and support to control domestic and foreign policymaking. He was fairly popular, by historical standards, during his first term and had a surge of popularity in the last year, based on the improved performance of the economy, the reduced role of American forces in Vietnam, the China summit, and the Moscow summit. Even so, his reelection produced a dramatic personal victory in the context of a failure to make gains against the Democratic party in Congress and the states. Nixon’s personal political successes, therefore, would not, and probably could not, be translated into domination of Congress. He would have to control the reins of government almost solely by using his constitutional prerogatives and his own often peculiar interpretation of his responsibilities under the laws of the land.
At times Nixon simply ignored laws. The Federal Comparability Act, for example, required the president to submit a plan for a pay increase for government employees. Nixon refused to submit a plan to Congress during his wage freeze, an act ruled illegal by a federal court of appeals in National Treasury Employees Union v. Nixon (1974). A law passed in 1972 required the administration to submit the texts of executive agreements negotiated with foreign governments to Congress within sixty days. The law was sometimes circumvented by negotiating at a lower diplomatic level and calling the results “arrangements.” Sometimes agreements would be submitted well after the sixty-day deadline. By law, domestic wiretapping requires a judicial warrant, a procedure explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in United States v. United States District Court in 1972. The Nixon administration violated the law, which led to federal court decisions that Nixon and other officials were liable for damages in the illegal wiretapping of a National Security Council staff member, in Halperin v. Kissinger (1976).
Nixon tried to control the bureaucracy with several unconstitutional or illegal ploys. He appointed Howard Phillips as acting director of the OEO, bypassing Senate confirmation, later ruled illegal in Williams v. Phillips (1973). Phillips issued orders to dismantle the entire agency, based on Nixon’s budget requests for the next fiscal year, which provided no funds for OEO. The orders disregarded legislation providing for the continuation of OEO and assumed that a presidential budget request to Congress should take precedence over laws and appropriations. A federal district court ruled these orders illegal in Local 2677, American Federation of Government Employees v. Phillips (1973).
The Nixon administration impounded funds appropriated for various agencies by Congress, either by delaying outlays or else by rescinding an agency’s authority entirely. This power was used as a form of “item veto” to eliminate programs. By 1973, impoundments totaled $18 billion and were justified by Nixon as part of his program of economic stabilization. The problem for the administration was that it did not have any legal authority to make such drastic impoundments. Eventually most of them were ruled illegal by federal district courts and by the Supreme Court in Train v. New York (1974).
Nixon also refused to fill some offices provided for by law. He sent no nominations to the Senate for the National Advisory Council on Indian Education or for deputy commissioner of Indian education, in an attempt to destroy a program legislated by Congress. Eventually a federal court ordered him to fill the positions and implement the program.
Like other presidents facing hostile congressional majorities, Nixon made free use of the veto threat to force compromises on pending bills. As a result, he was only a little less successful in dealing with Congress, as measured by legislative support for his own initiatives or passage of measures favored by the White House, than were his immediate predecessors. Nixon submitted fewer measures than Kennedy or Johnson, and his successes are best measured not by passage of what he proposed but rather by his ability to block or modify initiatives he opposed. Nixon vetoed twenty-four measures and was overridden only five times, employing these powers more often, but with less success, than his Democratic predecessors.
Nixon also made greater use of the pocket veto. This allows a president to kill a bill sent to him by Congress within ten days of its adjournment, by refusing to sign it or return it. Unlike a regular veto, a pocket veto is final; the bill is not returned to Congress and cannot be passed into law by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Nixon used the pocket veto sixteen times. He used it during routine short adjournments of Congress when it went on vacation, rather than at the end of a session, as originally intended by the Constitution. His veto of the family practice of medicine bill during a short Christmas break led to a district court decision that overturned the misuse of the pocket veto in Kennedy v. Sampson (1973). Subsequent presidents have agreed that the pocket veto will be used only at the end of the second session of Congress, though President George Bush briefly revived Nixon’s expansive approach.
The Backlash against Nixon’s Prerogatives
Nixon’s actions inevitably provoked a strong response. First the federal courts forced Nixon to comply with the Constitution and the laws. Then Congress had its turn. The Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974 set new terms for presidential impoundments. The president would have to propose deferrals, which would go into effect unless either house, by simple resolution, disapproved of his plan, in which case the funds would be spent. Rescissions would be submitted by the president in the form of a legislative measure, which would have to be approved by both houses and signed into law before going into effect.
Congress expanded its use of the legislative veto, a mechanism that permits Congress, by simple resolution of one house or concurrent resolution of both houses, to block an action taken, or proposed to be taken, by the president or some other administration official. Laws may even provide that a committee majority, committee chair, or designated employee of Congress can exercise such a veto over the actions of an official of the executive branch. Legislative vetoes were rarely inserted into laws prior to the Nixon administration. Most involved minor matters; housekeeping items; or matters that Congress did not wish to control, such as reorganization of the bureaucracy, pay for federal employees, or certain tariff decisions.
During the Nixon years Congress more than doubled the number of legislative vetoes. It applied them to important issues: arms sales, transfers of nuclear technology, deferrals of appropriated funds. The most significant provision involved the War Powers Act of 1973. Passed over Nixon’s veto, it provided that the president could use the armed forces only pursuant to a declaration of war or other congressional authorization, to repel an attack on the United States, its possessions, or its armed forces. If the president sent troops into hostilities or into a situation in which hostilities were imminent, he was obliged to report this fact to Congress within forty-eight hours.
The key provision of the act was legislative veto over the presidential direction of the armed forces. Once the president issued his first report, he would have sixty days in which to use the military. At the end of that time, unless Congress had authorized continued use of the armed forces, the president would have thirty days to complete their withdrawal. (If continuation were authorized, he would subsequently report on the use of the armed forces every six months while they were engaged in hostilities.) At any time after the first report was issued, Congress could, by concurrent resolution (not subject to presidential veto), direct that the forces be withdrawn in thirty days.
The legislative veto provision could force the president to withdraw at any time. Unless Congress affirmatively gave its approval, the sixty-day provision would automatically require the president to effect a withdrawal. A president sending troops into hostilities would not only have to avoid the legislative veto at the outset; he also would have to win congressional support within sixty days to pursue his goals.
Nixon denounced the law as an unconstitutional infringement on his powers as commander in chief, a position reaffirmed by all of his successors. Subsequently Ford and Carter acted in ways that minimized the effect of the act. In 1983 the Supreme Court, in Chadha v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, declared the legislative veto to be a violation of the principle of the separation of powers. Thus, a decade after Nixon left the White House, a Supreme Court dominated by his appointees managed to eliminate many of the checks that had been placed on presidential prerogatives.
Reasonable people might agree or disagree with Nixon’s domestic and foreign policies, and in most respects these policies were pragmatic and reasoned responses to the problems facing the nation. The expansive interpretation of constitutional prerogatives was not without precedent either; great presidents—Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Truman—had also expanded their powers and minimized legislative authority. Such constitutional trench warfare was part of the political game and could be refereed by the courts and the voters.
But the Nixon presidency had a darker side, a cancer eating away at its legitimacy and the bonds of trust and faith between rulers and ruled. Nixon did not play politics; he practiced war.
What President Ford later referred to as “our long national nightmare” was not a few isolated incidents relating to the 1972 reelection campaign. Rather it was an integral part of the White House political operation from the very first days of Nixon’s presidency. The White House in 1969 compiled an “enemies list” containing the names of two hundred people it viewed as political opponents, including politicians, actors, university presidents, and other well-known figures. There was a “shortlist” targeted for immediate political retribution. Background investigations were conducted by White House operatives to find “dirt” that could be leaked to newspapers. Targets of these investigations included Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert. At a meeting of White House staffers on 7 September 1972, Nixon went so far as to order one or two “spies” to be included in the Secret Service detail assigned to Edward Kennedy, believing that if they got lucky and could catch him with a woman companion, it would “ruin him for ’76.” (There is no evidence that the order was ever carried out.)
The White House used government agencies to harass its opponents. The special services staff of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was ordered to conduct audits of organizations opposed to Nixon’s policies, and did so until the practice was discontinued by Treasury Secretary George Shultz. The CIA’s Special Operations Group conducted “Operation Chaos,” which involved spying on New Left and black militant organizations. The Secret Service files on persons who are threats to the president ordinarily include deranged people who threaten the president’s life, but during the Nixon administration the files ballooned to forty-seven thousand names, including political opponents. On 28 May 1971, Nixon ordered chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to use wiretaps against leading Democrats, including Kennedy, Edmund S. Muskie, and Hubert Humphrey. “Keep after ’em,” he told Haldeman. “Maybe we can get a scandal on any, any of the leading Democrats.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), acting on presidential orders, wiretapped people without obtaining judicial warrants, including people in sensitive government positions. Kissinger himself ordered taps placed on staffers he thought were leaking classified information to the press. Then other officials ordered taps on each other, as factions within the White House attempted to discredit others. Attorney General John Mitchell had the FBI tap John Sears, his competitor as campaign adviser to the president. Alexander Haig ordered a tap on speechwriter William Safire. The Joint Chiefs of Staff used a navy ensign assigned to the NSC’s communications section to spy on Henry Kissinger, who had his own tap on a defense department official close to Secretary of Defense Laird. Taps placed on Morton Halperin and Anthony Lake were used to gather information on the Muskie candidacy, since these former NSC officials were advisers to his campaign. Altogether seventeen FBI taps on government officials or newsmen were uncovered: seven on NSC staffers, three on White House aides, one on a Defense Department official, two on State Department officials, and four on newsmen.
The White House Special Investigations Unit, directed by Egil Krogh and David Young, hired a group of “Plumbers” to conduct special assignments. Howard Hunt, one of their operatives, conducted an investigation of Edward Kennedy, hoping to obtain damaging information about the accident at Chap-paquiddick in which Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and a young female passenger drowned. Hunt also forged State Department cables to make it appear that President Kennedy had been directly involved in the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam in 1963, and attempted to peddle them to Life magazine.
Hunt also organized an operation, ordered by John Ehrlichman, a presidential aide, to obtain damaging information on Daniel Ellsberg, a critic of the Vietnam War. In June 1971, Ellsberg had given the New York Times copies of a history of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by the Pentagon. The “Pentagon Papers” related to the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years, but Kissinger persuaded Nixon that the credibility of American statecraft was at stake; other nations would not trust the United States to keep its secrets or protect its allies. He argued that publication of the papers must be stopped. The government won a temporary injunction in federal district court against the Times, barring further publication—the first time such an order had been issued in American history—but other papers then printed their copies. The ban was lifted and in the Pentagon Papers case the Supreme Court rejected the use of a preliminary injunction as a violation of the First Amendment.
Ellsberg was targeted for retribution. The Plumb-ers believed, on the basis of a wiretap of his conversations with Morton Halperin, that Ellsberg used drugs and had an unorthodox sex life. They then burglarized the offices of his psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, to obtain confidential transcripts or notes of their conversations. Ehrlichman decided that no more of these operations would be conducted, and shortly thereafter the Plumbers unit was disbanded, although other operations continued.
The Resignation of Vice President Agnew
A scandal was brewing in the summer of 1973, involving Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. The United States Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland, was investigating allegations that Agnew, while Baltimore County executive in 1966, had solicited payoffs from contractors doing county business and that as governor of Maryland and later as vice president he had accepted kickbacks from engineers whose firms had received state contracts, even accepting several $2,000 payments in the Executive Office Building next to the White House.
On 31 July, Agnew’s lawyers were handed a letter written by George Beall, United States attorney for Baltimore, informing him that he was under investigation for conspiracy, extortion, and bribery. At a meeting with Attorney General Elliot Richardson, Agnew denied all the charges, and on 6 August, as the story broke in the newspapers, he released a statement saying, “I am innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Although Nixon called Agnew into the Oval Office and assured him of his support, the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, immediately dropped over to Agnew’s office after that conference and suggested to the vice president that if he were indicted he should consider how it would affect his performance as vice president—a not so subtle hint to consider resignation. The White House defended Agnew’s conduct as vice president but made no mention of what he might have done in Maryland, a significant omission. Meanwhile, Richardson and Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen pressed the case, while the Baltimore prosecutors found a key witness—the person who had taken the bribes and stored them for Agnew—willing to talk. Nixon backed Richardson and Petersen and kept his distance from Agnew. He refused to allow Agnew’s lawyers to work with his own to plan a joint strategy involving presidential claims of executive privilege. His statements of support for Agnew were unenthusiastic.
In September, Agnew began to plea-bargain with the prosecutors, but negotiations dragged on for more than a month as he sought a deal that would not involve any admission on his part of wrongdoing. He tried desperately to get out of the corner: he made an issue of leaks to the press by the prosecutors; he had a 20 September meeting with Nixon, trying to get the president to put pressure on Richardson to agree to a compromise; he asked the House to impeach him so that Congress could conduct an investigation, believing that the courts would have to stand aside while an impeachment inquiry was taking place. But all these maneuvers failed. White House aides refused to pressure Richardson, and the Democratic majority in the House refused to impeach Agnew until judicial proceedings had run their course.
The delay was not to Agnew’s advantage. He antagonized Nixon by attacking the Justice Department. His standing in the polls was dropping, a sure sign that he was a political liability. An exhaustive investigation of his finances was completed by the Internal Revenue Service, and the prosecutors now had details about his personal life that conceivably could prove embarrassing if they were revealed. Between 5 and 9 October, Agnew’s lawyers and justice department lawyers cut a deal, which on 8 October was agreed to by a federal judge.
Part of the bargain involved Agnew’s resignation from office. On 9 October he composed a letter to President Nixon and a formal letter of resignation and took both to the president personally. The resignation was effective the following day at 2:00 P.M., just as the former vice president entered the federal courtroom to plead nolo contendere to the charges, which the judge immediately explained was the technical equivalent of a guilty plea. Then Attorney General Richardson read a lengthy statement into the record outlining the government’s evidence against Agnew, which concluded with a plea for leniency (part of the bargain worked out the day before). The judge thereupon decided not to sentence Agnew to jail, pending good behavior for the next three years. He did fine Agnew $10,000 for income tax evasion.
With Agnew out of the way, the president nominated the House minority leader, Gerald Ford, to be vice president, a decision received by Congress with great enthusiasm and strong bipartisan support. With the resignation and succession crises resolved, attention once again turned to the long-simmering Watergate crisis.
On 17 June 1972 five burglars were arrested in the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex in Washington.
The burglary was the culmination of a series of political dirty tricks that had commenced in the fall of 1971. The White House arranged for operatives to disrupt the primary campaigns of presidential hopefuls Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. They stole documents, planted false news stories, sent out forged letters on campaign stationery, and spied on campaign headquarters. These activities were approved by Attorney General John Mitchell, chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, and presidential counsel John Dean.
Mitchell and Dean also approved a plan drafted by one of the Plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy, for an operation to break into, and wiretap, the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Liddy was given $83,000 in cash from the Committee for the ReElection of the President (CREEP) for the operation. On Memorial Day weekend, a group broke into the Watergate to search for information and plant the wiretaps. A second break-in, on 17 June, to replace a faulty tap, ended with the arrest of the five burglars who had been hired for the job.
By 20 June, Nixon had been informed of the ties between the arrested burglars and the White House and discussed the matter with Mitchell and Haldeman. On 23 June, Mitchell and Dean recommended to Haldeman, who then recommended to Nixon, that the CIA be used to obstruct the investigation of the burglary by the FBI. Nixon agreed that the CIA should let the FBI know that the investigation involved a national security matter. The president had become implicated in a cover-up and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The CIA refused to carry out the presidential directive, and the FBI investigation moved forward.
The White House then used campaign donations to buy the silence of the arrested burglars, as well as the organizers of the operation, Liddy and Hunt, both of whom had been arrested by the FBI. White House aides perjured themselves in the initial phases of the investigation by arguing that Hunt and Liddy had been hired by CREEP only to provide physical security for the Nixon campaign. Mitchell and his deputy, Jeb Stuart Magruder, lied to a federal grand jury, which then limited its indictments to the burglars Liddy and Hunt without making any further connection to the White House. The incident was contained through the election, which Nixon won in a landslide, gaining 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 of 538 electoral votes.
Early in 1973 the dam broke. In January the seven Watergate defendants went on trial. Federal Judge John Sirica postponed sentencing after they were found guilty. Prosecutors urged them to tell the truth before sentencing. During the next two months, stories of illegal campaign contributions surfaced, as well as indications of dirty tricks by various government agencies. On 23 March, Nixon met with Dean to discuss continued payoffs to the burglars. Soon thereafter Dean decided to disclose White House involvement to Justice Department prosecutors.
Nixon then fired Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, and Mitchell (formally accepting their resignations) and claimed that he had known nothing of the initial crimes or their cover-up, although he would take “full responsibility” for Watergate. His new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, was given authority to appoint a special prosecutor. In March he selected Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor, to head the investigation, and issued guidelines promising the prosecutor full autonomy in pursuing the case.
In May the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (known as the Ervin Committee after its chair, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina) began its nationally televised hearings. Between 25 and 29 June, John Dean testified, claiming that the president had been involved in the Watergate cover-up. But his testimony could not be corroborated, and it was conceivable that he was merely trying to save himself. Then, in July, Alexander Butterfield, a former White House assistant, revealed that the president had used a taping system to record all conversations in the Oval Office. Dean’s charges could thus be proved or disproved.
From that point on, the key issue was access to the tapes. President Nixon refused to release them to the Ervin Committee, the special prosecutor, or the press, claiming “executive privilege,” the right to maintain the confidentiality of presidential conversations. The Ervin Committee lost a federal court case seeking access to the tapes. The special prosecutor, acting on behalf of the federal grand jury investigating Watergate crimes, also sought access to the tapes and rejected a compromise whereby Nixon would provide only a summary transcript. When Cox rejected this compromise, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. The same order was issued to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who was fired when he refused to obey it. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork was named acting attorney general, and on 20 October he carried out Nixon’s order and fired Cox. The firing was subsequently ruled an illegal violation of Justice Department procedures by a federal district court in Nader v. Bork (1973). These resignations and firings, known in the press as the Saturday Night Massacre, led to the first calls, in the media and in Congress, for the impeachment inquiry.
Attempting to salvage his position, Nixon was forced to agree to the appointment of another special prosecutor and to an agreement concluded with congressional leaders that he would not fire the prosecutor without their concurrence. Leon Jaworski, a distinguished Texas attorney and former president of the American Bar Association, was chosen. By March 1974, former Attorney General John Mitchell and seven former White House aides, including Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean, had been indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The president was also named an unindicted coconspirator, although this was kept secret in the hope that he would agree to give up the tapes.
In April the special prosecutor and the House Judiciary Committee, which was beginning an impeachment inquiry, issued subpoenas for the White House tapes. Nixon, on national television, announced that he would release transcripts of most, but not all, of the tapes requested. The transcripts provided damning evidence of the cover-up activities in the White House, but there was still no direct evidence that Nixon himself either ordered the Watergate crimes or attempted to obstruct the investigation—the “smoking gun” that Republican defenders of the president on the Judiciary Committee demanded to see. In district court Judge Sirica upheld Jaworski’s subpoena. The president refused to comply, and the special prosecutor then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The final act in the Watergate drama had two scenes, one played before the Supreme Court and the other played on the nation’s television screens as the members of the House Judiciary Committee considered the issue of impeachment. A Democratic-controlled committee would be “trying” a Republican president at the bar of public opinion. Its actions must not be, or seem to be, partisan or vindictive. Yet it had no conclusive evidence that Nixon had committed or conspired in criminal activities. The fact that his aides had done so would provide shaky grounds for impeachment.
The Constitution provides that a president is to be impeached for committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” but does not define these offenses. During the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868, Democrats argued that the offense must be an indictable crime; Republicans broadened the definition to include abuse of power and failure to execute the laws and the Constitution. But in 1974, Republicans, including the president, opted for the narrow definition, while Democrats argued that the broader definition would be correct.
The Judiciary Committee, denied access to the tapes by Nixon, could not prove that he had committed an indictable crime, although it did have tapes in which Nixon and Dean had discussed the possibility of bribing the burglars to ensure their silence. Beginning 9 May 1974, the committee heard testimony behind closed doors for eleven weeks, during which Chairman Peter Rodino of New Jersey and staff director John Doar presented the members of the committee with a pattern of misuse of presidential power. Most members were prepared to recommend the impeachment of Nixon for abuse of power, but a group of diehard Republicans still demanded evidence of indictable crimes. In late July the committee held televised hearings so that its members could explain their reasoning to the public.
On 27 July 1974, the Judiciary Committee voted to approve the first article of impeachment, which centered on the burglary and cover-up. On 29 July it approved a second article condemning the abuse of power that involved sensitive government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, and CIA. The next day a final article, condemning Nixon for failure to comply with a subpoena to give evidence to the committee, was also approved. The next step would be for the committee to report its findings to the full House.
Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court, Special Prosecutor Jaworski had pleaded for access to the sixty-four tapes withheld by Nixon on the grounds of executive privilege. On 24 July, in a unanimous decision, the Court held, in United States v. Nixon, that executive privilege was something to be defined by the courts, not the president. In the absence of a valid claim of national security, executive privilege could not be used to withhold evidence from a grand jury about possible criminal actions. Nixon would be forced to turn over the tapes. On 5 August (after the House Committee had voted to recommend three articles of impeachment), he released the tapes to Jaworski. These contained the conversation of 23 June 1972, in which Nixon had discussed the plan to use the CIA to head off the FBI’s investigation of the burglary.
It was now clear to the nation that Nixon had known about the burglary’s connection to the White House and had attempted to use federal agencies to obstruct justice in a criminal matter. Nixon had violated the law and committed an indictable offense. The smoking gun had finally been found. Nixon now had only two options: he could fight a losing battle against an impeachment vote in the House and drag the nation through a trial in the Senate, or he could resign. After consulting with his closest aides and Senate Republican leaders, he chose to resign. On 8 September his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for all crimes he may have committed during his term of office, blocking any subsequent inquiry into his conduct in the Watergate affair, but Nixon did have to pay back taxes of $467,000 for taking improper deductions on his income tax returns.
The Nixon Legacy
On the morning of his resignation, as Nixon spoke to White House staffers and cabinet secretaries in the East Room of the White House, he cautioned those assembled about giving in to a hatred for those opponents who had brought him down. “Always remember,” he admonished, “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Nixon learned that lesson only after he had destroyed his own presidency. But his observation about hatred is important to remember when attempting an objective and fair assessment of the Nixon years.
His immediate place in history, of course, reflected the feelings of the Watergate era. He resigned office with the lowest public approval rates of any president since polls had begun to be taken. In all the surveys of historians, presidential scholars, and the public since, his administration has ranked at or near the bottom, down with Harding, Grant, Andrew Johnson, and Buchanan.
Nixon pursued innovative policies. Yet an opening to China and détente with the Soviets would certainly have been proposed by other presidents—possibly earlier than the 1970s—if Nixon and the political forces he represented had not fought these initiatives so strongly in prior decades. His constitutional confrontations with Congress were counterproductive and unnecessary, and his assertions of power were checked by the courts. Congress later placed new restrictions on many presidential prerogatives, and the little gain Nixon made in controlling policy was more than offset by new restrictions on authority delegated to the executive branch by Congress. In the aftermath of Nixon’s administration, President Ford referred to the “imperial presidency” of the Nixon years as having been transformed into the “imperiled presidency” of the post-Watergate era. Reports both of the swollen powers of the presidency and of its sudden shrinkage were greatly exaggerated. Viewed from the present perspective, it is difficult to conclude that the disruptions of the Nixon years caused permanent damage to the presidency.
The real legacy of the Nixon administration was the introduction of a paranoid style of politics that viewed the struggle for power as a form of warfare against enemies. It countenanced the use of dirty tactics on a scale and magnitude not previously accepted (if one excludes the excesses of local party organizations), especially since these operations were run directly out of the White House and involved the domestic and national security agencies.
The public revelations about Watergate contributed to the steep decline of public confidence in political institutions. Subsequent presidents entered office with lower rates of public approval, suffered steeper declines, and bottomed out at levels approaching Nixon’s lows.
The Nixon administration opened the “gates”: Lancegate, involving President Carter’s OMB director; Koreagate, involving the bribery of members of Congress; Debategate, dealing with the transfer of Carter White House documents to the Reagan camp prior to the national debates between the two presidential contenders in 1980; and Contragate, dealing with an illegal diversion of funds from an arms sale to Iran, in order to aid the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986. In each case the Washington press corps treated the scandal as another Watergate; in each case a beleaguered administration handled matters ineptly, attempting to minimize the issue and contain it. In each incident new revelations and leaks whetted the appetite of the press for more, until eventually heads rolled and reputations were ruined. With each event, confidence in presidents and their aides diminished, and the impression grew that “they all do it.” The presentation of scandal and corruption—whether serious or frivolous—had become a major media industry.
A jaded Washington community might even be prepared for a resurrection of the Nixon presidency. A revisionist interpretation would focus on Nixon’s policies and applaud his constitutional struggles with Congress, seeing them as a prescient understanding of how obsolete the American system of separated institutions checking and balancing each other had become. It would minimize the dirty tricks, placing them in the context of abuses committed by other presidents. It would see Nixon as a tragic figure, too preoccupied by matters of state to pay attention to the well-meaning transgressions of his aides and too loyal to them to protect his own presidency. His would be the sin of loyalty to his men. In short, it would follow the general lines of Nixon’s own subsequent defense of his conduct. But it would be wrong.
After his resignation Nixon attempted to restore his reputation as a statesman. From his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, he wrote his memoirs and six more books, most of them best-sellers, including several volumes on foreign affairs. Of these, the most influential were Real Peace (1983), which focused on relations with the Soviet Union and defended his own approach to détente, and In the Arena (1991), which summed up the meaning of his life in politics and lauded those who entered the arena to struggle for their beliefs rather than those who stayed on the sidelines or shied from conflict. He was treated respectfully and even admiringly as an elder statesman on his visits to the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and more than a score of other nations.
Nixon’s friends raised $21 million to build the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace at Yorba Linda, California, with Nixon himself contributing $2 million. The library, built entirely with private funds, contains exhibits about the Nixon presidency, but the Nixon papers themselves are kept by the National Archives in its own warehouse. The former president sued to keep 150,000 pages of papers away from presidential scholars.
Nixon suffered a massive stroke in April 1994 and was taken to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. According to his living will, he asked for no extraordinary life support measures. He died at 9:08 P.M., 22 April 1994. In a televised ceremony attended by dignitaries and notables from all over the world, President Bill Clinton expressed the sentiments of much of the nation, particularly editorialists and columnists from the media that Nixon had always despised, when he chose to dwell on Nixon’s great positive accomplishments rather than focusing on his unprecedented constitutional crimes.