In 1968, after Lyndon Johnson declined to run for re-election, Republican Richard Nixon—an experienced politician who made his name as a Cold War-rior and anti-Communist. Nixon’s Presidency would be marred by his personal short-comings that led to a shameful downfall that left deep scars for the country.
Nixon was paranoid about enemies out to get him, a feeling fueled by his immense insecurity. This also drove him to his obsession with power and being in control. These qualities were also responsible for his successes. Nixon was a strong foreign policy President. But true to his character, his approach was based on secrecy and double dealing.
For instance, to get elected in 1968, he promised the American people a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. But in reality, he wanted to keep it going. So while publicly vowing to end the conflict, he secretly escalated it further by bombing the neighboring country of Cambodia, and invading another, Laos. At the same time, a Pentagon report known as the Pentagon Papers was published by the New York Times. The report showed that the Johnson administration systematically lied to the American public and to Congress about Vietnam in order to get more support for the war. While this happened during the previous administration, it reflected poorly on Nixon’s White House too, by association.
Nixon attempted to stop the Times from writing about the report. Nixon had the Attorney General seek a court injunction to stop the paper from publishing any more articles about the Pentagon Papers. This resulted in the Supreme Court case of New York Times v. the United States (1971). The government argued that the classified document was a threat to national security. The newspaper claimed its reporting was protected by the First Amendment. The Court sided with the Times because the government’s case did not prove the need for “prior restraint” of the information contained in order to protect national security. In retaliation for this and for press uncovering the attacks on Cambodia and Laos, Nixon ordered wire-taps—the illegal taping of phone conversations—of key reporters and government workers to find out who exposed it.
Nixon did have a plan for getting out of Vietnam. He called it the “Vietanmization” of the war. And it was part of the Nixon administration’s larger Cold War plan, called Détente. Vietnamization was the gradual shifting of the responsibility for fighting the conflict from American soldiers to South Vietnamese. We would support people fighting communism, but because the war was so unpopular and Americans wanted to bring troops home. This plan started because Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, decided that containment of communism was not possible. Instead, to give the United States the upper hand in world politics, they sought to pit the communist nations of China and the USSR against each other. In 1972, Nixon famously visited China, the first official visit to a communist country by an American President. By improving relations with China, he made the Soviets nervous, forcing them to also improve relations with the United States. Later that year, the strategy helped produce the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear arsenals. This era of the Cold War, which is characterized by an easing of tensions between the superpowers, is called Détente—sometimes called a thawing of the Cold War. Improved relations with China also paved the way for a cease-fire in Vietnam (the Chinese supported Ho Chi Minh’s war). Secretly, however, Nixon and Kissinger promised to give South Vietnam support if the cease-fire was broken—something they fully expected to happen.
With the successful trip to China, the historical arms limitation agreement with the Soviets and an end to the war in Vietnam all under his belt, Nixon easily won re-election in 1972. But a scandal of epic proportions was uncovered in 1973 that would ruin it all—Watergate. The break-in to the Democratic head quarters at the Watergate Hotel was only the tip of the iceberg. The way Nixon ran things involved widespread abuse of Executive power, such as wire taps by the CIA. Nixon spied on Americans like no other President before. He had government agents infiltrate the black power movement, the anti-war movement, etc. Nixon thought he was above the law—yet he told the American people, “I am not a crook.” Nixon recorded all meetings and phone conversations in the White House. Two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reported on the unfolding scandal, receiving an inside tip about Nixon’s involvement and taped conversations to prove it. As the Watergate investigation began to collect evidence, investigators sought these tapes. Nixon attempted to block the release of tapes and documents, citing “executive privilege”—claiming that these documents contained classified information that threatened national security. In the ensuing Supreme Court case—the United States v. Nixon (1974), the Court decided 8-0 that the White House must turn over the evidence. Famously, one tape the investigators were looking for had an eighteen minute gap. This further led to people thinking that Nixon was covering up his involvement in the scandal. Later, another tape was uncovered where it became clear that he had abused his power to cover it up.
Consequently, the House of Representative began articles of impeachment. Before they could vote—and even more importantly before the Senate would try the case and uncover all of bad things his administration had done—Nixon resigned from the Presidency, disgraced.