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Richard Nixon as president

Learn about Nixon's presidency, including his strategy to get the United States out of the Vietnam War, his foreign policy maneuvers with China and the Soviet Union, and his fall from grace due to the Watergate scandal. 


  • Richard M. Nixon served as president of the United States from 1969 to 1974.
  • Nixon attempted to extricate the United States from the ongoing war in Vietnam with limited success. Although his administration negotiated a cease-fire in 1973, in 1975 North Vietnam overran the South and united the country under a communist government.
  • Nixon's chief victories were in the arena of foreign policy, as he reopened American relations with China and relaxed tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974 after revelations that he had directed the FBI to cover up an investigation of his supporters' illegal activities at the Watergate office complex.

Richard Nixon, the politician's politician

Richard M. Nixon was a career politician, whose all-consuming passion was getting and holding onto power. As one historian put it, "Political maneuvering was the great game of Richard Nixon's life. He played it grimly and with pride in his expertise at it. He had no other hobbies."1 A native Californian, Nixon had been vice president to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1952-1960, but he had lost his first crack at winning the presidency in 1960 to the youthful and charming John F. Kennedy.
Richard M. Nixon served as President of the United States from 1969-1974. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Eight years later, with the Democratic Party in disarray amidst the quagmire of Vietnam, Nixon had a second chance at the highest office in the land. He won the election of 1968 against the uninspiring Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey, but Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress. Although Nixon was no fan of the Democratic social programs that had taken root during Johnson's presidency, he initially did little to roll them back, choosing to spend what political capital he had on achieving his vision for US foreign policy.2
Thus, Nixon focused his attentions mainly outside of the United States, promising that he would bring "peace with honor" after years of bloodshed in Vietnam.

Nixon and Vietnam

During the election of 1968, Nixon had promised he had a "secret plan" to get the United States out of Vietnam. His plan turned out to be twofold: first, the United States would undertake a plan of Vietnamization, slowly replacing the more than 500,000 American soldiers on the ground with South Vietnamese soldiers. Second, the United States would carry the war into the neighboring country of Cambodia, which was officially neutral but had served as a conduit for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops.3
The American people were hardly enthusiastic about either of these plans; by that time, the war in Vietnam was so unpopular that any course of action other than an immediate end to the conflict was greeted with hostility. Although Vietnamization did reduce the number of American troops in Vietnam to just 50,000 by 1973, it brought morale among the remaining soldiers to the lowest point yet as their reason for fighting became even more uncertain. The incursion into Cambodia set off a wave of protests around the nation and on university campuses in particular. In Ohio, the governor called out the National Guard to put down riots at Kent State University. The guards shot and killed four young people and wounded nine others on May 4, 1970, in an incident that sparked rage across the nation.4
Nixon's administration negotiated a ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973, but gained few key concessions. In 1975, the North Vietnamese succeeded in conquering the southern capital, achieving their war aims of uniting Vietnam under a communist government. The cause for which so many Americans had fought and lost their lives was lost.5
South Vietnamese citizens being evacuated by the American military after the fall of Saigon, April 1975. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nixon's foreign policy

Despite the debacle in Vietnam, Nixon did achieve a few key foreign policy victories during his time in office. Notably, Nixon reopened the American diplomatic relationship with the People's Republic of China, which the United States had refused to recognize since its communist revolution in 1949. The president and first lady Pat Nixon took a two-week-long public relations trip to China in 1972.6
Astutely judging that a closer US relationship with China would make the Soviet Union very anxious, Nixon took a trip to the USSR shortly thereafter. He and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev agreed to a policy of détente (relaxed tensions between the two nations) and signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), reducing the number of nuclear missiles in their arsenals.7

Domestic policy under Nixon

With Democrats dominating both the House and the Senate, legislation in the early 1970s looked a lot like legislation in the 1960s. Spending for social programs actually increased in the first years of Nixon's presidency, with expansions to Social Security, increases in food stamps and Medicaid benefits, and new funding for the arts and for cancer research. During these years, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency to combat pollution, as well as protections for female university students in Title IX.8
Although Nixon hoped that appointing right-leaning Supreme Court Justices like Warren Burger and William Rehnquist would counteract the liberal rulings of the 1950s and 1960s, the increasing conservative court largely upheld earlier decisions and even ruled that abortion was a private matter between a woman and her doctor in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. The Burger court had a mixed record on racial issues, however, extending affirmative action protections but ruling against busing students to combat de facto segregation.9
Economically, Nixon tried and failed to cope with the growing issue of stagflation, an unprecedented combination of wage stagnation and price inflation. In 1971, Nixon announced a ninety day wage and price freeze, and in a bid to increase American exports he took the dollar off the gold standard. Neither of these solutions did much to resuscitate the struggling American economy.10

Nixon's fall from grace

A secretive and paranoid man, Nixon believed everyone was plotting against him. In reality, he was his own worst enemy. In 1972, allegations emerged that Nixon loyalists had wiretapped the Democratic National Committee office in Washington's Watergate building in order to spy on Democratic nominee George McGovern. Tapes of Nixon's conversations in the Oval Office revealed that he had forbidden the FBI from investigating the incident, a clear obstruction of justice.
Facing the threat of impeachment, Nixon resigned in 1974. He was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford, who immediately pardoned Nixon on all charges.11

What do you think?

Was Vietnamization a good idea? Why or why not?
How did Nixon's approach to communist countries abroad differ from other presidents' strategies?
What effect did Watergate have on American citizens' opinion of their government?

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