The Nixon-Ford Presidencies
On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon took the oath of office as 37th President of the United States. In a three-man race that included former Governor of Alabama George C. Wallace, Republican candidate Nixon narrowly defeated the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, Vice President in the Johnson Administration.
Nixon was no stranger to the White House, having served two terms as Vice President during the Eisenhower years. In 1960, battling John F. Kennedy for the Presidency, he had lost by only 118,000 votes out of 69 million cast. Two years later, after he lost his campaign to become governor of California, most political observers concluded that his political career was over. Nixon moved to New York City to practice law, and there, without a political base, he rallied his forces to achieve the political comeback of the century.
As President, Nixon gave priority to foreign affairs and significantly redirected United States policies. In July 1969 he outlined the broad principle that would guide his Administration; he defined the Nixon Doctrine with these words:
"Its central thesis is that the United States will participate in the defense and development of allies and friends, but that America cannot-and will not-conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest."
During the campaign, Nixon had promised to end the war in Vietnam and so began to slowly but steadily withdraw American troops while continuing strong military campaigns and pursuing a negotiated peace settlement. Although most Americans seemed to support the President's policy of gradual withdrawal, increasing numbers of Americans came to favor an immediate end to the war. These dissenters made their views known in peace demonstrations that were often of massive proportions. Settlement finally came in January 1973, and two months later the last American combat soldier left Vietnam. Fighting between Vietnamese, however, continued: American particpation in the war had cost the country more than 57,000 servicemen killed, more than 300,000 wounded, and more than $135,000 million.
During his first term, Nixon worked hard to improve relations with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Reversing U.S. policy of a quarter of a century, he approved economic trade, cultural exchanges, and political communications with China, highlighted in 1972 by a personal visit to the world's most populous country. Nixon likewise promoted greater trade and lessening of political tension in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, dramatized by a personal visit to Moscow. In 1972 this policy helped produce an agreement between the two countries to limit the number of their antiballistic missile sites and strategic offensive missiles ABM-treaty.
The Nixon domestic record was one of paradox. He increased benefits under the Social Security Act, continued federal subsidized housing for low- and middle-income families, and increased federal support of education. Innovatively, he reversed the trend toward centralization by distributing, through a revenue-sharing program, a portion of federal monies to state and local governments. On the other hand, he vetoed bills to cleanse polluted waterways, to construct public works, and to establish child-care centers for preschool children of mothers who needed to work. He also put less stress on federal government activities on behalf of black Americans.
Continued deficit spending to finance the war in Vietnam and other federal programs eroded the stability of the dollar in the world. This and other world developments brought about the breakdown of the post-1944 system of international exchange based upon American financial leadership. To combat inflation at home, President Nixon experimented with wage and price controls, but the economy continued to exhibit a high inflation rate.
Perhaps the most spectacular event of President Nixon's first term of office was the landing on the moon, on July 21, 1969, of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, while astronaut Michael Collins orbited the moon in the mother ship of the Apollo 11 mission. After landing their lunar craft, Armstrong and Aldrin remained for several hours gathering rocks and other specimens to take back to earth for study. They also staked an American flag and a plaque reading We came in peace for all mankind.
With definite achievements in foreign policy overshadowing his mixed performance at home, President Nixon faced the election of 1972 as a heavy favorite to defeat the Democratic candidate George McGovern, Senator from South Dakota. On election day, when 18-year-olds could vote for the first time, Nixon carried 49 states and won 60.6 percent of the total vote, one of the highest percentages in American history. Ironically, the country again elected a Democratic Congress, as it had in 1968 and 1970.
An obscure event which occurred during the 1972 campaign-the attempted burglary of the Democratic Party's National Headquarters in the Watergate apartments in downtown Washington, directed by members of President Nixon's campaign committee-triggered what was to become a major domestic crisis. During 1973 and 1974, charges of illegal activities by the Nixon Administration mounted from the press, politicians and former Nixon aides. Subsequent investigations by Congress, a federal grand jury and a special independent federal prosecutor, and the resultant trials, disclosed that top Nixon Administration figures had violated due process of law in an attempt to sabotage the Democratic Party campaign in 1972. Charges included soliciting of illegal contributions, withholding of criminal evidence, violation of individual civil liberties, illegal use of federal agencies, and perjury before grandjuries, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Congressional committees.
At first only circumstantial evidence implicated President Nixon, but when the Supreme Court ordered him to make available the tapes of conversations recorded in the Presidential office, it became evident that the President had early knowledge, previously denied, of an attempt to deny proper legal authorities information relating to the Watergate burglary. On August 9, 1974, facing certain impeachment and probable eviction by Congress, Nixon became the first President in American history to resign from office.
President Nixon's resignation came only ten months after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. In an investigation unrelated to the charges against Nixon and his aides, a federal attorney uncovered evidence that Agnew had taken bribes while holding public office. Agnew decided to resign and to plead no contest to a lesser charge of filing fraudulent tax returns, rather than challenging the government's bribery case in court.
To fill the vacant office of Vice President, as mandated by the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution, President Nixon nominated Gerald R. Ford of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The minority leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, Ford was a veteran Congressman with twenty-five years of service and solid standing among his colleagues-Republicans and Democrats alike. After exhaustive hearings both Houses of Congress voted their overwhelming approval of Gerald R. Ford as the new Vice President.