Vietnam War and Watergate 1969–1974
The Vietnam War further complicated the reform process. Kennedy had to some extent supported South Vietnam (see Vietnam’s history) with military advisors and assistance. During 1965, American participation in the war intensified, and from 1966 to 1967, the war became a major issue in American politics. Johnson argued that “butter and cannons” could be given priority at the same time, but in practice the reform work at home soon became marked by the need for military appropriations. During a civil war in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965, Johnson had also sent marines.
Johnson’s benevolence to the Soviet Union at the same time weakened the impression of an aggressive US foreign and defense policy. The relaxation policy between the two superpowers was continued in several areas, but the Vietnam War remained the major battle issue and the American people remained divided. So strong were the demonstrations and demolitions, even within Johnson’s own party, that in March 1968 the president declared that he would not seek re-election. In May, US and North Vietnam representatives began negotiations in Paris.
The mood in the country remained particularly excited for some time. The assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June reflected this. The same was the riots surrounding the Democrats’ nomination meeting in Chicago in the summer of 1968. Here, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated as presidential candidate, but demonstrations and police violence in connection with the meeting gave a somewhat uplifting picture of the political situation. In addition came George Wallace’s right-wing extremism; The Alabama governor left the Democrats and stood as presidential candidate.
Republicans nominated former Vice President Richard M. Nixon as a candidate, and Nixon won by 31.3 million votes (302 electoral votes) against Humphrey’s 30.9 million (191) and Wallace’s 9.8 million (45). But Democrats retained their majority in Congress.
The majority of American voters had counted as Democrats since the days of New Deals, but in 1968 Nixon also received support from several Democrats. The reason was partly white backlash, but probably also Nixon’s promise of an end to the Vietnam War. It should turn out that the peace settlement in Vietnam dragged out. It was only in January 1973 that the necessary agreements between the parties were signed after hard negotiations and resumption of warfare.
The conclusion of the peace for the Americans was largely a result of a changed foreign policy course in relation to China. Nixon visited China in 1972, as the first US president. This became the prelude to a marked improvement in the relationship between the two great powers. From the spring of 1973 they exchanged diplomats with diplomatic status (without embassies). The United States, a country located in North America listed on ehistorylib, also stated its opposition to Chinese membership in the UN.
At the same time, the US government strengthened good relations with the Soviet Union. Nixon visited Moscow in May 1972, again as the first US president. Leonid Brezhnev reciprocated his visit to the United States in June 1973. But the war in Vietnam became an increasingly serious burden for the United States. Resistance to the war increased both in the United States and Western Europe.
From 1969, Nixon attempted a “Vietnamization” of the war. US troops were reduced from over 500,000 in 1968-1969 to just over 70,000 in 1972. In contrast, the bombing of North Vietnam escalated. Following the peace treaty in 1973, the United States abandoned the defense of South Vietnam. For the first time, the United States had lost a war, with 59,000 fallen in 12 years.
Economic developments in the US showed strong inflation at the same time as stagnation in some important industries (stagflation). Rising expenses thus coincided with increased unemployment (about 3.5 per cent in 1969, which doubled until 1973–1974 and reached nine per cent in 1975–76). The energy crisis that followed the Vietnam War created a greatly overheated economy. Nixon tried to curb the growth in unemployment through public grants; Deficit budgeting became common practice and national debt rose. In addition, he tried to keep prices down.
In 1972, for example, price and wage controls were introduced, but with moderate success. And despite the undogmatic outlook, Nixon’s administration showed a clear conservative profile. His appeal to conservative southern state attitudes was particularly expressed through Nixon’s appointments of Supreme Court judges.
In the 1972 presidential election, Nixon won a superior victory over Democrats George McGovern, the party’s leftist. In the election, Nixon won 61 percent of the electorate, but still had a majority in Congress.
Nixon was finally fielded by the Watergate scandal. The break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington DC on June 17, 1972 would prove to be just one of many expressions that the Nixon administration had, over a long period of time, used illicit funds in its zeal for political power. Starting in the fall of 1972, Watergate issues came to dominate the American public debate, paralyze the administration’s domestic activity and threaten foreign policy.
The scandal escalated as Nixon’s closest co-workers John Ehrlichman and Harry Robin’s “Bob” Haldeman had to step down after the White House in March acknowledged that attempts had been made to cover up obvious illegalities. It did not help the administration’s case that Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973 because of a tax case. In his place, President Nixon appointed Congress Representative Gerald Rudolph Ford jr. He was quickly officially approved by Congress in accordance with recent constitutional amendments.
In the spring of 1974, the House of Representatives officially began preparing national law for the president; it became clear then that Nixon could not avoid prosecution. On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced that he was leaving the office of President. Gerald Ford took over the next day. As its vice president, Ford appointed Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who, unlike Ford, belonged to the Liberal wing of the Republican Party. On September 8, Ford pardoned Nixon for any federal wrongdoing he may have committed. But the battle between Congress and Nixon was also a culmination of the rivalry between the two state powers; the legislative and the executive.
Consolidation in 1974-1981
Ford’s presidential term (1974–1977) was marked by the need to unite the nation and restore respect for the national institutions. Prior to the 1976 presidential election, Ford won the Republican nomination with Conservative Midwest Senator Robert Dole as vice presidential candidate. At the election, Democrats largely retained their strength in Congress and won the presidential election. Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and his Liberal Vice Presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale got 51 percent of the vote against Ford’s 49 percent. Carter was the first Southern politician to win a US presidential election since 1848.
For Carter’s victory in 1976, it did not matter that he represented an alternative to the nation’s more established politicians. At the same time, it was pointed out that this could prove to be a weakness in the relationship with Congress. The solid democratic majority here would therefore be no guarantee that Carter’s reform proposals could be implemented. Carter was no reformer either. In many ways he remained a stranger in Washington. He did not manage to reduce unemployment or inflation. The black population of the United States, which strongly supported him in 1976, did not see his financial position improving.
However, it was foreign policy that got the most attention during Carter’s term. His strong interest in human rights contributed to this and led to increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The hostage drama in Tehran (1979-1981) and, among other things, the Carter administration’s unsuccessful rescue operation seemed to emphasize that the US position as a superpower was weakened.
On the other hand, Carter’s mediation efforts in the Middle East led to the signing of a framework agreement for peace between Israel and Egypt (the Camp David Agreement) in 1978, and for a while helped to increase the international prestige of the United States. In time, this coincided with increasing national pride in the United States.