The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Richard Nixon

Title: Richard Nixon
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Richard Milhouse Nixon, the thirty-seventh president of the United States, was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California, and died in New York City on April 22, 1994. A man of great political and intellectual ability, he was also handicapped by serious character flaws, including secretiveness and a readiness to use unsavory and morally questionable tactics in the pursuit of political ambition, defects that contributed to the Watergate burglary scandal that ultimately made Nixon the first president ever to resign office. Initially a fierce anti-Communist, as president from 1969 to 1974 Nixon reoriented his country's foreign policy away from uncompromising anti-Communism, reopening relations with mainland China and negotiating a series of major arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, while negotiating a peace settlement whereby the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam. Throughout his presidency Nixon also demonstrated a new consciousness of the limits that constrained American international power, demanding in the 1969 Nixon Doctrine (or Guam Doctrine) that U.S. allies bear more of the burdens of waging the Cold War and become less reliant upon their superpower patron.

The son of a grocer, Nixon always felt disadvantaged by his relatively modest background. He attended local public high schools in Whittier, California. After studying at Whittier College and on scholarship at Duke Law School, Nixon practiced law in Whittier until 1942. After a brief stint in the Office of Price Administration, during World War II Nixon spent four years in the navy, serving as an aviation ground officer in the South Pacific and becoming a lieutenant commander. After demobilization in 1946, he ran successfully for Congress as a Republican and in 1950 for a California Senate seat, races notable for his use of anti-Communist smear tactics against his Democratic opponents. Nixon quickly became notorious for red-baiting, a reputation he won through service on the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he aggressively participated in the Alger Hiss espionage investigation.

From 1950 onward, with ever-increasing vehemence, Nixon used the unexpected outbreak of the Korean War and the stalemate it reached after spring 1950 as a political weapon to attack the Truman administration, charges he reiterated during the 1952 presidential campaign, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican nominee, selected Nixon as his running mate. Nixon spent eight years as vice president, demonstrating particular interest in foreign affairs and traveling extensively. In 1960 he narrowly lost a presidential race to John F. Kennedy and in 1962 was also defeated in the California gubernatorial race. In a bitter and close election race in 1968, however, he was elected president on the Republican ticket, winning a second term with a landslide victory in 1972, the beginning of more than thirty years of Republican political dominance in the United States.

As president, Nixon belied his earlier reputation as an uncompromising anti-Communist, restructuring the international pattern of U.S. alliances by "playing the China card" and moving toward recognition of the Communist People's Republic of China while using the new Sino-American rapprochement to extract concessions on détente and arms control from the Soviet Union. In doing so, Nixon worked closely with his energetic national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, restricting Secretary of State William P. Rogers largely to routine diplomatic business until Kissinger finally replaced him in August 1973.

In 1968, the inability of the United States to achieve victory in the controversial Vietnam War, despite increasingly high deployments of troops to Vietnam, dominated the political agenda. Nixon won the presidency, promising that he had a secret plan to end the war expeditiously. Instead, he fell back on the failed policies of the Johnson administration's program while embracing the program of "Vietnamization," gradually withdrawing American troops while providing South Vietnamese forces with massive amounts of war supplies intended to enable them to defend themselves. In August 1969 Kissinger embarked on protracted negotiations with the North Vietnamese, which ultimately resulted in the accord signed in Paris in December 1972. Antiwar Americans attacked Nixon for his secret bombing of Cambodia and an outright U.S. and South Vietnamese invasion of that country in 1970, which destabilized its governments and contributed to the bloody Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia. Ironically, a greater number of Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon's presidency than during the Johnson administration.

In December 1972, when Republic of Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to sign the Paris Peace Accords and the North Vietnamese refused to renegotiate the terms already agreed to, Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam that ultimately led Hanoi back to the negotiating table and brought some largely cosmetic changes to the peace terms. The Vietnam War continued without the Americans, however, and in April 1975 North Vietnamese forces triumphed. Many Americans assailed Nixon for a peace settlement that effectively assured South Vietnam only a "decent interval" before a North Vietnam takeover occurred.

American withdrawal from Vietnam was only part of the broader strategic realignment that Nixon and Kissinger envisaged, terming it their "Grand Design." The Nixon (Guam) Doctrine, announced in July 1969, called upon American allies to bear the primary burden of their own defense, looking to the United States only for supplementary conventional and, when necessary, nuclear assistance. Since the end of World War II, the international currency system had been linked to gold, with the dollar and pound as reserve currencies, each worth a fixed amount of that metal. By the time Nixon became president, the U.S. balance of payments deficit and consequent overseas demands for American gold were exposing the dollar to so much pressure that in 1971 Nixon removed it from the gold standard, the beginning of an era of floating currencies that continued into the twenty-first century.

Conscious that their country no longer enjoyed the undisputed supremacy of the immediate post-World War II period and that growing economic difficulties mandated cuts in defense budgets, Nixon and Kissinger hoped to negotiate arms limitations agreements with the Soviet Union rather than unilaterally cutting U.S. military spending. To pressure the Soviets, whose relations with Communist China had become deeply antagonistic by the early 1960s, Nixon began the process of reopening U.S. relations with China, visiting Beijing in 1972 where he had extended talks with Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai and effectively prepared to jettison the long-standing U.S. commitment to the Republic of China on Taiwan and to recognize the People's Republic in its stead.

These tactics alarmed Soviet leaders sufficiently to facilitate a relaxation of Soviet-U.S. tensions broadly termed détente, which led to the conclusion of a major nuclear arms control agreement. Détente did not mean the end of Soviet-U.S. rivalry so much as it meant managed competition. Nixon took great pride, for example, in the fact that in 1969 the United States, not the Soviet Union, was the first-and to date only-nation to send a manned mission to the moon.

After winning his second presidential victory in 1972, Nixon hoped to move toward full recognition of China and further arms control agreements. The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 diverted his administration's attention from these plans, as it precipitated an Arab oil embargo on Western states that followed pro-Israeli policies, contributing to an international spiral of skyrocketing inflation and high unemployment that afflicted the United States and Western Europe throughout the 1970s. Presidential summit meetings with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at Moscow and Yalta in June-July 1974 brought no immediate results, in large part due to Nixon's own calamitous domestic problems, even though they set the stage for the Helsinki accords and additional arms control agreements under Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford.

His superpower juggling apart, Nixon had a mixed record on foreign affairs. Nixon's relations with European nations were somewhat strained, as leading allies, including France, West Germany, and Great Britain as well as Japan, resented the secrecy and nonconsultation with allies that characterized Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy and Nixon's readiness to place American interests ahead of European concerns. During the Nixon years, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt launched his Ostpolitik, seeking improved relations with the Soviet bloc regardless of U.S. sentiments. Japan's government particularly resented being left ignorant of U.S. intentions to reopen relations with Communist China, an initiative that also predictably horrified Jiang Jieshi's Guomindang Nationalist regime in Taiwan. In 1973 the Nixon administration also sanctioned Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) involvement in a military coup against left-wing President Salvador Allende of Chile, in the course of which Allende died. Critics charged that Nixon and Kissinger showed little understanding of or empathy toward developing nations around the world and in the interests of maintaining stability were overly ready to support authoritarian regimes in such states. Critics also attacked both men's international diplomacy for showing insufficient sensitivity to human rights.

The Watergate political scandal, when the president's unavailing effort to conceal the involvement of his close aides in a botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee's Washington headquarters itself became the focus of political and criminal investigations, not only led to Nixon's resignation in disgrace in August 1974 but also finally aborted all his ambitions for further progress in overseas affairs. Some critics felt that the unsavory tactics of secret harassment, which the Watergate investigations revealed Nixon had used against his political opponents, could be blamed in part on the habitual fondness for covert operations and frequent transgressions against civil liberties that successive Cold War presidents and their advisors had justified on national security grounds ever since World War II.

Nixon devoted his final two decades to writing his memoirs and numerous other books and essays on international affairs, part of a broader and ultimately reasonably successful campaign to engineer his rehabilitation and win respect from contemporaries and a place in history for his presidential achievements and foreign policy expertise. In Nixon's final years, several presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and William Jefferson Clinton, sought his insights on various international subjects, especially relations with China and the Soviet Union. When Nixon died in 1994, Clinton accorded him the honor of lying in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, a symbol of his political recovery, and politicians of both parties eulogized his achievements. By the early twenty-first century, some historians admired Nixon's accomplishments, but others still cherished an almost visceral distaste for not just the man but what they considered his opportunistic and unprincipled pragmatism and the often unscrupulous political operating tactics he apparently found particularly congenial.

Priscilla Mary Roberts

 

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