The American Republic Since 1877 © 2007
Politics and Economics, 1971—1980
This chapter takes a looks at the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. It also describes how the 1970s saw a new spirit of détente, a crisis that resulted in the first presidential resignation, and a domestic economy that ran out of gas.
Section 1 examines the domestic and foreign policy agendas of President Richard M. Nixon. By 1968 many Americans longed for an end to the violence and protests that had riddled the nation during the 1960s. Richard Nixon appealed to "Middle Americans" when he promised a return to peace, order, and traditional values. Once in office, Nixon won Southern support by dragging his feet on desegregation and working to overturn several civil rights policies. His conservative Supreme Court appointments held the Warren Court reforms in check. Under his New Federalism program, he dismantled federal programs to give more power to state and local governments. At the same time, he sought to increase the power of the executive branch. Applying a practical approach to foreign policy, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, used engagement and negotiation to improve relations with China and the Soviet Union. Historic trips abroad created a new spirit of détente and resulted in the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I).
Section 2 details the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon administration. In 1972 a bungled burglary in the Watergate office complex led to the arrest of five men. As media investigations pointed to a White House connection, President Nixon authorized administration officials to cover any tracks. In televised hearings, White House and campaign officials exposed one illegality after another. A shocked nation watched as one top Nixon aide testified that the president had orchestrated the cover-up. Nixon continued to deny involvement and desperately tried to prevent judicial access to taped conversations. It took a Supreme Court order to override his claim of executive privilege. Facing indisputable evidence, Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress passed a number of laws that aimed to prevent future abuses of power, while Americans were left with a deep distrust of public officials.
Section 3 discusses the Ford and Carter administrations. When President Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford inherited a nation in turmoil. Inflation, foreign competition, and an oil crisis helped send the economy into a recession. Ford hoped that the voluntary controls of his Whip Inflation Now program would make an impact on the economy's troubles, but the program failed. In 1976 voters rejected Ford's economic policies and chose Washington outsider Jimmy Carter to lead the country. Carter's economic policies proved no more effective than those of the last two presidents, but his foreign policy mission was clear. A champion of human rights, Carter took a stand against Soviet aggressors, made an important agreement with a Latin American neighbor, and brokered a triumphant peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. However, his inability to free U.S. hostages in Iran cost him support in the 1980 presidential election.
Section 4 describes how Americans sought fulfillment and escape during the 1970s. During the "me decade," Americans grew more self-obsessed. They embraced New Age ideas and tried transcendental meditation in their quest for spiritual enlightenment. More women looked for personal fulfillment outside the home. As women's roles in society expanded, some traditional values disappeared. Popular culture reflected women's new roles and also portrayed African Americans in a new light. Themes such as racism and abortion were no longer television taboos. The "me decade" fostered a fitness trend, and aerobics and running attracted wide followings. Before the end of the decade, a dance craze swept through the nation that had many Americans moving to a disco beat.