Richard Nixon is surely best remembered for the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation. There is certainly much more to his time in office than that, however.
President Nixon certainly possessed more than his fair share of character flaws. Of this there is very little doubt, especially after the release of the embarrassing “Watergate tapes,” which consisted of recordings secretly made by Nixon of phone calls and conversations within the Oval Office itself.
As a result of all of this, it becomes very easy to write Nixon’s Presidency off as a complete and utter failure. In this, it is often forgotten that Nixon’s first term is generally accepted as having been quite successful – culminating in a 1972 reelection by a wide margin.
So what did Nixon do that was so impressive, and which made him so popular to Americans?
When Nixon is remembered fondly, it is often as a result of his great many successes in foreign policy. He succeeded in finally putting an end to the war in Vietnam (although this did not, of course, put an end to the violence in Southeast Asia – it just took America out of it all) with considerable help from legendary Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (a man very nearly as controversial as the President himself).
Nixon was able to establish a policy of “Vietnamization,” wherein the American troops which remained in harm’s way in Vietnam would be gradually (though as quickly as possible) replaced by Vietnamese troops who were then being trained for combat.
Nixon approved secret bombing campaigns of Cambodia and Laos (which were believed to contain strongholds for the Vietcong), which was in itself very controversial and of questionable effectiveness. The war was finally ended just before Nixon was inaugurated for his second term, with the Paris Peace Accords in January of 1973.
In addition to mixed success in Vietnam, however, Nixon found great success in mediating relations between the U.S.S.R. and China (despite his well-known fervent opposition to Communism). He was responsible for at least taking some steps in the direction of lessening the Cold War tensions which had dominated the previous four administrations, culminating in China finally opening itself up (at least partially) to Western influence.
The early 1970’s were also a time of very intense struggle between Israel (only a few years after the Six-Day War of 1967) and the surrounding Arab states, such as Egypt and Syria. Again in this, Kissinger took the lead, helping to ensure the survival of the state of Israel and mediating a temporary end to the hostilities.
On the home front, Nixon also pushed through a tremendous number of legislative actions, many of which were far closer in political ideology to the New Deal programs of Roosevelt or the policies of Lyndon Johnson than the fiscal conservatism of Republicans today.
Nixon was responsible for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, established wage and price controls, expanded on social security, passed the first affirmative action legislation, continued to remove America from the gold standard, and established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Although credit for the establishment of the “space race” policies that drove NASA throughout the 1960’s, is often given to President Kennedy, perhaps the most memorable event of all of Nixon’s Presidency (apart from the scandals, of course), was the 1969 landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The Watergate Scandals
The sequence of events which led to Nixon’s eventual resignation had been growing for several years before the actual “Watergate” incident (where associates of the President were caught breaking into the Watergate hotel – home to the Democratic National Committee offices). In fact, this incident was only a small part of the scandal as a whole, which revolved around any number of illicit activities of questionable legality, including illegal wiretapping of state department officials and reporters in hopes of stopping White House leaks.
With the arrest and conviction of the Watergate burglars, these Presidential transgressions began to come to light and the President’s approval rating plummeted, especially as it became clear that even the President himself was not immune to prosecution and impeachment seemed inevitable.
Facing this crisis, President Nixon resigned the office of the President on August 8, 1974.
After this, the darkest moment of Nixon’s political career, the embattled former President worked hard to regain his political standing. His transgressions were pardoned by President Ford, his successor, and he spent much of the rest of his life as a political advisor, specializing in foreign policy.
Nixon died in 1994 at the age of 81.