This week saw the culmination of two years of study with the exam for the AQA module: American Dream: Reality & Illusion 1945-1980. As I may have probably noted in a previous post, this was a module that I inherited at the start of the academic year, and if I’m honest I haven’t had as much love for it as for the other sister module, The Tudors. However, this is not to say that the module was shunted to one side, akin to being kept captive in an attic and fed rancid fish-heads, whilst the other module was showered with praise and attention. If anything, I came to enjoy components of the module, including the shifts in America’s international reputation, as well as in some of the intriguing political characters. No-one was as interesting as disgraced president Richard Nixon.
Nixon won the 1968 election (something that you can read more about here) and led the United States for six years until his unseating in 1974. During this time he made his mark in foreign affairs, notably by establishing a new relationship with the USSR and China (in what has been labelled as ‘detente’: a relaxation of the tension of the Cold War) and in ending the Vietnam War. Of course, it is Watergate in which he is forever linked, and this whole event highlights the paranoia and corruption that was present at the highest level of governmental power. But perhaps these headline grabbing incidents cloak Nixon’s other “achievements”, namely that within the domestic sphere.
So, with the end of this module, I have rummaged through the most engaging elements to present on the blog. Firstly, we have the area of debate: just how successful was Richard Nixon in tackling American domestic problems during his presidency? I’ve decided to assess this debate by utilising a thematic approach; this approach is something that I sometimes encourage students to employ, for it could – if done right – develop greater synthesis of points (which, in turns, raises the prospect of analysis and evaluation). In structural terms, this means that the essay will provide space to assess how Nixon tackled social problems, before leading onto economic problems, and then thirdly – and finally – assess political problems. Nixon attempted a variety of different reforms and legislate to help tackle the domestic problems that he inherited. The problems included political disconnection and apathy, social division, and economic uncertainty. The below will assess these key thematic areas and will conclude that although Nixon was active in trying to find solutions he had little impact in solving these problems.
Firstly, Nixon came into power in 1969 facing severe social problems. These included the divisions opened up from years of civil rights change and significant protests about the escalation and conduct of the Vietnam War. It could be argued that the most significant change within civil rights had occurred under the Democrats with the Civil Rights Act (1964), and it is true that the movement was not as strong as it had been under Johnson. However, this had more to do with the removal of influential leaders – such as the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 – and the FBI clampdown on the activities of the Black Panthers rather than Nixon attempting to soothe divisions. However, Nixon did push forward desegregation and promote the use of “bussing” to continue the work of the Democrats in this field. Of higher note was the change of policy towards native Americans, ending the policy of termination to instead push forward ‘self-determination’ to grant the natives more freedom of choice. Some historians are keen to point out how Nixon was effective in advancing environmental legislation, notably with the creation of the EPA, however, the environmental movement was not as strong or as numerous as the other social movements of the period. It could be argued that Nixon pushed forward such reforms in order to notch up “easy” victories and to appease the liberals, rather than invest more energy in tougher struggles. It is clear that social divisions remained, as demonstrated in the continuation of anti-war protests and the involvement of media figures (such as Muhammad Ali and John Lennon). Although Nixon’s Vietnamization policy saw a draw-down of US troops (after the high-point during Johnson’s administration), he was never able to end the anti-war protests until peace was reached during his second term in 1973. All of this shows that Nixon attempted to tackle these problems, but he achieved minimal success.
Within the field of the economy it is clear that Nixon was active in tackling significant problems, however, the element of success was elusive. For example, his attempts to get a hold of the economy led him attempt various – sometimes conflicting – policies; hence the title ‘Nixonomics’ to explain the incoherence. Although neo-liberalism was the driving force, Nixon switched from a monetarist policy of gradualism to instead utilise what is known as the ‘Nixon shock’ to try to galvanise the market (through abandoning the Bretton-Woods system). Although his New Economic Policy led to a bump (helpful for the 1972 election win), it created more problems in terms of a loss of confidence in the American dollar (which lost value). Two things are clear: Nixon favoured short-term political success over long-term economic stability (he abandoned gradualism when the 1970 mid-terms were not favourable), and ultimately the problems themselves were too great to simply solve in one or two terms of a presidency. America would never have it as good as the 1950s, and the issues of stagflation required longer-term planning. Furthermore, other issues – such as the 1973 OPEC Oil Crisis – were beyond his control. Ultimately, Nixon was not success in tackling the American economic issues.
The final factor of tackling political problems also presents a mixed picture. On the one hand, Nixon was clearly successful in his personal success of winning two presidential elections (in 1968 and 1972). This shows that his attempts to appeal to the ‘silent majority’ was successful, and that he was able to provide political stability to the country. However, it is debatable as to how effective Nixon was in healing the wounds of political division and apathy. For example, the political victories do not fully demonstrate Nixon’s popularity, for he defeated weak candidates in Humphrey in 1968 and McGovern in 1972 (in fact, he even lost 2.5 million votes from the 1960 to the 1968 election). Furthermore, Nixon’s administrations were disruptive, with many appointments and corruption was evidenced in the actions of his VP Spiro Agnew. Nixon’s paranoid style of politics culminated in the Watergate Affair which ultimately ruined his presidency. All of this shows that Nixon was unable to fully restore credibility to American politics.
In conclusion, Nixon faced severe problems on coming to power in 1969 and despite different tactics he ultimately could not find a clear solution. His biggest failures were within the economic sphere, especially with the incoherence and short-termism of ‘Nixonomics’ and despite personal success in the political sphere, his presidency was filled with scandal and regret with Watergate. He was most effective in tackling social problems, but his conservative gradual approach did not fully convince all sections of society, especially in his involvement with civil rights. All of this shows that Nixon enjoyed limited short-term success in tackling American domestic problems.