In 1960, Richard Nixon narrowly lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. In 1968, both the Republicans and the Democrats had their conventions. While the Republicans were tight and well-organized, the Democrats, by comparison, seemed like a hopeless mess. Nixon also worked on repairing his political image and made a comeback, winning the presidency in the election of 1968.
Diplomatic Negotiations with China
As a President, Nixon undertook important foreign policy initiatives. Perhaps most important of all, he opened diplomatic negotiations with China.
Ever since 1949 and the end of the Chinese Revolution, when Mao Zedong had taken control, the American government had granted diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, that is to Chiang Kai Shek and his successors, the defeated nationalist minority who had been overpowered in the civil war. It was increasingly anomalous, however, that right through the 1950s and right through the 1960s, America should decline to have diplomatic relations with one of the most Populist nations of the Earth, which, potentially, in the future, was going to become a very powerful nation as well.
In one of the most amazing events of 1972, Nixon publicly made a dramatic visit to China. Nixon’s visit included a series of high-profile banquets in Beijing and a visit to the Great Wall of China. It began the slow re-incorporation of China into the American diplomatic world, and full relations were established in 1979 under President Carter.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Relations with China
One of the advantages of diplomatic relations with China was this: At first, back in 1949, it had seemed as though Russia and China, because they were both Communist, were going to be allies. However, there were all kinds of unresolved issues between the two leading to great intra-Communist tension. Nixon understood perfectly that if he was on good terms with the Chinese, that, in turn, would provide some diplomatic leverage over the Russians.
At the same time, he also believed in the importance of keeping the Cold War from escalating to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
Throughout the whole of this period, the American/Soviet encounter was the single biggest foreign policy issue, even though often it seemed to be just frozen in place. Nevertheless, it was always there, and everything else revolved around it. Because of this, also in 1972, his negotiators completed the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) I Treaty with the Russians.
This led to another dramatic visit, this time to Moscow, also in 1972, shortly after the visit to China, when both sides agreed to limit their missile build-up. It also included the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in which both sides agreed not to build defensive missile systems because, although they looked defensive, they could be interpreted as having an aggressive or offensive spirit, because it led to the possibility that one side might launch its own missiles against the adversary, and then shoot down the retaliatory strike with its own antiballistic missiles.
Extricating Americans from the Vietnam War
It was also Nixon who haltingly and slowly extricated the Americans from the Vietnam War. He reduced the American presence there from 500,000, when he came into office, to 70,000 in the first two years and ran a program that he called ‘Vietnamization’, that is, handing over the actual running of the war to the people of South Vietnam themselves. Finally, he withdrew the last Americans in 1973, after abolishing the draft, which was one of the things that had made the war so bitterly hated.
However, the slowness with which he did it, in that it stretched out over four years, and the fact that it included, along the way, such incidents as the saturation bombing of the Vietnamese cities and the invasion of Cambodia, the adjacent country, which in turn stimulated the Kent State massacre—the shootings by students at Kent State—meant that he remained as hated a figure by the American political left as Johnson had been. In other words, Nixon’s early allegations that he’d bring the war to a quick end were nullified.
In fact, he wasn’t able to preserve South Vietnam’s permanent viability. The ensuing events made it impossible, when North Vietnam invaded the south, for the Americans to re-commit militarily in the area, with the result that in 1975, Saigon finally fell, and the war came to an end with a complete defeat of South Vietnam.
Nixon’s domestic policies accepted most of the legacy of Johnson’s Great Society, partly because Nixon had to.
Both houses of Congress were in Democratic hands in his first administration. School desegregation went forward faster now than it had in either of the Democratic administrations preceding it. That was partly because Congress was being run by the Democrats who were committed to it and also because the courts themselves were adjudicating racial questions in a way that was designed to encourage actual racial integration.
One colorful figure from the era was Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew. He was the former Governor of Maryland, and he was the man who traveled widely and publicized the administration’s dislike of radicals, and also its dislike of the media, which Nixon had concluded was one of the great allies of the disruptive forces in American society.
Common Questions about Important Policy Initiatives by President Richard Nixon
Nixon’s visit to China began the slow re-incorporation of China into the American diplomatic world. Full relations were established in 1979 under President Carter.
Under the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, America and Soviet Union agreed not to build defensive missile systems because, although they looked defensive, they could be interpreted as having an aggressive or offensive spirit.
Nixon extricated the Americans from the Vietnam War. He reduced the American presence there from 500,000, when he came into office, to 70,000 in the first two years. He also ran a program that he called ‘Vietnamization’, that is, handing over the actual running of the war to the people of South Vietnam themselves.