“Emperor” Nixon

The “silent majority” speaks out: the countercounterculture

Like 1848 in Europe, 1968 was a year of youth in revolt around the world: from the streets of Chicago to Mexico City to Paris to Prague, young Boomers of college age were taking a violent stand against “the establishment.” However, just as was the case with 1848 in most of Europe, the “revolutions” of 1968 failed to have as cataclysmic of an impact as was hoped by the young people—and feared by their parents.

This could be observed in the presidential election of that year. Gov. George Wallace walked away from the door of the University of Alabama a hero to many who opposed desegregation in all its forms, especially the forced busing campaigns of African-American students to “white neighborhoods” and vice versa that had resulted in so much criticism and backlash (and would continue to do so until busing’s failure was accepted by the 1980s). Wallace campaigned as a third-party candidate, wanting to reverse the tide of the Johnson-era progress in the civil rights movement.

The tide had reached its crest in other areas, however, and was starting to fall short of its revolutionary hopes. While the “counterculture” had succeeded in introducing sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to young people, the political system remained fixed—the “revolution” was not televised because it was not there, after the Chicago Convention. There were radicals like “the Weathermen” who tried to use domestic terrorism to incite widespread change, but many Americans yearned for a return to stability and calm of the pre-assassination years, and perhaps even earlier.

If they yearned for conflict on the big screens of the movies, it was the conflict of yesteryear—World War II genre films came out in great number, but the only big-budget movie about Vietnam during the conflict came out in that tempestuous year of 1968: it was The Green Berets, a pro-war film from noted right-wing actor and director John Wayne. The most acclaimed, Oscar-winning motion pictures of the ‘60s were not the psychedelic film experiments—which tend to make audiences nauseous instead of nostalgic today—but movie musicals. “Blaxploitation” films that emerged by the 1970s gave African-Americans a new voice for developing increasingly-empowered black characters on screen but these did not perform as well as “blockbusters” featuring Caucasian leads. (If I may comment cynically, perhaps the reason that World War II media fared—and fares—so well with “mainstream” audiences is that it depicts military units in America’s last segregated war.)

Even with segregationist George Wallace winning more than a handful of electoral votes from some Republican strongholds, the majority elected Richard M. Nixon to the “emperor” seat in 1968, to the bane of left-leaning younger voters who still did not have a chance to vote before they were drafted. (Nixon, as if to prove them wrong, was re-elected in 1972, which was the first presidential election in which the 18-21 year age bracket could vote.) Nixon publicly credited his victory eight years after his defeat to JFK as a mandate from “the silent majority” for a return to normalcy, to traditional “family values,” to reducing to a simmer the boiling controversies of civil rights at home and Vietnam abroad.

Richard Nixon was a product of the 1940s and 1950s: after having served in the Pacific theater in World War II, he gained fame as a member of HUAC in the late ‘40s, prosecuting the first big-profile charges of the committee (in the Truman-era paranoia over “leaked” atomic bomb secrets), and rose above charges of corruption to become Ike’s VP with the televised “Checkers speech.” However, he now understood that television was a double-edged sword after his sweaty, nervous demeanor during the 1960 debates with Kennedy likely had a large part in his defeat. Nixon’s demeanor had not changed in the intervening eight years—his Cold War paranoia had sharpened his focus on those he viewed as internal “traitors” like hippies and minorities—but he did a better job of keeping stoic on TV.

Nixon, like his predecessors and successors, saw his job as resolving the problems his immediate predecessor had caused: he campaigned on achieving “peace with honor” (a code for “quick victory”) in Vietnam and resolving the economic woes created by the “Great Society” initiatives of LBJ. Kennedy’s dream had come true by Nixon’s first summer as president—the United States had put human beings on the surface of the moon first, in July 1969—but Kennedy’s dreams for the Earth had a more mixed success rate.

“Peace with honor” and Nixon’s private war on the antiwar movement

Nixon and his closest foreign policy adviser Dr. Henry Kissinger began almost immediately in Nixon’s term to institute a policy called “Vietnamization.” The United States would still supply the bulk of the funding and the military technology for the civil war, but the day-to-day fighting would be handed off more and more to the South Vietnamese troops. The decline in the number of young men drafted did help to cool down the ferocity of the antiwar movement in colleges, but Nixon’s next move fanned the flames and brought it back with a vengeance.

To bring about “peace with honor,” Nixon had ordered the supply chains to North Vietnamese forces through Cambodia and Laos—both countries technically neutral in the conflict—bombed. In late April, 1970, Nixon made a televised address announcing his stepping-up of the bombing campaign and, almost overnight, the college antiwar movement fought back: students refused to attend class, occupied their campuses, and it was beginning to look like 1968 Chicago all over again. Though reactionary leaders had turned away troops to enforce desegregation, they sought troops now to cool down the antiwar movement—as Mayor Daley’s response to Chicago had demonstrated. On May 4, 1970, after Ohio Gov. Rhodes’ plea for National Guard support, soldiers opened fire on a large group of students at Kent State University, killing 4 and injuring 9 (some of which were merely caught in the crossfire and not participating in the protests). Ten days later, a similarly violent episode with fatal consequences occurred at Jackson State in Mississippi; the victims in the latter case were African-American students. At its most violent, the protest over the war in Vietnam seemed like a war about Vietnam. The 1971 “Pentagon Papers” publication, exposing the truth of the ’64 Gulf of Tonkin deceit, increased the mistrust in the government.

President Nixon responded with typical paranoid mentality of the Cold War: he sought to discredit those who publicly opposed the war, with FBI assistance—some of which was “extralegal.” Among the most strange episodes of this era was a sleepless night for the president and protesters alike when the at-times unhinged president decided to personally visit those demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of the morning. Nixon wanted to have a nice little chat about “the kids’” motives, and had just started talking about seeking an end to the war—stressing the importance of criticizing the president but not the country as a whole—when his aides removed him back to his limo for fear of his personal safety.

Nixon’s paranoia is clear from his “tapes”—recordings made at the president’s orders of Oval Office meetings and Oval Office phone calls during his presidency, mostly all recorded without the knowledge of the person in the room or on the other end of the phone. In true McCarthy-era fashion, perhaps Nixon hoped to use private details to publicly discredit friends should they turn into enemies. His behavior was oddly echoed by the choice of acronym for CREEP (the Committee for the Re-Election of the President), which engaged in similarly extralegal wiretapping of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in 1972. The Watergate burglars were discovered and arrested, leading to the most damaging scandal the American presidency had yet suffered.

Just in time for the 1972 election, Kissinger declared that he had “peace at hand” with North Vietnamese forces, who were willing to declare a cease-fire. However, those talks broke down shortly after Nixon was re-elected, and Nixon ordered that the bombings resume—the so-called “Christmas Bombings” of ’72. In January of 1973, a cease-fire was finally agreed to in Paris—and Nixon claimed that the bombings had indeed proved effective. The exact terms for the “peace with honor” were vague and noncommittal, but Nixon had at least delivered on his original campaign promise to cease the fighting. But, at what cost to the “empire’s” image—and the “emperor’s”?

The uncharacteristic Cold Warrior; the uncharacteristic Republican

Richard Nixon was a product of the paranoid ’40s and ’50s, seeing the antiwar movement and other radicals as merely a wing of the “Communist menace” that threatened to undermine “the free world” and its commitment to democracy everywhere. Therefore, Nixon’s adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger performed something almost as miraculous as landing a human on the moon when he conducted secret negotiations with both China and the Soviet Union in 1971, attempting to “soften” Cold War tensions. (The French word “detente” is sometimes used to describe this “cooling” of the Cold War.) In February 1972, President Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, and met with Chairman Mao Zedong. Both leaders recognized the need for good publicity: Nixon was still embroiled in the Vietnam crisis in Southeast Asia and Mao &co. were still in the midst of the effects of China’s “Cultural Revolution” and the accusations of widespread human rights violations from the West. Even more surprising than this visit, perhaps, was the new relationship between Nixon and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, which produced the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (or “SALT”), aimed at reducing the massive production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons that had occurred since 1945.

Though it had ended 25 years before, World War II also produced economic consequences into the 1970s, and beyond. Countries that the U.S. had defeated and had occupied militarily after the war—like West Germany and Japan—experienced huge gains in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, in part because the U.S. imposed limits on those former Axis countries’ military budgets in the post-war years.

Now, 25 years later, the “victor” country—which, unlike the countries defeated, had a larger and larger military since WWII—found itself defeated by foreign markets. The post-war boom in U.S. manufacturing was based in no small part on the understanding that, though the wages in union jobs would be lower, the pensions would be higher. Now, as the “Greatest Generation” approached retirement, American companies found that it was more profitable, in the long term if not the short term, to turn to foreign labor. At the same time, U.S. companies realized that foreign manufacturing would not have to hold up to new environmental standards that were becoming law: gaining widespread traction in the ’60s, environmental activists protested watershed events like the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was born in 1970. The result for the U.S. was a period of “stagflation” throughout the ’70s—inflation combined with a “stagnant” job market, with Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Detroit hardest hit.

The stereotypical Republican response would be to increase interest rates and decrease government spending to counter inflation, and let the private sector rebound from recession without government interference. However, during the pivotal year of 1972, Nixon reversed this position, letting federal interest rates drop sharply and increasing government spending to avoid an election year recession. Like the first Republican president, Thomas Jefferson, Nixon also betrayed in some degree his party’s “that which governs best, governs least” response by increasing regulation of national manufacturing to attempt to avoid an over-dependency on foreign markets. (Jefferson went far overboard on this score with his proposal to embargo—or cut off completely— foreign goods.) As with Vietnam, though these decisions gave Nixon the re-election he sought in the short term, they did not solve the root of the problem.

Perhaps a large part of the reason that Nixon was elected again was that so many voters—those who had eagerly campaigned for the lowering of the voting age among them—dropped out of elective politics altogether starting in the ’70s. 1968 was the last time (until 2020) that voter turnout was north of 60%. (In 1996, for the first time since post-World War I, the turnout plunged below 50%.) Though the “counterculture” had succeeded in becoming “hip,” it had not succeeded in becoming a legitimate political force. As a sign of this, and a sign of Nixon learning his lessons about the importance of appearing on TV, the president privately credited his presidential career to a brief 10-second appearance in 1968 on the sketch comedy show Laugh-In (its title a pun on the “sit-ins” and “be-ins” of the ’60s), saying the line “Sock it to me?” It should be noted that Nixon’s opponent in ’68, Hubert Humphrey, was also offered a cameo and refused, feeling that such a vapid appearance was beneath a candidate for president and wanting to stick to serious political issues.

“The revolutions will not be televised”: no left behind?

The “counterculture” had made it to the pop-culture airwaves, but the 1964-65 legislative successes for the civil rights movement proved to be the legal/biggest political impact for the “New Left.” As is often difficult for history textbook writers like me to admit, however, individuals do not just belong to one category. A victory for one marginalized group is not a victory for every member of that group. Just because African-Americans as a group had received basic protections under the law did not eliminate the inequities in housing, education, and economic opportunities, and also did not affect all African-American community members equally. An African-American woman would still face twice the degree of prejudice (at the nexus of her race and gender), and an African American lesbian would therefore face something like marginalization3.

The qualified victory of the civil rights movement inspired historically-marginalized groups and political interests to take increasingly-public and at-times violent stands for their rights, especially after the elections of Richard Nixon demonstrated to the “New Left” that it was being left behind of presidential politicking. The same summer as the U.S. put a human on the moon, a violent response to a police assault on a gay club in New York City named the Stonewall Inn led to the “Stonewall Rebellion,” as “homosexuals” struck back and the LGBTQ+ pride community was born (the plus sign indicates that there are more labels than “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer”). Cesar Chavez organized the historically-ignored labor force of migrant workers throughout California and the Southwest, and Native American activists staged large “re-occupation” events on Alcatraz Island and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

After the “first wave” succeeded in giving women the right to vote in 1920, “second wave” feminism sought recognition of women in professional life, as women had composed a third of the workforce starting in WWII. To make explicit such recognition, an Equal Rights Amendment was to be added to the Constitution, which read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The amendment passed Congress in 1972, but stalled when it went through the process of being ratified by the states: even after “Emperor” Carter’s extension to a ten-year wait, not enough states ratified the ERA for it to be added officially and it died in 1982, into the Reagan years.

As the “Reagan Revolution” of the ’80s would later indicate, these civil rights movements, during and after the high-tide of ’60s, met with backlash from many Americans who felt that the national pendulum had swung to the left long enough. Especially where feminism and LGBTQ+ rights were concerned, the “New Right” voiced its protests to the “New Left,” feeling that traditional “family values” were under attack. Even members of the moderate left, vocal in their support of African-American civil rights and some within the African-American community itself, saw issues with such broadening of “a woman’s place” in society. “Second wave” feminism became fractious over questions like, “What if a woman chooses to occupy a traditional role in the home?” or “What if a woman chooses to exhibit her body in pornography?” Most factious of all was the application of the Griswold decision to the realm of abortion. “The Pill” had introduced the potentially-controversial concept of “reproductive rights,” but the Supreme Court argued that such a “right to privacy” as Griswold established in 1967 also applied to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, regardless of state laws, in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade.

Civil rights movements had achieved major national successes in arguing for the integration of many public spaces, but the acceptance of private choices, especially in regards to sex and sexuality, remained—and remains—a “civil rights” battle that will likely be far from civil. The “culture wars” had begun. (Ending date… TBA.)

No more “executive privileges”: the president’s words make (him) history

The “emperor” himself was clearly one of the “old guard” in terms of his conservative views in the emerging culture wars, as is resoundingly clear from listening to his recordings of his time in the Oval Office: his views on minorities like African-Americans (or “the Negro,” as he would say), Jews, “homosexuals,” and on a “proper lady’s” behavior (like avoiding swearing if she doesn’t want to be “unattractive”) are quite proudly broadcast in these recordings.

However, the fact that we the people can hear these recordings these days indicates the “emperor’s” fall from grace. Perhaps Nixon would have used some of his more appropriate comments for an autobiography, but Americans—starting with Congress—heard an unedited Nixon cursing, manipulating, and bullying for several hundreds of hours. This would certainly not be the last time that a president’s words in private were used against him, but it did mark the first time that the “curtain” of presidential politics was this forcefully opened to reveal some of the devious inner workings of an “emperor.”

The arrest of the perpetrators of the CREEP break-in of the Watergate Hotel in 1972 revealed a conspiracy. Whether Nixon himself knew of the break-in in advance or not, the tapes revealed his attempts to cover up the scandal and discredit or publicly besmirch anyone who dug up details— which is why the president refused to give his tapes over to Congress. The Supreme Court intervened in a case aptly titled United States v. Nixon, unanimously ruling that Nixon hand over the tapes and that Nixon’s arguments of “executive privilege” did not apply to such a case involving obstruction of justice—grounds for impeachment.

Nixon, as truculent as ever, wanted to see it through to the bitter end in an impeachment trial, but was urged by many Republican leaders to step down to avoid an even-uglier national scandal. Had Nixon been impeached, he would have likely been convicted and removed from office, but—perhaps worse still—the image of the presidency would have been tarnished when the tapes were played on the floor of the Senate at the trial.

As it was, Nixon’s resignation continues to cause the opposite-of-nostalgia among those who witnessed it, increasing an already-skeptical generation’s distrust of professional politics. Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew had already resigned shortly into his second term due to charges of corruption and, with Nixon himself following him in August 1974, substitute VP Gerald Ford became the only non-elected “emperor.” As the “empire” neared its bicentennial, internal divisiveness, domestic and foreign embarrassment, and disillusionment would usher in its third century of existence.

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