United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

Explore this textbook

Read the fully unlocked textbook below, and if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch to see how you can use this textbook in your course today.

Chapter 28: Nixon, the New Conservatism, and the 1970s

Chapter Overview

Richard Nixon was not the typical politician. Born in California as the son of a farmer and sometime entrepreneur, Nixon joined the Navy during World War II, went to law school, and became a congressman shortly thereafter. Having made a name for himself as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee that prosecuted Alger Hiss, Nixon parlayed his fame and anti-communist reputation into the vice-presidency under Dwight Eisenhower. In eight years, Nixon proved his value as a Cold warrior, publicly besting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a public argument over the benefits of communism versus capitalism. He seemed all but certain to succeed Eisenhower as the next president, yet lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy in one of the closest presidential races in U.S. history. Nixon spent the next eight years in a virtual political exile, unable find supporters or gain entry into public office of any kind. By 1968, Nixon was in danger of becoming a footnote in political history. The 1968 election transformed him from a has-been into a possible savior for a country seemingly in sociopolitical freefall. The reality of his presidency, however, proved immensely more complicated.

Chapter Objectives

  • Explain the circumstances by which Nixon won the presidency in 1968 and created a new conservative movement
  • Assess Nixon’s successes and failures as president, particularly relating to foreign policy, economic, and social issues
  • Summarize the Watergate scandal and indicate how it led to Nixon’s resignation
  • Define the term stagflation and explain its impact on the American economy in the 1970s
  • Explain why Gerald Ford issued a pardon to Richard Nixon and how this affected his own political career

The Election of 1968

Although Lyndon Johnson was the Democratic incumbent in 1968, the Vietnam War and increasing unrest at home led many Americans to call for Johnson’s replacement on the presidential ticket in the coming election. These protests increased after the Tet Offensive, but it was unclear as to who would replace Johnson. Many wanted Senator Robert Kennedy, but he initially demurred due to concerns that the president was unbeatable even in the face of growing anti-war sentiment. Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy stepped forward and while he excited some college students who appreciated his staid, professorial style, he was not a natural politician and always seemed reluctant to take the reins of power from Johnson. Even so, he made some significant gains in the primaries against Johnson, losing the New Hampshire primary by only 7% points. Faced with mounting pressure from McCarthy and continuing bad news from Vietnam, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. 

After Johnson removed himself from the race, Robert Kennedy entered the fray, and immediately became a favorite. Although he had a reputation as being more shy and skittish than his martyred older brother, Kennedy seemed to experience an epiphany in the wake of his brother’s death that made him more accessible to the average voter, particularly younger voters who were discouraged with the Democratic Party. Kennedy quickly gained an advantage over McCarthy in the polls and dominated the primary season, but his followers’ hopes were dashed when he was assassinated immediately after winning the California primary in June. Sitting Vice-President Hubert Humphrey entered the race, but by this time, the Democrats were in a shambles, with no one particularly enthused about the remaining candidates and much uncertainty surrounding the party’s official position on the Vietnam War. 

To come out against the war would be to denounce the policies of the current Democratic president, but to support it meant angering the Democratic voter base. At the Democratic National Convention in August, the party ultimate chose to formally support the war and nominated Hubert Humphrey as its official candidate. Student activists gathered at the Chicago convention to protest against the party’s stance on the war, only to be publicly and violently dispersed by the police as television cameras caught the whole scene. The Democratic Party had seemingly become a magnet for indecision, violence, and chaos.

28.01 - Level 1

Which of the following men did not attempt to win the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate in 1968?


Richard Nixon


Eugene McCarthy


Lyndon Johnson


Robert Kennedy


Hubert Humphrey


Barry Goldwater

Question 28.02

28.02 - Level 2

Why did Democratic presidential candidates have to walk a fine line on the issue of the Vietnam War in the 1968 election?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.02.

In contrast, the Republican Party was the picture of calm. Richard Nixon entered the race as the “law and order” candidate, vowing to stop the riots and crime in the streets on behalf of the Silent Majority, those millions of Americans who lamented the declining state of the country but were not being actively vocal in their disgust. Seeing that the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties appeared in flux, Nixon’s campaign devised a strategy designed to draw in white southern voters, who seemed particularly unsure of where their loyalties lay. The Democratic Party had become increasingly identified with a civil rights platform, thus alienating long-time white southern democrats. In 1964, five southern states had voted for the Republican candidate after voting solidly Democratic for more than one hundred years. Meanwhile, former Alabama governor George Wallace was running in the 1968 election as an Independent candidate with an explicitly segregationist platform, and proved surprisingly popular.

The so-called “Southern Strategy” utilized an incredibly subtle form of racism in order to attract white southern voters. Deploying overtly racist language was no longer considered appropriate in a national political contest, so Nixon avoided this, instead opting to use more oblique language coded as racial. For example, Nixon spoke out against the busing of students into forcibly desegregated schools, an issue making headlines, often advocating for a state’s right to decide its own segregation policies, thus evoking the South’s historic ties to the “state’s rights” platform and deriding an integration policy without using a racist argument. Some historians have argued that the southern strategy is a misnomer, and that Nixon was instead pursuing a suburban strategy, catering to all of the people who fled to the suburbs in the wake of urban unrest in the mid-1960s. However, these historians still acknowledge that racial issues underlay this so-called “white flight” to the suburbs, thus making the racial issue a prominent one among southern voters.

Regardless of the strategy behind Nixon’s campaign, it proved successful in the 1968 election. Nixon did not win a majority, thanks to Independent candidate George Wallace taking 13% of the vote, but he did win a plurality with 43%, barely edging out Hubert Humphrey, who received 42.72% of the popular vote. Despite the close race in popular votes, Nixon won the overwhelming majority of the electoral votes, taking 301 against Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 46 votes (Figure 28.1). The election represented a repudiation of Democratic leadership and demonstrated the degree to which the party had fallen out of favor with the general electorate in just four years. Republicans would go on to successfully use some version of the southern strategy for the next two decades.

Figure 28.1: Breakdown of the popular and electoral votes from the 1968 presidential election.

Question 28.03

28.03 - Level 4

Why might a supporter of Governor George Wallace be persuaded to vote for Richard Nixon after hearing his position on busing? Think about the historical context and the status of American society at the time.

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.03.

28.04 - Level 2

What kind of voters did Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” seek to attract to the Republican Party?


White segregationists


Young black professionals


Suburban women


Second-generation Hispanics

Question 28.05

28.05 - Level 4

Explain the significance of the following quote by Republican strategist Lee Atwater (1981) in terms of the “New Conservatism”:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N____r, n____r, n____r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n____r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N____, n____r.”

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.05.

Kissinger and Détente

Upon his inauguration in January 1969, Nixon immediately set to work on an aggressive foreign policy. His Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, served as his partner in this endeavor. Kissinger was an interesting choice for that position, given that conservatives had often distrusted his approach to foreign policy. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Kissinger believed that the current U.S. method of utilizing a “good vs. bad” dichotomy was faulty, unrealistic, and tended to alienate the country from potential allies. In Kissinger’s view, all nations had a right to exist and had a right to their own ideals and objectives. A good diplomatic model would therefore be to acknowledge that and try to find common interest with one’s supposed enemies, a philosophy known as realpolitik.

The primary foreign policy goal of the Nixon administration was to de-escalate tensions between the United States and its enemies. Nixon and Kissinger realized that relations between communist China and the Soviet Union had cooled in recent years, in part to the Soviet Union’s constant interference in Chinese domestic and foreign affairs and China’s subsequent refusal to bow to the Kremlin’s wishes. They wanted to exploit the rift in order to develop a better relationship with both parties, realizing that to do so meant the possibility of improved trade and political relations for everyone involved. Although this strategy meant developing better working relationships with two communist nations, Nixon’s career as a staunch anti-communist made him uniquely ideal for bringing about a de-escalation of tensions, or détente. He was virtually alone among the American politicians who could deal companionably with communists and not be accused of disloyal behavior.

28.06 - Level 1

The word ______ denotes a de-escalation of tensions between two nations.

Kissinger targeted China first. Chinese-American relations had been strained to non-existent ever since China fell to communism in 1949, and officially, they did not have a relationship at all. The U.S. refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the communist government, with its representatives going as far as to ignore Chinese diplomats and refusing to refer to the nation by its new name, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The United States still openly supported ousted leader Chiang Kai-Shek’s government, now located in Taiwan. Under the Nixon administration, this stance abruptly changed. The administration lifted a decades-long trade embargo against the PRC, stopped its regular naval patrols along the Chinese coastline, and began to acknowledge Chinese diplomats. In one of the more bizarre incidents in world diplomatic history, the Chinese reciprocated these gestures by inviting the U.S. table tennis team to China. The team accepted the invitation in April 1971, making them the first Americans allowed into China since 1949. The U.S. then returned the gesture, inviting the Chinese team to the United States. Although this so-called “ping pong diplomacy” seemed incongruous with a serious and high-stakes diplomatic gambit, the gestures created mutual goodwill and helped soften the populace in both nations to the idea of a future partnership. 

These mutual gestures culminated in President Nixon’s state visit to China in February 1972. During the visit, Nixon met with the ailing Mao Zedong and attended a number of state dinners and cultural events. (Figure 28.2) The visit culminated in the creation of the Shanghai Communique, a document that represented a commitment by both sides to work towards a normalization of both political and economic relations. The communique also included a provision that neither nation could establish hegemony in Asia, and that neither nation would permit an outside country from doing so. Although the Soviet Union was not explicitly mentioned, it was clear to which nation the two signatory parties were referring. The visit resulted in the creation of a working relationship between the U.S. and communist China, thus lessening historic tensions between the two.

Question 28.07

28.07 - Level 5

How would you assess “ping-pong diplomacy”? Do international sporting events serve a diplomatic purpose? Do you think they are effective in helping to bridge cultural disagreements between nations?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.07.

28.08 - Level 2

Which of the following terms best describes Henry Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy?


Wilsonian Idealism




Nation Building



Question 28.09

28.09 - Level 4

Explain the historical circumstances behind the expression “only Nixon could go to China.”

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.09.

Figure 28.2: President Richard Nixon shakes hands with China’s Community Party leader Mao Zedong, February 1972. [1]​

Within weeks, the improved relationship between the United States and China led to a softening of tensions with the Soviet Union as well, even as it drove a bigger wedge between the two communist nations. The United States and the Soviets had been tentatively pursuing a détente policy ever since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but the Soviets seemed uncommitted to the idea as they eclipsed the United States in the nuclear arms race. Following Nixon’s trip to China, the Soviet Union expressed a firm desire to find a détente solution as well. The United States and the Soviet Union, as the two major world powers, had as many commonalities as differences. One of their shared areas of interest was nuclear arms control and this became the basis of their negotiations in 1972. As the Cuban Missile Crisis had proven, constant nuclear armament and one-upmanship had the potential to create a serious geopolitical crisis.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had four purposes. Each side needed to get an accurate appraisal of the other’s arsenal and nuclear capabilities, so that this number could be used as a starting point from which to achieve parity, or equality. Thirdly, both sides wanted to establish limits on how each side might effectively destroy or neutralize each other’s arsenals. This concern stemmed from a recent Soviet innovation, the anti-ballistic missile, which could attack and destroy foreign missiles before they reached their destination. Such a missile could undermine the United States’ retaliatory capabilities in the event of a Soviet strike on U.S. soil. If each of these concerns were met, then the fourth goal of the talk, détente, was possible.

Nixon traveled to the Soviet Union in May 1972 in order to finalize the SALT treaty. The president’s trip was not the unqualified success he had experienced earlier in the year in China. Each side tried to make last-minute changes to the treaty and at one point, Kremlin officials cornered Nixon and behaved in such a manner that Nixon asked if he was being threatened. However, both sides ultimately signed the treaty in its original form, thus establishing a major step forward in their relationship. Within just a few months, Nixon and Kissinger had achieved détente with two of America’s biggest rivals, thus signaling an easing of the Cold War overall.

Although evidence demonstrates that Nixon had interfered with peace talks between North and South Vietnam during the 1968 election season, Nixon explored a de-escalation strategy in Vietnam as well. As discussed in Chapter 27, he initially attempted a process of Vietnamization before briefly expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos. After escalation prompted an uptick in anti-war activity in America’s major cities and college campuses, Nixon pursued peace with North Vietnam throughout 1972. By 1973, the U.S. government began to withdraw troops from Vietnam in earnest. For all intents and purposes, U.S. involvement in Vietnam had ended.

28.10 - Level 2

While the U.S. and China were engaging in ping-pong diplomacy, the U.S. was engaged with hostilities in which China-adjacent nations?










North Korea

Nixon’s détente policy was generally successful, but his foreign policy record was not spotless. U.S. involvement in Chile represented another attempt at a containment strategy, with mixed results. In 1972, Chile was under the control of a democratically elected Salvador Allende. Although he was not an admitted communist, he was openly critical U.S. policies toward Cuba and had a friendly relationship with the Caribbean nation. The United States attempted to prevent his election, but did not succeed. Instead, the U.S. launched the so-called Track II policy, in which they located elements within the Chilean military willing to stage a coup, and then provided them with long-term financial and political support. The CIA engaged in another covert operation, creating anti-Allende propaganda for Chilean radio stations and harassing members of the Allende administration. The effect of the campaign was to undermine local support for Allende, and after more than two years, it started to work.

In 1973, aided by CIA resources and U.S. funding, the Chilean military led by Augusto Pinochet staged a coup against the Allende government. Allende died during the coup, under mysterious circumstances. Some say he was killed while defending himself against Pinochet’s army, while others claim he killed himself upon realizing that he could not retain control of the government. Nonetheless, at his passing, Pinochet took control of the nation as a military dictator. While Pinochet was more amenable to U.S. policies, his leadership proved more burdensome for the Chilean people. He became infamous for civil rights violations and the systematic suppression of political parties that did not support Pinochet. Political protesters were imprisoned and sometimes even killed or just disappeared altogether. The Pinochet government proved the antithesis of American values, and the United States disavowed any connection to the 1973 coup for decades. Only in recent years have documents resurfaced which connect the U.S. government to the coup. 

28.11 - Level 2

Click on the Latin American country where a US-backed military coup overthrew a democratically-elected government 1973.

Oil Embargo

In 1973, several Arab countries attacked Israel in an attempt to take back what they considered their land. The United States decided to back Israel, and the Israelis emerged victorious in the effort. In retaliation, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo against the United States, which eliminated the flow of Middle Eastern oil into the country. The U.S. had become increasingly dependent on foreign oil, so the embargo threw the country into economic turmoil and demonstrated the degree of influence oil-producing countries had over the world economy. Nixon attempted to alleviate the effect of the oil shortages with a number of measures, including increasing domestic production, instituting energy conservation initiatives, and negotiating with OPEC, which only wanted to lift the embargo if the U.S. extricated itself from Israel entirely. The United States also purchased oil from other countries, but due to the demand, the cost per barrel of oil skyrocketed, meaning untenable price increases for consumers. 

By 1974, the price of gasoline had increased by almost half, from 38 cents a gallon to 56 cents a gallon, as the supply dwindled and shortages became more common across the country (Figure 28.3). Domestic production provided a short-term cushion, but reserves were dwindling, particularly as other embargoed countries sought to purchase oil from the United States. In January 1974, the Nixon administration was finally able to broker a deal with OPEC, which stipulated it would end the embargo in exchange for Israel vacating Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, which it had occupied since the Six Day War of 1967. The embargo demonstrated the dangers of remaining dependent on foreign oil, and while the government took some steps to reduce that dependence, the lifting of the embargo returned things more or less back to the status quo.

28.12 - Level 3

Please place the following events in the correct chronological order.


Ping pong diplomacy


SALT Treaty


Shanghai Communique


1968 Presidential Election


End of Middle Eastern oil embargo


U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam

Figure 28.3: Cars waiting in line during the gas shortage of 1973. [2]

Nixon’s Domestic Policies

As with his foreign policy initiatives, Nixon’s domestic policy was a combination of hits and misses. Having run a campaign based on the return to “law and order,” this became a priority early in his administration. The 1968 Supreme Court case Green v. School Board of New Kent County established that the forced busing of students in order to artificially create integrated schools was an illegal policy, thus allowing the new administration to focus on other social issues. Nixon signed the bill creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), designed to create safer workplace conditions and prevent on-site accidents and deaths.

 He also proposed the expansion of the food stamp program and called for the extension and overhaul of the welfare system. Although most of his proposed expansions did not come to fruition, his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) plan, which provided supplemental income for the elderly and disabled, did pass. He also signed into law a number of environmental safety measures, which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He also signed amendments to the Clean Air Act and approved the 1973 Endangered Species Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. 

The economy became an important issue for Nixon and his advisors. In financing the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson had been reluctant to raise taxes, instead choosing to fund the war through debt. Additionally, many of the European nations that had depended on U.S. manufactures during the post-war reconstruction period had fully recovered their economic sectors, resulting in a decrease in foreign exports. As a result, by the 1970s, the United States was deeply in debt and the country slid into an economic recession. Workers suffered from a combination of stagnant wages and rampant inflation, a phenomenon often referred to as stagflation. This meant that worker wages were now effectively worth less in 1970 than they had been in 1960. 

Nixon’s initial economic policy limited some tax cuts for the wealthy while cutting taxes for millions of low-income citizens. This plan, however, did not solve the nation’s economic problems and unemployment rates jumped from 3.3 percent to more than 6 percent. Nixon re-vamped his strategy, going as far as to give a televised speech in 1971 in order to advertise his new place, which included tax cuts, a wage and price freeze, and a temporary closure of the "gold window," preventing other nations from demanding American gold in exchange for American dollars. To improve the nation's balance of trade, Nixon also called for a 10 percent import tax. The economy continued to slump throughout Nixon’s presidency, despite his best efforts and overwhelming public support for his policies. 

Figure 28.4: The Stonewall Inn, site of the Stonewall Riot, which sparked the gay civil rights movement in 1969. [3]

One issue assiduously ignored by the Nixon administration was the burgeoning issue of gay rights. In the late 1960s, homosexuality was illegal in most states and was still considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Although secret societies existed for homosexual men and women in larger cities across the United States, any attempts to have a public social life were fraught with danger. Gay bars and clubs for men often became targets for local police, who would often extort money from the owners of such establishments in exchange for not busting them. The men who were caught in these raids were often too terrified of being publicly exposed as gay to mount any sort of meaningful protest. That fear diminished in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City (Figure 28.4). Although the police had legal grounds to raid the bar, as it was serving liquor without a license, patrons had already watched police raid and shutter many of the city’s other gay establishments and decided they were tired of being targets. As police arrested the bar’s employees, many patrons began to throw bottles at the police officers. Eventually, the crowd grew and violence escalated until the police had to take shelter inside the building until the riot police arrived 45 minutes later. Not willing to be silenced, the crowds continued their protests over the next few days, sparking the beginnings of what would become a full-fledged civil rights movement for gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals and eventually encompassing the transgender community as well. Within a couple of years, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a diagnosis from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and gay people were able to be more open about their sexual identities. Throughout this process in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Nixon administration stayed silent.

Question 28.13

28.13 - Level 3

Describe some of the federal programs and administrations that Richard Nixon created or expanded in the early years of his Presidency.

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.13.

The Plumbers

Nixon’s obsession with tracking and destroying his perceived political enemies led to his downfall. Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971 had proved a huge blow to Nixon and his inner circle, as they had considered Ellsberg a trusted advisor. As the case against Ellsberg was being litigated both in the media and in the court system, Nixon privately vowed to discredit the man himself. After the FBI refused to perform secret surveillance for him, Nixon created a secret organization for the purpose of investigating Ellsberg and other political enemies that were potentially working to expose Nixon’s own political secrets. The organization was officially called the Special Investigations Unit, but was known informally as the Plumbers, because they “fixed leaks.” The team was comprised of former FBI and CIA agents, and was headed by former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. The Plumbers’ first assignment was to burglarize the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. They assumed they would find information related to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, and possibly information related to a psychiatric diagnosis. Given the suspicion that most Americans had toward mental illness in the 1970s, the Plumbers believed that confirmation of a psychiatric problem could discredit Ellsberg in the public eye. However, this particular mission did not turn up anything of value.

The Plumbers had a number of additional jobs in 1972, which was an election year. Nixon was obsessed with getting re-elected and wanted to spare no effort in securing a victory. The Plumbers engaged in a number of illegal activities, many of which were financed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). In May 1972, they engaged in a bugging operation at the Democratic National Headquarters, located in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. They hoped to glean negative information about Democratic candidates and potentially determine their campaigning strategies by tapping their phones. A few weeks later, one of the surveillance devices malfunctioned, requiring a second break-in. In the early hours of June 18, 1972, five members of the Plumber team broke into the Democratic National Headquarters to repair the problem. As they worked, a security guard noticed they had taped the building’s locks and called the police. The men were arrested wearing suits and carrying large amounts of cash and expensive surveillance equipment (Figure 28.5).

Figure 28.5: Police photograph of bugging equipment found on the Watergate burglars at the time of their arrest. These are microphones made to look like tubes of Chap Stick.​ [4]

Question 28.14

28.14 - Level 3

What role did the Plumbers play in showing the dark side of Nixon’s character?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.14.

Later evidence would show that in the days following the burglary, the White House arranged “hush money” for the burglars and attempted to force the CIA to obstruct the FBI investigation of the break-in. At the same time, the Nixon White House disavowed any connection to the break-in, referring to it derisively as a “third-rate burglary.” However, two reporters from The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, became interested in the story. They quickly determined that at least one burglar was on the CREEP payroll and that some of the burglars had numbers of high-level White House employees in their address books. The Post continued to publish stories elaborating on connections between the burglars and the White House, at one point demonstrating that a check from CREEP had been deposited in a burglar’s bank account. The reporters also discovered that Attorney General John Mitchell controlled a secret fund used to pay for espionage against the Democrats and that Nixon aides had engaged in massive campaign of espionage and sabotage. However, most voters were not convinced and ultimately re-elected Nixon in a landslide victory in the November election.

Seven conspirators were indicted on charges related to the Watergate break-in; the five burglars in addition to White House aide Howard Hunt and Plumbers leader G. Gordon Liddy, who had been guiding the burglars remotely via two-way radio. Five pled guilty, and two were convicted by January 1973. At this point, more people were beginning to question the official account of the Watergate story and began to dig further. Some of the burglars also offered information in exchange for lighter sentences, and their information indicated White House involvement in the planning of the burglary. The Senate Committee on Watergate began hearings in May 1973, and a number of high-level White House officials testified about their role in the cover-up of the burglaries. Over the course of these investigations, a number of important revelations came to light. Former White House counsel John Dean testified that Nixon knew about the cover up and participated in it, while former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon taped all of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Spotlight on Primary Source

D.C. District Court Judge “Maximum” John Sirica took on the role of investigator, threatening the burglars with the maximum possible sentences if they did not reveal what they knew about the conspiracy. The following is one burglar’s response to Sirica’s ultimatum. The letter was used as evidence in the subsequent Senate hearings on the Watergate burglary.

Question 28.15

28.15 - Level 3

Why did James McCord agree to speak with Judge Sirica? What information does he provide in this document that could be useful to the Watergate investigation?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.15.

The revelation of Nixon’s taping system was one of the biggest bombshells in the entire investigation. Nixon was not the first president to tape his day-to-day activities in the Oval Office- he, like several of his predecessors going all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt, believed that the tapes would serve a valuable purpose for writing memoirs and also for historians who might like to eavesdrop on history. However, the Nixon White House waged a battle to maintain control of the tapes once the Senate demanded they be turned over. According to the White House, the tapes were the president’s private property. They also claimed that the tapes contained secrets pertinent to national security. Despite this hedging, the Senate committee and an independent special prosecutor named Archibald Cox eventually demanded that the White House release transcripts of the tapes in August 1973. In a last ditch effort to prevent the release of his secret tapes, Nixon order the attorney general to fire Cox and replace him with someone more amenable to his wishes. The attorney general resigned rather than comply with the order, as did his top deputy. The solicitor general, as acting attorney general, finally carried out Nixon’s order. Cox’s firing led several other Justice Department officials to resign in protest as well. These events, which took place on October 20, 1973, became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and precipitated the first initial calls of Nixon’s impeachment.

After the embarrassment that followed from the Saturday Night Massacre, the White House reluctantly released transcripts of select tapes (Figure 28.6). These transcripts were heavily redacted, but still damning for Richard Nixon. Among other issues, the transcripts revealed that a large gap on the tape recorded on the Monday morning after the Watergate break-in. The White House struggled to explain the 18-minute erasure as public confidence in the president continued to steadily erode. Nixon’s secretary claimed to have accidentally erased the 18 minutes, but many found this explanation incredulous. Subsequent forensic examinations of the tape have demonstrated that this segment was erased multiple times.

Figure 28.6: President Richard Nixon giving a press conference to announce the handing over of Oval Office recordings to the Senate Watergate Committee, April 1974. [5]

Early in 1974, the cover-up began to fall apart. Seven of Nixon’s former top aides were indicted on charges related to the Watergate case. The jury, unsure of their powers, also mentioned Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” By the end of the case, forty government officials did jail time for playing some role in the Watergate break-in and cover up, including the former attorney general and several of Nixon’s closest White House aides. By July, the Supreme Court had forced Nixon to turn over his White House tapes in their entirety, and the tapes unequivocally demonstrated that Nixon had knowledge of the Watergate cover-up from its inception and had participated in its creation. Based on the new information, the House of Representatives voted on August 5 to impeach Nixon on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and others. At this stage, the president’s approval rating had dropped to an abysmal 24 percent and he had lost all of his support among Democrats and most of his support within his own party in Congress. Facing impeachment and an almost complete loss of support from any quarter, Nixon opted to resign the presidency on August 8, 1974, making him the first president in U.S. history to do so. Although resignation eliminated the immediate threat of impeachment, there was every reason to believe that the government would prosecute Nixon for his crimes as a civilian. 

Spotlight on Primary Source

With his public approval rating at an all-time low and his Congressional support waning, Richard Nixon decided to resign the presidency on August 8, 1974. Below is Nixon’s resignation speech, given on the evening before he left the Oval Office for good.

Question 28.16

28.16 - Level 2

What reasons does Nixon give for offering his resignation? What does Nixon suggest as his successor’s responsibilities?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.16.

28.17 - Level 1

Why did Richard Nixon’s presidency prematurely end?


He was impeached


He was removed from the office


He died in office


He resigned

28.18 - Level 3

What was the only other Presidential administration that rivaled Nixon for pervasive corruption?









28.19 - Level 5

Rank the following episodes of the Nixon administration from greatest success to biggest failure.


Easing of tensions with China


Addressing stagflation in the economy


Watergate break-in and cover-up

The Ford Presidency

Richard Nixon was replaced in office by his vice president, Gerald Ford, who has the distinction of being the only U.S. president never directly elected by the people in either a presidential or vice-presidential capacity. Ford, a long-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, had been appointed by Nixon one year earlier to replace the outgoing vice-president Spiro Agnew, who was facing prison time on charges unrelated to the Watergate scandal. The American people initially accepted Ford in the new position and looked to him for the possibility of national renewal in the wake of the Watergate nightmare. Ford seemed equal to the task, stating in his inaugural address that “our long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our government is made of laws and not men.”

 Despite his initial popularity, Ford’s star fell quickly. Six weeks after he inherited the presidency, Ford issued a pardon for Richard Nixon, thus absolving him of any crimes he may have committed and preventing him from facing a civil trial. Ford ostensibly made the decision as a way of helping the country to move forward from Watergate, but many citizens felt that Nixon had escaped well-deserved justice. Rumors swirled that Nixon had made a deal with Ford before his resignation, promising him a chance at the presidency in exchange for clemency. 

Ford’s approval rating dropped in the wake of the Nixon pardon, and the president did not do much to improve his situation over the next two years. The economy remained as stubbornly sluggish under this president as it had under the last, despite Ford’s attempts to curb inflation and trim the national debt. Working with a heavily Democratic Congress, Ford successfully vetoed dozens of appropriations bills in an attempt to curb deficit spending. He also attempted to cut spending by limiting government regulations on businesses. Still, the economy suffered.

Another of Ford’s major goals as president was to maintain détente and avoid another war in the Middle East. He and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev agreed to further limitations on nuclear armaments and détente held between the two nations. Ford also helped to broker a temporary truce agreement between Egypt and Israel which, if not bringing permanent peace between the two nations, allowed them to start building more diplomatic bonds with each other. Although Ford did not have much time to establish himself in the office of the presidency, he adhered to internationalist foreign policy principles while also maintaining a steadfast conservative approach to economics. This approach was not wildly successful, but neither did it fail.

As his presidency wore on, Ford, who was a gifted athlete, began to develop an inexplicable reputation as clumsy, a phenomenon perhaps best explained by the newly popular late night NBC television program Saturday Night Live. As played on the show by actor Chevy Chase, Ford appeared as something of a clumsy dunce, and his pratfalls received big laughs, quickly becoming one of the show’s most popular recurring bits. In his autobiography, Ford claimed that the show had singlehandedly ruined his chances of re-election in 1976.

28.20 - Level 1

Which of the following did President Gerald Ford do while in office?


Trimmed the national debt


Created peace in the Middle East


Developed a job training program for the unemployed


Maintained détente with the Soviet Union and China

Question 28.21

28.21 - Level 5

Do you agree with President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon? Consider and discuss what a trial might have led to.

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.21.

The 1976 Election

As the 1976 election season drew near, it was clear that the American people were not interested in the incumbent Republican candidate. In the wake of the Nixon pardon, Ford now carried with him the ghost of the previous administration’s corruption, and his inability to make a mark on American policy merely confirmed the impression that he was a placeholder. His inability to turn around the struggling economy and the recent fall of Vietnam also detracted from his allure as a candidate. He faced opposition within his own party from former California governor Ronald Reagan, a major up-and-comer in Republican circles. The competition between Ford and Reagan was so close that Ford wasn’t able to clinch the nomination until the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1976, indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the incumbent.

In the Democratic field, one candidate seemed like a refreshing change: Georgia governor James “Jimmy” Carter. Before 1976, Carter was little known in national circles and when the election season began, he was not even on the radar of potential candidates, as most Democrats seemed to favor former California governor Jerry Brown or even former Alabama governor George Wallace, touting himself as a reformed segregationist. However, Carter’s outsider status worked in his favor. Although he had a reputation as a peanut farmer, Carter was also a nuclear engineer who had served in the Navy on nuclear submarines. His intelligence was belied by his easy manner and soft-spoken drawl. He stood in sharp contrast to Nixon’s awkward manner and gruff speech patterns, which the American people had come to see as a shorthand for untrustworthy. The fact that he wasn’t a known entity or a Washington insider made him seem attractive in the post-Watergate era. However, Carter did face some opposition within his party, just as Gerald Ford did. Many western and northern Democrats felt that Carter’s southern roots would make him too conservative or too regional to gain national appeal. Nonetheless, Carter’s folksy manner helped him to systematically beat his opponents and the primaries and eke out a surprise win at the 1976 Democratic nominating convention.

After the nominating conventions, Carter held a double digit lead over Ford, but the two became more evenly matched as the election season progressed. Ford questioned Carter’s lack of national experience, but then blundered by refusing to acknowledge Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Carter gave a problematic interview with Playboy magazine in which he admitting “lusting after other women in his heart,” an admission which lost him some sympathy with some southern and evangelical voters. When the election came, Carter managed to win a slight but definitive majority of the votes, taking 50.2 percent  of the votes compared to Ford’s 48 percent. Carter’s election represented the first time since John Kennedy’s election in 1960 that a Democrat had carried all of the Deep South states (Figure 28.7).

Figure 28.7: Jimmy Carter taking the presidential oath of office, January 20, 1977. [6]

Carter’s first years in office were a triumph in foreign policy. Like Henry Kissinger, Carter believed in adopting a more cooperative foreign policy in the hopes that it would help the U.S. regain its political and economic strength, although he rarely used the word “détente,” given its connections to the Nixon administration. The new president placed his primary focus on brokering a long-term peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, with the goal of stabilizing the larger region in the process. After years of war and volatility, the Middle East remained a hotbed of diverging Arab factions, global oil interests, and Arab-Israeli tensions. Alarmed at the regional and global implications of the conflict, Carter coaxed all the involved parties into a series of ongoing negotiations toward a peace settlement. He even convinced the Soviet Union to participate, a crucial inclusion given the nation’s support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), one of the primary engines of Middle Eastern tension and an organization devoted to renewed statehood for Palestine. 

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to reach a settlement agreement in 1977, but neither Israel nor Egypt liked the terms. Frustrated by the interference of the superpowers, leaders from Egypt and Israel decided to negotiate on their own, but this broke down in short order. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin proposed an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Desert, a region the Israelis had wrested from Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War. However, he refused one major concession, to grant statehood to Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, both of which contained large Arab populations. Not only did Begin not grant statehood, he also permitted Jewish settlers in the area to remain and even encouraged more Israelis to settle there. This issue caused negotiations to break down again.

At this point, the United States re-entered the negotiation process. Carter invited Begin and Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland in order to resume peace talks privately. The invitation was a gamble, because if the talks went badly, Egyptian-Israeli peace might be indefinitely postponed and the relationship between Israel and the United States might sustain irreparable damage. However, the meeting was a success (Figure 28.8). Although Israel refused to force Jewish settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Begin did agree to halt new Jewish settlements and agreed to extend rights to Palestinians in those areas. In exchange, Israel gained Egypt’s formal recognition, a step without which Israel could never gain security. No other Arab nations dared attack Israel with Egypt’s support.

Figure 28.8: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at signing of the Camp David Accords, September 1978. [7]

The Camp David Accords established a high-water mark for Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as his strategizing and risks had paid off in the form of possible peace in the Middle East, or at least, between these two historic enemies. All of the leaders involved hoped that the Camp David Accords would encourage other Middle Eastern nations to make peace with Israel, but unfortunately, that was not to be. Most Middle Eastern leaders condemned Anwar Sadat for his recognition of Israel.


Carter also attempted to reform the perception of the U.S. in South America. Although the United States viewed itself as the protector of South America and had so established itself with the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. policies of containment in the post-World War II era had left many in South America feeling more threatened than protected. Carter sought to change that perception through his intervention in Nicaragua, which had been under the military dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza for half a century. Although Somoza was an anti-communist and he had previously enjoyed the support of the U.S. government, Carter believed that U.S. support of such governments undermined its democratic values.

In the late 1970s, grassroots protests against Somoza grew, and in turn, so did police violence against citizens and protesters. The Carter administration supported anti-Somoza forces, particularly the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and offered tens of millions of dollars in support of what they perceived as freedom fighters. This spiral of violence continued until July 1979, when the Somoza government collapsed and the Sandinistas took over.

The Sandinistas did not live up to expectations. Although anti-Somoza factions had been united in their desire to oust the government, they did not agree on what should happen after Somoza was out of the picture. The Sandinistas quickly centralized government authority within their own movement, shutting out other coalition members, censoring the press, and delaying free elections. The Sandinistas eventually opted to attempt a communist state, announcing their allegiance with Cuba and the Soviet Union. The leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, also announced he would help other South American countries follow the same trajectory. When he provided this assistance in neighboring El Salvador, that nation’s government responded by sending death squads into the countryside to murder anyone suspected of being a Nicaraguan insurgent. The U.S. withdrew its aid from both Nicaragua and El Salvador and stood helplessly by as both nations descended into an imbroglio of civil war and government violence against the people. Needless to say, South American opinions of the United States did not change favorably as a result of this fiasco.

28.22 - Level 2

Put the following events in chronological order.


Gerald Ford pardons Richard Nixon


Sandinistas take over the government of Nicaragua


Camp David Accords


U.S. assisted overthrow of Chilean government


Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sign nuclear arm limitation agreements


Richard Nixon resigns

Iran Hostage Crisis

Jimmy Carter’s luck in the Middle East would not hold. Even as he was making historic inroads toward peace between Egypt and Israel, the U.S. relationship with Iran was falling apart. The United States and Iran had maintained a friendly relationship ever since the overthrow of the Mosaddeq government in 1953. The Shah of Iran, though disliked by his own people, was very friendly to U.S. interests and in turn, the U.S. was unabashed in their support of him (Figure 28.9). Jimmy Carter even met with the Shah early in his presidential term, thus cementing a public impression of a strong alliance.

Figure 28.9: The Shah of Iran meeting with President Carter and members of his cabinet, 1977. ​[8]

However, within Iran, a revolution was brewing. Decades of liberal reforms in Iranian government and culture had made the nation uncomfortably western for many traditional Muslims, who were incredibly conservative. These traditional Muslims now felt marginalized in their own society, and felt that the Shah’s reforms were destroying the Islamic essence of Iran. As protests became more common in Iranian society, so did violent crackdowns by the Shah’s police force. A conservative Shiite cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, helped to mobilize and instigate support for the anti-Shah movement, despite having been exiled to Paris by the Shah in the 1950s.

As the Shah’s support waned and the movement against him grew, the United States government did not know how to respond. Some in the Carter administration believed that the government should support the Shah and help him quash the revolution now underway. Others felt that the Shah’s government was a lost cause and that the U.S. should reach out to Khomeini in order to demonstrate flexibility and willingness to support a new regime. Ultimately, the administration took no course at all, thus breaking ties with the old administration while also alienating the revolutionaries. By January 1979, support for the Shah’s government had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer govern effectively. The Shah announced he was going on “vacation,” only to leave the country, never to return. Within days, Khomeini returned to Iran after more than twenty years in exile and was greeted by a jubilant crowd. He promptly seized control of the government and commanded the allegiance of the military, thus transforming Iran into an Islamic theocracy. The U.S. maintained some relations with the new government, but they were limited and strained.

In the summer of 1979, the Shah made a public announcement that he had been diagnosed with cancer and he asked to receive his treatments in the United States. Against the recommendations of his advisors, Carter allowed the Shah to enter the country for this purpose in October, much to the consternation of the Khomeini government in Iran. The Iranian people believed that the Shah should be returned to his homeland in order to face trial and almost certain execution. When the U.S. government refused to accede to this demand, relations between the U.S. and Iran deteriorated further. Student protests in front of the U.S. embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran became a regular occurrence, and the protesters took to burning Carter in effigy and screaming “Death to America.” 

Question 28.23

28.23 - Level 4

Explain why Iranians disliked and distrusted the United States. Consider events going back to 1953.

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.23.

Tensions reached a climax on November 4, 1979, when protesters climbed over the wall of the U.S. embassy by the hundreds and took over compound. In the process, they took more than one hundred hostages, almost all of whom were embassy employees and Americans. The hostage takers released half the prisoners almost immediately, all African Americans, non-U.S. citizens, and women, on the grounds that they had “already suffered the oppression of American society.” The others were held for 444 days.

Jimmy Carter felt personally responsible for the hostages’ plight and publicly vowed to get them home safely. He tried a number of methods to ensure their release. Within a week of the embassy takeover, he placed an embargo on Iran and froze their economic assets within the United States, to no effect. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, Hamilton Jordan, worked continuously to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. Carter held off on any thought of military action for the time being, deeming it too risky. For the first few months of the hostage crisis, the American public rallied around Carter, as his concern for the hostages was obvious and heartfelt. However, what Carter failed to foresee was that his enormous public commitment needed to eventually translate to a successful resolution to the Iran Hostage Crisis. As the months dragged on with no foreseeable change, support waned drastically (Figure 28.10).

Figure 28.10: Americans protest the Iran Hostage Crisis in Washington, D.C., November 9, 1979. [9]​

After nearly six months, Carter decided to risk military action to free the hostages. The mission, called “Desert One,” was incredibly high-risk and had a high chance of failure but represented one of the few remaining avenues for a potential resolution to the crisis. However, the mission ended before it began. Three helicopters malfunctioned, and another helicopter crashed into a plane on takeoff, killing eight service members and injuring three more. Given the number of problems, Carter had to call off the mission. The Iranian government capitalized on the incident, using footage of the helicopter wreckage as propaganda to demonstrate American incompetence.

There was one bright spot in the whole hostage crisis. Six Americans had managed to escape the embassy as it was being taken over, and they found refuge at the homes of Canadian diplomats. In a mission coordinated between the U.S. and Canadian governments, the six Americans were given fake identities and posed as a Canadian film crew, allowing them to fly out of Tehran using Canadian passports. The surprise return of the six Americans in January 1980 was a relief to many Americans, and represented a small moment of success for the U.S. government. However, due to concerns that the remaining hostages would be executed if American involvement in the gambit became known, the U.S. government chose to give the Canadians full credit for the mission, which only served to make Jimmy Carter seem even more ineffectual. 

Even though the Shah of Iran succumbed to his cancer in the summer of 1980, the hostage crisis continued to drag on. There were a number of possible reasons for this- Khomeini found that the hostage crisis helped to consolidate his followers and therefore made his reign in Iran more secure. He also may have been motivated by hatred for Carter and his aborted invasion attempt. Either way, by the end of 1980, it was clear that nothing the U.S. government could do would convince Iran to free the hostages. 

Question 28.24

28.24 - Level 5

Imagine that you are one of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy advisors. How would you have advised him to handle the rapidly changing political conditions in Iran, both before and during the hostage crisis?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.24.


In the midst of the Iran crisis, the Soviets were looking to capitalize on U.S. misfortune. Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union were still technically in a state of détente, the relationship had deteriorated during the Carter administration. The Soviets, much like the American people, began to perceive Carter as soft, and began to consider taking liberties with previous agreements. For most of the 1970s, Afghanistan had a Soviet-supported communist government under Mohammed Daoud. However, as Daoud began to take a more moderate course, his government came under siege by more strident communists. This faction, led by Noor Taraki, assassinated Daoud and made Taraki the new prime minister. The Soviets were pleased with this turn of events, until anti-communist Islamic insurgents called the mujahideen began to attack the new government. 

Although the Soviets initially tried to stay out of the conflict, after Taraki was executed in October 1979 and the situation advanced in favor of the mujahideen, the Soviets rationalized invading. They needed to maintain a friendly government in Afghanistan, since the two nations shared a border. The Soviets also assumed that since the United States was occupied with the Iran crisis, they would be less likely to intervene in Afghanistan. Also, the Soviets expected their involvement in the country to be very limited in nature, so there was an expectation that they might be able to shore up the government and leave before the U.S. could mobilize and enter the conflict.

In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and in short order, 100,000 soldiers had taken over Afghani cities. However, the Soviets miscalculated the U.S. response to the invasion. The Carter administration, along with a number of other nations, condemned the Soviet invasion and supplied financial support to the mujahideen, thus prolonging the need for the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. In his 1980 State of the Union address, the president issued the Carter Doctrine, in which he pledged to protect Middle Eastern oil supplies from encroachment by the Soviet Union.

Carter issued a number of economic sanctions against the Soviets and also ordered a trade embargo. Although the Soviets had planned a limited incursion, they ended up mired in a war there for ten years, in large part due to the U.S. support given to the insurgents. The amount of money that the U.S. sent was initially quite small, but over the next ten years, the government would send tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic insurgents, not allowing them to win but allowing them to fight just hard enough that the Soviets could not leave. Americans initially supported Carter’s position, and this long-term strategy ultimately forced the Soviets to leave Afghanistan in disgrace, defeated and all but bankrupt from their efforts. However, because the plan did not immediately force the Soviets to recall their invasion forces, it appeared as though Carter was involving the United States in yet another seemingly endless, and pointless Middle Eastern conflict that did not serve American interests.

28.25 - Level 2

Match the president with his policy.


Jimmy Carter


Brokered peace agreement between Israel and Egypt


Gerald Ford


Overthrew a democratic socialist government in Chile


Richard Nixon


Pardoned a president under threat of indictment

28.26 - Level 3

Which of the following Islamic groups was the successor to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan?









28.27 - Level 4

Which President is being parodied in the image below?

question description








Election of 1980

By November 1980, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating was at its lowest point. Having come into office with an approval rating near 70%, by the election, only 34% of Americans thought he was doing a good job (Figure 28.11). Carter had to fight for re-nomination, and throughout the spring and summer of 1980, Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy threatened to upset him at the nominating convention. However, Carter eventually overcame this civil war within his own party to reclaim the nomination. Until the election, he was seen as being in a close tie with his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. 

Figure 28.11: Gallup poll indicating Jimmy Carter’s declining approval rating over the course of his presidency.

Reagan was everything that Carter was not. While Carter advocated for a moderated approach to foreign policy, Reagan wanted to do away with détente and preached the gospel of hard-line American exceptionalism. Carter wanted to practice fiscal conservatism as the best way to improve the American economy, but Reagan was getting people excited about tax cuts and tax stratification. Moreover, Reagan was a former Hollywood actor who knew how to play the part of a concerned, passionate politician. He was funny but also serious, could speak clearly and talk about big picture issues, without getting bogged down into detail as Carter tended to do.

Carter’s biggest issue stemmed from the continuing hostage crisis in Iran. There were still 53 hostages in captivity, and while Carter had tried every tool at his disposal to free them, he had failed to secure a successful outcome. Worse, Carter had instituted a political strategy where he refused to campaign as long as the hostages were in captivity, a move intended to demonstrate his commitment to the hostages over politics which instead just rendered him virtually silent during campaign season. Carter also did not have a strong record to speak for him in his silence. This strategy allowed Reagan to dominate the political discussion in the weeks leading up to the election.

Reagan ultimately won the election in 1980. Although he only received just over 50 percent of the popular vote, he carried 41 states, in contrast to Carter’s 41% in nine states (Figure 28.12). Polls had vastly underestimated to the degree to which voters liked Reagan’s political persona and, in a cruel twist of fate, election day happen to fall on the date marking the one year anniversary of the hostage crisis in Tehran, thus providing voters with a reminder of their current leader’s failures. Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president on January 20, 1981. As if to emphasize the break between the old regime and the new one, Ruhollah Khomeini released the embassy hostages less than one hour after Reagan’s inauguration. Although Reagan was apparently as surprised as anyone at this happy turn of events, many Americans attributed the hostages’ release to the new president. Some even claimed that Reagan’s team worked to delay the release of the hostages until after the election in order to ensure the Republican candidate’s victory, although there is not much evidence to support this theory. Carter’s defeat, as well as Reagan’s victory, were now complete. 

Figure 28.12: Map showing the breakdown of the electoral vote in the 1980 presidential election.

Question 28.28

28.28 - Level 4

What issues hindered Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign?

Click here to see the answer to Question 28.28.


The 1970s proved a very difficult decade for the United States from every possible standpoint. The economy remained in a stubborn slump throughout the decade, with most Americans suffering from depressed wages and rampant inflation. Although the U.S. achieved several brief moments of victory on the foreign policy front, including the creation of détente with the Soviet Union and China, and the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, these moments of triumph were punctuated with defeat in Vietnam and quagmire in Iran and Afghanistan. After the Watergate scandal, the nation spent several years attempting to recover a vestige of trust in its leadership, and stumbled to find presidents who represented good values while also providing strong leadership. After Ford and Carter stumbled, Reagan seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel. He led the country confidentially into the so-called Reagan Revolution, and thus ushered in a period of relative happiness and prosperity. Reagan served as a healing balm for a country much torn by economic and political wounds, although Americans would soon find that Reagan, too, had his stumbling blocks.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 28.01

Class Discussion 28.01 - Level 3

Explain Nixon’s southern strategy and indicate how it differs from previous strategies used to lure southern voters.

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 28.01.

Class Discussion 28.02

Class Discussion 28.02 - Level 5

Based on the evidence you have seen here, do you think that Richard Nixon was involved in the planning of the Watergate break-in or its cover-up? To what extent do you think he was involved? Explain your answer.

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 28.02.

Class Discussion 28.03

Class Discussion 28.03 - Level 5

Assess the triumphs and failures of the Carter presidency. Do you think he deserves his reputation for incompetence as president?

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Class Discussion 28.04

Class Discussion 28.04 - Level 2

Briefly explain the economic situation in the 1970s. What caused the economic crisis and what did the various presidents do in order to try and salvage the economy?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 28.04.

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Suggested Additional Material

Bernstein, Carl and Bob Woodward. 2007. All the President’s Men: The Greatest Reporting Story of All Time (New York: Simon and Schuster).

Carter, Dan T. 2003. From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press).

Perlstein, Rick. 2008. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner).

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 28.02

Democratic candidates had to be careful in their opposition to the Vietnam War in 1968 because they did not want to go against the policies implemented by the current Democratic administration. Candidates like Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy could be more open about their criticism, but Vice President Hubert Humphrey could not express his true convictions due to fear of appearing disloyal to his current boss.

Click here to return Question 28.02.

Answer to Question 28.03

Voters might be drawn to Nixon over Wallace for two reasons. One, Nixon’s argument was not overtly racist, thus giving it a sheen of respectability. Second, Nixon was making an appeal for states’ rights, historically a battle cry of the white southern voter and the supposed reason for the South’s secession from the Union prior to the Civil War.

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Answer to Question 28.05

This quote illustrates the “Southern Strategy” employed first by Nixon, but was subsequently adopted by Reagan, Bush, and all other Republican presidential nominees. The point was initially to appeal to white pro-segregation southern Democrats who felt that their party had become too connected to Civil Rights. As noted in the text, since overt racism was no longer acceptable in national political discourse, Republican politicians used “coded” language (sometimes referred to as “dog-whistle politics”) to signal to these white votes that they would govern in their interests. Interestingly, as Atwater notes, this went beyond policies that were clearly related to race (forced busing, “states’ rights”) to more abstract notions like “limited government” and “cutting taxes,” which would clearly favor the powerful over the powerless.    

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Answer to Question 28.07

This is an opinion question, but there are multiple ways to answer. Defenders of ping pong diplomacy might say that sporting events are a way of getting the people used to interacting with another country that was previously perceived as an enemy. It is a way of establishing the humanity of the other side. Some might point to the Olympics as an example of an international sporting event aimed at creating a shared world community. Detractors might say that ping pong diplomacy trivializes the importance of delicate international treaties, agreements, and relationships, and ultimately athletics and politics are two different worlds.

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Answer to Question 28.09

President Nixon proved to be the ideal politician to thaw diplomatic relations with Communist China, because he himself had been a staunch anti-communist throughout his political career. Therefore, no one could question his motives or being “soft on communism.” This metaphor has since come to mean that only a politician with unassailable bone fides among his/her supporters could engage in an activity that they would otherwise view with suspicion. 

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Answer to Question 28.13

Nixon created OSHA, expanded food stamps and social security, and enacted a number of environmentalist laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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Answer to Question 28.14

The Plumbers demonstrated Nixon’s fundamental distrust of democracy and the AMerican political system at large. Their propensity to commit break-ins, robberies, and conduct illegal surveillance also indicate Nixon’s disregard for the rules of law, as his administration is the one that hired them to take on these activities.

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Answer to Question 28.15

McCord offered testimony because he believed his failure to do so would result in a longer sentence or other possible legal penalties. Among other things, he offered that he and some of the other burglars had perjured themselves, that the burglary was not a CIA operation, as many believed at the time, and that political pressure had been applied in order to keep the burglars compliant. He also stated that there were many involved in the break-in that had not previously been named in court.

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Answer to Question 28.16

Nixon said he resigned because he no longer felt he had the congressional support necessary to properly execute his duties as president, and he believed that continuing to serve would be counter to the best interests of the country. He calls on Gerald Ford to begin reuniting and healing the country, to continue the policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union, to create more jobs and economic opportunity for Americans, and must work for peace in other nations.

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Answer to Question 28.21

This is an opinion question. Those who support Ford’s decision might say that he was allowing the country to put the Watergate scandal behind it and sparing the nation the embarrassment of having a president go to civil trial, where many felt he was certain to be convicted of at least one crime. Those who disagree might say that Ford allowed Nixon to get away with crimes without punishment, thus setting a bad precedent for future leaders.

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Answer to Question 28.23

The Iranians distrusted the United States due to their role in the overthrow of their leader in 1953. The believed that the Shah, their current leader, was merely a puppet for the United States and that as such, the U.S. was willing to excuse any number of atrocities on the part of the Shah.

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Answer to Question 28.24

Student answers will vary here, but students may be divided between those arguing for more robust support of the Shah and those arguing for trying to establish positive relations with the new Islamist government. Likewise, there would likely be a division between students advocating for military action in response to the hostage crisis and those favoring diplomacy.

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Answer to Question 28.28

Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign was hampered by his inability to make progress on the Iran Hostage Crisis, as well as his inability to fix the still-depressed economy.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 28.01

Nixon’s southern strategy aimed to draw disaffected white southern voters from the formerly conservative Democratic Party to the Republican Party through the use of veiled racial rhetoric. This strategy represented a departure from that of previous politicians catering to white southern voters because it avoided the use of overtly racist appeals, which by 1968 had become unfashionable.

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Answer to Class Discussion 28.02

Although much of this answer is a matter of opinion, we can draw some definite conclusions based on the evidence. While there is no evidence to directly implicate Nixon in the planning and execution of the Watergate break-ins, we also know that Nixon’s close advisors hired the burglars, indicating his implicit consent for whatever operations they undertook. The subsequent release of Nixon’s Oval Office recordings clearly demonstrate that Nixon was part of the cover-up that followed the break-in. He is heard on the record asking the FBI not to investigate the case and destroy evidence and collaborating in how to best maintain the silence the burglars. Some historians also believe that the 18 minute gap in the tape that was made the morning after the Watergate burglary is evidence of wrongdoing on Nixon’s part, as it has been forensically proven that portion of the tape had been erased multiple times, but this evidence is inconclusive.

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Answer to Class Discussion 28.03

Carter’s presidency started off strong, particularly due to his ability to establish a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt with the Camp David Accords. However, there were failures. He was unable to fix the stagnant economy and his administration’s unwillingness to choose a side during the Iranian Revolution helped to create the Iran Hostage Crisis. In the case of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Carter’s actions during this time were appropriate and in line with how previous executives had responded to terrorist action. However, it was in this event that Carter demonstrated his weakness as a politician. Carter had a tendency to get consumed by a single issue and advertise his commitment to that issue, a strategy that is only effective if results are produced. Carter’s devotion to solving the hostage crisis, combined with his inability to fix the problem, created the perception of ineptitude.

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Answer to Class Discussion 28.04

During the 1970s, the U.S. economy was plagued by stagflation, a combination of stagnant wages and rampant inflation. Many scholars believe that the costs of the Vietnam War created this economic situation, but part of the problem also stemmed from rising oil prices due to tensions in the Middle East and the fact that most of the European economies that had relied on the United States during the post-war reconstruction period were now fully recovered, resulting in a decrease in exports. Nixon attempted to solve the economic problem with a series of tax cuts, import taxes, and price and wage freezes, while Gerald Ford’s solution involved the cutting of deficit spending and attempts to cut the budget by eliminating some government regulations in certain industries. None of these proposals ultimately did much to curb unemployment or raise wages.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 194759 in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of Diana Davies in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 304967 in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the The Nixon Library and Museum in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 173353 in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 181133 in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 177338 in the Public Domain modified by Kintetsubuffalo.

[9] Image courtesy the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.