The American Vision © 2010
Politics and Economics, 1968-1980
This chapter takes a looks at the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. It also describes how the 1970s saw a new approach to civil rights and the dawn of environmentalism.
Section 1 examines the domestic and foreign policy agendas of President Richard M. Nixon. By 1968 many Americans longed for an end to the violence and protests that had riddled the nation during the 1960s. Richard Nixon appealed to "Middle Americans" when he promised a return to peace, order, and traditional values. Once in office, Nixon won Southern support by dragging his feet on desegregation and working to overturn several civil rights policies. His conservative Supreme Court appointments held the Warren Court reforms in check. Under his New Federalism program, he dismantled federal programs to give more power to state and local governments. At the same time, he sought to increase the power of the executive branch. Applying a practical approach to foreign policy, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, used engagement and negotiation to improve relations with China and the Soviet Union. Historic trips abroad created a new spirit of détente and resulted in the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I).
Section 2 details the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon administration. In 1972 a bungled burglary in the Watergate office complex led to the arrest of five men. As media investigations pointed to a White House connection, President Nixon authorized administration officials to cover any tracks. In televised hearings, White House and campaign officials exposed one illegality after another. A shocked nation watched as one top Nixon aide testified that the president had orchestrated the cover-up. Nixon continued to deny involvement and desperately tried to prevent judicial access to taped conversations. It took a Supreme Court order to override his claim of executive privilege. Facing indisputable evidence, Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress passed a number of laws that aimed to prevent future abuses of power, while Americans were left with a deep distrust of public officials.
Section 3 discusses the Ford and Carter administrations. When President Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford inherited a nation in turmoil. Inflation, foreign competition, and an oil crisis helped send the economy into a recession. Ford hoped that the voluntary controls of his Whip Inflation Now program would make an impact on the economy's troubles, but the program failed. In 1976 voters rejected Ford's economic policies and chose Washington outsider Jimmy Carter to lead the country. Carter's economic policies proved no more effective than those of the last two presidents, but his foreign policy mission was clear. A champion of human rights, Carter took a stand against Soviet aggressors, made an important agreement with a Latin American neighbor, and brokered a triumphant peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. However, his inability to free U.S. hostages in Iran cost him support in the 1980 presidential election.
Section 4 explains how the 1960s and 1970s saw minority groups develop new ways to improve their status. With reawakened pride in their cultural heritage, minority groups organized to fight discrimination and exploitation. Civil rights leaders hoped new policies—such as affirmative action—would help improve the social and economic status of minorities and disadvantaged groups. During the 1960s and 1970s1 new political leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, helped rally minorities for political change, while new organizations formed to protest unfair policies. Native Americans chose self-determination over assimilation. While some Native Americans formed militant groups to fight unemployment, police brutality, and poverty, others used the courts to win claims to ancestral lands. People with disabilities also fought for greater rights and access to education and jobs.
Section 5 discusses how environmental issues came into national focus. Beginning in the 1970s, grassroots efforts started an environmental movement to protect the environment and promote conservation of natural resources. The movement influenced the government to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and to enact a series of environmental protection laws. Major environmental disasters helped draw attention to the cause, including Love Canal and Three Mile Island. Nuclear power plants became a target of environmental activists.