Cold War: The Nixon, Ford and Carter Years

The Cold War Under President Nixon

Richard Milhous Nixon was elected to Congress from California in 1946 and to the United States Senate in 1950. Selected as General Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate in 1952, Nixon served eight years in that office and was narrowly defeated by John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. Nixon then ran for governor of California in 1962 and was defeated once again. In a bitter farewell to the media he proclaimed that, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon's comeback, however, began when he made a rousing nomination speech for Barry Goldwater for president at the Republican National Convention in 1964.

Following Goldwater's landslide defeat, Nixon worked quietly within the Republican Party and in 1968 was able to secure the nomination for president, running against incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was saddled with Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War legacy, but the election was nevertheless very close. Former Governor George Wallace of Alabama created a diversion for frustrated Southern conservatives and carried five states in the Electoral College as he ran on the American Independent Party.

Richard Nixon campaigned on what he called a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, which was in fact nothing more than turning the conduct of the war over to the Vietnamese, in other words “Vietnamization.” He eventually got the United States out of Vietnam and achieved what he called “peace with honor.” (See Vietnam Section.) He and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who later became his Secretary of State, saw the Vietnam War as something of a sideshow to the larger issue of the Cold War tension between the United States and Russia and China.
Pursuing a policy which they called “détente,” Kissinger and Nixon sought to reduce tensions among the three major powers. Nixon made a famous visit to Communist China in 1972, the first step in establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two nations. He also had a summit conference with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin in 1972, at which various diplomatic agreements were reached. During his meeting with the Soviet Premier, President Nixon said in a toast, “We should recognize that great nuclear powers have a solemn responsibility to exercise restraint in any crisis, and to take positive action to avert direct confrontation.”

The U.S. entered several treaties with the two Communist nations during Nixon’s first term and supported China’s admission to the United Nations. A Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was also signed in Moscow. Better relations between the U.S. and China and the Soviets may also have facilitated the end to America’s participation in the Vietnam War. Just after 1972 presidential election Kissinger signed a peace agreement with Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator. Whatever flaws Richard Nixon may have had, his foreign policy achievements have been considered notable. Although tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union remained high, neither side wanted a nuclear war. The consensus among both the American and Russian people was that Nixon's policies had made the world safer.

During the election campaign of 1968, President Nixon claimed that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. That plan eventually turned out to be "Vietnamization," which meant essentially withdrawing American troops and turning the war over to the Vietnamese government. His other foreign policy concerns surpassed what was going on in Vietnam, however. Even before he became president, he had begun to turn his attention to China, insisting an article in Foreign Affairs that "There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation." The president dispatched national security advisor Henry Kissinger to China to open discussions about possible further progress in relations between the two nations. It was eventually announced that he would visit China. President Nixon and advisor Kissinger met with the Chinese leaders Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai in a private meeting that apparently made progress toward greater understanding between the leaders.

Nixon’s overtures toward China were a matter of concern for leaders of the Soviet Union, who sensed an important shift in the balance of power. They welcomed President Nixon’s overtures to establish a period of détente, further improving relations between the West and the communist world. Although President Nixon has been rightfully criticized for the entire Watergate affair, upon his death, a Soviet historian visiting the United States said that Nixon was a something of a hero in Russia, a man who would made the world’s a safer place. He advised virtually every president who followed him on international affairs matters until his death in1994.

In 1970 President Nixon authorized an invasion of Cambodia in 1970 to attack communist sanctuaries, four students were shot by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio, and the protests erupted anew. Then came the confusing and frustrating end of the American involvement in Vietnam, followed closely by the growing Watergate scandal, and it seemed that once again, things were as bad as ever. (See The Nixon Years section.)

Foreign Affairs Under Presidents Ford and Carter

President Nixon's achievements in the foreign policy arena were overshadowed by Watergate in the immediate aftermath of his resignation. Years later, however, his role in making the world safer was recognized, not only by Americans but by the Russian people as well. Perhaps because of the focus on domestic issues, underscored by the Watergate crisis, foreign policy under Presidents Ford and Carter received less attention that they deserved.

Gerald Ford was appointed by Richard Nixon to replace Vice President Agnew, who resigned in disgrace following allegations of financial improprieties. When President Nixon resigned because of Watergate, Gerald Ford became the first unelected president in American history. As a Congressman and Vice President, Gerald Ford had not been deeply involved with foreign affairs, but as a leader of Congress he was certainly familiar with American foreign policy in a general way. Because he was first seen as likely to be president only for the remainder of President Nixon's term, he decided to continue with Nixon's foreign-policy team. About one year into his term, however, President Ford made some changes, among which was the appointment of future President George H.W. Bush to direct the CIA.

The most significant event during the president Ford's years was the fall of Vietnam to the Communists. Although there was no possibility that the United States would send troops back to Vietnam, President Ford still wanted to provide assistance to the South Vietnamese government in the face of a North Vietnamese invasion. Congress, however, would not authorize any funds for that purpose, and following a swift offensive, the Communist forces entered Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. As the war ended, the remaining Americans in Vietnam scrambled to leave Saigon by helicopter, and thousands of Vietnamese who had opposed the Communists and supported America fled from the country by any means possible. Tens of thousands of them—many called the “boat people”—eventually found refuge in the United States and elsewhere.

Following the fall of Saigon Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge, captured an American cargo ship, the Mayaguez. President Ford ordered American forces to free the captured Americans, and although a number of American lives were lost in the raid, the operation was seen as a success. In a bizarre twist during the operation, military affairs reached a new level of top-down controla; the White House was put in direct communication with the crews of the naval vessels overseeing the raid as well as with Air Force personnal on the scene. The rescue operation was seen as successful despite the loss of American lives.

Relations with the Soviet Union remained testy during the Ford years, even though Preisdent Ford did his best to continue President Nixon's policy of détente with the Communist government in Moscow. Further attempts were made to reduce strategic arms by mutual agreement, but those negotiations ran into difficulty because of differences between the sides on concessions to ne made. In the aftermath of Watergate, Congress paid close scrutiny to all administration activities, making president Ford's job more challenging. Although no major crises occurred during president Ford's term, his handling of foreign-policy did not help him in his attempt to win reelection over Jimmy Carter.

President Jimmy Carter was even less experienced in foreign relations than his predecessor had been. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and veteran of the Navy's nuclear power program, President Carter was more than capable of dealing with the challenges he faced in foreign-policy. President Carter's foreign-policy team was headed by Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor. Brzezinski was a hard-line opponent of the Soviet Union while Cyrus Vance, an experienced foreign-policy troubleshooter, favored a less aggressive approach to foreign affairs. President Carter's approach to foreign policy was driven by an idealistic desire to further the cause of human rights around the world, both in nations with hostile attitudes toward the United States, and with America's allies. The controversial policy made relationships with some of America's allies, and with President Carter's Republican opponents in Congress, very uneasy.

A major achievement of Carter's foreign-policy was the opening of diplomatic relations with the Communist government of China. Recognizing the difficulty of improving relations with the Asian nation without having formal diplomatic relations, President Carter moved aggressively in that direction, even though it meant the formal cessation of relations with the Chinese Republic of Taiwan. Although mechanisms were put in place to continue relationships between the United States government and Taiwan, President Carter nevertheless faced criticism for theoretically abandoning one of America's friends. The lessening of tensions between the United States and Communist China, however, was seen as a positive step in advancing the causse of peace in Asia.

Another of President Carter significant achievements was the result of an event that became known as the Camp David Accords. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli leader Menachem Begin met with the president at the presidential retreat at Camp David. After more than a week of talks facilitated by President Carter, the two leaders agreed to formalize a peaceful relationship betwen the two nations. President Carter worked diligently with each side to negotiate concessions and make promises that would benefit both sides, while at the same time strengthening America's presence as well as moral authority in that highly volatile region of the world. The Camp David Accords were hailed as a major step towards lowering tensions in the Middle East.

President Carter was aware that United States control of the Panama Canal needed to be addressed. Panamanian dissidents had openly demonstrated in opposition to what they saw as an American intrusion upon Panamanian sovereignty. President Carter negotiated agreement with Panama, but he failed to take into account the role of the Senate in approving the treaty. No senators were privy to the negotiations, and when the terms of the agreement were revealed, congressional opposition was quite strong. President Carter did everything possible to win public approval for the agreement, even going so far as to direct members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak on behalf of the new treaty. The Senate eventually approved the treaty, but only after amendments were added asserting America's right to unilaterally defend the Panama Canal zone if and when necessary.

Another difficult series of events for President Carter resulted from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The president responded by cutting off grain shipments to the Soviet Union and directing the American Olympic team to boycott the 1980 Olympic gamesin Moscow. American aid to the Afghan resistors, however, fell far short of offering substantive assistance to the beleaguered nation. Only later, when Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas became involved, did United States support for the Afghan fighters reach a level sufficient to hamper Soviet operations. Once again, Carter's critics argued that his foreign-policy was weak.

The final event in President Carter's term was the taking of hostages by anti-American government officials in Iran. The hostage crisis dominated the latter weeks of President Carter's administration, and although an agreement was eventually worked out for the release of the hostages, the actual did not occur until after Ronald Reagan had defeated President Carter in the election of 1980. An attempted rescue by helicopter commandos had also ended in failure. In all President Carter's foreign-policy was seen as perhaps too long on idealism and short on what has been called realpolitik—the politics of reality. Although his achievements were notable, his critics nevertheless felt that his shortcomings outweighed his gains, and his foreign-policy record was certainly a factor in the election of 1980.

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