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9-08-2015, 23:42

FROM GREAT ASPIRATIONS TO DISILLUSION

The 1960s and early 1970s were a distinctive and decisive period in American history. They were years of rapidly growing prosperity, but they were also the years of the Vietnam War, disillusionment and protest. The post-war economic boom passed all expectations. The standard of living of most Americans increased nearly every year. Was this not a vindication of American free enterprise? Americans had become citizens of an affluent society – at least most of them had – and had discovered the wonders of credit. Millions moved to a better life in the sunbelt from Texas to California. Florida became a haven for an older generation. But in 1962 one in four Americans, over 42 million, were still living in dire poverty. That included nearly half the Afro-American population, single parents and children, the old and sick, and the poor, who lacked education and skills. From poverty-stricken Mexico, immigrants entered California and Texas illegally to work for low wages which Americans would not accept. From Puerto Rico and Latin America the poor, seeking a better life, finished up in the deprived housing of the inner cities. Here they joined the native Americans, who had left their own barren reservations. But the lot of the poor improved dramatically. President Johnson in his first State of the Union address in 1964 declared ‘unconditional war on poverty’. The federal government pumped billions of dollars into welfare and ambitious antipoverty projects. Johnson’s Great Society programmes worked. By 1973, the number of poor had more than halved to 11 per cent. The antiliberal Nixon, though faced with increasing federal deficits when he became president in 1969, did not retrench seriously on welfare. Positive anti-poverty measures taken by his administration included increased social security benefits and greater expenditure on education; federal housing subsidies were also continued. Nevertheless, the US was still a deeply divided society; the liberal 1960s of welfare, of protest, of student revolt and anti-Vietnam draft boycotts was creating a backlash by construction workers and outraged Middle America, which attributed the rising crime rates and the disrespect shown by youth to excessive licence and softness. The Americans who turned to Nixon saw in him a president who would uphold America’s traditional virtues. After his narrow defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and, two years later, his devastating drubbing in the contest for governor of California, Nixon’s controversial political career seemed to have ended. At what he thought would be his last press conference, he hit back at the newsmen, who he felt had never treated him fairly: ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.’ A few days later, ABC Television broadcast a special, The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. Nixon left his California base and joined a law firm in New York, though in 1964 he supported the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, who was well to the right of mainstream Republicans. In 1966 and 1967 he rebuilt his political support as the man best able to unite Republicans. By the time of the party’s convention in 1968, he was once more the obvious candidate to contest the next presidential election. Driving ambition and sheer hard work rather than privilege and a silver spoon got Nixon to the White House. He saw himself as the underdog who had had to make his own way. As president he retained a sense that he faced danger from many unscrupulous enemies and from an ill-disposed establishment. Determined to defeat them, he responded with conspiratorial ruthlessness. There was a loneliness about his White House years, with his reliance on a small team of White House political staff, from whom he demanded absolute loyalty. For Nixon, safety would be guaranteed only if he could gain control over those he believed wished to discredit him and his policies. It all ended with the Watergate fiasco and his resignation to avoid impeachment. But his performance as president during his first administration won him the trust and confidence of a far greater majority of American voters in the 1972 election than in the lacklustre election of 1968. Nixon’s passion was to devise for America a new global strategy that would extricate it from the rigidities of the Cold War. He appointed William P. Rogers, a former attorney-general under Eisenhower, secretary of state. But in shaping a new foreign policy he called on the help of a Harvard professor, Henry A. Kissinger, to act as national security adviser. Kissinger replaced Rogers as secretary of state when Rogers resigned in the autumn of 1973. Kissinger proved a brilliant strategist in tackling contemporary international problems. The most pressing need was to extricate the US from fighting an endless war in Vietnam. Vietnam had divided the nation. During his election campaign Nixon promised that he had a plan to end the war. The plan was to roll the film backwards, to the point before massive numbers of US combat troops had been sent to Vietnam, and the hope continued to be that the Americanequipped South Vietnamese army plus punitive bombing by the US would force the North Vietnamese to give up, the struggle. Kissinger was as tough-minded as Nixon about the war, determined that it should not end in a humiliating defeat. The US position he put forward at the Paris peace negotiations – these had begun during Johnson’s presidency in May 1968 – was that all foreign forces should leave South Vietnam, which should then be left to decide its future in free elections. This was unacceptable to the North Vietnamese; they knew that whichever side organised the free elections would be sure to win them. They demanded a coalition government in South Vietnam, to include the communist South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, which they easily dominated after the Tet offensive had inflicted terrible losses on the Vietcong. The Nixon plan was to Vietnamise the war on land and to bring US combat troops home in stages. The Americans suffered heavy casualties in 1969 and were increasingly demoralised, many soldiers resorting to cheap drugs. In 1968 US forces had reached their maximum of 536,100 men; in 1969 they were reduced to 475,200; by 1971 their number had dropped to 157,800 and when the armistice was signed in January 1973 only 23,500 were still left in Vietnam. But while US troop reductions took place the air war was secretly extended to Cambodia along the North Vietnamese supply routes, the Ho Chi-minh trail. (Kissinger’s plan and need for secrecy was due to circumventing Congress which would have had to approve war against a neutral state; the secrecy of the operations could not be maintained.) In April 1970 American and South Vietnamese troops actually invaded Cambodia, to the dismay of American public opinion, which wanted to get out of the war and not into a new one. On the ground the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were showing no signs of weakening. Nixon’s only response was to step up again the bombing of North Vietnam. Kissinger meanwhile had made secret contact with the North Vietnamese negotiator in Paris, Le Duc Tho, in February 1970. Not until the Americans were prepared to abandon their insistence that the North Vietnamese forces in the South should withdraw at the same time as the Americans could a deal be struck. With this vital concession, might a deal have been made sooner saving many lives? It was bitterly opposed by the president of South Vietnam, General Nguyen Van Thieu. If the Americans left, the South Vietnamese would have to face the full weight of the Vietminh in the South alone. There were hitches in the final negotiations in Paris when the North Vietnamese resisted amendments to the peace agreement. To persuade them, Nixon ordered the horrific Christmas bombing of Hanoi in December 1972. The savage bombing causing indiscriminate civilian casualties was also a departing present for the South Vietnamese. On 27 January 1973 the communist negotiators accepted a ceasefire and concluded a comprehensive agreement to end the Vietnam war; the South Vietnamese were left no alternative but to join, since they were totally dependent on US support. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho received the Nobel Prize for ending a war that did not end. The last long-drawn-out stages from 1970 to 1973 of what had become the most unpopular war in US history continued to be accompanied by protests at home. Nixon’s own reactions tended to polarise the conflict between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. In May 1970 National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of student demonstrators at Kent State University; four students were killed and several wounded, which shocked even the conservatives. Protest swept American university campuses. The war was still not over in November 1972 when Nixon again presented himself to the electors. That Nixon won the presidential election by a landslide, with more than 60 per cent of the popular vote, reveals the change in public feeling. Nixon personally, shy, aloof and not entirely trusted, was not popular; ‘Would you buy a second-hand car from him?’ it was asked. But he also appeared moderate and competent at home. He and Kissinger capitalised on the conservative backlash that was demanding law and order and a return to health of the American economy, and was disillusioned with the costly Great Society and the exaggerated aspirations of the Johnson years. The boys were coming home from Vietnam and few now remained. Kissinger’s skilful handling of foreign affairs, the evidence of relaxation of tension with the Soviet Union, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the arms-limitation talks with Russia all helped to enhance the administration’s image. The greatest Nixon–Kissinger coup and the most surprising was the establishment of friendly relations with Mao’s China. Their secret diplomacy began to show results when the Chinese in April 1971 invited an American table-tennis team to China. This was followed by Kissinger’s own secret trip to Beijing to prepare the way for Nixon’s spectacular visit in February 1972. The reorientation of US policy strengthened the hand of US diplomacy the world over. In May 1972 Nixon was in Moscow signing an arms-limitation agreement; detente was in full swing. That Nixon’s posture as a successful world statesman restoring US prestige after the frustrations of Vietnam helped him to win a second term in the presidency there can be no doubt. But his electoral victory was also aided by the weakness of a divided opposition. The Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, did not prove a strong vote-winner. Edward Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers, might have done, but his chances of selection had disappeared three years earlier in the shallow waters at Chappaquiddick, where, in an accident when the car he was driving plunged off a bridge, his lady companion was drowned. The senator had not immediately raised the alarm after the accident which led to controversy blighting his presidential ambitions. Within the space of less than two years Nixon fell from triumph to disgrace. But the world did not entirely revolve around Watergate. The ‘Agreement to end the Vietnam war’ in January 1973 and the accompanying international declaration of support for it signed by twelve nations in the presence of the secretary-general of the United Nations was, despite its solemn promises, bound to fail in its main purpose: the achievement of peace. It left the opposing communist and anticommunist forces in control of their own areas and regions of South Vietnam. The advantage lay with the North Vietnamese forces, which did not have to withdraw north of the 17th parallel. Nor was Vietnam any closer to a political solution. The South Vietnamese government felt it had been sold down the river, as the remaining US forces progressively withdrew, the last departing in March 1973. It was not quite like that. The Americans handed over their installations to the South Vietnamese and supplied enormous quantities of equipment, until South Vietnam possessed the fourth-largest air force in the world. It was up to the South Vietnamese government to win the war, if it could. Neither the Vietcong nor the North Vietnamese nor the South Vietnamese had any intention of honouring the armistice – though the communists were also on their own, both the Chinese and the Russians having refused to help them further. If the communists broke the agreement, as they did, Nixon could have ordered new air strikes, but this would have been unlikely to restrain them. By the autumn of 1973, when fighting resumed, Nixon was weakened by Watergate. The fighting continued until April 1975, when the communists took Saigon. The end came swiftly. For the US the indescribable scenes as South Vietnamese men and women, allies of the US, crowded on the stairs to the roof of a CIA safe house close to the Embassy, mostly in vain, desperately trying to join the helicopter evacuation of the American staff, marked a graphic and humiliating end to America’s efforts to save South Vietnam from communism. The men who had died in the war and those who had returned – the Vietnam veterans – received little honour or thanks. Americans wanted to forget the war. In the words of Nixon’s successor President Gerald Ford, ‘Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.’ He rightly insisted that the tragic events ‘portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world’. But this was wisdom after the events. If only it had existed when Johnson massively involved the US between July 1965 and March 1966. At home during his second administration Nixon had to grapple with inflation and the deteriorating financial situation. He began by cutting back on some of the Great Society social programmes. He devalued the dollar, and for a time his administration imposed wage and price controls. With the huge rise in Arab oil prices all Western economies were in trouble in 1973 and 1974. In the US, unemployment and inflation were rising while production was falling, a state of affairs that prevailed in most Western countries. According to Keynesian economics, inflation should have led to a growth in production and falls in unemployment. Now the economic world was topsy-turvy. A new term was coined to describe what was afflicting the West – ‘stagflation’, stagnation plus inflation. In the political world, however, the Watergate scandal soon overshadowed all else. America’s allies were puzzled by the way US newspapers and media hounded a president who had arguably showed himself more successful in securing American and Western interests, more far-sighted than any other president in the twentieth century. Domestically, too, the Nixon presidency seemed to be following moderate and sensible policies. But American politics are rough, and dirty tricks are nothing new. Illegal telephone-tapping, bribery and misuse of funds have been practised by some of America’s most eminent leaders. The press did not expose discreditable information about all politicians or even all presidents. J. F. Kennedy’s love-life was kept quiet; Martin Luther King was bugged. The CIA and the FBI were engaged in activities beyond anything that had been sanctioned. Nixon believed he had many enemies determined to get at him. The knives were certainly out for him, but he had himself contributed to this beleaguered atmosphere. The White House staff were becoming a second secret administration. They plotted how to strengthen the president and how best to lay low his enemies. Nixon was no outsider to these secret discussions. They proved not to be so secret in the end because he had them all taped. The Watergate story really began a year before the famous break-in with Nixon’s determination to get at the opponents of his policies in Vietnam and at home – at those, especially, who from inside the civil service were leaking secret documents to the press. The White House set up the Special Investigations Unit in the pursuit of their undercover investigations. The Unit’s staff became known as the Plumbers. It was they who organised the break-in at the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington in June 1972; the purpose was to steal information to help Nixon and discredit the Democrats during the presidential election campaign. The burglars were caught. Nixon had not known about the burglary beforehand, nor had he authorised the break-in, but some of his principal aides were implicated. The White House managed to keep the scandal from affecting the elections in November 1972, which Nixon won with a landslide majority, but the Watergate fuse had been lit, to detonate early in 1973 as the culprits were tried and threatened with severe sentences. Some broke down and implicated the president’s staff. Criminal charges against senior White House staff were nothing new in the 1970s, so why did it touch the president himself? The judicial investigations dragged on for months, with the president defending himself with ever-less conviction. The administration lost even more credibility when Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned after a tax investigation unconnected with Watergate. When Nixon was forced by the Supreme Court finally to hand over the White House tapes it became irrefutably clear that early on the president had with his advisers tried to obstruct justice, desperately trying to distance the White House from Watergate and other dirty tricks. The cover-up proved Nixon’s undoing. To liberals, Nixon and the White House conspiracies had become a real danger to American civil liberties and constitutional government. With impeachment imminent, Nixon was the first president to resign. On 9 August 1974 he took off in a helicopter from the White House lawn, waving goodbye to a small, tearful party. Outside the US, where Nixon’s prestige stood high, the assessment was more cynical – Nixon’s mistake had been to get caught. He continued to be received with respect in China and elsewhere after his fall; his advice and help in international affairs has also been sought by succeeding presidents. The good that emerged from Watergate was that it acted as a warning to subsequent administrations; the ‘fourth estate’, the press, with its rights of investigation and freedom to publish and uncover wrong doing, criminal breaches through executive abuses, is a deterrent. The vice-president, Gerald Ford, was sworn in and saw Nixon’s term out. He began with an unpopular move, granting a pardon to Nixon. He gave the impression of a decent man, a clean politician, but one who did not inspire and who simply did not seem up to the job of running the presidency. He frequently stumbled, sometimes literally. His relations with Congress were poor and American economic prospects worsened in 1974 and 1975. In foreign affairs detente made a little dubious progress but this was overshadowed by sweeping communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia. To be sure, the blame for these cannot be placed at Ford’s door; they were the results of a situation he had inherited. Kissinger, appointed secretary of state, was the star of the administration as he established new records for ‘shuttle diplomacy’. During the Middle Eastern crisis between Israel and the Arabs (1973–5), world television showed the tireless secretary of state stepping out of his personal plane in Arab and Israeli airports at a dizzying speed. He accomplished a provisional disengagement and an end of hostilities between Egypt and Israel in September 1975. The achievement was all the more remarkable in that he won acceptance by all sides concerned as a mediator of goodwill, although he had entered the US in the 1930s as a Jewish refugee from Nazi German persecution. Gerald Ford has probably been underrated. His calm and reassuring manner helped to re-establish the integrity of the presidency. He provided a transition from one of the lowest periods of American self-confidence, a period of violence and assassinations at home, of Watergate and Vietnam. Middle America was learning to appreciate less dynamic, less obviously ambitious politicians. They recognised that Gerald Ford was an American like millions of others. The Democratic candidate for the presidency, James Earl Carter, was another seemingly ordinary American with whom millions could identify. In November 1976 the US electorate had a choice between two contenders ready to lead the world, neither of whom some two years earlier had been heard of outside their immediate constituencies. Ford had been catapulted from obscurity by Agnew’s resignation and the demise of Nixon. Carter, former navy officer and, after the death of his father, successful peanut farmer, had risen to become governor of Georgia – a reforming and successful governor. By a narrow margin, Carter beat Ford and thereby ended eight years of Republican power in the White House. But the economic fortunes of the US had changed since the last Democratic president, Johnson, had launched his Great Society with the grand vision of abolishing poverty in America. Carter did not have an easy time before him. Carter was the first president since the civil war to come from the South. He was also a Washington outsider, and owed his electoral victory partly to this fact. The credibility of government had fallen, and the American people were looking for a change from the old gang. Ford was intelligent and his integrity was above reproach, but the pardon he gave to Nixon had damaged him badly, though seen in longer perspective it was both in the national interest and a courageous step in the face of public feeling at the time. Ford lacked charisma, though, and a good tele-image. Carter also lacked a commanding presence, but his warm, folksy manner and broad grin won him friends. He was patently honest, untouched by sordid Washington politics or past scandals. Even so, the margin of electoral votes that carried him to the White House was small; his strength in the south and north-east carried the day, but he was weak in the west and so lacked a broad national base of support. Carter was determined to emphasise that his presidency would represent a break with the past, especially with Nixon’s ‘imperial presidency’. He would be the people’s president, a trustee for their needs, concerned with the wider national interest. This implied not a weak presidency but strong leadership, ‘doing what’s right, not what’s political’. He saw himself as above party politics, acting differently from Congress, whose senators and representatives were actuated by political considerations, having to bear in mind the special interests of their constituents and their financial backers, and having to keep a constant eye on reelection. Although Carter had comfortable majorities in both Houses, this did not mean automatic support for all that he wished to accomplish. He avoided any distinctive label: he was liberal in some aspects of policy and conservative in others. After so much turmoil and change, Carter saw a need for consolidation at home, efficiency and honesty in government, a pruning of wasteful welfare programmes, a reduction in government interference and a lightening of the regulations imposed on business and industry. American politics do not neatly divide between one party right of centre in its outlook and the other to the liberal left of centre. Rather, the more conservative and the more liberal social policies cut through each party. Trusteeship for Carter meant a careful husbandry of the money demanded in taxation. Sound government finance required the balancing of the budget, not spending more than the money in the coffers. Carter hoped to reduce armaments and military expenditure. But he was also sensitive to immediate needs, especially the scourge of unemployment. To stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment he adopted a Keynesian approach, sending to Congress a moderate tax-cutting bill and making federal grants to create jobs. Congress changed the proposals in detail but approved of the general thrust. During the later years of his presidency, Carter became more cautious, avoiding any costly reshaping of welfare as he became more concerned about inflation and a rising federal deficit. The 1970s, after the shock of the oil-price rise of 1973–4, were a difficult period of economic management throughout the Western world, and of course throughout the Third World. Governments are lucky or unlucky when it comes to world economic conditions and the business cycle, over which they have very little control. But they get the blame when unemployment rises and living standards fall. Carter in 1978 fell back on the old remedies of regulation, limiting the salary increases of federal employees and setting voluntary – and ineffective – guidelines on wages and prices. The classic remedy for inflation of raising interest rates was also employed. There was a coal strike and Carter invoked the anti-union Taft–Hartley Act. Other federal regulatory measures were passed that protected the environment in Alaska and limited the damage done to the land by strip-mining. Carter did not achieve anything like all the reforms he had hoped for during his presidency. He would have had better relations with Congress had he employed a less high moral tone and more flexibility. His White House staff, also Georgian outsiders, lacked the necessary experience to handle Congress more skilfully. They were surprised by how long it took for the legislative process to be completed; they sent many measures to Congress without having established a clear idea of their priorities. A centrepiece of Carter’s endeavours in the wake of the oil-price rise of 1973–4 was to cut down on the extravagantly wasteful use of energy in the US. But his energy plan ran into opposition from many interest groups. For the average American, freedom is a car and cheap gasoline. After more than a year of wrangling, a watered-down National Energy Act became law in the autumn of 1978. In the relations of the US with the rest of world, Carter was determined to strike a new note. He wanted to reduce tensions, especially with the Soviet Union, but was also determined to stand up for human rights, ‘the soul of our foreign policy’. He promised to be positive, to give as much attention to relations with the poor Third World as to East–West relations. In June 1979, SALT II was concluded with the USSR, by which the superpowers accepted a balance of nuclear missile capacity between them. Although bitterly criticised it left each side with far more warheads and missiles than would be needed to turn any nuclear war into a holocaust. MAD (mutual assured destruction) remained intact as the doctrine of the day. This required that some US missiles should survive any first strike. In pursuit of this doctrine, a number of crazy schemes were devised, but in the end none was adopted. At the heart of the administration, there was a conflict between the policies advocated by Carter’s aggressive National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and the more conciliatory Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, with the State Department supported by the military. In Latin America the perceived need to combat communism led to a drift of policy, but the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977, by which the US agreed the eventual transfer of sovereignty over the Canal Zone to Panama, was one of the clear successes of the Carter foreign policy. But uncertainty was evident in the administration’s dealings with the revolution in Nicaragua. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 reinvigorated the Cold War. The Carter administration was particularly alarmed by the strategic threat now presented to the Gulf and its oil and warned the Soviet Union off in forthright terms, Carter declaring that an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. What made the situation doubly grave were the upheavals in Iran. The conduct of US policy in the Middle East earned for Carter both the biggest praise and the most severe condemnation. For thirteen days he tirelessly laboured at Camp David in September 1978, and the Accords reached there between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had laid a firm basis for peace between Israel and Egypt. In Iran, Carter had continued the US policy of unconditional support for the Shah despite his human-rights abuses. Until late in 1979, given the support of the army he had modernised, the Shah was believed safe, the ally of the US and policeman of the Gulf. But it appears that the administration was badly served by the advice it received from intelligence sources and diplomats. Assessment of the Shah’s chances of survival was not made until the autumn of 1978. In January 1979 he fled the country. The fanatical new rulers of Iran, who gained power the following month, condemned the US as the ‘Great Satan’, and the moderates lost control. When the terminally sick Shah was admitted to the US for medical treatment in October 1979, the radicals in Teheran used it as a pretext to escalate their attacks on the US. Demanding that the Shah be returned to stand trial, they seized the US Embassy that same month and took hostage the sixty-three Americans they found there. The hostage crisis overshadowed Carter’s last year in the White House. He opposed using force, fearing that the hostages’ lives would be in danger. Instead he imposed economic sanctions, froze all Iranian assets in the US and broke off diplomatic relations in April 1980. Later that same month he approved a mission to rescue the hostages by aircraft and a specially trained task force. It went tragically wrong. Eight men of the rescue mission were left dead in the desert for the Iranians to gloat over. It was a profound humiliation and contributed to Carter’s loss of the presidential election in November, although the hostages’ release was negotiated later by the administration. Spitefully, they were not allowed to leave by air from Iran until half an hour after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan on 20 January 1981. The Carter administration had ended with a period of inflation and economic troubles in the wake of the second oil-price rise in 1979–80. Carter looked like a perpetual loser. The energy crisis was only temporary, but somehow the president became fixated on it. Congress was proving recalcitrant, so Carter addressed the American people on nationwide television in July 1979, claiming that ‘energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation’. It was an extraordinary exaggeration. In what became known as the ‘crisis of confidence’ speech, he attacked Congress and painted a dire picture of the future. The problems of America, he claimed, had their origins in a ‘crisis of confidence’. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, was upbeat and optimistic. He promised a new beginning, an America that would ‘stand tall’; he appealed for a renewal of patriotism, a new beginning. Many Americans did not bother to vote in the presidential election in November 1980, but those who did gave Reagan a decisive majority over the luckless Carter.

 

 

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