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10-08-2015, 22:29

The United States Moves Right

Nixon eventually ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam by gradually withdrawing American troops and appealing to the “silent majority” of Americans for patience in bringing the conflict to an end. A slowdown in racial desegregation appealed to southern whites, who ordinarily tended to vote Democratic. The Republican strategy also gained support among white Democrats in northern cities, where court-mandated busing to achieve racial integration had produced a white backlash. Nixon was less conservative on other issues, notably when, breaking with his strong anti-Communist past, he visited China in 1972 and opened the door toward the eventual diplomatic recognition of that Communist state. However, Nixon was paranoid about conspiracies and began to use illegal methods of gaining political intelli- gence about his political opponents. One of the president’s advisers explained that their intention was to “use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Nixon’s zeal led to the infamous Watergate scandal— the attempted bugging of Democratic National Headquarters. Although Nixon repeatedly lied to the American public about his involvement in the affair, secret tapes of his own conversations in the White House revealed the truth. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from office, an act that saved him from almost certain impeachment and conviction. After Watergate, American domestic politics focused on economic issues. Gerald B. Ford (b. 1913) became president when Nixon resigned, only to lose in the 1976 election to the Democratic former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), who campaigned as an outsider against the Washington establishment. Both Ford and Carter faced severe economic problems. The period from 1973 to the mid-1980s was one of economic stagnation, which came to be known as stagflation—a combination of high inflation and high unemployment. In 1984, median family income was 6 percent below that of 1973. The economic downturn stemmed at least in part from a dramatic rise in oil prices. Oil had been a cheap and abundant source of energy in the 1950s, but by the late 1970s, half of the oil used in the United States came from the Middle East. An oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel as a reaction to the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 and OPEC’s subsequent raising of prices led to a quadrupling of the cost of oil. By the end of the 1970s, oil prices had increased twentyfold, encouraging inflationary tendencies throughout the entire economy. Although the Carter administration produced a plan for reducing oil consumption at home while spurring domestic production, neither Congress nor the American people could be persuaded to follow what they regarded as drastic measures. By 1980, the Carter administration was facing two devastating problems. High inflation and a noticeable decline in average weekly earnings were causing a perceptible drop in American living standards. At the same time, a crisis abroad had erupted when fifty-three Americans were taken and held hostage by the Iranian government of Ayatollah Khomeini. Although Carter had little control over the situation, his inability to gain the release of the American hostages led to the perception at home that he was a weak president. His overwhelming loss to Ronald Reagan (b. 1911) in the election of 1980 brought forward the chief exponent of conservative Republican policies and a new political order.