Gerald Ford became the first person to reach the White House without being elected president or vice president. In 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Ford to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned his position as vice president before pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax evasion. The following year, the former House minority leader became the 38th U.S. president, succeeding Nixon who faced impeachment proceedings for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Ford's candor and outgoing personality won him both Republican and Democratic supporters, and his humility reassured Americans that he would not participate in political "dirty tricks." After taking the oath of office, Ford stated that "the long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works."
During his first month in office, the new president faced perhaps the toughest decision of his political career—whether to grant the embattled Nixon a pardon. Believing that prolonged legal proceedings would harm the morale of the country and keep Congress from dealing with other issues, Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as president before formal criminal charges were filed. Public response to the decision was not favorable for the president who was still trying to adjust to the power of his new position.
Many Americans cried foul and accused Ford of making a deal with the former president to pardon him if he agreed to resign. Although the president maintained that it was the right thing to do for the country, the decision damaged his bid for re-election in 1976.
After naming Nelson Rockefeller vice president and replacing Nixon's staff, Ford concentrated on the problems his new administration inherited—namely rising inflation, the oil crisis and fears of energy shortages, and the war in Southeast Asia. Since the last year of Nixon's term was overshadowed by the Watergate investigation, these issues had received little executive-level attention.
Ford prioritized the issues at hand, and recognized inflation as the primary concern of Americans and the chief cause of the nation's economic problems. Rising unemployment figures coupled with the worst recession since the Great Depression created a gloomy economic outlook for the United States. Ford refused to approve legislation to control wages and pricing, opting instead to support voluntary restraints by promoting a campaign to "Whip Inflation Now." WIN buttons circulated throughout the country and became a national joke, prompting critics to declare Ford's response to inflation ineffective.
In 1975, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to Helsinki, Finland, to meet with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and representatives from more than 30 other European nations. Conference attendees signed the Helsinki Accords, which called for human rights guarantees and increased commerce between the Eastern and Western blocs. The group also legitimized the expanded post-World War II Soviet boundaries in Eastern Europe.
During that same year, the Ford administration faced the continuing crisis in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese forces scaled a full force attack on South Vietnam, Ford asked Congress for more money and weapons to stop the invasion. The legislators refused, and on May 1st, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army overtook Saigon, which they renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The collapse of South Vietnam happened so quickly that remaining Americans had to be evacuated by helicopter. Approximately 140,000 South Vietnamese, many of whom feared death because of their allegiance to America, were also rescued and given asylum in the United States. Eventually, a total of 500,000 Vietnamese refugees sought safety on American soil. The longest war in U.S. history had finally ended at a cost of $118 billion and 56,000 dead and 300,000 wounded Americans.
Ford's poor handling of the economy and foreign affairs damaged the public's confidence in his performance. Despite his weak record, the incumbent defeated challenger Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. The victory, however, was narrow. Democrats realized that Ford was a vulnerable candidate, and planned a strategy based on his weaknesses.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter rose from near obscurity to capture the Democratic nomination for president. The little known Georgia governor was a religious and ethical southern politician who went out of his way to treat African Americans with respect. He focused his campaign on the fact that he was a Washington outsider and repeatedly told voters, "I'll never lie to you." The promise was popular with many Americans still leery about the government and fallout from the Watergate scandal.
The race for the presidency was close with neither Ford nor Carter generating overwhelming support. Eventually, Carter's positive record with minorities proved to be the decisive factor as he received 97 percent of the black vote. The Democratic candidate defeated the Republican incumbent 297 electoral votes to 241, and set his sights on creating a friendlier, people-oriented administration.
Foregoing the customary limousine ride, Carter walked to the White House from the Capitol after giving his inaugural address. Carter hoped to show the American public that he was just like them; however, his straightforward ideals and inexperience handling complicated national and international issues would eventually cause him trouble.
During his first two years in office, Carter announced his human rights concerns on the global stage. He criticized the Soviets for not following the Helsinki Accords by inhibiting free speech and preventing its citizens the right to emigrate. Later, the president withheld financial aid from South Africa, Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua, which were known to have long records of human rights abuses. Some critics, however, called Carter's actions hypocritical because he failed to condemn South Korea, the Philippines, and other nations for their human rights violations.
Perhaps the highlights of the Carter administration's tenure in Washington were the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Carter successfully brought Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together for a peace discussion at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. With America already in the midst of a serious energy crisis, avoiding war in the Middle East became imperative because any conflict would most likely eliminate oil supplies from the Arab nations. After meeting for two weeks, Carter helped mediate successful negotiations between the two leaders. The treaty called for Israel to withdraw from territory captured from Egypt during the Israeli-Egyptian war, and Egypt would recognize Israel as a nation.
Also in 1978, President Carter negotiated two treaties with Panama. The first returned jurisdiction over the canal to Panama, but allowed the U.S. to continue operating and defending it until the end of 1999. The second treaty gave America the permanent right to defend the neutrality of the canal. Although many Republicans worried that the United States gave away too much, Congress narrowly approved the plan.
Carter's success also included significant environmental initiatives, including a bill to control strip mining, a "superfund" of $1.6 billion to clean up chemical waste sites, and a proposal to protect from development more than 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. To battle the rising fuel prices, the Carter administration looked for alternatives to fossil fuels. The president, who was trained by the navy as a nuclear engineer, generated some controversy and debate when his administration considered nuclear power. However, it would be the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that stalled any discussions of expanding nuclear power capability.
Carter's management of the faltering national economy produced more critics than supporters. His decision to attack unemployment first by implementing tax cuts and spending increases caused inflation to more than triple. By midterm, he reversed his strategy by delaying the tax cuts and vetoing spending programs he promised during his first year. By the time Carter left office, the recession deepened with unemployment figures reaching 7.5 percent, mortgage rates at 15 percent, and interest rates peaking at an all-time high of 20 percent.
The administration's national defense agenda included signing the new Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union. The agreement did not try to end the nuclear arms race, but rather it established parameters for reducing weapon stockpiles. It allowed both sides to maintain 2,250 bombers and missiles and limited the number of warheads and new weapons systems. However, when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to defend the crumbling Communist government there, Carter refused to sign the treaty and suspended grain shipments to the USSR. The president also announced a boycott of the 1980 Olympics, which were to be held in Moscow.
In 1979, the Iranian revolution again tested the Carter administration's ability to handle world affairs. The crisis began when Iranian militants forced the Shah of Iran from power. The revolutionaries backed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Muslim religious leader who followed the Islamic values the Shah allowed to be replaced with Western ways. Khomeini's hatred of the United States resulted from the CIA-sponsored coup of Iranian Premier Mossadegh in 1953.
During a visit to the United States to undergo cancer treatment, the Shah was helpless as radicals toppled his regime. An angry mob then stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. In exchange for their freedom, Khomeini demanded the return of the Shah. While many Americans called for military action against the Iranians, Carter decided to freeze Iranian assets and appeal to the United Nations for help. Khomeini balked at the U.N. request to release the hostages. Carter also asked European allies to engage in a trade embargo of Iran. Several nations, though, wavered on the request because they did not want to lose their access to the Iranian oil supply.
In 1980, months after the capture of the hostages, Carter disregarded protests from the secretary of state to approve a secret rescue plan. But the commando raid was aborted when helicopters malfunctioned and crashed into a transport plane in the desert, killing eight servicemen. With his options limited, Carter finally agreed to release several billion dollars of Iranian assets as ransom for the American hostages. The Iranians, now in a full scale war with Iraq, desperately needed the money and spare parts for its American-made planes and tanks. After 444 days, the hostages arrived home on the same day as Ronald Reagan's inauguration, and the Iranian hostage crisis was finally over.
As Carter's presidential term came to a close, opinion polls revealed that his approval rating had plummeted to only 26 percent, lower than Nixon's during the Watergate investigation. Americans felt that drastic changes were needed at the top to right the troubled nation.
In1980, Republicans made Ronald Reagan the oldest person nominated for president by a major party. At 69, Reagan looked and acted much younger because he was physically fit and displayed a sharp wit. The former Hollywood actor, Screen Actors Guild president, and California Governor presented an amiable, aggressive style that quickly became popular with Americans.
During three televised presidential debates, Reagan constantly attacked Carter's performance record. Citing rising inflation and unemployment rates and poor foreign relations, Reagan bluntly asked the American people, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" The question proved to have more effect on the election than specific discussions about policies he would pursue. When the votes were counted, Reagan won the 1980 presidential race in a landslide, collecting 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.
Reagan focused much of his attention on reducing the size of the federal government. While decentralizing and deregulating federal agencies, Reagan declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." In an effort to turn around the economy, the president demanded deep reductions in several areas, including welfare, food stamps, and student loans. The functions normally provided by the federal government to maintain these programs were turned over to state authorities. Reagan also asked Congress to cut income taxes. Critics argued that such a move would increase the deficit, but the president believed lower taxes would give people more money to spend. The increase in spending would in turn generate more goods and jobs and grow the economy. This theory became known as Reaganomics.
While many advisors recommended dramatic cuts in the defense budget, Reagan refused, and instead revived Truman's containment policy. The president renewed the Cold War by warning against the threat to spread communism posed by the USSR, which he named the "evil empire." He reasoned that military expansion was necessary to protect the interests of the free world.
Reagan wanted to create an impressive nuclear force so powerful that the Soviets would be forced to back down from any confrontation. In 1983, he announced his intention to build a high-tech missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more commonly referred to as "Star Wars." One version of the plan included stations in space that would use lasers to destroy intercontinental missiles as they were launched. While many politicians against the SDI strategy claimed it would be too costly to maintain, skeptics from the science and technology industry questioned whether it would work at all.
Reagan continued his attack on communism by accusing Nicaraguan authorities of aiding communist countries. When anti-American revolutionaries, called Sandinistas, took control of Nicaragua in 1979, Jimmy Carter tried to establish diplomatic relations with them. President Reagan, however, charged that the Sandinistas secured an agreement with Cuba and the Soviet Union to allow Nicaragua to become a portal for communist penetration into Central America.
To fight communists in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Reagan provided aid to the "contra" rebels who opposed the anti-American militants. When Congress refused to continue supplying the Contras with money and weapons, Reagan looked for other sources.
Meanwhile, the war between Iran and Iraq intensified. Many in the United States held Iran responsible for several Americans being held hostage in Lebanon.
In 1986, Reagan secretly approved a deal to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of the hostages. Authorities instructed Marine Colonel Oliver North to take the money from the Iran transaction and purchase weapons for the Contras. The decision directly violated the ban Congress enacted on such aid. When news of the deal became public, national security advisor Admiral John Poindexter resigned, Colonel North was fired from his position with the Security Council, and President Reagan denied knowing anything about the plan.
Reagan also flexed his military muscle in Grenada, where a coup resulted in the death of the prime minister. Reagan ordered the military to storm the tiny island and remove the Marxists who had taken control. The plan was successful and demonstrated to the world America's might and Reagan's determination to fight communism.
Many Democrats referred to Reagan as the "Teflon President" because scandals or questionable decisions never seemed to damage his popularity with the American public. Helped by a strong and growing economy, Reagan overwhelmingly won a second term in 1984 by defeating Walter Mondale 525 electoral votes to just 13. One year later, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new chairman of the Soviet Communist Party. The two leaders would play large roles in changing world policies.
Gorbachev was more personable than prior Soviet leaders and supported radical reforms in the Soviet Union. He presented two revolutionary policies: Glasnost (openness) which aimed to end the secretive, suppressive Soviet society by allowing free speech and political liberty; and Perestroika (restructuring), which was designed to accept free-market practices to revitalize the sluggish Soviet economy. He also announced that the Soviet Union would not force communist governments in Eastern Europe to remain in power. Repressive regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany collapsed, and in 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down. The notorious Iron Curtain that had divided Eastern Europe for decades was no more.
For Gorbachev's plan to work he had to reduce the size and funding for the nation's military and massive weapons stash, and concentrate on stabilizing the economy. The dismantling of the Soviet military effectively brought an end to the Cold War. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed a treaty to ban all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. The agreement was a victory for Reagan who maintained his rigid stand against communism, and for Gorbachev who proved to the world that he was serious about reform.
Reagan oversaw a great deal of change during his presidential tenure. When he entered the White House in 1981, he rigidly condemned the "evil empire" and all that it stood for. But by the completion of his second term, the anxiety surrounding the Cold War had been eliminated and the president routinely praised Soviet leadership for reform. In his farewell address, Reagan said, "We are the change." The vague statement referred to the experience and accomplishment he and the American people shared during the previous eight years.