AP U.S. History Notes

Nixon and Domestic Issues

The Supreme Court

One of Nixon's campaign pledges was to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court to counter the perceived liberalism of the Warren Court. Supporters of this pledge claimed that the Warren Court's permissive rulings were eroding the moral base of the country and that their coddling of criminals had led to high crime rates and serious civil disturbances. Another complaint against the Warren Court was that it engaged in "judicial activism," meaning the intent of the court's decisions went beyond settling disputes between particular parties and into the arena of law-making. Racial desegregation and the reapportionment of voting districts are examples of areas in which the court's mandates affected not just the parties engaged in the suit, but literally every American.

Even some who approved the broad measures resulting from Warren Court rulings were troubled by the idea of a court, whose members were appointed for life, being allowed the power to actively change society. They argued that the court's job was to decide on the constitutionality of existing laws, and they felt that the power to change laws was only held by the Congress, whose members were elected by the people. Still others were critical of Congress because they felt that senators and representatives too often avoided writing controversial legislation, leaving the job to the courts.

Conservatives believed a remedy to the situation was to appoint judges who disapproved of the expanded role of the court. When Earl Warren retired as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1969, Nixon appointed conservative Warren E. Burger as Chief Justice. Three more conservative appointments followed by 1971. With four conservative justices out of the nine on the court, Republicans felt that rulings would be more limited in scope and Congress would be forced to deal with the controversial issues facing the nation.

As presidents had discovered before, however, judges appointed for life are free to abandon any positions or philosophies they may have held for political or career advantage and thus may determine the outcome of cases purely on the basis of merit. The Burger Court's decisions on school busing, wiretapping, capital punishment, publication of the Pentagon Papers, and abortion all went against Nixon's wishes.

In 1972, the Burger Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, which brought renewed charges of coddling of criminals. Capital punishment was later reinstated on a limited basis.

In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court prohibited states from making laws that interfered with a woman's right to an abortion early in pregnancy. The justices based their ruling on a woman's right to privacy in her medical affairs, but Catholics and right-to-life advocates felt betrayed by the judicial system.

In the political arena, Nixon's plan for reelection in 1972 consisted of eliminating the unpopular elements of Johnson's Great Society programs while expanding and directing the more popular programs. He called this his "Southern Strategy" because it was aimed at converting supporters of Alabama governor George Wallace to the Republican camp. Elements of Nixon's Southern Strategy appealed to many northern voters as well.

Like many American parents, Nixon opposed the busing of school children for the purpose of integration. In the very first opinion delivered by the Burger Court, however, the state of Mississippi was ordered to desegregate the schools in all its districts. The Court also ruled that if necessary to achieve integration, school systems must bus students out of their neighborhoods. Parents in northern and western cities protested bitterly against new court-mandated plans to bus urban children to suburban schools and vice versa. Critics predicted the destruction of the neighborhood school, and parents' groups staged large demonstrations. Outraged parents in Pontiac, Michigan, firebombed school buses.

Nixon asked Congress to pass a moratorium on court-ordered busing. The House agreed, but liberal elements in the Senate staged a filibuster that killed the proposal. The nation won a reprieve from further violence when the Supreme Court retreated from its hard line and ruled that ambitious Detroit plans for transferring students to distant schools exceeded the limits of constitutionality. More moderate integration continued at a steady pace, and more schools were desegregated during Nixon's first term in office than in all previous administrations combined.

While Nixon opposed forced busing as a means of integrating schools, his policies had a profound influence on ending discrimination in the workplace. In 1969, he ordered construction-trade unions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose members were working on government contracts, to provide goals and timetables for accepting black apprentices. Blacks had formerly been excluded from closed shop construction jobs because they were prohibited from joining the all-white unions.

Nixon's Philadelphia Plan was soon extended to construction contracts nationwide. Employers complained about hiring quotas and the necessity of employing minority contractors, but across-the-board, affirmative action in the workplace was accepted by both the voters and the Supreme Court. Affirmative action was soon extended to women as well as educational institutions. The Supreme Court prohibited excluding women and minorities from employment on the basis of artificial hurdles such as physical strength or intelligence tests when these did not directly reflect the demands of the job. The court's opinion implied that the only way to assure avoidance of charges of discrimination was for employers to hire workers and for schools to admit students in proportion to their racial and gender presence in the community.

With affirmative action in place, charges of reverse discrimination soon surfaced. White males perceived themselves losing jobs and educational opportunities to women and minorities. The Supreme Court ruled in the Bakke decision that the use of quotas to achieve racial balance was unconstitutional. However, schools could use race as a "positive" when reviewing admissions applications.

Among other Great Society ventures, Nixon approved congressional increases for Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). He also sponsored the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that was formed to aid the aged, blind, and disabled, and he supported raising Social Security payments and providing for cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits. This new funneling of government funds to those most in need resulted in the American poverty rate dropping to an astonishingly low 11 percent in 1973. Unfortunately, inflation would soon negate those gains.

The Nixon Economy

In the wake of Sputnik and other early Soviet successes in space, John F. Kennedy vowed that the U.S. would land a man on the moon in ten years. The glamour of space exploration was irresistible. Rocket research became a priority, while funding for education was increased with a heavy emphasis on the sciences. Industry reaped the rewards as spending for the space race stimulated the economy and the development of new technologies. .

The steady progress of science and engineering leading up to the moon mission served as a backdrop to the often violent ebb and flow of war and social unrest. Numerous manned and unmanned test flights whetted the public's appetite for each new advance. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission transported American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. The world watched breathlessly via live television as Armstrong stepped out of the spacecraft onto the lunar surface. Ironically, Kennedy's vow was thus fulfilled during the administration of his old antagonist for the presidency, Richard Nixon.

Back on earth, growing concern for the environment and the impact of industrial pollutants on plants, animals, and people prompted the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1970. To help give the EPA and OSHA teeth, Congress passed the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). With this new awareness of the effects of human activity on the environment, Congress became unwilling to fund any more of the large irrigation projects in the arid West that had made deserts bloom but had also altered permanently the habitats and ecosystems of whole regions.

Cleaning up toxic wastes and air and water pollution was expensive after decades of neglect, but the situation had escalated to dangerous levels, especially in urban areas, and required immediate action. These costs, combined with the costs of the space program, fighting the war in Vietnam, and the expanded Great Society social programs, some of which had benefits tied to the inflation rate, contributed to a rapid rise in government spending. Neither Johnson nor Nixon wanted to raise taxes, so no new revenue offset these spending increases. Consequently, the federal deficit mushroomed, and the result was rising inflation.

In 1967, the inflation rate was an acceptable three percent, but experts were predicting an upward trend. When Nixon took office in 1969, he moved to fulfill his campaign pledges to reduce federal spending and balance the budget. In spite of these efforts, inflation rose to five percent. Nixon then directed the Federal Reserve Board to raise interest rates in order to slow inflation. Prices continued to rise, however, and labor unions demanded large wage increases so workers could maintain their standard of living. Unemployment, which had run less than 4 percent before the 1968 election, rose to 6 percent by the end of 1970 as baby boomers began to enter the work force in numbers.

With these pressures on the economy, stock values plunged more than 35 percent by 1970. America was clearly in a recession, but unlike every former recession that had been accompanied by money scarcity and deflation, this recession was accompanied by inflation that threatened to rage out of control.

Congress passed legislation allowing the president to regulate wages and prices. Nixon expressed an aversion to this sort of government control, but in 1971, he felt compelled to make the unpopular move of imposing a mandatory 90-day wage and price freeze on the country. Thereafter, wages and prices were subject to federal guidelines.

Nixon tried to limit federal spending by cutting the budget for social programs, scientific research, and education. In addition, he took the unusual move of impounding—refusing to spend—money that Congress had appropriated for programs he felt were nonessential. Congress was incensed at what it considered to be the president's meddling in its affairs. Nixon's strategies managed to slow the upward climb of inflation, but even so, by 1973 the inflation rate stood at nine percent, and in 1974 topped 12 percent, continuing in the double digits for the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Difficulties with international trade plagued Nixon's term in office as well. For 20 years following World War II, American industrial and manufacturing capacity had been running at maximum to catch up with the worldwide demand for products and services that had been suppressed by more than 15 years of depression and war. By the mid-1960s, however, not only had most of this demand been satisfied, but other nations, notably West Germany and Japan, began to export manufactured goods.

By the 1970s, the United States faced stiff competition in its export markets at a time when the dollar was maintained at an artificially high value by the U.S. government. With the dollar valued high, foreign manufacturers were eager to sell in the United States. On the other hand, goods exported by the U.S. had a high price in other countries, which discouraged sales. In 1971, to stimulate exports, Nixon devalued the dollar with respect to foreign currencies. The devaluation helped boost American exports, but world competition prevented the U.S. from regaining the trade dominance it had once enjoyed. The American economy slowed markedly in its growth. The combination of a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and high inflation has been called "stagflation."

Debate raged over the causes of America's distress, and finger-pointing became the order of the day. Corporate executives claimed the expensive new environmental rules had cost jobs and profits. Workers complained of gross corporate inefficiency and the disdain of business for the welfare of the country. The well-off felt that social programs had drained the economy. Minorities and poor urban dwellers wondered aloud how a society that disenfranchised a quarter of the population could expect to be strong. Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the expense of the Vietnam War.

Stagflation had one clear consequence. With earnings flat and prices rising, many families suddenly needed a second income to maintain their standard of living. Wives began to enter the workforce just as the tide of baby-boomer job seekers crested. With 30 million new workers added to the country's labor force between 1965 and 1980, industry was hard pressed to create a commensurate 40 percent increase in jobs. Ironically, though more Americans than ever had jobs outside the home, unemployment remained high.

As if stagflation in its many facets was not sufficient hardship for the nation, in October 1973 the Arab oil-producing states, which had banded together as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), suddenly refused to sell oil to nations that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. For the Israeli supporters, they raised the price of oil by 400 percent. With its gas-guzzling cars and heavily oil-dependent industry, America was caught unprepared for this new crisis.

Extreme conservation measures were the only short-term solution. As prices rose on gasoline and heating oil, Americans were faced with driving the new, gas-saving 55 mile-per-hour speed limit and with turning the thermostat down to a chilly 68 degrees in their homes and businesses. When even these measures failed to sufficiently conserve dwindling oil supplies, gasoline was rationed at the pump.

In the spring of 1974, the OPEC nations lifted their embargo on oil to the United States but retained their price increase. Though the oil crisis had passed the acute stage, a long battle lay ahead. America's oil production in the lower 48 states had declined after 1970 as older wells ceased producing and no new fields were discovered. As a means of developing a domestic source of oil, the government approved the Alaska pipeline project that had been stalled due to ecological concerns.

For the long-term, America began to rely more heavily on nuclear and coal-burning power plants and to experiment with alternatives to gasoline, such as alcohol-based fuels. The government also mandated manufacturers and automakers to be more conserving of petroleum and to produce fuel-efficient cars. Never again would a seemingly endless supply of cheap oil flow in from foreign sources. Higher energy costs became a fact of life that fueled the fires of inflation.


Nixon's achievements in foreign policy and his moderation of the pace of social reform helped win him re-election in 1972. Regular troop withdrawals, a plan for disengagement, and progressing peace negotiations all signaled that the agony of the Vietnam conflict might soon be over. On the home front, Nixon's attempts to rein in federal spending were applauded as moves to curb inflation, while his moderate social policies and conservative Supreme Court appointments assured voters that limits had been placed on the pace of social change.

In addition, Nixon's diplomatic prowess and astute feel for international opportunity had managed to draw gold from the mire of war in Southeast Asia. Concerned over its costly involvement in Vietnam, formerly silent and forbidding Communist China was surprisingly receptive to the Nixon administration's diplomatic advances, which opened avenues for communication between the two nations and a venue for the eventual recognition of the Beijing government as the official government of China. Of equal significance, Nixon's accords with Russia greatly lessened the potential that the Cold War might escalate into the madness of nuclear conflict. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) agreement paved the way for further arms limitations, and the grain deal opened direct trade with the Soviet Union.

As an incumbent and with these solid accomplishments to his credit, Nixon could almost count on victory in the 1972 election. His Southern Strategy had been effective in swaying many of Alabama governor George Wallace's supporters, but tragedy conspired to give Nixon a phenomenal landslide. In May 1972, a would-be assassin shot Wallace, paralyzing him from the waist down. Though this despicable act by no means finished Wallace's political career, his lengthy recovery precluded campaigning for the presidency. As a result, most of his conservative southern constituency voted for Nixon.

The nomination of South Dakota senator George McGovern for the Democratic ticket made sense only from the point of view that he served as a sacrificial lightning rod for the Democratic Party. Ultraliberal and antiwar, McGovern advocated direct wealth redistribution to the poor and promised, if elected, to bring all American troops home from Vietnam in 90 days, come what may. Vietnam was perhaps his strongest suit since fighting was still intense during the campaign. On the other hand, Nixon had built a solid diplomatic framework that was slowly bringing forth a negotiated settlement.

The Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, was the site of spectacular political fireworks. Changes within the Democratic Party allowed greater representation of antiwar activists, feminists, socialists, militant minorities, and alienated youth. These groups supported McGovern but offended the traditional mainstay of the party—the wage-earning worker who had looked to the Democratic Party to defend the rights of labor since Franklin Roosevelt. Controversy escalated to the point that Chicago Mayor Daley, whose political machine had turned out the vote for Democratic candidates for decades, was evicted from the convention, and the AFL-CIO refused to endorse McGovern's candidacy. Blue-collar workers felt abandoned by their party, and many voted for Nixon.

At polling time, Nixon took every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, with an Electoral College vote of 520 to 17. The election was a personal triumph and a vindication of Nixon's policies, though not an across-the-board mandate for the Republican Party, which sustained losses in both houses of Congress.

During the campaign, McGovern accused the Nixon administration of playing "dirty tricks" to secure unfair advantage over him. He especially complained about burglars, who in June of 1972 had been caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex in Washington, D.C. At the time, the country shrugged it off as one more odd event among many. An investigation was begun, the election took place, and Nixon was once again president.

As the Watergate investigation unfolded and led to further revelations, it became apparent that Nixon had a fatal flaw, a fault of character so grievous it toppled his presidency just as his successes at home and abroad should have earned him admiration. McGovern was vindicated in his accusation of dirty tricks by the Nixon administration. But even worse, the investigation revealed that the president had ordered government agencies to harass his political opponents, that he had tolerated deceitfulness among his advisors, that he had known of at least some of their illegal activities, and that he had tried to prevent the investigating committee from discovering the facts. This series of poor moral judgments was intolerable to the American people.

In 1971, Nixon's staff had gathered a list of over 200 individuals and 18 organizations that the administration regarded as political enemies. These included the Democratic leadership in Congress, presidents of universities, and members of the news media and entertainment industries. Nixon had the FBI investigate these people and ordered the IRS to audit their tax returns.

As the election approached, Nixon and his advisors worried about the outcome, since the Republican Party had failed to gain control of either house of Congress in the midterm elections of 1970. To raise campaign funds, Nixon's attorney general set up the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which had the unfortunate acronym of CREEP. Some of the money raised by CREEP was siphoned off to pay for secret—and sometimes shady—political operations, the dirty tricks decried by McGovern.

Troubles for the Nixon Administration worsened when details of another break in, this time perpetrated by White House "plumbers," surfaced. The "plumbers" were tasked with plugging leaks of national security secrets from the executive branch—a serious problem during the Nixon administration, as it has been for many administrations. When the New York Times published the "Pentagon Papers," leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department analyst, the plumbers raided Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in an attempt to discover what else Ellsberg was saying.

In 1973, the Watergate trial, investigative journalists, and Senate hearings revealed that Nixon and other White House officials had covered up their involvement in the break-ins. The Senate hearings also revealed that the President had tape-recorded all of his Oval Office meetings. Congress ordered him to turn over the tapes of conversations about Watergate to the investigating committee. He refused, claiming executive privilege, and stating release of the tapes would endanger national security. The case went directly to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that Nixon had to give the tapes to the special prosecutor.

As these events were unfolding, Vice President Agnew pleaded no contest to charges of income tax evasion and accepting bribes when he was governor of Maryland. He resigned the vice presidency in October of 1973, and Nixon nominated Gerald R. Ford, the popular conservative House Minority Leader, for the post of Vice President.

On August 5, 1974, Nixon handed over the tapes, and on August 7, he resigned as President of the United States, thus ending a potentially brilliant political career in disgrace. The following day, Gerald Ford was sworn in as president.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Nixon and Domestic Issues" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 26 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/nixon-and-domestic-issues/>.