AP U.S. History Notes

Nixon and Foreign Policy

Election of 1968

The war in Vietnam exerted crucial influence over the presidential election of 1968. Many Americans felt they should support U.S. foreign policies toward Vietnam wholeheartedly and without public criticism that might give encouragement to America's enemies. Their motto was "My country, right or wrong."

In contrast, many other Americans felt the U.S. participation in the war in Southeast Asia was fundamentally wrong. They believed that America should not be involved in a "police action" on foreign soil when there was no direct threat to the United States and when our national interest in the conflict could not be clearly defined. Frustrated with entrenched politics in Washington, these people were inclined to participate in grassroots protests that included letter-writing campaigns and public demonstrations.

Regardless of their ideology, Americans were increasingly concerned with the mounting numbers of U.S. servicemen killed or wounded in Southeast Asia and with the political unrest that the war was causing at home, especially on college campuses. In addition, deficit spending to pay for the war caused the national debt to skyrocket at an alarming rate.

In response to these strong feelings, political parties and presidential candidates aligned themselves according to their position on the war. Late in 1967, Eugene McCarthy, Democratic senator from Minnesota, announced his candidacy for the 1968 presidential election on an anti-war ticket. McCarthy's intention was not so much to run for president as it was to gain a platform from which to speak out against the war. For that reason, he set up only a minimal campaign organization.

Traditionally, a first-term president is nominated by his party for a second term, since being the incumbent is a great advantage in an election. In spite of the divisive issues surrounding the war, Johnson's Great Society domestic measures - including the Civil Rights Act, increased funding for education and public housing, and a government health insurance program for retirees - were popular. Johnson was sensitive, however, to the rising tide of criticism concerning his war policies, especially from members of his own party.

During the Vietnamese Lunar New Year called Tet, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong began a general offensive that struck nearly all the provincial capitals, every American base, and many other villages and towns, including Saigon itself. Eventually the communists were forced back to the North, and General Westmoreland, commander of the American forces in Vietnam, declared the Tet Offensive a defeat for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Psychologically, however, the Tet Offensive had a profound impact not only in Vietnam, but also in the United States. American support for the war eroded rapidly, and McCarthy's presidential platform was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Volunteers, many of them students, conducted a door-to-door campaign for McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary election. Amazingly for a virtual unknown before his candidacy, McCarthy picked up 42 percent of the Democratic vote in that state.

Encouraged by McCarthy's success, Robert F. Kennedy decided to enter the race. He also opposed Johnson's military policy in Vietnam, and he disliked Johnson personally. Sharing his brother John's charismatic appeal, Robert Kennedy was a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy's entry, combined with McCarthy's startlingly strong showing in New Hampshire, convinced Johnson that his political base was crumbling. Rather than risk a ruinous fight for the nomination, Johnson made the unusual move of announcing his withdrawal from the race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey then declared his candidacy and received Johnson's full endorsement.

Kennedy took the primaries in Nebraska and Indiana, while McCarthy prevailed in Wisconsin and Oregon. They were neck and neck in California, with Kennedy winning by only a few votes. But just after his victory speech in Los Angeles, Kennedy was tragically assassinated by a Palestinian Arab nationalist, Sirhan Sirhan, who was outraged over Kennedy's support for Israel.

The Democratic convention met in Chicago in late August of 1968. As Johnson's political heir and the choice of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Humphrey dominated the caucus. Humphrey was closely identified with liberal social programs, which put him in the Democratic mainstream. But he had also supported Johnson's Vietnam policy, and this created tension among the delegates, many of whom backed McCarthy for that reason.

Democrats across the nation were sharply divided on the war issue. Several thousand anti-war activists traveled to Chicago intent on influencing the nomination in favor of McCarthy. Most demonstrated in an orderly, though visible and often loud, fashion. Others employed civil disobedience such as disrupting traffic, refusing to disband, and passively resisting arrest. A few resorted to violent confrontation with police.

Tension mounted in the city. Mayor Daley, fearing that the protesters would intimidate the delegates to vote in favor of McCarthy, called out a large force of police to protect the convention. As delegates cast their ballots, demonstrators shouted verbal abuse at police, and radical protesters threatened violence. The intensity of the protest escalated as Humphrey received the nomination and a pro-war election platform was adopted. While cameras rolled in nationwide live television coverage, police clashed with rioting protesters in a shockingly violent melee.

In contrast to the strained and eventful Democratic nomination for the 1968 presidential race, the Republicans progressed through the process in a relatively quiet and conventional manner. At first they had assumed that Johnson would be the Democratic nominee and that he would likely carry the presidential race, as was the usual case with an incumbent. Consequently, Republicans with sights on the presidency had not prepared for running in the 1968 election.

After his narrow loss to John Kennedy eight years before, Richard M. Nixon had run for the governorship of California in 1962, but again he lost. He then joined a prominent law firm in New York City but remained active in the Republican Party. Having served as vice president under Eisenhower, Nixon was familiar with national politics and still had ambitions for high public office. Seeing an opportunity in the void left by Johnson's departure, Nixon pulled together a campaign organization, swept the Republican primaries, and won the nomination.

The Republicans campaigned on a law-and-order platform that appealed to many voters concerned about unbridled demonstrations and the new restrictions placed on police and courts in apprehending and convicting criminals. Republican candidates were careful to craft an image of moderation and dignity, which stood in contrast to the disorder in the Democratic Party. On the international front, Nixon's achievements in diplomacy as vice president were a matter of record. His claim that he could "end the war and win the peace" was what most voters wanted to hear.

Nixon chose a relative unknown, Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, to be his vice-presidential running mate because Maryland was a southern state, and Republicans were traditionally weakest in the South. In choosing Agnew, Nixon hoped to counter Alabama governor George Wallace for the southern conservative vote. Wallace represented a segment of the southern electorate that resented civil rights legislation and also what they considered to be appropriation of states' rights by the federal government in such areas as education and prisons. Wallace headed the American Independent Party, and his plan was to garner enough votes to deny both Humphrey and Nixon a majority in the Electoral College, and thus disrupt the election.

Forced desegregation of schools was the sparking point of Wallace's campaign. His appeal drew from a reservoir of fear concerning the destructive potential of racial unrest in the South and from bitter resentment at being forced to desegregate by order of the Supreme Court. The foreign policy plank in Wallace's campaign platform advocated bombing North Vietnam "back to the Stone Age."

The Democratic campaign had great difficulty backing a single candidate and platform. Whenever Humphrey attempted to speak in public, he was subjected to incessant heckling from antiwar protesters. For most of the campaign he trailed badly. In order to improve Humphrey’s chances, Johnson suspended bombing of North Vietnam. The protests receded, and voters shifted their focus to domestic issues. Those who benefited from Great Society and other New Deal type programs characteristic of a Democratic administration began to consider Humphrey in a more positive light. The Democratic ticket gained ground, especially among blacks and urban poor, and the country was close to evenly divided at election time.

The popular vote gave Nixon about 31.8 million, while Humphrey won 31.3 million votes. In the Electoral College, Nixon received 301 votes to Humphrey’s 191. Wallace got 46 electoral votes—not enough to rob Nixon of a majority. In spite of the change of guard in the White House, however, the Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress.

Though Nixon had won the presidency, he owed his victory to a division in the Democratic Party rather than to strong support for himself or his platform. He was a president by default, without a mandate or a strong constituency. Understanding this, Nixon moved into his role as president with measured deliberateness. He made few changes in Johnson's Great Society programs, altered little in the economy or domestic affairs, and proposed no important new legislation. Exhausted from strife and contention, the country wanted peace and stability, both at home and abroad. Though many pressing issues begged to be addressed, Nixon saw his chief problem as Vietnam and set about trying to make an "honorable" peace in Southeast Asia.


When Southeast Asia first became a trouble spot for America in 1954, the concern of Eisenhower's administration was that if communism were allowed to gain a foothold in Vietnam, the other nations of the region would inevitably succumb to communist tyranny. At the time, Nixon had advocated military intervention to counter that threat.

Remaining convinced that a policy of containment was vital to the security of the free world, Nixon supported the expansions of American military presence in Vietnam that occurred under Kennedy and Johnson. When the Vietnam War turned into a political powder keg during the election, Nixon asserted that his knowledge of world affairs and the expertise in foreign diplomacy that he had gained as Eisenhower's vice president would give him an advantage in dealing with the problem. This tactic had helped him win the election.

In 1968, negotiations had begun in Paris between the South Vietnamese Thieu government and the Vietcong supported by the North Vietnamese. Johnson's position was that all North Vietnamese forces should withdraw from South Vietnam and that the Thieu government should be recognized as the legitimate government of South Vietnam. The position of North Vietnam was that U.S. troops must withdraw and that a coalition government including Vietcong should replace the Thieu government. The talks progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Before taking office in 1969, Nixon claimed he had a plan for ending America's involvement in the war. Many people simply wanted America to pull out of Vietnam immediately and completely. For several reasons, this plan was unacceptable to Nixon and his advisors. The first reason was that it would have been a virtual admission of defeat for America at a time when U.S. status as a superpower was seen as a critical deterrent to communist aggression around the world. Nixon's administration felt that to be beaten in tiny, internationally insignificant Vietnam would invite greater troubles elsewhere.

The United States also had a credibility issue that bordered on a moral dilemma. Neither the world nor the Vietnamese cared under whose administration America's involvement in the war was begun or escalated. They only remembered that America had promised to support the South Vietnamese government and that by sending troops to the country, it had turned Vietnam into a battleground of superpowers. After so much travail and suffering, for America to turn its back and leave South Vietnam to its fate at the hands of the vengeful Vietcong and North Vietnamese was wrong. In addition, from many Americans' point of view, to leave without a resolution to the war would be to nullify the sacrifice of those servicemen killed and wounded in South Vietnam's defense.

On the other hand, the American people had made their feelings clear that the death of so many young men overseas and the pain and sacrifice of so many families at home for a goal that remained nebulous had become an intolerable situation. The compulsory draft was especially resented and bitterly contested by many young people.

Nixon's compromise solution to withdraw U.S. troops gradually from Vietnam while simultaneously bolstering South Vietnamese forces with money, weapons, training, and advisors. The hope was that South Vietnam could eventually hold its own against the communist North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. This plan was called the Nixon Doctrine or Vietnamization of the war. Implicit in the doctrine was that Asians and others around the world would from then on have to fight their own wars without the support of large numbers of U.S. ground troops.

Unbeknownst to the public, the press, and even Nixon's own cabinet, Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, began secret talks with North Vietnam in 1969. These talks proved extremely difficult. The North Vietnamese clearly felt that time was on their side, and they derided Nixon's Vietnamization plan. One North Vietnamese negotiator asked Kissinger how Nixon's plans for the South Vietnamese to conduct their own defense could succeed when America had not been able to prevail in the war with a half million of its own troops. The question foreshadowed the inevitable end to the conflict.

In March of 1969, Nixon ordered secret bombing of Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam for the purpose of cutting off communist supply lines to the south. The supply roads through the jungle, collectively called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, were not paved, and could be rerouted with relative ease, so the strategy was unsuccessful. Because the U.S. was not officially supposed to be active in Cambodia and Laos, these bombings were not revealed to the public until 1973.

Nixon was determined to withdraw American forces on as short a timetable as possible without surrendering altogether. In June of 1969, he announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops from Vietnam and in September, another 35,000. To counter this loss of troop strength, the U.S. increased aerial bombing of North Vietnam and stepped up the arming and training of the South Vietnamese. So many planes were sent to South Vietnam that it had the fourth largest air force in the world. Yet money and materials alone were not enough. The South Vietnamese were exhausted and demoralized, while the North Vietnamese felt vindicated in their quarter-century fight to evict foreigners—first the French and then the Americans—from their land.

In spite of regular troop withdrawals, organized war protest demonstrations continued in America. In October of 1969, students staged an antiwar demonstration they called Vietnam Moratorium Day. Two million people participated in the protest. In another demonstration, 250,000 people marched by the White House.

In response, Nixon reiterated the necessity of gradual withdrawal of troops, citing the U.S. responsibility to honor its international agreements and to protect the South Vietnamese from communist reprisals. Nixon claimed that a "silent majority" of Americans supported his initiative, and he rejected being influenced by a minority of people, no matter how vocal, and by the media, which was heavily biased against the war. Vice President Agnew was less restrained in his criticism of protesters. He characterized them in such terms as "effete snobs" and "rotten apples."

Late in 1969, a report surfaced of a massacre a year earlier of 350 Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, in the village of Mylai. U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley was court martialed, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison for these killings. In an appeal, Calley claimed to have followed a direct order, and his sentence was lowered to 10 years. Many Americans were outraged, and hundreds of thousands protested.

The Mylai massacre intensified discussion about the effects of war on individuals—the cruelties perpetrated on the innocent and the hardening of soldiers who in the name of duty found themselves called upon to act in ways that in times of peace would label them criminal. Many Americans were so repelled by the war that they treated returning soldiers with disrespect and aversion, which embittered veterans and their families and further fragmented a divided society.

One week after the Kent State protest, rioting at Jackson State, an all-black school in Mississippi, resulted in the state police opening fire. Two innocent bystanders died and twelve people were wounded. Following these outbreaks of violence, thousands of moderate students joined the radicals in student strikes and protests that closed hundreds of colleges. Perhaps disturbed by their own potential for violence, protesters became more subdued after this period.

In 1971, former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked government documents about the war effort during the Johnson administration to the New York Times. These classified documents, called the "Pentagon Papers," revealed that the government had misled Congress and the American people regarding its intentions in Vietnam during the mid-1960s. The papers stated that the primary reason for fighting was not to eliminate communism but to "avoid a humiliating defeat." The truth was also revealed that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which had provoked Congress to give Johnson essentially a blank check to pursue the war, had occurred because the U.S. had been secretly supporting South Vietnamese activities against the North. The White House tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, but the Supreme Court overruled the action. The government's credibility received a heavy blow.

Despite billions spent for their training, the South Vietnamese proved over time that they were unable to counter and defeat the communist Vietcong or to defend South Vietnam from the North. In early 1972, American forces were withdrawn from Cambodia, but bombing was increased to compensate for their retreat. Shortly afterward, North Vietnamese equipped with foreign tanks burst through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated the two Vietnams. In retaliation, Nixon ordered massive bombing of North Vietnam and mining of its ports. Nixon's diplomatic initiatives with China and the USSR proved valuable as neither retaliated for the escalated hostilities. The North Vietnamese offensive slowed to a halt.

In October 1972, the Paris Peace Talks, which had been stalled, were reopened. North Vietnam dropped its demand that a coalition government replace Thieu, and the U.S. agreed to allow North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam. The draft agreement included a cease-fire, return of American POW's, and U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

With the election of 1972 approaching, Nixon wanted a settlement of the war. Unfortunately, the settlement fell apart when Thieu had misgivings about the communists being allowed to remain in South Vietnam and refused to sign the treaty. In order to force the North Vietnamese to rescind their demand that their troops remain in the south, Nixon ordered intense bombings of North Vietnam's major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong on December 18. These so-called Christmas Bombings were the most massive of the war and resulted in the loss of a number of America's strategic bombers.


In 1971, as a direct result of the war, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years. One of the strongest student complaints had been that young men could be drafted and sent to fight and die at 18 even though America did not consider them mature enough to vote until they were 21. Skeptics warned that giving the vote to 18-year-olds would vastly skew elections because young people would vote on the basis of appearance and trendy issues. Statistical analysis has confirmed, however, that voting patterns have not changed with the addition of the younger voters who tend to vote like their parents, thus preserving the relative balance between the parties.

In 1973, Nixon abolished the draft and established an all-volunteer army. This move was popular and overdue, but many Americans had already come to distrust their government and to regard the Vietnam War as a low point in American history. The experience of Vietnam fueled racial tensions because minorities were disproportionately represented among draftees. It also alienated the younger from the older generation and opened deep schisms within the Democratic Party. Yet America learned valuable lessons from Vietnam, among them that there are limits to power and that a nation should choose carefully where and when to take a stand.

Foreign Affairs

In February of 1972, President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, sojourned to China for a historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong. This trip was a complete about-face for the United States, which prior to this time had followed an ironclad policy of containment of communism. Recognizing that containment had the effect of driving China and the USSR together into a monolithic communist bloc, Nixon and Kissinger decided to pursue an initiative to normalize relations with both countries.

In spite of its hard-line, anti-West posture, China also welcomed opening lines of communication with the U.S. in order to develop an ally against the Soviet Union, whom it had come to distrust as much or more than it distrusted America. The result of the meeting between Nixon and Mao was that America agreed to recognize the communist government in Beijing as the government of China. This reversed the former U.S. policy of recognizing Chiang Kai Shek's government-in-exile on the Island of Formosa (Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China. The U.S. also agreed to support China's admission to the United Nations and to pursue economic and cultural exchanges. The countries began trading with one another, a development that has increased with time, benefiting the economies of both nations. Not until 1978, however, did China and the United States announce in a joint communiqué that they would formally recognize one another and open official diplomatic relations.

In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in order to quell a student reform movement. Preoccupied with Vietnam, the U.S. could do little to aid Czech reformers, but this aggression had even further strained U.S.-Soviet relations. For decades after the Soviet invasion, Czechoslovakia remained one of the strictest communist governments in Eastern Europe.

In May of 1972, just three months after his China visit, Nixon again had an opportunity to exercise his negotiating abilities, but this time with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev approached Nixon about nuclear reduction talks, but his real agenda was that the USSR needed to purchase U.S. grain, and he was deeply concerned that the new U.S.-China relationship would leave Russia out in the cold.

Nixon flew to Moscow and by deftly playing what the press dubbed his "China card" achieved diplomatic history by negotiating with the Soviets on nuclear reduction, trade, and balance among the three great powers. In addition, he succeeded in defusing the potential for catastrophic superpower confrontation over Southeast Asia. Nixon's visit ushered in an era of détnte, a French word meaning "the relaxation of tensions between governments." This policy sought to establish rules to govern the relations among the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China.

Nixon's visit resulted in several agreements, which were all the more significant because they were drawn up and approved before the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. The first agreement was a three-year grain deal in which the U.S. agreed to sell at least $750 million worth of wheat, corn, and other grains to the Soviet Union. This sale amounted to nearly one-fourth of the American grain production. Besides helping the Soviets out of a food shortage bind, this deal was a boon to American farmers and established a precedent for trade between the two nations. It caused higher food prices in America, however, which contributed to the inflation that plagued the U.S. for the remainder of the decade.

In the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 (SALT I), the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to stop making nuclear ballistic missiles and to reduce the number of antiballistic missiles to 200. These treaties were soon rendered moot by U.S. development of Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) in which one missile could carry many warheads. By the 1990s, the U.S. and Soviets each had nearly 20,000 warheads. The historic value of SALT I was that it established a precedent and line of communication for future arms reductions talks.

Détente produced a mixed track record. It was successful in that Nixon diplomatically maneuvered the two great Communist powers into helping end the Vietnam War. Détente did not end the arms race, however, which had been America's, and also the world's, great hope for the SALT agreement.

The Middle East, another troubled region, suffered a new flare-up of old trouble in October of 1973. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Egypt and Syria made a coordinated attack on Israel. While Syria engaged Israeli troops in the north, Egyptian armored divisions rolled into the Sinai and threatened Israel itself. Coming to Israel's rescue, the United States airlifted fighter planes and other military equipment to the beleaguered country. The Israelis executed a counterattack across the Suez Canal, cutting Egyptian supply lines. The Egyptians once again, as they had been forced to do in 1967 in the Six-Day War, retreated back across the desert.

Part of the reason for the Yom Kippur War was that Israel, following the Six-Day War, had appropriated land from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, inducing lasting resentment in these countries. In addition, the Israelis had evicted from their new territories the Palestinians who had been living there, leaving them homeless refugees. This situation of a forcibly disenfranchised Arab population angered the Muslim world.

For America's part, it recognized its dependence on Arab oil, but it was also committed to a Jewish state. In an all-out attempt at damage control, Kissinger embarked on a strenuous round of visits from one capital to another in the region. This peace effort was dubbed "Shuttle Diplomacy." He negotiated a cease-fire among the warring states and pressured Israel to refrain from taking new territory. Thereafter, the U.S. was more moderate in its show of support to Israel and more sensitive to the position of the Arab states. In particular, Kissinger developed close ties with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat.

Though hostilities were temporarily halted, Kissinger's goal of a formula for peace in the Middle East was never realized, and no solution was found for the plight of the Palestinians. Though the Yom Kippur War was over, for the Arabs the battle had just begun. Incensed at the United States for helping Israel, they retaliated by cutting off shipments of oil to the West, thus precipitating the Oil Crisis of the 1970s.

By 1974, the situation in the world seemed to be unraveling in spite of the concerted and unremitting efforts of Nixon and Kissinger. South Vietnam was falling to the North Vietnamese, the Middle East was more unstable than ever, and communism was making new inroads in South America. Chile had elected a Marxist, Salvador Allende, as president, and Kissinger approved a CIA operation to overthrow him. Allende was murdered, and the Chilean government was taken over by a military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who claimed friendship with the U.S. The episode drew criticism in America and around the world for U.S. meddling in the internal affairs of other nations. On this descending note, the Nixon/Kissinger era of foreign diplomacy, which had shone so brightly in China, Russia, and the Middle East, faded and exited the stage of world affairs.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Nixon and Foreign Policy" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/nixon-and-foreign-policy/>.