I was in the East Room of the White House on August 9, 1974, standing along the wall while Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States, said farewell to the staff. After his maudlin and rambling remarks, I shuffled, zombie-like, with the rest of the White House staffers, just behind the Nixon family as they walked from the East Room through the Green and Blue Rooms, and out onto the South Portico. I followed the crowd down the staircase and onto the South Lawn to watch President Nixon wave a final, awkward goodbye as he boarded Marine One for the last time. Just a few days before Richard Nixon had been the most powerful man in the world. Yet when he duck his head into the helicopter that would take him from the White House, he was a broken man. Everyone around me was either in shock or crying.
Once I made my way back to my office, I had only a few minutes alone before I needed to head back to the East Room to watch Gerald Ford be sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. I had held it together so far, but once I closed the door I cried. I cried because I figured all the great things we had done during the Nixon years would be for naught. The Paris Peace Treaty ending the Vietnam War...the first Middle East Peace Accords in history...the SALT I arms control agreements with the Soviet Union...the historic opening to China...would now be but footnotes to Watergate and the disgraced Nixon presidency. Nixon's one sentence in the history books would be about his scandal, national disgrace and resignation -- not about his brilliant foreign policy successes.
Richard Nixon remains one of the most brilliant, enigmatic, tragic, and sustaining political figures of the 20th century. He was a major force in American politics for decades, and the dominant figure in the Republican Party for nearly 30 years. As president, he literally rearranged the world order. He won re-election in the largest landslide in American history, yet two years later was hounded from office. His career was one of the most dramatic roller coaster rides in American history.
As a young Congressman and Senator in the late 1940s, Nixon had skyrocketed onto the national scene as the country's leading anti-Communist. In Congressional hearings, he dramatically exposed Americans who spied for the Soviet Union. As a result, he was tapped for the number two spot on Eisenhower's presidential ticket and, in January 1953, just days after his 40th birthday, Richard Nixon was sworn in as Vice President of the United States.
Nixon was a highly visible and successful Vice President, and naturally ran for the top job in 1960. Although he ran ahead in the polls for months, Nixon was defeated by the glamorous young John Fitzgerald Kennedy in one of the closet elections in American history. Two years later went down to ignominious defeat when he lost the California governor's race. By 1962 most commentators declared Nixon's career finished. He himself said as much when he sulked at a press conference, telling reporters "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."
Yet he was back on the steps of the Capitol six years later, being sworn in as 37th president of the United States. As President, Richard Nixon, was a foreign policy genius. He ended the unpopular and unsuccessful Vietnam War. He restored US relations with Europe. Although he had been one of America's leading Communist critics, Nixon orchestrated a detente with the Soviet Union culminating in a series of nuclear arms control agreements. At the same time he boldly seized the opportunity to reestablish relations with Communist China and flipped them from the Soviet to the American camp. And he presided over the first ever Middle East Peace Agreements, in a region which had been mired in battle for millennia.
The Nixon I choose to remember is not Nixon Disgraced, but Nixon Triumphant -- the president who in a few short weeks in 1972 transformed the world.
Nixon had won the Presidency in 1968 as the anti-war candidate - the man who had a plan to end the Vietnam War. But Nixon, and his brilliant National Security Adviser Dr. Henry Kissinger, knew that to do so they would have to cut off North Vietnam's supply chain, which came from the Soviet Union through China. But we had strained relations with the Soviet Union and no relations whatsoever with China. How could we convince them to abandon their North Vietnamese allies?
Nixon realized China needed training and technology to enter the modern world - as well as breathing space from foreign threats in order to modernize their economy. He calculated that these were more important to China than fighting a proxy war in Vietnam.
Nixon also recognized the Sino-Soviet Communist alliance was cracking, and we could exploit it by being China's great power counterweight to the Soviet Union. The threat of a loose Sino-American alliance was enough of an incentive to get the Soviets to the negotiating table on arms control, and step away from their proxy war in Vietnam.
In a few short months in 1972 that dye was cast. In February 1972 Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China. His summit meetings with Mao Tse-tung ended a generation of hostility between our two countries and set in motion a new era of Sino-American cooperation. But the summit also aroused suspicions in Moscow that the US and China were plotting against the them. Soviet leaders were so eager for their Summit with Nixon, planned for May 1972, that they would let nothing derail it - not even what was nearly an act of war.
On May 8, 1972 US Navy planes mined North Vietnam's Haiphong Harbor, in a crucial effort to cut off North Vietnam's supply route. The majority of ships in that harbor were Soviet, or carrying Soviet weapons and supplies, and bound for its loyal Communist ally. If a Soviet ship were blown up, it would be by an American mine. The Soviets had every right to consider this a belligerent act America had directed against them.
Nixon won the bet. Whatever the Soviet leaders might have said inside the Kremlin, they publicly ignored the US mining of Haiphong Habor.
Two weeks later, on May 22, 1972 Air Force One landed in Moscow. When Richard Nixon stepped down its steps onto to tarmac, he was given a warm welcome by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and went on to sign historic series of arms control treaties. In those few short weeks in the spring of 1972, Richard Nixon literally changed the world.