In January 1968, Nixon decided to once again seek the nomination of the Republican Party for president. Portraying himself as a figure of stability in a time of national upheaval, Nixon promised a return to traditional values and "law and order." He fended off challenges from other candidates such as California Governor Ronald Reagan, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Michigan Governor George Romney to secure the nomination at the Republican convention in Miami. Nixon unexpectedly chose Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland as his running mate.
Nixon's campaign was helped by the tumult within the Democratic Party in 1968. Consumed by the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not seek re-election. On June 5, immediately after winning the California primaries, former attorney general and then-U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (brother of the late president John F. Kennedy) was assassinated in Los Angeles. The campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, went into a tailspin after the Democratic national convention in Chicago was marred by mass protests and violence. By contrast, Nixon appeared to represent a calmer society, and his campaign promised peace at home and abroad. Despite a late surge by Humphrey, Nixon won by nearly 500,000 popular votes. Third-party candidate George Wallace, the once and future governor of Alabama, won nearly ten million popular votes and 46 electoral votes, principally in the Deep South.
Once in office, Nixon and his staff faced the problem of how to end the Vietnam War, which had broken his predecessor's administration and threatened to cause major unrest at home. As protesters in America's cities called for an immediate withdrawal from Southeast Asia, Nixon made a nationally televised address on November 3, 1969, calling on the "silent majority" of Americans to renew their confidence in the American government and back his policy of seeking a negotiated peace in Vietnam. Earlier that year, Nixon and his Defense Secretary Melvin Laird had unveiled the policy of "Vietnamization," which entailed reducing American troop levels in Vietnam and transferring the burden of fighting to South Vietnam; accordingly, U.S. troop strength in Vietnam fell from 543,000 in April 1969 to zero on March 29, 1973. Nevertheless, the Nixon administration was harshly criticized for its use of American military force in Cambodia and its stepped-up bombing raids during the later years of the first term.
Nixon's foreign policy aimed to reduce international tensions by forging new links with old rivals. In February 1972, Nixon traveled to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai in China for talks with Chinese leaders Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. Nixon's trip was the first high-level contact between the United States and the People's Republic of China in more than twenty years, and it ushered in a new era of relations between Washington and Beijing. Several weeks later, in May 1972, Nixon visited Moscow for a summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and other Soviet leaders. Their talks led to the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the first comprehensive and detailed nuclear weapons limitation pact between the two superpowers.
Foreign policy initiatives represented only one aspect of Nixon's presidency during his first term. In August 1969, Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform that would have guaranteed an income to all Americans. The plan, however, did not receive congressional approval. In August 1971, spurred by high inflation rates, Nixon imposed wage and price controls in an effort to gain control of price levels in the U.S. economy; at the same time, prompted by worries over the soundness of U.S. currency, Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard and let it float against other countries' currencies.
On July 19, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Earth's moon, while fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited in the Apollo 11 command module. Nixon made what has been termed the longest-distance telephone call ever made to speak with the astronauts from the Oval Office. And on September 28, 1971, Nixon signed legislation abolishing the military draft.
In addition to such weighty affairs of state, Nixon's first term was also full of lighter-hearted moments. On April 29, 1969, Nixon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Duke Ellington-and then led hundreds of guests in singing "Happy Birthday" to the famed band leader. On June 12, 1971, Tricia became the sixteenth White House bride when she and Edward Finch Cox of New York married in the Rose Garden. (Julie had wed Dwight David Eisenhower II, grandson of President Eisenhower, on December 22, 1968, in New York's Marble Collegiate Church, while her father was President-elect.) Perhaps most famous was Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley on December 21, 1970, when the president and the king discussed the drug problem facing American youth.
The Watergate burglars were soon linked to officials of the Committee to Re-elect the President, the group that had run Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. Soon thereafter, several administration officials resigned; some, including former attorney general John Mitchell, were later convicted of offenses connected with the break-in and other crimes and went to jail. Nixon denied any personal involvement with the Watergate burglary, but the courts forced him to yield tape recordings of conversations between the president and his advisers indicating that the president had, in fact, participated in the cover-up, including an attempt to use the Central Intelligence Agency to divert the FBI's investigation into the break-in. (For more information about Watergate, please visit the Ford Presidential Library and Museum's online Watergate exhibit.)
Investigations into Watergate also revealed other abuses of power, including numerous warrantless wiretaps on reporters and others, campaign "dirty tricks," and the creation of a "Plumbers" unit within the White House. The Plumbers, formed in response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers to news organizations by former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.
Adding to Nixon's worries was an investigation into Vice President Agnew's ties to several campaign contributors. The Department of Justice found that Agnew had taken bribes from Maryland construction firms, leading to Agnew's resigning in October 1973 and his entering a plea of no contest to income tax evasion. Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, to succeed Agnew. Ford was confirmed by both houses of Congress and took office on December 6, 1973.
Such controversies all but overshadowed Nixon's other initiatives in his second term, such as the signing of the Paris peace accords ending American involvement in the Vietnam war in January 1973; two summit meetings with Brezhnev, in June 1973 in Washington and in June and July 1974 in Moscow; and the administration's efforts to secure a general peace in the Middle East following the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The revelations from the Watergate tapes, combined with actions such as Nixon's firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, badly eroded the president's standing with the public and Congress. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon announced his decision to resign in a national televised address on the evening of August 8, 1974. He resigned effective at noon the next day, August 9, 1974. Vice President Ford then became president of the United States. On September 8, 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon for "all offenses against the United States" which Nixon "has committed or may have committed or taken part in" during his presidency. In response, Nixon issued a statement in which he said that he regretted "not acting more decisively and forthrightly in dealing with Watergate."