Regarding most domestic issues as distractions, Richard Nixon surprised and disturbed his right-wing supporters by leaving Johnson’s Great Society pretty much intact. He assigned politicking to Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew’s relentless liberal-baiting provided Nixon with an effective smokescreen. One of Agnew’s favorite targets was the “Warren Court.” During Warren’s years as chief justice, there had been a steady trend in the Court’s rulings toward what critics called “judicial activism.”
Nixon wanted out of the war in Vietnam. He announced that he would "Vietnamize" the war, that he would replace the American draftees on the front lines with South Vietnamese soldiers. Nixon returned the American role in the war to where it had been in 1964. Nixon and his foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, believed that they had to salvage the independence of South Vietnam out of the wreckage, even if temporarily. In South Vietnam, the fighting dragged on until the fall of 1972 when the North Vietnamese finally agreed to arrange a cease-fire. In 1975, North and South Vietnam were united.
Kissinger and Nixon recognized that the bipolar Soviet-American standoff of the Cold War was being displaced by a world in which there were five centers of power. Kissinger opened top-secret talks with Chinese diplomats. In 1979, the two countries established full diplomatic relations. Nixon and Kissinger expected the Soviets to seek their own détente--a relaxation of tensions--with the United States. In 1972, the Soviets agreed to open the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the first step toward slowing down the arms race since the Kennedy Administration.
In 1972, the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern for president. He never had a chance. Nixon won 60.8 percent of the popular vote, a swing of 20 million votes in eight years. In June 1972, early in the campaign, police arrested five men who were trying to plant eavesdropping devices in Democratic Party headquarters. Nixon may not have known specifically about the break-in in advance, but he was involved in the cover-up. Two reporters were fed inside information that led to Nixon's exposure in the cover-up. In the midst of the unfolding scandal, Vice President Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford. In August 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency. Ford’s modesty and forthrightness were a relief after Nixon’s deceit. However, in 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced the first of a series of big jumps in the price of their product. Ford urged Americans to deter inflation by refusing to buy exorbitantly priced goods and by ceasing to demand higher wages. The campaign was ridiculed from the start. In November 1976, he lost narrowly to an unlikely Democratic candidate, James Earl Carter of Georgia, who called himself “Jimmy.”
The Carter presidency had difficulties throughout. His greatest achievement was his single-handed salvaging of the rapprochement between Israel and Egypt. However, he scrapped the détente that Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford had nurtured. Carter could not be faulted for the ongoing energy crisis. Personally, though, Carter was embarrassed by his aides, his family, and his own gaffes.