Modern history

The Conservative Ascendancy



Allan Bakke was not a political ideologue or an activist. He had always played by the rules. Born in Minnesota in 1940, Bakke grew up in a white middle- class family, earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and served in Vietnam. When his tour of duty was over, Bakke returned home, found an engineering job in Sunnyvale, California, and received a master's degree from Stanford University. However, he had not satisfied his great ambition—to become a physician.

In 1972 Bakke applied to two California medical schools and was turned down, probably because at age thirty-two he was considered too old. The next year, he applied to twelve schools but was rejected by all of them, including the University of California at Davis. Bakke learned that of the one hundred available spaces in the incoming class, the university awarded sixteen spots to minority group members, consisting mainly of African Americans, Chicanos, and Asian Americans. Contending that the policy amounted to reverse discrimination, he sued the University of California at Davis for violating his constitutional rights. In his challenge to the university's admission policy, Bakke complained: "I realize that the rationale for these quotas is that they attempt to atone for past racial discrimination, but insisting on a new racial bias in favor of minorities is not a just situation." In 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and Bakke successfully completed his studies and graduated with a medical degree.

Like Allan Bakke, Anita Faye Hill did not seek celebrity, yet like Bakke she, too, would gain notoriety in a cause not of her own making. Born in Oklahoma in 1956, Hill grew up in a large family whose ancestors included Creek Indians and former slaves. Like other African Americans in the state, she encountered racial segregation when she attended school, but her parents encouraged her to work hard and abide by strong religious and moral values.

A bookish and determined young woman, Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. The following year, she went to work in the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Her boss, Clarence Thomas, was an African American supporter of President Ronald Reagan. When Thomas moved to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 1982, Hill transferred as well. Although a pragmatic moderate who privately favored affirmative action, she tried not to make waves and defended the positions that the conservative Thomas implemented to further reduce the scope of affirmative action in the aftermath of the Bakke case.

Anita Hill would have remained an obscure public servant had president George H. W. Bush not nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. During the course of Thomas's Senate confirmation hearing, Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a nationally televised audience that Thomas had made unwanted sexual advances to her on and off the job. Disturbed by Thomas's harassment and sexual impropriety, Hill had quit her job in 1983 and returned to Oklahoma to teach at a law school. It was difficult for this usually shy black woman to publicly describe these embarrassing moments concerning a high-ranking black man, but her courage was not rewarded. Black and white conservatives defended Thomas and attacked Hill's credibility, and Thomas won confirmation by a 52-48 vote. Nevertheless, she became a hero for many working women who faced similar incidents of sexual bias and harassment.

ALLAN BAKKE and Anita Hill were not engaged in politics in the usual sense of the word. Nonetheless, their American histories took on profound political importance in the larger context of the rise and ascendancy of conservatism in the late twentieth century. Scoring their first national victory with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, conservatives became the dominant force on the political landscape with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan led a New Right coalition that meshed the traditional economic conservatism of lower taxes, deregulation, and anti-unionism with the concerns of religious conservatives over abortion and family values. By 1992 conservatives had built upon the judicial victory of Allan Bakke and brushed back the complaint of Anita Hill in reshaping the nation’s political priorities. Still, they had neither silenced their progressive critics nor eliminated the impact of liberal achievements from the 1960s.

Political activist Phyllis Schlafly and other women at a government hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment in Kansas City, Missouri, 1976. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Richard M. Nixon, War, and Politics, 1969-1974

Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 by forging a conservative coalition behind him, blaming liberals for the radical excesses of the 1960s. While continuing to fight Communists in Vietnam, Nixon improved relations with the Soviet Union and China, creating a thaw in the Cold War. At home, Nixon mixed conservatism with pragmatic politics, supporting some liberal measures while defending the virtues of limited government and traditional values. Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a landslide, but his victory was short-lived. In an effort to ensure electoral success, the Nixon administration engaged in illegal activities that subsequently came to light in the Watergate scandal. Nixon was forced to resign, and the conservative movement suffered a temporary setback.

The Election of President Nixon

The year 1968 was a turbulent one. In February, police shot indiscriminately into a crowd gathered for civil rights protests at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, killing three students in the so-called Orangeburg massacre. The following month, student protests at Columbia University led to a violent confrontation with the New York City police. On April 4, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked an outburst of rioting by blacks in more than one hundred cities throughout the country (see chapter 26). The assassination of Democratic presidential aspirant Robert Kennedy in June further heightened the mood of despair. Adding to the unrest, demonstrators gathered in Chicago in August at the Democratic National Convention to press for an antiwar plank in the party platform. Thousands of protesters were beaten and arrested by Chicago police officers, who violently released their frustrations on the crowds. Many Americans watched in horror as television networks broadcast the bloody clashes, but a majority of viewers sided with the police rather than the protesters.

Similar protests occurred around the world. In early 1968, university students outside of Paris protested educational policies and what they perceived as their second- class status. When students at the Sorbonne in Paris joined them in the streets, police attacked them viciously. In June, French president Charles de Gaulle sent in tanks to break up the strikes but also instituted political and economic reforms. Protests erupted during the spring in Prague, Czechoslovakia, as well. President Alexander Dubcek, vowing to reform the Communist regime by initiating “socialism with a human face,” lifted press censorship, guaranteed free elections, and encouraged artists and writers to express themselves freely. Unaccustomed to such dissent and fearful it would spread to other nations within its imperial orbit, the Soviet Union sent its military into Prague in August 1968 to crush the reforms. Czechoslovakian protesters were no match for Soviet forces, and the brief experiment in freedom remembered as the “Prague Spring” came to a violent end. During the same year, student-led demonstrations erupted in Yugoslavia, Poland, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, and Mexico.

It was against this backdrop of protest, violence, and civil unrest that Richard Nixon ran for president against the Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, who was Johnson’s vice president, and the independent candidate, George C. Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and a popular archconservative. To outflank Wallace on the right, Nixon appealed to disaffected Democrats as well as traditional Republicans. He declared himself the “law and order” candidate, a phrase that became a code for reining in black militancy. To win southern supporters, he pledged to ease up on enforcing federal civil rights legislation and opposed forced busing to achieve racial integration in schools. He criticized antiwar protesters and promised to end the Vietnam War with honor (without disclosing exactly how he would achieve this goal). Seeking to portray the Democrats as the party of social and cultural radicalism, Nixon geared his campaign message to the “silent majority” of voters—what one political analyst characterized as “the unyoung, the unpoor, and unblack.”

Although Nixon won 301 electoral votes, 110 more than Humphrey, none of the three candidates received a majority of the popular vote (Map 27.1). Yet Nixon and Wallace together received about 57 percent of the popular vote, a dramatic shift to the right compared with Johnson’s landslide victory just four years earlier. Nixon’s election ushered in more than two decades of Republican presidential rule, interrupted only by scandal. The New Left, which had captured the imagination of many of America’s young people, would give way to the New Right, an assortment of old and new conservatives, overwhelmingly white, who were determined to contain, if not roll back, the Great Society.

MAP 27.1

The Election of 1968

Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey lost across the South as white voters turned to Republican Richard Nixon or segregationist George Wallace. Many working-class whites in the North and West also shifted their allegiance to these "law and order" candidates, rejecting the civil rights and antipoverty agendas promoted by President Johnson and blaming Democrats for the turmoil over the Vietnam War.

The Failure of Vietnamization

Vietnam plagued Nixon as it had his Democratic predecessor. Despite intimations during the campaign that he had a secret plan to end the war, Nixon’s approach to Vietnam turned out to look much the same as Johnson’s. Henry Kissinger, who served first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state, continued peace talks with the North Vietnamese, which had been initiated by Johnson. Over the next four years, Nixon and Kissinger devised a strategy that removed U.S. ground forces and turned over greater responsibility for the fighting to the South Vietnamese army, a process called Vietnamization.

Vietnamization did not, however, mean an end to U.S. belligerence in the region. In 1969, at the same time that American troop levels were being drawn down, the president ordered secret bombing raids in Cambodia, a neutral country adjacent to South Vietnam that contained enemy forces and parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Meant to pressure the North Vietnamese into accepting U.S. peace terms, the bombing accomplished little in the mountainous jungle. In April 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, which destabilized the country and eventually brought to power the Communist Khmer Rouge, who later slaughtered two million Cambodians. In 1971 the United States sponsored the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos, another neutral neighbor that harbored North Vietnamese troops and supply lines, which again yielded no battlefield gains. Finally, in December 1972, shortly before Christmas, the United States carried out a massive eleven-day bombing campaign of targets in North Vietnam meant to force the North Vietnamese government to come to a peace accord.

The intense bombing of North Vietnam did end formal U.S. involvement in the war. An agreement signed on January 27, 1973, stipulated that the United States would remove all American troops, the North Vietnamese would return captured U.S. soldiers, and North and South Vietnam would strive for peaceful national unification. Nixon and Kissinger could now claim that they had achieved “peace with honor,” ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam without compromising America’s credibility with its antiCommunist allies around the world. In fact, peace had not been achieved, and the United States had failed in its stated goal of preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. The war in Vietnam continued, and in 1975 North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces captured Saigon, resulting in a Communist victory. This outcome came at a terrible cost. Some 58,000 American soldiers, 215,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 1 million North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers, and an estimated 4 million South and North Vietnamese civilians were killed in the conflict.

The Nixon administration’s war efforts generated great controversy at home. In 1969 the president eliminated most draft deferments and introduced an impartial lottery system. This procedure was more equitable, but it exposed a wider range of young men to the draft. More important, the invasion of Cambodia touched off widespread campus demonstrations in May 1970. At Kent State University in Ohio, four student protesters were shot and killed by the National Guard. Large crowds of antiwar demonstrators descended on Washington in 1969 and 1971, though the president refused to heed their message. Nevertheless, the American public, and not just radicals, had turned against the war. By 1972 more than 70 percent of those polled believed that the Vietnam War was a mistake, and 31 percent disapproved of Nixon’s handling of it. Growing numbers of Vietnam veterans also spoke out against the war. Contributing to this disillusionment, in 1971 the New York Times and the Washington Post published a classified report known as the pentagon papers. This document, leaked by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, confirmed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had misled the public about the origins and nature of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration tried, unsuccessfully, to block its publication. Congress reflected growing disapproval for the war by repealing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1970 after the Cambodian invasion. In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act, which required the president to consult with Congress within forty-eight hours of deploying military forces and to obtain a declaration of war from Congress if troops remained on foreign soil beyond sixty days. That same year, as the U.S. combat mission in Vietnam drew to a close, President Nixon disbanded the draft and created an allvolunteer military.

Cold War Realism and Détente

As Nixon maneuvered to end the Vietnam War, he embarked on a parallel effort to improve relations with his Cold War Communist enemies. Nixon had begun his political career as a fierce anti-Communist, but he also considered himself a realist in foreign affairs. He was concerned less about promoting abstract ideals of democracy than about fashioning a stable world order based on a balance of power. With this in mind, Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger worked to establish closer relations with both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, hoping each power could be persuaded to pressure the North Vietnamese to accept an American peace settlement and end the war quickly. In addition, with the Soviet Union and China competing for influence in Asia, Nixon sought to exploit this conflict to keep these nuclear powers divided.

Nixon and Kissinger’s plans succeeded in many ways. Their efforts to use great- power diplomacy to pressure the North Vietnamese into concessions failed, but their greatest triumph came in easing tensions with the country’s Cold War adversaries. Through secret maneuvering, Kissinger prepared the way for Nixon to make the bold move of visiting mainland China in 1972, the first president to do so since the Cold War began. The meeting set in motion a new relationship between the capitalist and Communist nations. After blocking the People’s Republic of China’s admission to the United Nations for twenty-two years, the United States announced that it would no longer oppose China’s entry to the world organization. This cautious renewal of relations between the two countries benefited both. It opened up possibilities of American access to the huge China market, and for the Chinese it promised trade with the United States.

Shaken by the movement toward closer relations between China and the United States, Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev invited President Nixon to Moscow in May 1972, the first time an American president had visited the Soviet Union since 1945. The main topic of discussion concerned arms control, and with the Soviet Union eager to make a deal in the aftermath of Nixon’s trip to China, the two sides worked out the historic Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), the first to curtail nuclear arms production during the Cold War. The pact restricted the number of antiballistic missiles that each nation could deploy and froze the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-based missiles for five years, with each side agreeing to pursue nuclear “sufficiency” rather than “superiority.”

Nixon’s diplomatic initiatives, however, failed to resolve festering problems in the Middle East, an area of strategic concern to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Since its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had occupied territory once controlled by Egypt and Syria as well as the former Palestinian capital of East Jerusalem. On October 6, 1973, during the start of the Jewish High Holidays ofYom Kippur, Egyptian and Syrian troops, fortified with Soviet arms, caught the Israelis off guard and quickly managed to recapture territory lost in 1967. An Israeli counterattack, reinforced by a shipment of $2 billion of American weapons, repelled Arab forces, and the Israeli military stood ready to destroy the Egyptian army. To avoid a complete breakdown in the balance of power, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to broker a ceasefire that left the situation the same as before the war.

U.S. involvement in the struggle between Israel and its Arab enemies exacerbated economic troubles at home. On October 17, 1973, in the midst of the Yom Kippur War, the Arab-dominated Organization of petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States as punishment for its support of Israel. As a result of the embargo, the price of oil skyrocketed, and reduced oil supplies produced long lines at the gas pumps. The effect of high oil prices rippled through the economy, leading to increased inflation and unemployment, which rose from 5 to 7 percent. The embargo also affected America’s allies in Western Europe, which imported 80 percent of its oil supply from Arab states, compared with 12 percent for the United States. The crisis lasted until May 1974, when OPEC lifted its embargo following six months of diplomacy by Kissinger.

The United States preferred to support stability over democracy when its strategic or economic interests were at stake. Under Nixon’s leadership, the United States supported repressive regimes in Nicaragua, South Africa, the Philippines, and Iran. In Chile, the United States overthrew the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, who was murdered in a CIA-backed operation in 1973. The coup brought nearly two decades of dictatorial rule to that country.

Pragmatic Conservatism at Home

On the domestic front, Nixon had pledged during his 1968 campaign to “reverse the flow of power and resources from the states and communities to Washington” and redirect “power and resources” back to the American people, a key objective of conservatism. He kept his promise by dismantling Great Society social programs, cutting funds for the War on Poverty, and eliminating the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1972 the president adopted a program of revenue sharing, which transferred federal tax revenues to the states to use as they wished. Hoping to rein in the liberal Warren Court, Nixon nominated conservative justices, such as William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell, to the Supreme Court.

However, in several areas Nixon departed from conservatives who favored limited government. In 1970 he persuaded Congress to pass the Environmental Protection Act, which strengthened federal oversight of environmental programs throughout the country. In 1972 the federal government increased its responsibility for protecting the health and safety of American workers through the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Consumer Products Safety Commission was established to provide added safety for the buying public. The president also signed a law banning cigarette advertising on radio and television because of the link between smoking and cancer.

Nixon applied this pragmatic conservatism to racial issues. The president proposed legislation that prevented the use of busing to promote school desegregation, which the Democratic Congress rejected. In general, he supported “benign neglect” concerning the issue of race and therefore rejected new legislative attempts to remove the vestiges of racial discrimination. In this way, Nixon courted southern conservatives in an attempt to deter George Wallace from mounting another third-party challenge in 1972. Still, Nixon moved back to the political center with efforts that furthered civil rights. Expanding affirmative action programs begun under the Johnson administration, he adopted plans that required construction companies and unions to recruit minority workers according to their percentage in the local labor force. His support of affirmative action was part of a broader approach to encourage “black capitalism,” a concept designed to convince African Americans to seek opportunity within the free-enterprise system. Moreover, in 1970 Nixon signed the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, thereby renewing the law that had provided suffrage to the majority of African Americans in the South. The law also lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen for national elections. In 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified to lower the voting age for state and local elections as well.

The Nixon administration also veered away from the traditional Republican free market philosophy by resorting to wage and price controls to curb rising inflation brought on, for the most part, by increased military spending during the Vietnam War. In 1971 the president declared a ninety-day freeze on wages and prices, placed a temporary 10 percent surtax on imports, and let the value of the dollar drop on the international market, leading to increased U.S. exports. Taken together, these measures stabilized consumer prices, reduced unemployment, and boosted the gross national product. Although these proved to be only short-term gains, they improved Nixon’s prospects for reelection.

The Nixon Landslide and Disgrace, 1972-1974

By appealing to voters across the political spectrum, Nixon won a monumental victory in 1972. The president invigorated the “silent majority” by demonizing his opponents and encouraging Vice President Spiro Agnew to aggressively pursue Nixon’s strategy of polarization. Agnew called protesters “kooks” and “social misfits” and attacked the media and Nixon critics with heated rhetoric. As Nixon had hoped, George Wallace rejected a third-party bid and ran in the Democratic primaries. Wallace won impressive victories in North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Maryland, and Michigan, but his campaign ended after an assassination attempt left him paralyzed. With Wallace out of the race, the Democrats helped Nixon look more centrist by nominating George McGovern, a liberal antiwar senator from South Dakota, who ran a generally inept campaign.

The election marked the personal triumph of Richard Nixon. Winning in a landslide, he captured more than 60 percent of the popular vote and nearly all of the electoral votes. Democrats retained control of Congress but were trounced in their bid for the White House. However, Nixon would have little time to savor his victory, for within the next two years his conduct in the campaign would come back to destroy his presidency.

In the early hours of June 17, 1972, five men broke into Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. What appeared initially as a routine robbery turned into the most infamous political scandal of the twentieth century. It was eventually revealed that the break-in had been authorized by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President in an attempt to steal documents from the Democrats.

Whether President Nixon knew about the break-in in advance and approved it remains in dispute, but he did authorize a cover-up of his administration’s involvement. Nixon ordered his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to get the CIA and FBI to back off from a thorough investigation of the incident by claiming that it would breach national security. To silence the burglars at their trials, the president promised them $400,000 and hinted at a presidential pardon after their conviction.

Nixon embarked on the cover-up to protect himself from revelations of his administration’s other illegal activities. Several of the Watergate burglars belonged to a secret band of operatives known as “the plumbers,” which had been formed in 1971 and authorized by the president. Their mission was to find and plug up unwelcome information leaks from government officials. On their first secret operation, the plumbers broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to look for embarrassing personal information with which to discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. The president had other unsavory matters to hide. In an effort to contain leaks about the administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, the White House had illegally wiretapped its own officials and members of the press.

Watergate did not become a major scandal until after the election. The trial judge forced one of the burglars to reveal their backers. This revelation led two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to doggedly investigate the link between the administration and the plumbers. With the help of Mark Felt, a top FBI official whose identity long remained secret and whom the reporters called “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Bernstein succeeded in exposing the true nature of the crime. With the president still denying any knowledge of the offense, the Senate created a special committee in February 1973 to investigate the scandal. Televised hearings absorbed the public. White House counsel John Dean, whom Nixon had fired, testified about discussing the cover-up with the president and his closest advisers. His testimony proved accurate after the committee learned that Nixon had secretly taped all Oval Office conversations. When the president refused to release the tapes to a special prosecutor, the Supreme Court ruled against him. In the meantime, the hearings and investigations produced a number of political casualties. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, and his closest advisers, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, resigned, and twenty-five administration members went to jail.

Nixon Resigns, 1974 On August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation on national television. His decision came after the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon and as he was rapidly losing support in both houses of Congress. Before leaving the White House the next day, Nixon bid farewell to his cabinet members and White House staff. Nixon chokes up as his wife Pat (partially visible) and his daughter Tricia look on. AP Photo

The eventual release of the tapes finally revealed the truth about Nixon’s cover-up, and the House Judiciary Committee voted to bring articles of impeachment to the House of Representatives. After concluding that the House would vote to impeach him and the Senate would very likely convict him, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. After receiving overwhelming support from the American electorate less than two years earlier, Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace.

Vice President Gerald Ford served out Nixon’s remaining term. The Republican representative from Michigan had replaced Vice President Spiro Agnew after Agnew resigned in 1973 following charges that he had taken illegal kickbacks while governor of Maryland. Ford chose Nelson A. Rockefeller, the moderate Republican governor of New York, as his vice president. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the nation now had both a president and a vice president who had never been elected to those offices.

President Ford’s most controversial and defining act took place shortly after he entered the White House. Explaining to the country that he wanted to quickly end the “national nightmare” stemming from Watergate, Ford pardoned Nixon for any criminal offenses he might have committed as president. Rather than healing the nation’s wounds, this preemptive pardon polarized Americans and cost Ford considerable political capital.

Ford also wrestled with a troubled economy as Americans once again experienced rising prices and high unemployment.


• Who made up the New Right coalition that brought Nixon to power? How did Nixon appeal to the New Right?

• How did Nixon's pragmatism shape both his foreign and domestic policies?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!