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Richard Nixon and foreign relations: 1969-72

Watergate: 1972

On 17 June 1972, five months before the presidential election in November, five men are caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. The Washington Post puts on to the case two of its leading reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They immediately suspect that the event has something to do with the Republican party but they have no firm evidence until they are approached by an anonymous source who becomes known as Deep Throat. He is subsequently revealed to be Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI. He reveals that cash found on the burglars had been to be linked to a slush fund at the disposal of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Gradually the story unravels, revealing numerous illegal activities carried on by the top level of the Republican party, including bugging the offices of political rivals and ordering the FBI and the tax authority, the Internal Revenue Service, to harass opponents of the Republican cause.

As evidence of new criminal activities emerges, Nixon denies ever having had any knowledge of them. An attempt at an elaborate cover-up inevitably makes matters worse. Eventually prosecutions follow and forty-eight Nixon aides, government officials and others are convicted of crimes including obstruction of justice, perjury, illegal campaigning, conspiracy, wire-tapping and burglary. John M. Mitchell, Attorney-General of the United States in the first three years of Nixon's administration, receives the longest sentence, four years in prison.

The investigation gradually creeps nearer to Nixon, particularly when it is discovered that he has taped all conversations and phone calls in the Oval Office. He strongly resists instructions from Congress to release them. When he is finally compelled to do so it is discovered that eighteen minutes of one tape have been erased accidentally, he thinks. In May 1974 the House of Representatives opens impeachment proceedings against him (only one president has previously been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868, and he was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote).

Nixon is advised by colleagues that his political support has drained away and that he is almost certain to be impeached. He resigns on 9 August 1974 and is succeeded in office by his vice-president, Gerald Ford. One of Ford's first actions, in September, is controversial - an unconditional pardon for his predecessor for any crimes he might have committed against the United States as President, thus saving Nixon from the danger of prosecution. The major event of Ford's presidency is the end of the Vietnam War. He has little more than two years in office before the presidential election of 1976, which he loses narrowly to Jimmy Carter.


Jimmy Carter: 1977-81

Carter's years as president are difficult ones in the USA. He inherits an economy at a low ebb, with high unemployment and high inflation, and the exceptionally cold winter of his inauguration has confronted the USA with an unprecedented energy crisis. In his first address to the nation, just two weeks into his term of office, he puts energy at the top of the problems of the moment and emphasizes that this will be an ongoing difficulty that can only be solved by the combined efforts of everyone. In a message that has become familiar in all countries since then, he suggests ways in which power can be saved in the home and asks American citizens to set their thermostats as low as 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.

Two or three years later Carter has to deal with two disasters on a closely related theme, again increasingly common since that time. They relate to the difficult disposal of toxic waste. The first is known as the Love Canal disaster. In 1942 a firm called Hooker Chemical and Plastics begins disposing of chemical waste in the Love Canal region of northern New York state, close to the Niagara Falls. In 1953 they sell it to the Niagara Falls School Board with full disclosure of where the waste is. Two schools and about 500 houses are built on the site. What is not known until much later is that the foundations have broken through the thick layer of clay sealing off the waste. In 1976 the local press begin investigating an unusually high percentage of birth defects and miscarriages in the district. By 1978 it has become plain that this is the result of poisoning. It is discovered only then how large the amount of buried waste is (about 21,000 tons) and that it contains the extremely toxic substance dioxin. President Carter releases a large amount of federal money, the Love Canal Superfund, to rehouse the inhabitants, demolish all the buildings, take measures to seal off the waste, and provide compensation ahead of a law suit against the company, now part of Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The president describes Love Canal as 'one of the grimmest discoveries of our modern era' and warns that several other such sites undoubtedly exist across the nation.

The other disaster, or in this case happily a near disaster, is a partial meltdown in 1979 of a nuclear reactor on Three Mile island in Pennsylvania. It is brought under control while the release of radioactive substances is still relatively small, making the local health hazards minimal, but again it prefigures the future and such catastrophic events as the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986 and at Fukushima in Japan in 2011.


International affairs: 1977-80

Carter shares with Nixon the desire to be a peacemaker. His first achievement in this context solves a dispute with Panama that has been rumbling on for decades. It is about the terms of a treaty signed in 1903 between Panama and the USA. It gives the USA the right to administer and defend the Panama Canal region in perpetuity. By the time of the 1930s this is understandably seen as an affront to Panama. A new treaty is finally signed in 1977 by Carter, starting a gradual US withdrawal and guaranteeing its completion by the end of 1999. This schedule is peacefully achieved.

Carter's other and greater success is the revival of earlier but now faded attempts at a peace agreement of sorts between Egypt and Israel. In 1978 he invites the leaders of both countries, Anwar Sadat for Egypt and Menachem Begin for Israel, to a conference at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, with himself acting as mediator. After nearly two weeks of difficult negotiations the seemingly impossible is achieved. Significant concessions are made and a treaty is signed by Begin, Carter and Sadat. It becomes known as the Camp David Accords. Within weeks Sadat and Begin have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Twenty-four years later, in 2002, Carter joins them in his own right as a Nobel laureate both for the Camp David Accords and for another related achievement. After his presidency his reputation as a peacemaker has steadily grown, with a climax in the Carter Centre which he sets up in Atlanta in 2002. Its purposes include the defence of human rights, the improvement of global health and the resolution of conflicts.

Unfortunately there is one conflict, between Iran and the USA, that is his most pressing problem during the last two years of his presidency and on which he can make no progress.


Iran hostage crisis: 1979-81

On 4 November 1979 a group of students in Tehran, inspired to a passionate hatred of the USA by the inflammatory rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini, gain access to the American embassy. They bind and blindfold the embassy staff and parade them in front of photographers as hostages. It is a very popular move in the new revolutionary spirit of Iran, where the oppressive shah has been deposed in a coup earlier this year, enabling Khomeini to return to Iran amid scenes of wild enthusiasm after more than fourteen years in exile.

Within a week or so thirteen women and blacks among the hostages are released, to be followed a few months later by someone with multiple sclerosis. This leaves 52 hostages who remain prisoners, often mistreated, for the full fourteen months of the crisis. Negotiations are soon under way, but any progress is always cancelled by Khomeini. The situation suits him as it is.

Powerless and exasperated, President Carter authorizes the launch of an exceedingly bold and risky rescue plan, known as Operation Eagle Claw. On 22 April 1980 eight helicopters take off from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz stationed in the Indian Ocean. They are carrying troops from Delta Force, a specialist anti-terrorist unit, with supporting aircraft. There are disasters from the start. By the time of arrival at the staging post, in a remote corner of the desert, only five of the eight helicopters are still operational the other three have developed technical faults. In planning the operation it has been agreed that the mission should only go ahead with a minimum of six helicopters, though if necessary it should be possible with only four. Carter is asked for permission to abort and return to base with five helicopters. In what is later seen as a controversial decision he authorizes the cancellation of the mission.

But the troubles are only beginning. Before leaving, one of the helicopters crashes into a transport aircraft on the ground containing servicemen and a spare supply of fuel. In the resulting fire eight men die and both aircraft are destroyed. The fiasco makes the US a laughing stock in hostile circles and severely damages President Carter's reputation.

By the time of the presidential election in November 1980 negotiations have been revived, with Khomeini by now less hostile to a solution. He has fully reaped the benefit of the hostage situation, sanctions are beginning to hurt and in September the country has been invaded by Iraq. Carter loses the election by a wide margin to Ronald Reagan, and two months later the degree of personal spite in the Iranian intransigence is dramatically emphasized. On 20 January 1981, minutes after Reagan has been sworn in as president, the hostages are released. They have been in captivity for 444 days.


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