When Nixon was elected President of the U.S. in 1968, he inherited a foreign policy based on containment of the Soviet Union, the diplomatic and economic isolation of China, and fighting the war in Vietnam. Nixon, being identified by both American voters and informed people around the world as strongly right-wing and strong on American national defense, was thus in a position to pursue diplomatic policies denied his two center-left predecessors, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. In other words, the voters trusted Nixon not to be fooled like Neville Chamberlin was fooled by Hitler; and the Russian and Chinese communists respected Nixon as a tough and dangerous opponent.
Nixon realized his most pressing domestic and international problem was the Vietnam war. He decided he could isolate North Vietnam (the communist half of that country) by opening diplomatic and commercial ties with Russia and China. In the case of Russia, the goal was to reduce nuclear tensions by negotiating a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads. This was seen as a successful strategy with the start of what became known as SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) in Helsinki in 1969, which culminated in the signing of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty in 1972, in Moscow (Arms Control Assn., 2011).
Nixon’s new China-policy was to end its diplomatic and economic isolation, sensing that to do so would draw China away from its wartime North Vietnamese ally, and towards peaceful world trade, from which America could also profit. This effort resulted in a famous photograph of Nixon shaking hands with Mao Tse-tung (as it was spelled then) in 1972.
It is generally considered that Nixon’s Russia and China policy was successful, but that it did not contribute to peace in Vietnam (Miller Center, University of Virginia, 2011).
Part II: Students Protest the Vietnam War
At least one image of violent student protest on a college campus has become a defining icon of the Vietnam era (History, 2012). Such protests probably did help to force an end to American military involvement in Vietnam, but there is much disagreement on how effective it actually was, since many voters (the “silent majority”) opposed the protestors and applauded Nixon’s hard-line stance towards them and North Vietnam. There is also disagreement on specifically why some campuses were heavily affected and others were not. But it is agreed that the military draft had much to do with the temper of the times. Increasingly like the Vietnam war itself, the draft seemed fundamentally wrong.
The Selective Service had been in effect since 1917, with various extensions, particularly one in 1948. One of the features of the system was to offer draft deferments to college students and married men. This gave young men an incentive to attend college for the express purpose of avoiding the draft, and to enter into marriages prematurely or unwisely. It even affected the choice of study, as divinity students were exempt. But it also gave many students a sense of guilt, as it allowed them to evade the risks of war, risks that many of their own friends and brothers could or would not evade. The perceived unfairness of this system led to the institution of a lottery system in 1969 and a reduction in draft deferments. However, this only increased resentment by those who had earlier benefitted from deferments. Even so, better educated draftees could and did still get preferential military assignments by obtaining better results during standardized inductee-testing. Increasingly, young minority men, empowered by the civil rights movement and overly represented in ground-combat units in Vietnam, also began to agitate against the draft , the war, their officers, and the U.S. government.
Student riots, leading up to the climatic shootings at Kent State in 1970, affected military personnel in Vietnam. They watched protests against both the war and the protesters’ own chances of being sent to fight. Thus soldiers’ own reactions to the protest movement were divided, being both glad that society was increasingly against the war they fought in and hated, yet resentful that for the lack of support and appreciation for what they were doing and fighting for — which had always been a questionable point. Why are we in Vietnam? was one of the era’s central cultural questions (and the title of a novel by Norman Mailer). Increasingly, the war and campus protests against the war became two sides of the same coin, inseparable from each other.
Part III: Outcomes of the Protests
American involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975 with the evacuation of remaining diplomatic and military personnel from Saigon, but it had been winding down since 1971. In 1973, the draft lottery expired, as did the draft itself. This was certainly a result of campus protests against the war. Thus, incoming college students needed no longer regard college as a refuge. The campus war-protest movement faded away as the demographic groups that had been most involved moved on as they left college to start their careers and families. But the idea and legitimacy of organized mass-protest itself never went away, and society increasingly accepted the need for more or less permanent radicalization to achieve the most basic, socially important reforms, such as racial and gender equality and the expansion of personal liberty.
Fashions changed. In a way, the era of 60s student protest was just another fashion statement and lifestyle, like long hair, folk songs, and coffee-house guitar-playing. At least on some campuses, all the coolest students protested the war. But by the mid-70s, much of 60s campus life had become a cliché. Protest songs by the once popular Phil Ochs, and Country Joe and the Fish gave way to disco. Those who had been overly identified with the 1960s had to find a new identity. Perhaps the leading and defining cultural example of someone who successfully made the transition was the late Jerry Ruben, one-time member of the Chicago 7, who joined the establishment with gusto to became a successful businessman and investor. By contrast, his fellow defendant Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs, both forgotten, committed suicide.
One other important outcome was the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. This too had the effect of dampening campus protest, as Nixon, inheritor of the war and architect of its expansion into Cambodia, had been the leading target of the protesters. Although the Watergate scandal was the primary reason for Nixon’s departure, his attempted suppression of The Pentagon Papers played a role in the tarnishing of his image, despite of his early active support of a volunteer army, into that of an old-style hawk unfit to end the war, still one year away from its debacle. His successor, the low-keyed Gerald Ford, symbolized a new era in domestic and international politics (Brinkley, 2007, p.1). The campus protests were history.
Arms Control Association. Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I). Retrieved from http://www.armscontrol.org/documents/salt
Brinkley, D. (2007). Gerald R. Ford. London, UK: Macmillan.
History.com. (2012). Kent State Incident. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/kent-state
Miller Center, University of Virginia. (2011). American President: A Reference Resource. Retrieved from http://millercenter.org/president/nixon/essays/biography/5