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Richard Nixon served as Vice-President of the United States from 1953  to 1961, and as President from 1969 to 1974.  He was the only person to  be elected twice to both the Presidency and Vice Presidency.  In 1969  Americans had joined together in pride over the lunar landing and Neil  Armstrong’s walk on the moon.   

Yet Nixon’s  personality may have played a part in his eventual demise. He believed  the United States faced grave dangers from the radicals and dissidents  who were challenging his policies, and he came to view any challenge as a  “threat to national security.” As a result, he created a climate in  which he and those who served him could justify almost any tactics to  stifle dissent and undermine the opposition. He has been described as  being a devious, secretive, and embittered man whose White House became a  series of covert activities.  On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon  became the first chief executive in American History to resign, because  of his role in the Watergate scandal.

Some Americans viewed this  as an indication that the system worked.  They were proud of the way the  US political system had weathered the crisis and peacefully transferred  power. Others worried about the further erosion of popular trust and  belief in their government.  Regardless, when he left office the nation  remembered an administration that had been discredited by the Agnew and  Watergate scandals. Watergate has come to define Nixon’s presidency.

In order to prepare for this discussion forum: 

  • Review and identify the relevant sections of Chapter 30 that support your discussion. 
  • Read the following excerpts from the Nixon Tapes.  As you read them to consider what the conversations reveal, about the casual use of federal agencies for political purposes.
  • Review the discussion on the Nixons’ “so-called “imperial Presidency” at this PBS site The American President: Richard Nixon
  • Digital History: Restraining the Imperial Presidency
  • Identify one source that addresses the topic you choose to discuss.  The source must be cited in your discussion.


After you have completed your readings post your response to only One of the following questions:

  1. Evaluate Richard Nixon’s presidency.  Aside from Watergate, should he be considered a good president?
  2. In his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency, Arthur J.  Schlesinger raised the argument that the Presidency has been evolving to  the point that it was out of control, and was exceeding its  constitutional limits.  Do you agree or disagree with his arguments?
Digital History

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Restraining the Imperial Presidency Previous Next
Digital History ID 3354


Over the course of the 20th century, the presidency gradually
supplanted Congress as the center of federal power. Presidential
authority increased, presidential staffs grew in size, and the executive
branch gradually acquired a dominant relationship over Congress.

Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, the president, and not
Congress, established the nation’s legislative agenda. Increasingly,
Congress ceded its budget-making authority to the president. Presidents
even found a way to make agreements with foreign nations without
congressional approval. After World War II, presidents substituted
executive agreements for treaties requiring approval of the Senate. Even
more important, presidents gained the power to take military action,
despite the fact that Congress is the sole branch of government
empowered by the Constitution to declare war.

No president went further than Richard Nixon in concentrating
powers in the presidency. He refused to spend funds that Congress had
appropriated; he claimed executive privilege against disclosure of
information on administration decisions; he refused to allow key
decision makers to be questioned before congressional committees; he
reorganized the executive branch and broadened the authority of new
cabinet positions without congressional approval; and during the Vietnam
War, he ordered harbors mined and bombing raids launched without
consulting Congress.

Watergate brought a halt to the “imperial presidency” and the
growth of presidential power. Over the president’s veto, Congress
enacted the War Powers Act (1973), which required future presidents to
obtain authorization from Congress to engage U.S. forces in foreign
combat for more than 90 days. Under the law, a president who orders
troops into action abroad must report the reason for this action to
Congress within 48 hours.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed a series of
laws designed to reform the political process. Disclosures during the
Watergate investigations of money-laundering led Congress to provide
public financing of presidential elections, public disclosure of sources
of funding, limits on private campaign contributions and spending, and
to enforce campaign finance laws by an independent Federal Election
Commission. To make it easier for the Justice Department to investigate
crimes in the executive branch, Congress now requires the attorney
general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate accusations of
illegal activities. To re-assert its budget-making authority, Congress
created a Congressional Budget Office and specifically forbade a
president to impound funds without its approval. To open government to
public scrutiny, Congress opened more committee deliberations and
enacted the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public and
press to request the declassification of government documents.

Some of the post-Watergate reforms have not been as effective as
reformers anticipated. The War Powers Act has never been invoked.
Campaign financing reform has not curbed the ability of special
interests to curry favor with politicians or the capacity of the very
rich to outspend opponents.

On the other hand, Congress has had somewhat more success in
reining in the FBI and the CIA. During the 1970s, congressional
investigators discovered that these organizations had, in defiance of
federal law, broken into the homes, tapped the phones, and opened the
mail of American citizens; illegally infiltrated anti-war groups and
black radical organizations; and accumulated dossiers on dissidents,
which had been used by presidents for political purposes. Investigators
also found that the CIA had been involved in assassination plots against
foreign leaders–among them Fidel Castro–and had tested the effects of
radiation, electric shock, and drugs (such as LSD) on unsuspecting
citizens. In the wake of these investigations, the government severely
limited CIA operations in the United States and laid down strict
guidelines for FBI activities. To tighten congressional control over the
CIA, Congress established a joint committee to supervise its

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Copyright 2021 Digital History

The Nixon Tapes

HALDEMAN: Now, on the investigation, you know the Democratic break-in
thing, we’re back in the problem area because the FBI is not under
control because Gray [Patrick Gray, acting director of the FBI] doesn’t
exactly know how to control it and they have–their investigation is now
leading into some productive areas–
because they’ve been able to trace the money–
not through the money itself–
but through the bank sources–
the banker. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. . . .
That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [General
Vernon Walters, deputy director of the CIA] call Pat Gray and just say,
“Stay to hell out of this–
this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.”
That’s not an unusual development, and ah, that would take care of it. .
. .

     NIXON: Well, what the hell, did
Mitchell [John Mitchell, former attorney general and head of the
president’s campaign] know about this?

     HALDEMAN: I think so. I don’t think he knew the details, but I think he knew.

     HALDEMAN (about three hours later):
Well, it was kind of interesting. Walters made the point and I didn’t
mention Hunt [E. Howard Hunt, ex-CIA agent and White House consultant
who was convicted in the Watergate conspiracy]. I just said that the
thing was leading into directions that were going to create potential
problems because they were exploring leads that led back into areas that
would be harmful to the CIA and harmful to the government. . . .

Recorded presidential conversation submitted by Richard Nixon to
the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives, April
30, 1974.