A Brief History
On January 2, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a national speed limit of 55 mph. Prior to this law, the speed limits on most limited access highways in the US ranged from 65 mph to 70 mph, with a few remote places (Montana and Nevada) not relying on a numerical limit at all. The people of the US were suddenly saddled with roads designed to safely travel at speeds over 80 mph at an aggravating and seemingly crawling speed of 55 mph. This was in response to the OPEC (“Arab”) Oil Embargo of 1973 in response to the US support of Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Expected optimistically to save the nation about 2.2% on gasoline usage, the actual saving was more like a half percent.
American motorists were stuck with this onerous law that Richard Nixon did not have the guts to veto until 1987 when some areas were allowed to raise the speed limit to 65 mph, and in 1995 when the National Speed Limit Law was finally repealed.
Sure, people think of the Watergate Scandal and President Nixon being forced to resign as the glaring scorch mark on the shorts of his presidency, but as you can see above, Tricky Dick did other things that left a lasting mark on the US.
Nixon’s conduct of the War in Vietnam was the major reason he got reelected in 1972, when he declared that he had finally worked out an acceptable peace there. As we now know, his so called “Peace with Honor” was a sell out of South Vietnam that stained the reputation of the US as an ally to this day. By 1975, the South was overrun by the Communist North and the war was totally and irrevocably lost. The President lying about conducting secret operations in Cambodia and Laos also hurt the credibility of anything a future President would say, as the entire world learned the word of an American President was worthless. (The operations in Cambodia and Laos made sense and were necessary militarily, but not having the guts to sell it straight to the people is not how democracy works.)
Nixon also imposed a 3 month wage and price “freeze” on the country in 1971, an empty gesture that did little to help the economy, and Nixon allowed the American dollar to “float,” no longer tying its value to gold. (There are definitely mixed opinions about this.) The failed economic attempts of his first administration did not deter President Nixon from trying again during his second administration, and the price controls inflicted on the public resulted in shortages of foods and certain items.
Nixon is often given credit for opening relations with China (also known then as Red China), and the buzz at the time was that we would have a billion customers for products made in the USA. The reality today is that there is an incredible trade deficit between the US and China, with the US suffering the short end of that stick.
The Watergate related scandals and revelations about Nixon and his weird character also demeaned the office of the President, with Nixon’s taped rants making him sound like a loony toon. Nixon’s mean spirited nature and “enemies list” brought shame to his office, and when he was finally forced to resign, the Presidency would never have the same mystique. We can also thank Richard Nixon for picking as Vice President Spiro Agnew, a caustic and mean spirited snob in his own right, that turned out to be a crook as well and was forced to resign even before Nixon.
On the other hand, Richard Nixon endorsed the (failed) Equal Rights Amendment and supported de-segregation and other Civil Rights matters such as Affirmative Action, not the sort of thing we expect from today’s Republicans. (Of course, many people may consider those items to be negatives attached to Nixon as well.) More un-Republican like policies of Nixon included his support of health care reform, including Federalization of Medicaid and mandated employer provided health insurance. Nixon also supported Big Government programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), although he did veto the Clean Water Act of 1972 (which was over-ridden by Congress). A money saving policy of Richard Nixon was to declare the “Space Race” as won by the US with the Moon landing in 1969, and our space programs scaled back to more sustainable levels. (Make up your own mind if this policy is a good or a bad thing.)
Unfortunately, President Nixon replaced the Vietnam War with the so called War on Drugs, a failed effort that has cost the nation untold billions of dollars and jammed our prisons, all with little to show for the costs.
Like the man himself, the Presidency of Richard Nixon is something of a mixed bag, although overall history seems to be a bit more negative about him than positive.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Please give us your analysis of the Nixon Presidency and his legacy in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: The Life. Vintage, 2018.
Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon: A Man Divided. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2016.
Weiner, Tim. One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Richard M. Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House, is a work of an Environmental Protection Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As works of the U.S. federal government, all EPA images are in the public domain. This image was originally posted to Flickr by The U.S. National Archives at https://flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/3679494978. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the No known copyright restrictions.