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Watergate: Forty years since Nixon’s resignation

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

U.S. President Richard Nixon submitted his letter of resignation on Aug. 9, 1974 in order to save himself from the humiliation of being impeached and thrown out of office. Only two other presidents, Andrew Johnson (1867) and Bill Clinton (1998), faced impeachment, but both were acquitted in their Senate trials. Nixon knew he faced conviction because the Watergate hearings that commenced on May 17, 1973, produced credible testimony implicating him in a coverup of a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located at the Watergate office complex in June 1972 by burglars in the pay of the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President.

One aide revealed the existence of the notorious White House tapes that recorded his every word in the Oval Office, sprinkled liberally with profanities and paranoid musings, reinforcing negative perceptions about Nixon’s character. The final blow was delivered on July 24, 1974, when the Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s assertion of executive privilege in blocking release of the White House tapes subpoenaed by a special prosecutor.

Watergate has become synonymous with disgrace, wrongdoing and abuse of power, so much so that it is now common to add the “-gate” suffix to any scandal of the day. The media became more aggressive in questioning authority, inspired by the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that brought to light numerous insider revelations that played a key role in Nixon’s downfall.

Yuki Tanaka, a researcher at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, wishes the whole affair would motivate Japanese journalists.

“I was impressed that American journalists were able to reveal their own president’s depravity in a much healthier way than Japanese journalism could do,” he says. “In Japan, it was and still is impossible for journalists to thoroughly investigate and report on the corrupt performance of powerful politicians.”

After resigning, Nixon worked hard to rehabilitate his reputation by embellishing his foreign-policy record and playing the role of elder statesman. Although there were benefits from normalizing relations with China in 1972 and promoting detente with the Soviet Union, Nixon’s foreign policy elsewhere was shambolic and devastating. His decision to invade Cambodia in 1970 and the dropping of more bombs there than were dropped on all of Europe in World War II precipitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot and the horrors of the “killing fields,” which claimed up to 1.7 million lives. When the Pakistani military ran amok in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) in 1971, slaughtering an estimated 300,000 civilians, Nixon and then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger ignored extensive reporting from the U.S. Consulate in Dhaka about the genocidal atrocities. Nixon liked Pakistan’s dictator, Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, and did not want to disrupt the backdoor channel to China that Yahya was facilitating for Washington to pursue normalization.

The continued flow of U.S. military supplies sustained the bloodbath, leading to an exodus of 10 million refugees into India that sparked war between Pakistan and India. Incredibly, Nixon then tried to instigate Chinese intervention on Pakistan’s side.

The White House tapes from this period reveal just how spiteful and reckless Nixon and Kissinger were and how undeserving both are of their reputation as great statesmen. Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer, explains that, “Nixon is mostly remembered in India as the initiator of the famous ’tilt’ toward Pakistan and his hostility to Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Watergate simply confirmed this Indian perception of criminal and malicious behavior.”

Nixon also soured bilateral relations with Tokyo, undermining the goodwill generated by the reversion of Okinawa in 1972. Nixon felt betrayed by then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who Nixon believed reneged on an agreement to reduce Japanese textile exports to the United States, deciding to get even by “sticking it to Japan.”

The Nixon Shock was Washington’s sudden decision in 1971 to end the U.S. dollar’s convertibility into gold and to slap a 10 percent surcharge on all dutiable imports, thereby undermining the 1944 Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, and then the surprising normalization of ties with China in 1972, all without consulting Tokyo. These calculated insults helped drive a humiliated Sato from office. In 1973, Nixon also imposed an embargo on U.S. soybean exports to Japan, representing 93 percent of Japanese imports, again without prior consultation.

“Ninety-nine percent of Japanese, when they hear Nixon, think ‘Shock’ as if the two words were part of a familiar gairaigo (loanword),” says T.J. Pempel, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Ending Bretton Woods, the visit to China and don’t forget the soybean embargo, all delivered major hammer blows to the Japanese economy and foreign policy.”

Gerald Curtis, a political scientist at Columbia University, recalls that “the media and liberal intelligentsia emphasized how much Nixon’s resignation reflected the strength of American democracy and by implication how poorly Japan, mired in the Tanaka scandals, fared by comparison. But there were conservative scholars and commentators who expressed sympathy for Nixon, believing that the punishment for what he did was too harsh.”

Kazuhiko Togo, former Japanese ambassador to The Netherlands, has a relatively positive view of Nixon, welcoming his efforts to expedite the reversion of Okinawa. He also argues that Nixon’s normalization of relations with China, “allowed Tanaka to reopen relations with China. (This) Nixon Shock was not pleasant, but the China reopening was very favorable, so on the whole it was a good memory.”

Regarding Nixon’s resignation, Togo asserts that “Tanaka-gate was more serious than Watergate.” Tanaka left office in 1974 due to shady land deals and was arrested in 1976 due to revelations that Lockheed had bribed him to convince All Nippon Airways to buy its planes.

According to veteran Japan hand Robert Whiting, “Japanese were impressed, and envious, that the American people could throw a president out of office for relatively minor criminal violations. By contrast, Sato was (prime minister) of Japan for much of the Nixon era and despite the infamous Black Mist scandals managed to stay in office for nearly eight years. He even pulled off the neat trick of winning the Nobel Prize for his anti-nuclear policy while secretly discussing plans for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons against China, and agreeing to allow the Americans to store their nuclear weapons after the Okinawa reversion.”

Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University Japan, says Japan wasn’t alone in its reaction to Nixon’s resignation.

“The immediate reaction was similar to that in much of the world: amazement, admiration, consternation over the fact that a superpower like the U.S. could and would actually remove its leader from power,” he says. “For all of the lauding of democracy in action and plaudits for actually acting on illegal behavior by the president, there was a great deal of consternation over the question of whether this was weakening the actual power of the U.S. in the world, and specifically its security relationship with Japan.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Richard Solomon

    As a young US citizen who lived through the Nixon presidency i believe that this article is too kind in its assessment of the impact that he had on the country. He was a cynical, deceptive, and probably deeply paranoid leader whose policies and decision making in regards to SE Asia, Japan, Pakistan/India, and more did much more harm than good.

    Many of us thought it was most unfortunate that President Ford pardoned Nixon even before he could be prosecuted for his criminal behavior. It sent a signal that leaders are to be considered above the law and reinforced the perception that politicians belong to a ‘good ole boys network’ who ultimately protect each other from their misdeeds so as not to be prosecuted themselves if/when it might be worth considering.