What should Nixon do?


I had no idea I was so interested in Richard Nixon until I had to each a Modern US History course.  Instead of just showing him as a one-sided figure, I wanted my students to really think about the choices he made.  I did this by putting them in his shoes and then having the class discuss what they decided to do and why.

Positives: It got students to think about historical decisions in their own context and exercise historical empathy.  Being forced to look at the political motivations made some students understand Nixon and Kissinger as men who made difficult decisions rather than just flat stereotypes.

Negatives: It was difficult for some students to get started.  I tried this initially with honors 11th graders and it worked well with most most students in the class, but I don’t think this would work with less mature students.  There would probably be a way to modify it, but I haven’t had a chance to do it yet.

Here is the worksheet I used.

Nixon’s Dilemmas

Read these situations and work with a small group to formulate a plan of action.  Given the situation, what should the US government/president Nixon do?  Each answer should be approximately one beefy paragraph. Brainstorm multiple possible solutions, and choose the best one.  Explain what action(s) you will take and why. Answer on a separate sheet of paper.

Situation A: Mao Zedong’s communist forces took over China in 1949 and the U.S. never formally recognized his government.  The Chinese signed a 30-year friendship treaty with the USSR in 1950, but the Soviet-Chinese honeymoon ended quickly.  China became increasingly powerful, and resented Soviet dominance.  In 1960, they official broke off relations with the USSR.

It’s 1971 and the Cold War is still going strong.  The US is currently fighting communist forces in Vietnam.  The Chinese, who directly border Vietnam, are providing the North Vietnamese with much-needed support.  The Soviets are still reeling from political upheaval in Czechoslovakia a few short years earlier, and they are fighting with China for dominance over the Third World.

You’re a Republican, so you want to be “tough on communism,” and you also want to make sure your decision benefits the US’s interests abroad.

What should the Nixon administration do?  Why?

Situation B: The economy is in trouble.  The government is in debt because of the increasingly expensive Vietnam War, and because of President Johnson’s deficit spending.  All the government spending from Johnson’s Great Society programs sparked inflation, while at the same time Japan and West Germany are overtaking sagging American industries.  The job market is also overwhelmed by new growing working populations: baby boomers and women.  By 1973, inflation doubled (now 6%) and unemployment has risen from a normal 4% to a frightening 6% in a few short years.  Economists are calling this doubly troubling situation stagflation.

Beyond that, Americans love their cars, which means we’re hopelessly dependent on foreign oil.  The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—a cartel of oil producers from which we buy most of our oil—gradually raised oil prices throughout the 1960s.  Political turmoil in the Middle East caused by the 1973 Yom Kipur War made matters worse.  The US backed Israel, angering the oil-producing Arab nations.  They responded by cutting off oil supplies to the US.  When they agreed to end the embargo a year later, they quadrupled the price of oil.

These are tremendous economic problems, caused by forces at home and abroad.  What should the Nixon administration do?  Why?


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