Discussion Questions

These questions will help students explore the major ideas and themes in the video. See the Program Summary for descriptions of specific program segments.

Before Watching
1. Before viewing the film, ask students what they know about Richard Nixon and the issues facing America in the 1970s. Create a word web of images and ideas. (Note: You may want to supply photographs and other visual aids for the web that will help students to brainstorm.) As they watch the program have students take notes on what they might want to add to the web.

2. Read the following Nixon quotation to the class, or write it on the chalkboard: "I'm fundamentally relatively shy. It doesn't come naturally to me to be a buddy-buddy boy... I can't really let my hair down with anyone." As students watch the program, ask them to consider whether or not Nixon had an accurate view of himself. Have students take notes on how they would describe or define Nixon's character. How did his personality help him achieve success? How did it contribute to his downfall?

3. In preparation for watching the film, review with students key dates and events in the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1960 to 1968. Create a chart with the timeline as a heading. Divide the rest of the chart into three columns. Have students contribute what they have learned about the policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the first two columns. Label the third column "Nixon." As students watch the program, have them take notes about Nixon's policies and actions to add to the timeline and the "Nixon" column.

After Watching
1. Refer students back to the word web that you created together before watching the program. Ask students what they would like to add or change. Do students still feel the same way about Nixon as they did before watching? What did students learn from the film that surprised them the most?

2. Ask students for their assessment of Nixon's presidency. What were his major accomplishments? Aside from Watergate, what were his major failures? How do students think Americans would view Nixon today if the Watergate affair had never occurred?

3. Ask students to recall how anti-communism helped shape Nixon's career from his early campaigns to HUAC to Vietnam. Despite his fervent anti-communist stance, Nixon made history by opening the door to China and Russia. How do students think Nixon might explain this apparent contradiction?

Activities

Early Career -- Investigate the Alger Hiss Case

Richard Nixon had a long and interesting political career, but one of the most provocative episodes was the period during which he served on Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Using the Presidents Web site, the program transcript, and primary sources such as a Congressional speech from 1947, have students suppose they are reporters during the committee hearings on Alger Hiss in 1948. Have them research and write a newspaper report on the investigations, focusing on Nixon's role. Reports should include background on HUAC, the principal players, the events of the investigation, and students' impressions of Nixon's actions. (Program References: Chapters 3-4)

Presidential Politics -- Report on Presidential Scandals

Watergate was a major presidential scandal, but there have been others, before and since. Using the program transcript, Nixon's address to the nation about Watergate, 1973 -- Nixon's second address to the nation about Watergate, 1973 -- Nixon's response to the tape subpoena -- and his resignation speech, 1974, review with students the events leading up to the Watergate affair. Create a class chart outlining the major events and people involved.

Then, have students research and report on a political presidential scandal other than Watergate, such as the Teapot Dome scandal, Iran-Contra, or Whitewater. Have students include the events, people, news coverage, public reaction, etc. As students share their findings, have the class take notes about the major aspects of each scandal.

Ask the class to consider how Watergate compares to other scandals, past and present. What effect did Watergate have on the office of the presidency? On journalism? On the relationship of the American people with their politicians? Students might also consider why scandals seem so prevalent today, as opposed to earlier times. Why do they think this is so? Are politicians more corrupt today, or are there other factors involved? (Program References: Chapters 17-21)

Domestic Policy -- Chart of Issues

Using the word web they made before watching the program, have students make a list of the various movements of the 1970s, such as women's rights, migrant farm workers' rights, elderly rights, Native American rights, the protection of the environment, and the anti-war movement. Organize the class into groups, and assign a movement to each group. Have each group make a two-column chart with movements and issues on one side and Nixon's response to these movements and issues on the other, including legislation he passed, executive orders he issued, or action not taken. Then have each group prepare a letter to President Nixon outlining their assessment of his response and their proposals for their cause. (Program References: Chapters 10, 12, 16-21)

Foreign Policy -- Nixon Visits China

Nixon's trip to China was an important foreign policy event. Using materials including Nixon's China itinerary of 1976, have students suppose they are Nixon aides and create a "Nixon's Visit to China" scrapbook. Scrapbooks should include newspaper clippings, editorials, photographs or pictures, and captions explaining the significance of each item. Students should also include a brief overview of U.S.-Chinese relations up to that point, information about the historic significance of the visit, Nixon's impressions of Chairman Mao, and any special events that occurred during the visit. (Additional research materials are available on the American Experience Web site Nixon's China Game.) (Program References: Chapters 11, 15)

Legacy -- Nixon in Retrospect

Although Richard Nixon resigned, he went on to have a political life long after leaving the White House. Have students evaluate Nixon's legacy by first reviewing how he was regarded in 1974, through magazine and newspaper articles and editorials, as well as primrary sources such as Nixon's resignation speech, 1974 -- White House departure, 1974 -- and President Ford's pardon of Nixon, 1974. Then have students research more recent assessments of Nixon, including the commentaries and obituaries written in 1994. Have students write an essay comparing and contrasting two of the sources. Ask students to defend the one they most agree with. (Program References: Chapters 10-21)

The Era -- Design a Bumper Sticker

Bumper stickers and buttons were all the rage in the 1970s for publicizing one's opinions on everything from the war in Vietnam, to the president, to women's rights, to the environment. From the program transcript, Who's Who (below), and other sources, have students choose a cause, person, or event they might have felt strongly about at the time and design a bumper sticker, including a slogan, that expresses their opinions. When students have completed their designs, have them present them to the class, explaining the slogan and the symbolism of any art they have included. (Program References: Chapters 10, 12)

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to Richard Nixon and his times:

Read the essay on Nixon by Tom Wicker at the Character Above All site at PBS.org, and analyze his conclusions, explaining how or why you agree or disagree.

Read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, and write a journal entry about your reaction to the introduction and/or a particular passage from the book.

The 19th century British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, "The measure of a man's character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out." Write an analysis of this quotation, stating whether you agree or disagree. What do you think is the "measure" of a person's character? What does a person's character have to do with being president of the United States?

What is the impeachment process? Design a flow chart showing the steps to impeachment. Research past impeachment proceedings in U.S. history. (Note: Most of these proceedings have been against federal judges.)

Investigate the fates of the figures involved in Watergate, such as Nixon himself, Howard Baker, Barbara Jordan, John Dean, H. R. Haldeman, or G. Gordon Liddy, either in Nixon's administration or in Congress. Write a short "cast of characters" summary that tells what they have been doing since Watergate.

Examine the life and career of George McGovern. Who would you have voted for in 1972? Write a letter to the editor supporting your candidate.

Watch the 1976 movie All the Presidents Men. How accurately do you think it portrays the events of Watergate?

Imagine you are a guest at Julie Nixon's wedding to David Eisenhower in 1968 or at Tricia Nixon's wedding to Edward Cox in 1973. Write a letter to a friend describing this White House event.

Watch Oliver Stone's film Nixon, and research the controversies surrounding his interpretation. Write a critical review.

Research the events that led to the deaths of four Kent State students at the hands of the National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, and write a report of your findings.

Protesting students were also killed at Jackson State in 1970. Compare and contrast the coverage of this event with that at Kent State.

Create a timeline of the missions that led up to the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.

Imagine you are a music critic, and write a review of Woodstock as a concert. Which artists performed? What was the message of their music? What were the defining moments of the festival?

Learn the lyrics to the song "Woodstock," written by Joni Mitchell, and perform it in class.

In 1969 "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was canceled because of its topical political humor. Develop a comedy routine in the Smothers Brothers style about an issue of the 1970s or today.

Nixon developed an "enemies" list during his presidency. Research who was on it, choose one person, and write a short profile about him or her.

Develop a plan of action for a student protest about a cause that is important to you. What form will it take (e.g., boycott, sit-in, teach-in, rally, etc.)? Design a poster to publicize it.

Listen to the Neil Young song, "Ohio," which is about the Kent State shootings, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Write your own song or poem about the incident.

Compare and contrast the first Earth Day in 1970 to today's celebrations. What were the goals then? What are they now?

Watch the movie Patton, and analyze why it was Nixon's favorite movie.

Using the library, locate the first issue of Ms. magazine (published in 1972). Compare the role of women in 1972 to the role of women today. How were those roles reflected in the popular culture then? How are they reflected now?

Watch videos of "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Sanford and Son," and other popular TV sitcoms of the time. What issues did these shows tackle? How did the shows use humor to address these issues?

"Sesame Street" debuted in 1969 on PBS. What was its original mission? What do you think made the show so successful? Has it changed over the years? If so, how?

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced American life and society during Nixon's presidency, and present a short biography to the class highlighting the person's achievements. Students might also enjoy creating a poster or collage featuring their subject, which could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing the person's work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do an oral reading of a speech or an essay.

Bella Abzug: U.S. Congresswoman from New York and feminist activist

Muhammad Ali: prize fighter -- born Cassius Clay, he changed his name when he converted to Islam

Idi Amin: military dictator who took control of Uganda in 1971

Yassir Arafat: leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization

Neil Armstrong: commander of Apollo 11, he was the first human to walk on the moon

Howard Baker: senator from Tennessee and ranking Republican on the 1973 Senate committee investigating Watergate

Julian Bond: civil rights and anti-war activist -- nominated as vice president in 1968, he withdrew his name because he was too young to serve

Leonid Brezhnev: Soviet president

Fidel Castro: Cuban revolutionary leader and prime minister

Cesar Chavez: U.S. labor leader who led the fight for migrant workers' rights

Shirley Chisholm: U.S. Representative from New York, and the first African American woman to serve in the House

Chou En-lai: prime minister of the People's Republic of China

John Dean: Nixon aide and attorney

John Ehrlichman: Nixon's assistant for domestic affairs

Jane Fonda: popular actress who went to Vietnam to protest the war

Gerald Ford: Nixon's vice president and later 38th president of the U.S.

Indira Gandhi: first woman elected prime minister of India

H.R. Haldeman: Nixon's chief of staff

Barbara Jordan: congresswoman from Texas; served on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation

Ho Chi Minh: Communist leader of the North Vietnamese

Hubert Humphrey: Lyndon Johnson's vice president and the 1968 Democratic candidate for president

John F. Kennedy: 35th president of the United States

Henry Kissinger: foreign policy advisor and then secretary of state to Richard Nixon

G. Gordon Liddy: attorney for Nixon's reelection committee who was indicted for his participation in the Watergate break-in

Ferdinand Marcos: president of the Philippines

Eugene McCarthy: liberal Democratic presidential candidate in 1967 and independent presidential candidate in 1976

George McGovern: Democratic presidential candidate in 1972

Elliott Richardson: Nixon's attorney general who resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate

Nelson Rockefeller: vice president under Gerald Ford

Mark Spitz: swimmer who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics

Benjamin Spock: influential pediatrician and Vietnam war protester

Gloria Steinem: journalist and feminist activist; founder of Ms. magazine

George Wallace: governor of Alabama and third-party candidate for president in 1968 and 1972

William Westmoreland: general and commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam

Mao Zedong: leader of the People's Republic of China

Terms to Know

AIM (American Indian Movement): a militant Native American activist group.

CREEP: Committee to Reelect the President; the name given to the group within the Nixon administration who were involved in various illegal activities relating to the 1972 election.

détente: in diplomacy, an easing of tensions between nations.

impeach: to bring a charge of illegal activity against a government official.

inflation: a rapid, widespread rise in prices.

Khmer Rouge: communist forces in the neighboring country of Cambodia, which supported the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

McCarthyism: refers to the 1950s hunt for communists in government, industry, and education, and the suspicion of communist activity in general. The term derives from Senator Joseph McCarthy, leader of the Congressional investigations and chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Pentagon Papers: the confidential study of the Vietnam War made in 1967, leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department official who had worked on the study.

"plumbers": a secret group formed by Nixon to perform illegal acts; they were originally called the "plumbers" because their initial job was to stop information from "leaking" to the press.

SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty): the agreement between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., signed in 1972, to slow down the nuclear arms race.

"silent majority": reference made by Nixon during his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican national convention to those Americans whom he described as "the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators." He asked for the support of this group in his speech.

Twenty-Fifth Amendment: ratified in 1967, the Constitutional amendment that outlines the succession to the presidency.

Viet Cong: Vietnamese communist guerrilla forces, backed by North Vietnam, fighting in South Vietnam against the Americans and South Vietnamese.

Watergate: a hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C., and the location of the Democratic National Committee offices, which were broken into by men working for Nixon's administration; the hotel's name became the label for the larger scandal which started with the break-in and ultimately forced Nixon to resign.

Wounded Knee: a creek in South Dakota, the site of the last battle of the Indian wars in 1890, was the location of a standoff between the American Indian Movement (AIM) and federal agents in 1973, when AIM members took over a village on the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation. Two Native Americans were killed during the conflict.

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of Richard Nixon. Each is followed by a series of questions that you may want to raise with your students.

"The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America... This is our summons to greatness."

Questions to Consider:

  • How did Nixon act out this belief during his presidency?
  • Do you agree that the greatest honor is that of "peacemaker"?
  • If so, can Nixon be considered a great president?

  

"With all the power that a president has, the most important thing to bear in mind is this: You must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character. Character is the most important qualification the President of the United States can have."

Questions to Consider:

  • What is ironic about this statement, given the history of Nixon's political career?
  • What does it say about Nixon himself?
  • How would he probably describe his own character?
  • Do you think character is the most important thing about a president?

  

"If when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation... acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this quotation explain American foreign policy in the post-World War II era?
  • Does the U.S. still play this role?
  • Should our country have the responsibility of keeping other nations and institutions "free"?
  • Why or why not?

  

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you. Those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself. "

Questions to Consider:

  • What do you think is true about this statement?
  • Do you think Nixon failed to "practice what he preached?"

  

"When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Questions to Consider:

  • Nixon made this statement long after he had resigned from the presidency. Why would he think this is true?
  • Do you think the president is "above the law?"
  • Should a president be accountable for every action he takes, even if it is in the national interest or for reasons of national security?
  • What, if anything, should a president be allowed to do that might be outside the law for a private citizen?

  

"What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid... But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance..."

Questions to Consider:

  • What does this quotation tell you about Nixon's view of himself and others?
  • Do you agree with what he's saying? Why or why not?

My American Experience

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Share Your Story

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