Forty years ago today —on 22 January 1970— RN delivered his first State of the Union Message to a Joint Session of Congress.  The year before, the outgoing, diminished LBJ had delivered an elegiac, wistful SOTU describing what might have been and how he hoped he would be remembered.
RN had used 1969 to organize and consolidate, and his 1970 SOTU —which is my favorite among the several notable speeches he gave as POTUS— concisely conveys the sense of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, innovation, and equanimity that characterized his first term, and particularly its approach to domestic issues.  The speech was beautifully written, and the delivery combined equal parts of buoyancy and gravitas as RN simply but eloquently sketched his vision of a new America for a new decade — and challenged Americans to join him in making that vision real.

Although the Congress had failed to act on any of his legislative proposals to date, the speech to “my colleagues in the Congress” was marked by the tone of respect, conciliation, and cooperation that characterized the beginning of his administration.

To address a joint session of the Congress in this great chamber in which I was once privileged to serve is an honor for which I am deeply grateful.

After the bitter divisiveness of the 1960s, the new President held out the possibility of turning a corner together:

The State of the Union address is traditionally an occasion for a lengthy and detailed account by the President of what he has accomplished in the past, what he wants the Congress to do in the future, and, in an election year, to lay the basis for the political issues which might be decisive in the fall.

Occasionally there comes a time when profound and far-reaching events command a break with tradition. This is such a time.

I say this not only because 1970 marks the beginning of a new decade in which America will celebrate its 200th birthday. I say it because new knowledge and hard experience argue persuasively that both our programs and our institutions in America need to be reformed.

The moment has arrived to harness the vast energies and abundance of this land to the creation of a new American experience, an experience richer and deeper and more truly a reflection of the goodness and grace of the human spirit.

The ’70s will be a time of new beginnings, a time of exploring both on the earth and in the heavens, a time of discovery. But the time has also come for emphasis on developing better ways of managing what we have and of completing what man’s genius has begun but left unfinished.

Our land, this land that is ours together, is a great and a good land. It is also an unfinished land, and the challenge of perfecting it is the summons of the ’70s.

RN said that the first and most important national priority was peace and an end to the war in Vietnam.  At this point, the new President was still confident that his determination to negotiate an equitable settlement would end the war this year.  His undiminished optimism is reflected in his words; he had not yet accepted that the enemy wasn’t interested in negotiating anything; that their non-negotiable terms involved a unilateral US withdrawal combined with an overthrow of the Thieu government.

He outlined the basic points of the Nixon Doctrine he had announced at Guam in July ’69 — that America would continue to provide military aid and supplies to our allies, but that they would be expected to provide the manpower for their own defense that it expected its allies to assume responsibility for providing the manpower for their own defense— and said that foreign policy would be the subject of a separate paper.

Moving on to the domestic front —the State of the Union— RN discussed the economic imbalances that had been created by several years of unrestrained spending.  The solution for such problems was clear: restrain spending and balance budgets.

But in this speech, RN was thinking far more broadly and boldly.

I now turn to a subject which, next to our desire for peace, may well become the major concern of the American people in the decade of the seventies.

In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent. The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50 percent richer in a real sense, 50 percent better off, 50 percent happier?

Or does it mean that in the year 1980 the President standing in this place will look back on a decade in which 70 percent of our people lived in metropolitan areas choked by traffic, suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, deafened by noise, and terrorized by crime?

These are not the great questions that concern world leaders at summit conferences. But people do not live at the summit. They live in the foothills of everyday experience, and it is time for all of us to concern ourselves with the way real people live in real life.

The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?

Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.

Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.

We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.

The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field in America’s history.

It is not a program for just one year. A year’s plan in this field is no plan at all. This is a time to look ahead not a year, but five years or 10 years—whatever time is required to do the job.

Thus RN put his mark on the emerging issue of the environment — and challenged the Congress (the same Congress he had already gently chastised for inaction at different points during the speech) to join him on a decade-long commitment to reclaiming America’s natural heritage.

The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field in America’s history.

It is not a program for just one year. A year’s plan in this field is no plan at all. This is a time to look ahead not a year, but 5 years or 10 years–whatever time is required to do the job.

I shall propose to this Congress a $10 billion nationwide clean waters program to put modern municipal waste treatment plants in every place in America where they are needed to make our waters clean again, and do it now. We have the industrial capacity, if we begin now, to build them all within 5 years. This program will get them built within 5 years.

As our cities and suburbs relentlessly expand, those priceless open spaces needed for recreation areas accessible to their people are swallowed up–often forever. Unless we preserve these spaces while they are still available, we will have none to preserve. Therefore, I shall propose new financing methods for purchasing open space and parklands now, before they are lost to us.

The automobile is our worst polluter of the air. Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards, and strengthen enforcement procedures-and we shall do it now.

We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.

This requires comprehensive new regulations. It also requires that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.

Now, I realize that the argument is often made that there is a fundamental contradiction between economic growth and the quality of life, so that to have one we must forsake the other.

The answer is not to abandon growth, but to redirect it. For example, we should turn toward ending congestion and eliminating smog the same reservoir of inventive genius that created them in the first place.

Continued vigorous economic growth provides us with the means to enrich life itself and to enhance our planet as a place hospitable to man.

The speech’s peroration and conclusion deserve quotation in full:

Two hundred years ago this was a new nation of 3 million people, weak militarily, poor economically. But America meant something to the world then which could not be measured in dollars, something far more important than military might.

Listen to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802: We act not “for ourselves alone, but for the whole human race.”

We had a spiritual quality then which caught the imagination of millions of people in the world.

Today, when we are the richest and strongest nation in the world, let it not be recorded that we lack the moral and spiritual idealism which made us the hope of the world at the time of our birth.

The demands of us in 1976 are even greater than in 1776.

It is no longer enough to live and let live. Now we must live and help live.

We need a fresh climate in America, one in which a person can breathe freely and breathe in freedom.

Our recognition of the truth that wealth and happiness are not the same thing requires us to measure success or failure by new criteria.

Even more than the programs I have described today, what this Nation needs is an example from its elected leaders in providing the spiritual and moral leadership which no programs for material progress can satisfy.

Above all, let us inspire young Americans with a sense of excitement, a sense of destiny, a sense of involvement, in meeting the challenges we face in this great period of our history. Only then are they going to have any sense of satisfaction in their lives.

The greatest privilege an individual can have is to serve in a cause bigger than himself. We have such a cause.

How we seize the opportunities I have described today will determine not only our future, but the future of peace and freedom in this world in the last third of the century.

May God give us the wisdom, the strength and, above all, the idealism to be worthy of that challenge, so that America can fulfill its destiny of being the world’s best hope for liberty, for opportunity, for progress and peace for all peoples.

It has become conventional wisdom that RN actually had little interest in the environment, and that his proposals were principally intended to outflank his political opponents on their left.  Whether this is true or not —or whatever elements of truth it may contain— it is an easy copout to hold harmless the  many,  in Congress and the media and the academy, who were more interested in having the environment as a stick with which to beat the President than as a legislative program that could begin to address the problem.  If RN is to be criticized for bluffing, there should be no less criticism for those who failed to call his bluff.

In fact, the Nixon administration’s environmental record —which started from scratch— has lately been acknowledged as impressive and important.  RN established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the landmark Clean Air Act.  He signed the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungide, Rodenticide Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act.   In his 1971 SOTU speech he proposed his Legacy of Parks program.  At the end of 1973 he signed the Endangered Species act; and he supported the Safe Drinking Water Act that was signed by President Ford at the end of 1974.

RN’s first term was one of the most efficient, innovative, and effective periods of presidential leadership — four years when everything seemed possible and many things were accomplished.   The 1970 SOTU is a memory and a microcosm of the spirit that animated the the Nixon administration 1969-1972.  It commands respect.  It deserves attention.

You can see and hear RN deliver this seminal 1970 SOTU message here.