Richard Millhouse Nixon
Richard Millhouse Nixon, 37th president of the United States (1969-1972) was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. Nixon was one of the most controversial politicians of the twentieth century. He built his political career on the communist scare of the late forties and early fifties, but as president he achieved detente with the Soviet Union and opened relations with the People’s Republic of China. His administration occurred during the domestic upheavals brought on by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. He was re-elected in 1972 by an overwhelming margin, but less than two years later, he was forced to become the first man to resign the presidency amid the scandal and shame of Watergate. He staged a difficult political comeback in 1968, after purportedly retiring from politics, and by the end of his life, he had shed some of the scourge of Watergate and was again a respected elder statesman, largely because of his record on foreign policy. He died on February 22, 1994. His writings include three autobiographical works, Six Crises (1962), RN: the Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978), and In the Arena (1990).
Early Political Career
Nixon came from a southern-California Quaker family, where hard work and integrity were deeply rooted and heavily emphasized. Always a good student, he was invited by Harvard and Yale to apply for scholarships, but his older brother’s illness and the Depression made his presence close to home necessary, and he was attended nearby Whittier College, where he graduated second in his class in 1934. He went on to law school at Duke University, where his seriousness and determination won him the nickname “Gloomy Gus.” He graduated third in his class and applied for jobs with both large Northeastern law firms and the FBI His applications were all rejected, however, and he was forced to go home to southern California, where his mother helped get him a job at a friend’s local law firm.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Nixon went to work briefly for the tire-rationing section the Office of Price Administration in Washington, DC, and eight months later, he joined the Navy and was sent to the Pacific as a supply officer. He was popular with his men, and such an accomplished poker player that he was able to send enough of his comrades-in-arms’ money back home to help fund his first political campaign. Shortly after returning from the war, Nixon entered politics, answering a Republican Party call in the newspaper for someone to run against the five-term Democratic Congressman, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon seemed the perfect man for the job, and he was welcomed generously by the California Republican Party, who considered him “salable merchandise.”
The style of Nixon’s first campaign set the tone for the early part of his political career, where he achieved national renown as a fierce anti-Communist. He accused Congressman Voorhis of being a communist, and even went so far as to have campaign workers make anonymous calls to voters stating that as a fact and advising that a vote for Nixon was therefore the best move. This sort of straightforward communist-baiting was new at the time, and fear of the Soviet Union, who appeared to be spreading its influence throughout Asia (China fell to Mao Tse-tsung’s communist forces in 1949), made it a particularly persuasive tactic. “Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,” Nixon later said, “but I had to win.”
Nixon defeated Voorhis with sixty percent of the vote, and upon taking his seat in Congress, he became the junior member of the infamous House Committee on un-American Activities. Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss, a former adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and one of the organizers of the United Nations brought him national exposure. Hiss had been accused of being a communist and of transmitting secret State Department documents to the Soviets, and though many believed him innocent, Nixon fiercely pushed the case forward, eventually getting Hiss convicted of perjury and jailed. At the age of thirty-five, Nixon was a national figure, and he rode this fame to an easy victory in his senate race against three-term Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, once again adopting a communist-baiting campaign strategy. He accused Ms. Douglas, who opposed the activities of the House un-American Activities Committee, of being “pink right down to her underwear.” In return, Douglas dubbed Nixon with his long-time nickname, “Tricky Dick.”
Nixon was only in the US Senate for a year-and-a-half when, in 1952, the Republican national convention selected him to be General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate. Much of Nixon’s success and notoriety up to that point had been built on the political and personal ruination of his honest Democratic foes, and Nixon was expected to do much of the dirty work of campaigning, leaving Eisenhower to take the “high road,” remaining pure and untarnished by messy politicking. Nixon performed his task admirably, casting doubt on the abilities and patriotism of his and Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson.
Nixon himself had to face scrutiny during the campaign, and when the New York Post announced that he had received secret campaign contributions from wealthy sources, he was nearly pushed off the ticket. Instead of giving up, Nixon went on national, prime time television and appealed directly to the voters. He delivered what has come to be known as the “Checkers Speech,” fully exposing his financial situation and revealing that he was not a wealthy man. The speech was an unprecedented success, and the Republican National Committee received thousands of telegrams of support. Nixon remained on the ticket and became vice-president when Eisenhower overwhelming defeated Stevenson.
When Eisenhower decided to run again in 1956, Nixon’s presence on the ticket was not assured; however, Nixon pressured the president into making a decision, refused Eisenhower’s offer of a cabinet position, and the Republican ticket once again contained Richard Millhouse Nixon as the vice-presidential candidate. In the second campaign, Nixon moved away from his muckraking, communist-baiting techniques, and the press began speaking of a “New Nixon.” Because of Eisenhower’s apparent support, many the Republican considered Nixon heir apparent, and he became more active in his second term. Eisenhower sent him on tours of South America, where his motorcade was spat upon and attacked, and the Soviet Union, where Nixon challenged Nikita Kruschev to an impromptu debate, known as the “Kitchen Debates.”
Nixon was unanimously nominated at the Republican convention in 1960, and only fourteen years after first running for office, he was one election away from the presidency. Many were confident of Nixon’s ability to win the election easily, being a prominent, national figure running against the young, inexperienced John F. Kennedy, who was little known nationally and had a reputation as a playboy inside Washington circles. Kennedy, however, took advantage of modern campaigning techniques, which employed the television more than personal contact, and he was given a big push by the first-ever-televised presidential debates. The healthy, attractive, charming Kennedy came off as strong, confident, and in control, while Nixon, who refused to wear make-up, looked haggard, almost ghost-like. The election was one of the closest in history, with Kennedy winning by only 100,000 votes nationwide. Some of the most crucial votes came in Cook County, Illinois, which was controlled by party boss Richard Daley, and many suspected election fraud, but Nixon refused to demand a recount, stating that it would be political suicide if he lost.
Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962, but he had never been a locally active politician and his years in Washington had made him out of touch with the situation in California. He lost soundly to incumbent Pat Brown. In a press conference shortly after the results were announced, Nixon berated the media for giving him a hard time since the Hiss case, urged greater fairness in political coverage, and claimed that this would be his last press conference. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said. He took a job as a Wall Street lawyer, but soon tired of private life and took to the campaign trail in 1966, stumping successfully for Republican congressional candidates and bringing himself again into the heart of Republican Party affairs.
After a grueling four-continent tour during which he familiarized himself with foreign affairs, the dogged Nixon was back in the electoral arena again, running for president a second time in 1968. Nixon avoided the tricky issue of the Vietnam War, stating only that he would find an “honorable end” to the war. He let the Democrats, badly split over the war, tear themselves apart, further setting himself apart by running on a “Law and Order” campaign that blamed America’s most visible, divisive problems on the liberal Democrats. Nixon’s appeal to the “forgotten Americans,” who felt themselves ignored in the upheavals of the sixties, brought him a close victory over Hubert Humphrey.
Upon election, Nixon pledged that he would bring America together, but his margin of victory had been slim and based mostly on white, middle-class, hawkish, and patriotic voters. As president, he concentrated mostly on foreign affairs, hoping to bring about a generation of peace and a New World Order. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and John Erhlichman, a top campaign official and one of Nixon’s closest advisors, handled much of domestic policy and shielded Nixon from many of the irksome daily details of the administration, leaving Nixon free to concentrate on foreign policy. Nixon often by-passed the Defense and State Departments, instead working closely with National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, a former Harvard professor and newcomer to official foreign policy circles.
The Vietnam War, which had destroyed Nixon’s predecessor, was the major obstacle to the new president’s designs. Even before his inauguration, Nixon had Kissinger engage in secret peace talks with North Vietnam, hoping to speed American withdrawal from Vietnam. Early in his term, Nixon announced a gradual replacement of American fighting forces with South Vietnamese, planning to have All-American troops out of Vietnam by the end of 1970. However, Nixon did not want to be the first president to lose a war, and he could not be satisfied with a simple withdrawal from Vietnam, being convinced, as were many Americans, that abandoning South Vietnam to the communists would invite further communist aggression in the region. Nixon had to face a vigorous anti-war movement, and he appealed to the “silent majority,” another version of his “forgotten Americans,” who he felt supported his foreign policy. He pledged not to back down, and in early 1970 escalated the war, authorizing bombings on North Vietnam and attacks on Cambodia. After his reelection, Nixon again ordered escalation in the bombings, which Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s deputy, described as “brutalizing” the north. Two weeks after the bombings began, Nixon announced that peace negotiations were soon to resume, and by January 28, 1973, a cease fire was established that allowed the US to remove its reaming 23,700 troops and end its twelve-year military involvement in Vietnam.
Domestically, Nixon adhered to a standard Republican spending-cut program, cutting back and opposing federal welfare services and proposing anti-busing legislation. He also implemented the New Economic Policy, which called for a 10 percent tax on many imports, repeal of certain excise taxes, tax breaks for industries undertaking new investment, and a ninety-day freeze on wages, prices, and dividends designed to halt inflation. These policies were initially successful, causing American exports to become cheaper and improving the balance of trade, but when the wage and price commissions began to give way to pressures from both labor and business interests, inflation accelerated again, inaugurating a decade-long rise in the cost of living that negatively impacted many segments of American society.
But Nixon is best remembered for his foreign policy achievements, despite his failure to bring a speedy, or even “honorable,” end to the Vietnam War, and Kissinger’s inability to end the Middle East tensions that were brought on by Israel’s victory over Arab countries in the Six-Day War of 1967. Perhaps this notoriety is based on the fact that Nixon was one of the few presidents in American history who practiced foreign policy by design, setting certain goals and moving steadily, if sometimes secretly and ruthlessly, toward them, instead of merely reacting to the conditions of world affairs as had many chief executives in the past. He repudiated his anti-Communist past and became the first US president to visit the Soviet Union when he traveled to Moscow in May of 1972. He sought peace with the opposing super-power and initiated negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit nuclear weapons, which resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). At the same time, he was making secret contact with the other great communist nation, the People’s Republic of China, which he visited publicly in February, 1972, thus opening official diplomatic relations with China for the first time since the communist takeover in 1949.
Despite the finally peaceful outcome of the Vietnam situation, and his diplomatic accomplishments, Nixon’s vicious, unrelenting policies and his blatant scoffing of the anti-war movement had ignited serious domestic upheavals, including the shooting of fifteen students at a Kent State anti-war demonstration. The visible public dissatisfaction with the president, which could be seen outside the White House from 1970 on, exacerbated Nixon’s famous insecurity and brought out what some of his aide’s called Nixon’s “dark side.” The paranoia that resulted led Nixon to form the Special Investigations Unit, known as the “plumbers,” an outfit illegally equipped by the CIA and sent on missions to embarrass and discredit potential Democratic opponents. He also formed the Committee to RE-elect the President (CREEP), which collected $60 million, much in violation of existing campaign laws, and disbursed funds for “dirty tricks” which included tapping the phone of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Nixon needed little of this help to secure re-election in 1972, as he faced a badly divided Democratic Party headed by a self-righteous and indecisive George McGovern. Nixon won the election with 60.7 percent of the vote, but a host of revelations in 1973 undermined Nixon’s presidency and finally brought him to resign. The involvement of the CIA, supposedly under Nixon’s direction, in a military coup that overthrew Chile’s Salvador Allende, the Western Hemisphere’s first popularly-elected Marxist, was exposed, and Vice-President Agnew was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had cheated on his income taxes and had taken more than $100,000 in payoffs from contractors between 1966 and 1972. The IRS also disclosed that Nixon himself owed more than $400,000 in back taxes and penalties, and critics pointed out that the Nixon administration had raised subsidies to milk producers, who then donated over a half-million dollars to the Republican Party.
The final blow came when investigative reporters revealed Nixons involvement in the plumbers Watergate burglary. Nixon’s involvement was documented on audiotapes of White House conversations, which Nixon refused to turn over to investigators. Nixon cited “executive privilege” and national security as reasons for keeping the tapes, but his appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected. A few days later, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach the president on three counts. Nixon finally released the incriminating tapes, and over the next few days both Republican and Democratic Senators, enough to get a conviction, indicated that they would vote against the president if articles of impeachment were offered by the House. On August 9, 1974, before the House could vote to impeach him, Nixon resigned the presidency, the first incumbent ever to do so.
Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford, the man he had appointed to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice-President. Soon after taking office Ford granted Nixon a pardon for any crimes he might have committed as president. Unlike some of his aides, Nixon never went to jail. After resigning the presidency, Nixon sought to portray himself as an elder statesman. He published and five books on US foreign policy: The Real War (1980), Real Peace (1983), No More Vietnams (1985), 1999: Victory without War (1988), Seize the Moment (1992), and Beyond Peace (1994). By the 1990s, much of the scandal had been forgotten, and Nixon was again hailed as a genius of foreign policy and jokingly considered a possible Republican presidential candidate. T-shirts and bumperstickers appeared bearing the motto “He’s tan, he’s rested, and he’s ready: Nixon in ’92.”
Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon, A Life. Regnery Publishing, 1993
Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon : The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962. Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Genovese, Michael A. The Nixon Presidency: Power and Politics in Turbulent Times. Greenwood Press, 1990
Hoff-Wilson, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. BasicBooks, 1994.
WGBH Boston. Nixon (videorecording). PBS Video, 1990.