Although Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994) successfully served as a member of the House of Representatives and of the Senate and was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, the thirty-seventh president of the United States will probably best be remembered as being the first president who resigned from office.
Richard Nixon was born on his father's lemon farm in Yorba Linda, California, on January 9, 1913. Of the four other sons in the family, two died in childhood. Nixon's ancestors had emigrated from Ireland in the 18th century and settled principally in Pennsylvania and Indiana. His mother's family were Quakers; his Methodist father adopted the Quaker religion after his marriage. As a youth, Nixon regularly attended Quaker services in Whittier, California, where the family moved in 1922 after the farm failed. Nixon's father ran a grocery store in Whittier. Some biographers have noted that Nixon's father was known to kick his sons and that his mother was manipulative. Nixon had a troubled childhood and adopted elements of both his parents' personalities. Some historians have believed that as a result of his childhood, Nixon had a drive to succeed and felt he had to pretend to be "good" while using any tactics necessary to acheive his goals.
At Whittier College, a Quaker institution, Nixon excelled as a student and debater. He was president of his freshman class and, as a senior, president of the student body. Less successful on the football team, he persevered and played doggedly in occasional games. Graduating second in his class in 1934, he won a scholarship to Duke University Law School on the recommendation of Whittier's president, who wrote, "I believe Nixon will become one of America's important, if not great leaders." Nixon maintained his scholarship throughout law school. Though he was a member of the national scholastic law fraternity, he failed to land a job in one of the big New York law firms. This failure, along with the views of his father, left him with a stong dislike of the "eastern establishment."
In Whittier, Nixon joined the law firm of Kroop and Bewley, which within a year became Kroop, Bewley, and Nixon. Active in a variety of business and civic ventures, at the age of 26 he was elected a member of the Whittier College Board of Trustees. Soon after returning to Whittier, Nixon met Thelma Catherine Patricia (Pat) Ryan, a high school teacher. The two were married in 1940; they had two daughters, Patricia and Julie.
Early Public Service
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Nixon began working for the Federal government in the Office of Emergency Management, the forerunner of the Office of Price Administration (OPA). His legal work there as a price regulator strongly influenced his political philosophy. "I came out of college more liberal than I am today, more liberal in the sense that I thought it was possible for government to do more than I later found it was practical to do," Nixon later told Earl Mazo, his biographer. "I also saw the mediocrity of so many civil servants. And for the first time when I was in OPA I also saw that there were people in government who were not satisfied merely with interpreting regulations, enforcing the law that Congress passed, but who actually had a passion to get business and used their government jobs to that end. These were of course some of the remnants of the old, violent New Deal crowd. They set me to thinking a lot at that point."
Nixon entered the Navy as a lieutenant junior-grade in August 1942. He was sent to a naval air base in Iowa. After 6 months there (which he valued because it helped him know the Midwest, the base of his later political support), he was sent to the Pacific as an operations officer with the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command. Fourteen months later he returned to the United States to work as a lawyer in uniform. He was a lieutenant commander in Baltimore when, in September 1945, a group of Whittier Republicans asked him to run for Congress. He jumped at the opportunity, was mustered out of the Navy in January 1946, and began his victorious campaign.
Nixon's friends described him as a mild and tolerant human being, basically shy and much influenced by his Quaker upbringing. Yet in all his early campaigns he conducted what he himself has described as "a fighting, rocking, socking campaign." He early infuriated the opposition. Though he called himself a liberal Republican and a progressive Republican, he had strong right-wing support. In his congressional campaign he had attacked his liberal New Deal Democrat and onetime Socialist opponent as a tool of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and an enemy of free enterprise.
Congressional Activities and National Fame
As congressman, Nixon was assigned to the House Labor Committee and to the Select Committee on Foreign Aid. In 1947 he and other committee members toured Europe. "We cannot afford to follow a policy of isolation and let the people of Europe down at this point, and therefore allow Russia full sway in Europe," he said shortly after his return. "The sure way to war is for the United States to turn isolationist." Supporting the Marshall Plan, Nixon established himself as an internationalist in foreign policy.
As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Nixon became a leading anti-Communist crusader. He collaborated on the bill requiring Communist-front organizations to register with the attorney general. It was on HUAC that he first attracted national attention when he led the suit that resulted in the conviction of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official charged with Communist connections; Hiss was finally convicted for perjury. As Nixon wrote in Six Crises (1962), "The Hiss case brought me national fame. But it also left a residue of hatred and hostility toward me—not only among Communists but also among substantial segments of the press and the intellectual community—a hostility which remains even today, ten years after Hiss's conviction was upheld by the United States Supreme Court." Nixon said he also incurred opposition from many apostles of anticommunism because "I would not go along with their extremes." These anti-Communists assailed him for supporting international programs like foreign aid, reciprocal trade, and collective security pacts.
Nixon again aroused the enmity of liberals and intellectuals in his 1950 victorious senatorial campaign. He charged his Democratic opponent with displaying a "soft attitude toward communism" and said that she was part of a small clique that voted "time after time against measures that are for the security of this country."
It was thus as a fiery crusader against communism and a staunch Republican partisan that Nixon was known to the country when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower chose him as his running mate in the presidential election of 1952. Nixon's personality and character became permanent issues in all his political campaigns. He seemed to overuse political hyperbole and oversimplify complex issues. Some critics believed his fascination with political techniques showed lack of principle regarding substantive issues.
Nixon said that he was guided by his Quaker heritage: "The three passions of Quakers are peace, civil rights, and tolerance. That's why, as a Quaker, I can't be an extremist, a racist, or an uncompromising hawk. While all this may seem to be the opposite of what I've stood for, I'm actually consistent." An objective observer who got to know the private Nixon said that he had an able if not overly subtle mind. He listened well, asked probing questions, and nearly always impressed persons with whom he spoke privately.
Two months after becoming Republican vice-presidential candidate, Nixon was charged with being the beneficiary of a fund, totaling $18,235, collected from private citizens. Nixon said the sensational controversy resulted in "the most scarring personal crisis of my life." Nixon fought back. In a television speech that accounted for the money, he convinced his foes that he was artful and tricky, but he rallied Republicans to his banner. While his defense saved his candidacy and made him even better known, this controversy also left a bitter residue.
The Vice Presidency
As vice president, Nixon continued to please his supporters and anger his critics. He was the chief political spokesman in Eisenhower's administration, traveled widely in support of Republican candidates, and was influential in the workings of the administration.
Eisenhower believed that a vice president should have an active role and should be fully informed about all foreign and domestic policies. Chief among Nixon's assignments was foreign travel. In office less than a year, Nixon made an extended trip through Asia, visiting, among other places, Hanoi, North Vietnam, then under French control. He made many useful friends on these trips and impressed critics at home with his seriousness of purpose and knowledge of foreign affairs. On a trip to Latin America in 1958, he was assailed by mobs but handled himself coolly. In 1959 he visited the Soviet Union and Poland. While in Moscow, his meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev prepared the way for Khrushchev's later visit to the United States to confer with Eisenhower.
Running for President
In 1960 Nixon won the Republican presidential nomination and chose Henry Cabot Lodge, ambassador to the United Nations, as his running mate. The campaign against the Democratic team of senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson was close from the beginning, although Nixon initially ran ahead in the polls. In the first of four televised debates with Kennedy, Nixon, concerned with projecting an image of reasonableness and nonpartisanship, did not sharply challenge his opponent. He also looked pale and unwell, possibly because of poor lighting. He lost the election by some 100,000 votes out of the 68 million cast.
Nixon returned to Los Angeles to practice law and to write Six Crises. In 1962, losing the race for governor of California, he blamed his defeat on the press. "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more," he told newsmen, "because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."
A few months later, Nixon joined the New York law firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin & Todd, which later became Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell. However, in 1964, after the Republican defeat by President Lyndon Johnson, it became clear that Nixon again considered himself a serious presidential contender. In 1968, winning his party's presidential nomination, he picked Governor Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland as his running mate.
Nixon and Agnew ran against the Democratic team of Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie. Third party candidate George Wallace of Alabama, a threat to both tickets, hurt Humphrey more. In the end, though the Republicans had the presidential victory, the Democrats retained control of Congress.
Nixon took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1969. In his inaugural address he appealed for reconciliation among the elements of American society divided over the issues of the Vietnam War and domestic racial discord. He promised to bring the nation together again.
Nixon's first foreign objective—to negotiate an end of the Vietnam War—was unsuccessful. Despite repeated attempts, negotiations with North Vietnam at the Paris peace talks were unproductive. Meanwhile, in June he began replacing American troops by South Vietnamese troops. After a conference with South Vietnam's president Nguyen Van Thieu, Nixon ordered 25,000 American combat troops brought home. By the end of 1969, having ordered 110,000 troops home, he expressed hope, not realized, that all American combat troops would be out of Vietnam by the end of 1970. Not until the end of 1972, when most American ground troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, did negotiations suggest that peace might be at hand.
In his second month in office, the President embarked on a tour of Western Europe. In the summer he visited Asia, including a stop in Saigon. His official visit to Romania made him the first American president to visit a Communist country. While on the Asian tour, the President enunciated what became known as the "Nixon Doctrine." The United States will honor its treaty commitments, he said, but it will not bear the brunt of the fighting in another country. He called for cooperative endeavors and promised American material aid but said that Asian countries must defend their freedoms with their own troops. In his first year the President signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, negotiated during the previous administration. In addition, negotiations were begun with the Soviet Union toward placing limits on the production of nuclear armaments.
On the domestic front, Nixon waged a major battle against inflation. With Congress pressing for more government spending, the administration fought to curb expenditures and balance the budget. The economy continued to decline while the administration waged its battle against inflation. Finally, to reverse a dangerous trend, the President, in August 1971, completely reversed himself, instituted wage and price controls, imposed a tax on imports, and asked for tax cuts. Early in 1972, after he agreed to devaluation of the dollar, the economy began to improve.
In 1971 Nixon made the dramatic announcements that he would visit Peking and Moscow in the first half of 1972. He also announced progress in the negotiations with the Soviet Union on an arms limitation treaty. The visit to Peking took place in February and he was invited to meet Chairman Mao Zedong, a mark of high respect. In May, he visited Moscow and signed the agreement limiting the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the presidential election of 1972 Nixon and Agnew ran against Democrats George McGovern and Sargent Shriver. The election was a landslide for Nixon, as the polls had predicted it would be: he won 61 percent of the popular vote and received 521 electoral votes, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. However, as in the election of 1968, the Democrats retained control of Congress.
The Fall from Grace
During his last election campaign, what first appeared as a minor burglary was to become the beginning of the end of Nixon's political career. A break-in at Democratic national headquarters in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate apartment complex was linked to Republicans.
During the trial of six men charged in the crime, the existence of the cover-up began to emerge, taking government officials down like dominos in its path. Nixon elicited the resignation of two top aides in April, 1973 in an effort to stem the tide. But in October, as the Watergate investigation continued, he lost his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned before pleading "nolo contendere" (no contest) in federal charges of income tax evasion related to accusations of accepting bribes.
Nixon's efforts to avoid the taint of those scandals were fruitless when subpoenaed tapes he was ordered to give up by the U.S. Supreme Court showed he obstructed justice in stopping an FBI probe of the Watergate burglary. On August 9, 1974, in national disgrace, he became the first President of the United States to resign. He boarded a plane with his wife and returned to his his California home, ending his public career. A month later, in a controversial move, President Gerald Ford issued an unconditional pardon for any offenses Nixon might have committed while president.
After a period of relative anonymity and when some criticism had softened, Nixon emerged in a role of elder statesman, visiting countries in Asia, as well as returning to the Soviet Union and China. He also consulted with the Bush and Clinton Administrations, and wrote his memoirs and other books on international affairs and politics.
The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace opened in the early 1990s in Yorba Linda, California. On January 20, 1994, in what would be his last public appearance, cermonies honoring him on the 25th anniversary of his first inauguration, were held. He also announced the creation of The Center for Peace and Freedom, a policy center at the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace.
He died of a stroke on April 22, 1994. A State funeral was held five days later in Yorba Linda, California. In 1995, film director Oliver Stone released the contorversial movie "Nixon," staring Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Further Reading on Richard Milhous Nixon
The Challenges We Face (1960) is a collection of Nixon's speeches. The most important work is Nixon's Six Crises (1962), which records the major events of his life to the early 1960s. The most factually complete biography is Earl Mazo and Stephen Hess, Nixon: A Political Portrait (1968). James Keogh, This Is Nixon (1956), written as a campaign biography, contains valuable quotations from Nixon's speeches. A perceptive analysis of Nixon's character and politics is Gary Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-made Man (1970). A good sketch of Nixon's personality is in Stephen Hess and David S. Broder, The Republican Establishment (1968). An excellent portrait is in Stewart Alsop, Nixon and Rockefeller (1960). Information on the The Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace and a biography of the former President can be accessed on the internet at http://www.chapman.edu/nixon/library/overview.html (August 5, 1997). A brief biography can be also accessed on the internet at the A & E Biography website at http://www.biography.com (August 5, 1997).
Other books deal with aspects of Nixon's career. Mark Harris, Mark the Glove Boy: Or the Last Days of Richard Nixon (1964), deals with the gubernatorial race between Pat Brown and Nixon. Nixon figures prominently in works dealing with presidential campaigns: Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (1961) and The Making of the President, 1968 (1969), and Joe McGinnes, The Selling of the President, 1968 (1969). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971), covers the 1968 election, won by Nixon. Also useful are Ralph De Toledano, Man Alone: Richard Nixon (1969), and John Osborne, The Nixon Watch (1970).