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Richard Nixon was the thirty-seventh president of the United States, in office between 1969 and 1974. Despite his successful foreign policies and his work for advancing civil rights, Richard Nixon is mostly known for the Watergate scandal, which revealed a series of illegal activities that he and his administration were involved with. He is the only American president forced to resign under the threat of impeachment.
Born in Yorba Linda, California near Los Angeles, on January 9, 1913, Richard Milhous Nixon was the son of Frank Nixon and Hannah Milhous Nixon. His parents, both Quakers, had four other sons. The family struggled financially, since Frank’s small lemon grove business failed, and he was forced to take odd jobs to support the family. Hannah was a very compassionate and calm woman, in startling contrast with her husband, but the couple had a solid relationship. In 1922, the family moved to Whittier, Hannah’s birthplace, where the bustling life of the town promised more opportunities for work. Shortly after moving, Frank opened a gas station and later expanded it to include a grocery store. The success of the new enterprise provided the family with the possibility to lead a comfortable middle-class life.
Richard had a close relationship with his father and was often working in the store, learning from Frank that determination and drive meant success. Frank was also passionately interested in politics, always arguing against the Democrats. He taught Richard not only that power was important but also that power was strictly linked with fear, as Frank himself was feared in his family.
Richard was an intelligent child with an uncanny ability to memorize anything and with a deep curiosity for the world around him. After graduating from Whittier High School, he enrolled at Whittier College. Still working at his father’s store, he found the time to engage in campus activities. In his freshman year, he was elected president of his class, president of his fraternity, and also president of the History Club. He liked to try everything, from entering debate contests or acting in plays, to trying out for football. Despite his popularity and active lifestyle, he had few friends and struggled with personal relationships. Academically, he was an excellent student. In 1934, after getting his B.A. in history, he earned a scholarship to attend the Duke Law School. Nixon spent three years at the law school, during which his lack of financial means made him adopt an almost monastic existence. Since he could not afford his own room, he struggled with accommodation, finally managing to found an abandoned tool shack at the periphery of the campus, where he resided for a while.
Even though he was elected the president of the Duke Student Bar Association, Nixon never socialized much and was often characterized as withdrawn and aloof. He worked long hours at the library and spent most of his time studying. In 1937, he graduated third in his class, but since he was unable to find employment in New York, he preferred to return to Whittier where he had found a job in a law firm. Shortly after his return to Whittier, Nixon started to date Thelma Catherine Ryan. The couple met during a play rehearsal and got married on June 21, 1940. They had two daughters, Julie and Tricia. Nixon changed his career in late 1941 by joining the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C. The escalation of the World War II forced him to enlist in the navy. He left the military with the rank of lieutenant commander after four years of service in the South Pacific.
Early Political Career
Upon Nixon’s return to Whittier, a banker from his town suggested to him to run for Congress. Excited by the idea, Nixon soon won the support of the small businessman and farmers who were against labor unions and disliked Democratic policies. By stating his support for individual freedom and individual initiative, Nixon appealed to their interests. As many other Republicans who won office during the ’40s and ‘50s, Nixon accused his opponent of being a communist sympathizer to undermine his credibility, even though he was aware of how untrue the accusation was.
In Congress, Nixon joined the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was focusing at that time on exposing communist sympathies within the American society. In 1948, Nixon was reelected for a second term. His popularity increased dramatically during the Hiss case, when Alger Hiss, a former official in the State Senate was trialed and convicted for perjury and espionage operations for the Soviet Union. His role in exposing the case transformed Nixon into a national figure in the anti-communist battle. In 1950, he ran for the U.S. Senate and once again accused his opponent, this time Helen Gahagan Douglas, of being a communist sympathizer.
While in the Senate, Nixon drew attention upon himself by attacking President Harry Truman for losing the war in Korea. Despite his confrontational nature, his political career developed quickly and in 1952, he was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in the presidential election. Eisenhower wanted a young vice president who could attract the support of the conservative Republicans.
Using once again his unbeatable strategy, Nixon attacked Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee of the Democrat Party of hiding communist views. Despite his efforts, Nixon almost ruined Eisenhower’s campaign after being accused of using a large sum of funds from his political supporters for personal expenses. While Eisenhower was already considering eliminating him from the campaign, Nixon rehabilitated himself by denying the accusations of corruption. Using television, he held an impactful speech to regain the Republicans’ trust.
Short Video Biography of Richard Nixon
Vice President of the United States
In 1953, Nixon became the vice president of the United States. Since Eisenhower’s health was very frail and he went through three major illnesses during his presidency, Nixon had the opportunity to enforce his position more than it is usually normal for his office. Moreover, he won influence within the Republican wing of the Congress by positioning himself against several of Eisenhower’s policies, such as the requests for foreign aid. Nixon’s reputation grew even stronger after a trip to the Soviet Union where he defended the capitalist society by exposing the weaknesses of communism.
In 1960, as a result of his growing influence, Nixon was nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidential election. However, the campaign proved to be tough, as Nixon had to run against the more popular Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy. When asked to give his opinion on Nixon, Eisenhower commented in a way that suggested Nixon had been incompetent as his vice president. During the televised debates, Nixon failed to make a good impression and often seemed uncomfortable. Eventually, Nixon lost with only a very close margin.
In 1962, Nixon suffered another crushing defeat in a race for the California governorship. While many predicted the end of his political career, he made an impressive comeback in 1966. By 1968, he won the Republicans’ presidential nomination, getting back at the center of the country’s political scene. As a running mate, Nixon chose Maryland governor, Spiro Agnew, who was fairly unknown to the wider public. The campaign was a real challenge, as Nixon had to convince voters that he can be trusted and that he can provide answers for the crises in the American society, such as the racial issues, Vietnam war, and class struggles.
Nixon promised to maintain open and honest relations with the press and the public. While he was working to restore his former influence, Agnew provoked a few incidents that almost ruined their campaign. He made outrageous declarations to the press in which he openly discriminated people for racial and social motives. Nixon decided to appeal mostly to the white middle class and tried strategically to position himself as more responsible and competent than his opponent, Hubert Humphrey.
During his speech as the Republican nominee for the presidential election of 1968, Nixon shared his strong belief in the American dream and his conviction that the United States would leave behind its darkest days, reaching for greatness again. Despite his promises, Nixon later showed that he was driven by his insatiable pursuit of power, which ultimately shook the political foundation of the country, making it succumb to one of the its most severe constitutional crisis.
President of the United States
In October 1968, Nixon won the presidential election, yet with a margin of less than 1% in the popular vote. As many observers noticed, he had the support of the middle-class Americans, especially those living in suburbs all around the country. One of the most challenging aspects of his presidency was managing the discontent caused by the Vietnam War. He attempted to make it look like the United States had won the war while letting the South Vietnamese Army fight by itself. In 1969, he secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia to destroy communist headquarters. Only Nixon’s National Security adviser Henri Kissinger was aware of the secret order.
Less than a year into his presidency, Nixon showed that he did not take seriously his promise for openness and honesty as he took powers that extended beyond his role, making decisions that were never checked or approved by the Congress. Soon after the covert operation in Cambodia, Nixon planned another military action in Vietnam but massive antiwar protests in the United States convinced him to give up his plans. Instead, he sent other troops to Cambodia and resumed the bombing. His mission to defeat the communism failed and many rallied against him. On May 1970, several student protesters from Ohio were shot by national guardsmen.
Despite his aggressive foreign policies, locally Nixon managed to advance the civil rights cause. During his time in the office, the federal government pushed for the desegregation of many public schools and special funding was set aside for the enforcement of civil rights. Nixon supported the Equal Rights Amendment meant to eliminate sex discrimination, and he appointed a White House adviser to cover women’s issues. After a massive oil spill incident in Santa Barbara, California, Nixon pushed for a law that set the foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency. He also signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In 1972, the year of presidential election, Nixon benefited from a growing popularity. He removed the American troops from Vietnam to quiet the antiwar protesters. He visited communist China to establish a strategic commitment and his visit was widely broadcast on television. In the same year, he also visited Moscow and signed the treaty SALT I with Soviet leader Leonid Brehnev, for restricting the use of nuclear weapons. By all appearances, Nixon succeeded at enforcing important policies, yet he struggled collaborating with Henry Kissinger, whom he thought to be treacherous and power hungry.
In November 1972, Nixon was reelected for a second term. One of his first measures was to order massive bombing attacks on the northern parts of Vietnam. The attacks destroyed the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, including houses, hospitals, airports, and factories. The New York Times referred to the incident as an act of barbarism. Nixon settled on a peace agreement a week later, allowing North Vietnam to maintain its power over the South Vietnam, which eventually ensured the victory of the communists.
More than his political decisions, Nixon’s personality was the element that doomed his political career. He was prone to isolation, secrecy, and he later admitted to feeling paranoiac. His favorite way of communication was writing memoranda, which was often expressing violent and aggressive attitudes and constant fear of threats.
The Watergate Scandal and Resignation
Despite winning easily the second election, Nixon encountered many problems during his second term. His covert activities and his constant paranoia were causing frictions with the FBI and CIA. Soon after the election, the political scene went through what was later known as the Watergate scandal.
Nixon had obstructed justice and covered-up illegal activities of his administration. In February 1974, the House Judiciary Committee initiated an impeachment inquiry. A few months later, after further investigations, the committee recommended Nixon’s impeachment. Not only that he had obstructed justice and committed perjury, but he had also violated constitutional rights by using illegal wiretaps and by influencing inappropriately the activities of FBI, CIA, and IRS. In August 1974, Nixon lost the support of both the Congress and the public. Realizing that the Senate would most likely convict him under the charges of impeachment, Nixon appeared on national television on August, 8 to announce his resignation. Vice president Gerald Ford, who had replaced Agnew during the Watergate scandal, assumed the presidency. Several investigations after Watergate revealed that Nixon had been taking drugs without prescription to fight his anxiety and depression, and the side effects put him in a state of mental confusion that affected his decisions.
After retiring, Nixon put all his efforts in preventing the release of additional Watergate material. He wrote nine books on politics, mainly in an attempt to clarify his decisions during his presidency and to repair his reputation. On April 22, 1994, Nixon died from a stroke in New York.
Even though he violated the Constitution, broke laws, and lied repeatedly, Nixon’s actions were more a symptom of his time, rather than a singular incident in the political life of the United States. By causing the Watergate scandal, Nixon revealed not only his shortcomings but also the decline of ethics in the American political system. His presidency, especially the Watergate scandal, caused a loss of credibility for the White House. Many Americans lost their trust in the government and in the institution of presidency.
Ranking as President in History
In the book by Brian Lamb et.al., ninety-one leading historians ranked the presidents compared to each other based on several factors. The presidents are ranked according to ten criteria from public persuasion, crisis leadership, to performance with the context of the times. President Nixon didn’t do well in the survey, ranking number 37, behind Calvin Coolidge and ahead of James A. Garfield. Nixon ranked second to last, just ahead of James Buchanan, in the category of “moral authority.” The Watergate scandal severely hurt his ranking as a president.
- West, Doug. Richard Nixon: A Short Biography: 37th President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2017.
- From afar: An indomitable man, an incurable loneliness. April 24, 1994.The New York Times. Accessed March 9, 2017.
- Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best – and Worst – Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs. 2019.
- Nixon Resigns. The Washington Post. The Watergate Story. Accessed March 9, 2017.
- Matuz, R. The Presidents Fact Book - The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publisher, Inc. 2009.
© 2017 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on March 15, 2017:
I agree. All the stuff going on in DC makes Nixon look like a slacker these days.
Readmikenow on March 14, 2017:
Very well written article. I believe Nixon was mild compared to what we've seen in politics lately.