Richard Milhous Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, at Yorba Linda, California, the son of Frank Nixon, an owner of a service station, and Hannah (née Milhous), a strong Quaker. Richard, the second of five children, attended Whittier College, then Duke University Law School, graduating in 1937. He then returned to Whittier where he practiced law, and also met Thelma Catherine (“Pat”) Ryan when the two were cast in the same play at a local community theater. They married in 1940.
Moving to Washington, D.C., Nixon worked in the Office of Price Administration and in August 1942 joined the U.S. Navy, becoming an aviation ground officer in the Pacific and ending up as a lieutenant commander at the end of the war. He then entered politics and in 1946 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 12th district of California, defeating the incumbent, Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis.
Voorhis had been elected for five consecutive terms, and Nixon was critical of him for his liberal views. In 1948 Nixon was able to win both the Democratic and the Republican primaries, and on his return to Washington, became a leading member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC) until 1950. He rose to national, if not international, attention in his investigation of Alger Hiss.
Nixon’s cross-examination of Hiss before the HUAC established his anticommunist credentials, and in 1950, Nixon ran for the Senate against the Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. This campaign also included innuendoes, with “pink sheets” being distributed comparing how Douglas voted in the Senate with the voting record of Vito Marcantonio, a left-wing senator from New York. This led to Nixon earning his nickname “Tricky Dick,” coined by a small Californian newspaper, the Independent Review, and taken up by Douglas.
In 1952 Nixon managed to win the vice presidential nomination on a ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon was seen as an uncompromising anticommunist, but was tainted with allegations of corruption. Journalists discovered that Nixon had operated a slush fund with money from Southern Californian businessmen, and Nixon went on the attack.
He listed his family’s assets, admitting that his six-year-old daughter Tricia had received, as a gift, a cocker spaniel called Checkers, and he announced that the family would be keeping it. The public responded favorably to Nixon’s frankness, and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won 442 electoral college votes.
Nixon had two terms as vice president and during that time is said to have redefined the role of the office. He became a prominent spokesman for the Eisenhower administration, particularly on aspects of foreign policy.
Nixon chaired a number of cabinet sessions when Eisenhower was incapacitated owing to illness, but Eisenhower left most power with some advisers, with Nixon always excluded from the inner circle. He also went on a tour of Latin America in 1958, his progress being followed by anti-American demonstrators, and to the Soviet Union in 1959 where he met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Nominated as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1960, Nixon used his experience as vice president to try to upstage the Democrat Party’s choice of John F. Kennedy. The campaign has become bestknown for the first television debates between the two candidates.
Kennedy was able to portray himself as representing a generational change in leadership, looking younger and “fresher” than Nixon. He was certainly able to respond to Nixon’s attacks, but although Nixon looked terrible in some of his television appearances, many people who listened to the debates on the radio felt that he did better than Kennedy.
The election was close, with Nixon losing by fewer than 120,000 votes, with queries about the voting in Illinois and Texas. Nixon chose not to challenge the results too much, and his dignity won him the support of many.
Retiring to private life in California, Nixon then wrote a book, Six Crises, in which he described his role facing six crises in his career as a congressman, senator, and then vice president. It was influential, and Mao Zedong was to read it in preparation for Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Nixon contested the governorship of California in 1962, losing to the incumbent, Democrat Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown. He then again retired from politics and went to New York, where he practiced law as the senior partner in Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander.
He was disappointed when Barry Goldwater was chosen as the Republican Party choice in the 1964 elections, writing that Goldwater lost the entire campaign when he (Goldwater) declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” By contrast, Nixon built up a reputation as a moderate and an expert in foreign policy, which contributed to the Republican Party choosing him as their candidate in 1968.
By 1968 Nixon had put together a coalition of supporters that managed to ally itself with Southern conservatives led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Nixon promised to name a Southerner to the Supreme Court, oppose court-ordered “busing” urged by the civil rights movement, and chose a hard-line vice-presidential candidate who would have Southern support. His choice was Maryland governor Spiro Agnew.
Nixon stood against a disunited Democratic Party, which was split between supporters of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy who opposed the Vietnam War, and Hubert Humphrey, choice of the mainstream Democratic Party. Robert Kennedy’s assassination had resulted in Humphrey being chosen as the candidate after a torrid party gathering at Chicago which led to fighting in the streets.
Nixon promised that he would get “peace with honor” in Vietnam but was not specific about how he was going to achieve this. It did not stop him criticizing Vice President Humphrey, who, as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, was blamed for the increasing casualties there, especially with the Tet Offensive at the start of the election campaign.
Nixon, however, was more worried that the candidacy of George Wallace, as a pro-segregationist party, might split his vote in the South. Nixon won comfortably with 301 electoral college seats to Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 46. However, the popular vote was far closer: Nixon, 31.7 million, and Humphrey, 30.9 million.
After the election, Nixon was determined to introduce a number of reforms. As soon as he became president, he changed the civil rights and law enforcement legislation. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
Nixon pushed through the space project, with Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and speaking to Nixon from the Moon. In January 1972 Nixon also approved the Space Shuttle Program.
He also launched, in his State of the Union speech in January 1971, an additional $100 million to be added to the National Cancer Institute budget for cancer research, inaugurating his “War on Cancer.” He had also proposed the Family Assistance Program (FAP) to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which would have provided poor families with a guaranteed annual income.
The move was defeated in the Senate, but it did lead to the Supplemental Security Income program and many other related programs. Overall, Nixon’s aim was to reduce inflation by limiting government spending, but from 1971 the government ran up what was then the biggest deficit in U.S. history.
Nixon’s main aim was to achieve an “honorable” settlement to the conflict in Vietnam. To achieve this, his first major task was to increase “Vietnamization,” by which the United States reduced the number of its soldiers while increasing the number of South Vietnamese soldiers.
This became known as the Guam Doctrine, or the Nixon Doctrine. With the U.S. command worried about the state of readiness of the South Vietnamese troops, Nixon resumed the bombing of North Vietnam, which had been suspended by Lyndon Johnson just before the 1968 elections.
In fact, Nixon expanded the war by organizing the secret bombing of Cambodia in March 1969, and supporting the overthrow of Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, in March 1970. Straight after this, the Vietnamese Communists tried to gain control of Cambodia, and soon afterwards Nixon ordered U.S. soldiers and South Vietnamese forces to attack Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia.
Nixon and China
Nixon also started a series of initially secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese through his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, who met with the North Vietnamese foreign minister, Le Duc Tho. As these progressed, Nixon began establishing links with the People’s Republic of China. The United States lifted its trade and travel restrictions in 1971.
When the Chinese indicated that they would favor high-level contacts, the U.S. and Chinese table-tennis teams took part in reciprocal visits, with Kissinger visiting China, and then Nixon making his own visit to China in February–March 1972—the first by a U.S. president while in office. Nixon felt that better relations with China would put pressure on the Soviet Union.
Before Nixon left China, the Shanghai Communiqué recorded that Nixon acknowledged the “one China” policy by which the United States accepted that Taiwan is a part of one China. In May 1972 Nixon visited the Soviet Union and began détente, with several talks on limiting nuclear weapons such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).
By October 1972 Nixon was close to reaching an agreement with the North Vietnamese, having achieved most of his objectives just before the U.S. presidential elections. The South Vietnamese raised objections, while the North Vietnamese refused to compromise, knowing how much Nixon wanted the agreement.
No agreement was reached by the elections, with the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam forcing the North Vietnamese back to the negotiation tables, and the final agreement being signed in January 1973 in Paris.
All U.S. military personnel were to be withdrawn, all prisoners of war were to be released, and there would be a ceasefire, along with a heavy rearming of the South Vietnamese. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, but Tho declined to receive it.
Nixon also was involved in controversial actions around the world. He oversaw the channeling of millions of dollars to the Chilean opposition, and supported the military overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, allying itself to the subsequent government of General Augusto Pinochet.
In the Middle East, Nixon supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War, an action that led to the 1973 oil crisis. The administration also supported General Yahya Khan in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, seriously affecting relations between India and the United States for many years.
In 1972 Nixon was renominated for the presidential election along with Spiro Agnew. This led to the formation of the Campaign for the Reelection of the President (CRP), which was nicknamed by his opponents CREEP.
On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for being involved in a burglary at the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington, D.C. It soon emerged that these men had been hired by the CRP and were charged. With no evidence available at the time linking Watergate to Nixon, Nixon easily won the November 1972 elections with 520 electoral college votes.
The Watergate scandal became a major issue in 1973, with Nixon having White House counsel John Dean organize a “cover-up.” Two journalists from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, felt there was more in the Watergate story than was made out, and started receiving information from a source who went by the code name “Deep Throat,” who later turned out to be Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI.
In February 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, was established to investigate the Watergate affair, and John Dean was interviewed in televised hearings.
He started accusing Nixon of involvement in the cover-up of Watergate, with other witnesses testifying about illegal activities by Nixon and his administration, which initiated an organized program of harassment of other politicians, journalists, and others.
It became evident that Nixon had installed a recording system in the Oval Office soon after he became president, but Nixon refused to comply with a subpoena. Nixon then ordered his attorney general to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate.
When the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, resigned, Nixon fired Richardson’s assistant when he also refused to fire Cox. He then managed to get solicitor-general Robert Bork to fire Cox. Finally in July 1974 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon’s claim of “executive privilege” was no excuse.
A transcript of one of Nixon’s conversations, made available on August 5, 1974, showed that the president had discussed the use of the Central Intelligence Agency to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate breakin. Three days later Nixon, faced with the prospect of impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate, announced his resignation effective at noon the following day.
Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned his office in 1973 after facing charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion. He had been replaced by Gerald Ford, who followed Nixon as president. On September 8, 1974, President Ford gave Nixon a presidential pardon.
In retirement, Nixon and his wife settled at San Clemente, California, and he wrote his memoirs. He then spent most of the rest of his life writing about foreign policy. He was partly able to restore some of his reputation as an elder statesman.
In 1980 he flew to Egypt, where he was present at the funeral of the former shah of Iran, being highly critical of the Jimmy Carter administration’s handling of Iran. Pat Nixon died on June 22, 1993, and Richard Nixon died from a massive stroke on April 22, 1994, in New York City.