Biography for Richard M. Nixon
After finally achieving his dream of becoming president in 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon became the first U.S. chief executive to resign from office. It was a dramatic ending to a long and controversial political career marked by early unscrupulous election campaign tactics and later foreign policy accomplishments. Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California and grew up in Whittier. He graduated from the small Quaker-run Whittier College in 1934 and thanks to a scholarship and part-time work, managed to complete his law studies at Duke University in 1937. After serving as a town counsel and corporate tax lawyer, Nixon moved to Washington, D.C. in January 1942 to work in the Office of Price Administration. That August, he joined the navy and served in the Pacific as a lieutenant. After the war, Nixon entered California politics. In his campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, he branded his Democratic opponent, Jerry Voorhis, as a tool of organized labor because he had accepted campaign donations from the Congress of Industrial Organizations' Political Action Committee. Nixon also claimed that the committee was communist-dominated. The slander was unfounded, but voters responded to it and gave Nixon a solid victory. In Congress, Nixon won a national reputation for his aggressive behavior as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In a famous trial, he supported the claims of Whittaker Chambers that Alger Hiss, a respected diplomat and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had been a member of the Communist Party before World War II and had spied for the Soviet Union. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury. Capitalizing on his newfound notoriety, Nixon decided in 1950 to run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic representative Helen Gahagen Douglas. Once again, Nixon, relying on unsubstantiated evidence and innuendo, won the election by labeling his opponent a communist. Nixon's youth, anticommunist reputation, and California residence made him an ideal running mate for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. During the campaign, Nixon was almost forced off of the Republican ticket because of the discovery that a special campaign fund had been set up by wealthy supporters to help defer his Senate campaign costs. It was alleged that Nixon used some of the funds in an inappropriate personal manner. Nixon went on national television with his family. The group included a dog called Checkers—a gift Nixon said he would not return. His talk (thereafter referred to as the Checkers speech), an effective, tearful denial of wrongdoing, stymied efforts to force his resignation. Because of Eisenhower's illnesses and distaste for internal party politics, Nixon assumed the task of pacifying various Republican Party groups and took many overseas goodwill trips during his eight years as vice president. It was on one such trip to Moscow that he seized upon the opportunity to debate Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about the benefits of capitalism over communism. This exchange, known as the Kitchen Debate because it took place in the kitchen appliance display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, brought Nixon enormous popularity in the United States. In 1960, Nixon easily won the Republican nomination for president, but he was defeated in the general election by Democrat John F. Kennedy in a very close race. Many political analysts attributed his narrow loss to the mistake of agreeing to debate Kennedy on live television. The haggard and stony-faced Nixon, although a brilliant debater, was no match for the youthful and photogenic Kennedy. A majority of the television audience felt that Kennedy had won, but radio listeners felt that Nixon had. Two years later, Nixon ran for governor of California and after losing badly to the Democratic incumbent, held a news conference in which he attacked the press for its alleged anti-Nixon bias. He concluded with the sarcastic comment, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." Nixon moved to New York City and became a partner of a large Wall Street law firm. In 1964, when other Republicans refused to endorse conservative Barry Goldwater, Nixon campaigned on his behalf. This, plus frequent appearances for Republican candidates across the nation, enabled Nixon to make a remarkable political comeback in 1968. This time, running against Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace, he won. Nixon posed as a candidate of the "silent majority," the average Americans whose interests had been ignored by a liberal Democratic Party preoccupied with the problems of African Americans and the media-grabbing antics of the nation's privileged, university youth. Nixon campaigned against more welfare for African Americans, against cultural permissiveness and political radicalism, and for law and order and respect for authority and tradition. His election, in retrospect, was a watershed in U.S. political history because it signaled the breakup and decline of the liberal coalition that had dominated U.S. politics since the New Deal. Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969 at a difficult time in U.S. history. High inflation, domestic civil rights protests, and the Vietnam War had split the nation along age, class, and racial lines. During his first term, Nixon gradually withdrew U.S. forces from South Vietnam. Under his "Vietnamization plan," the South Vietnamese army was trained to take over the fighting and to use American air power to force North Vietnam to relinquish its quest for total victory. In 1970, American bombing of communist bases in Cambodia and Laos succeeded in disrupting enemy supply lines but unleashed a fury of domestic political protest. Undaunted, Nixon continued to alternate between increased bombing and a willingness to negotiate as U.S. ground combat forces were withdrawn. Finally, in January 1973, after massive American B-52 bombing attacks, North Vietnam agreed to a negotiated peace. This "peace with honor" turned out to be little more than an opportunity for the United States to pull out of a war it could not win, however. South Vietnam fell under the domination of the North in 1975. In addition, the bombing had dramatically enlarged the area of conflict in Indochina, undermining sources of stability in Cambodia and giving an opening for the Khmer Rouge and their policies of mass murder. Nixon's other foreign policy achievements were less controversial. Pursuing a policy of peaceful coexistence called détente, he improved relations with the Soviet Union. He visited Moscow in 1972, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev came to the United States in 1973. Their talks resulted in a large grain sale to the Soviet Union by the United States and the beginning of talks on limiting strategic nuclear weapons. Nixon also visited the People's Republic of China in 1972, thereby opening communications with that country and substantially reducing tensions in the world. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Nixon administration, along with the Soviet Union, successfully pressured Israel, Egypt, and Syria to cease hostilities. With peace restored, Nixon made a friendly visit to Israel and four Arab nations in 1974. In domestic politics, Nixon's efforts to curtail the federal government's role in civil rights advocacy and social welfare provision met with mixed results. He dismantled many liberal programs of the 1960s, slowed down the progress of school integration, and appointed four conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the Democratic Congress blocked his legislation to prohibit forced busing, stymied numerous attempts to cut social programs, and refused to confirm two of his Supreme Court nominees. Nixon, moreover, sometimes initiated policies more liberal than conservative, as in his imposition of wage and price controls in 1971 and his Family Assistance Plan proposal of 1970, a bold welfare program that would have guaranteed each U.S. family a minimum annual income. Partially out of a desire to stop leaks of classified Vietnam War-related information to the press and out of a desire to ensure his own reelection in 1972, Nixon authorized the establishment of a team of agents (nicknamed the Plumbers) to tap telephones illegally and burglarize the offices of opponents. When they were caught in the Democratic Party's national campaign office in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. in June 1972 and arrested, Nixon authorized the payment of large sums of campaign contribution money to maintain their silence and promised them clemency after the election. (He had previously authorized the infiltration of the student New Left and antiwar movements to spy on them and to provoke their members to ever more extreme actions.) In the fall, Nixon was elected by an overwhelming majority against his Democratic rival, George McGovern. Shortly after Nixon began his second term, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign for income tax evasion. Then the cover-up Nixon had authorized of the activities of the clandestine Plumbers operation began to unravel. Over the course of the next two years, Nixon and the nation experienced his gradual political destruction. A nationally televised Senate investigation piled up evidence of his guilt in obstructing justice and in abusing the powers and privileges of his office for personal and political gain. Finally, in August 1974, Nixon was forced by a Supreme Court decision to turn over tapes he had made of conversations in his office detailing his efforts to prevent the discovery of his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Faced with certain impeachment by Congress, Nixon resigned. One month later, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full pardon from any federal prosecution. Nixon accepted the pardon but never admitted that he had ever done anything illegal. In retirement, he continued to travel and write about foreign policy issues. Nixon's penchant for secrecy and illegality had the long-term effect of not only diminishing his achievements, but also diminishing the stature of the presidency. He died in New York City on April 22, 1994.