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American President Essays: Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon: Life in Brief

Schoolchildren absorb at least one fact about Richard Milhous Nixon: He was the first and (so far) the only President of the United States to resign the office. Before the spectacular fall, there was an equally spectacular rise. In a half-dozen years, he went from obscurity to a heartbeat from the presidency, winning a congressional race (1946), national prominence in the Alger Hiss spy case (1948), a Senate seat (1950), and the vice presidency (1952). John F. Kennedy interrupted Nixon's assent in 1960, winning the presidency by the narrowest margin of the twentieth century.

After losing a 1962 race for governor of California and holding his "last press conference," Nixon patiently laid the groundwork for a comeback. In 1964, he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater at a time when other prominent Republicans were keeping their distance from the leader of the budding conservative movement. The Republican Party lost in a landslide that year but Nixon won the gratitude of conservatives, the growing power within the party. The GOP's huge losses in 1964 were offset in 1966 when two years of the Vietnam War and urban riots led to huge Republican gains in congressional elections. In 1968, Nixon won a presidential election almost as narrow as the one he had lost in 1960. He was then reelected in 1972 with a larger percentage of the votes than any other Republican during the Cold War.

Until the Watergate scandal led to his near impeachment by the House of Representatives and resignation in 1974, he was the dominant politician of the Cold War. As a Washington pundit once said, hers was not the Pepsi generation but the Nixon generation.

Richard Nixon: Life Before the Presidency

While courting common voters, Nixon made the most of his common origins; biographers, both sympathetic and critical, have tended to follow suit. He was born in one small California town (Yorba Linda) and grew up in another (East Whittier). His parents were in some ways opposites—Frank Nixon was as argumentative as Hannah Nixon was sweet-tempered. Richard Nixon suffered two great personal losses as a young man: the deaths of his younger brother Arthur after a short illness and his older brother Harold after a long one.

His school life brought a string of successes in endeavors common to politicians in training. He won debates and elections and leading roles in school dramatic productions. His grades were excellent, at both Whittier College and Duke University's law school. His scholastic achievements were not enough, however, to get him the jobs he applied for with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and with several prestigious law firms.

Nixon ended up in California, joining a Whittier law firm, the Whittier College board of trustees, and the Whittier Community Players. He fell romantically for a fellow cast member, Thelma Catherine "Pat" Ryan; they wed in 1940. Opportunities for work led Nixon back east, as a law professor's recommendation got Nixon a job with the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C. Following Pearl Harbor, Nixon enlisted in the Navy. His naval career ended with the war and in 1945 he was looking for his next job just as a group of prominent Southern California Republicans were looking for a suitable congressional candidate.

The Denigrative Method

As a campaigner, Nixon mastered early what historian Garry Wills called "The Denigrative Method" and what later analysts called "negative campaigning." Simply put, he attacked his opponents—sometimes unscrupulously, always effectively. His first campaign set the pattern.

His opponent was Jerry Voorhis, a New Dealer elected five times by voters of California's 12th congressional district. Voorhis was an anticommunist and refused to accept the endorsement of any political action committee unless the PAC renounced any and all communist influence. That stance deprived him of backing from the Congress of Industrial Organizations' PAC—CIO PAC—a communist-infiltrated labor group. When a newspaper falsely accused Voorhis of having the CIO PAC's endorsement, the congressman took out an ad proclaiming that the CIO PAC had refused to endorse him on account of his opposition to communists in the labor movement. "I can not accept the support of anyone who does not oppose them as I do," Voorhis said.

Nixon's campaign manager, however, claimed to have proof that Voorhis had the PAC's endorsement. During a debate with Nixon, Voorhis asked to see the proof. Nixon dramatically stepped forward with a bulletin of the local branch of the National Citizens Political Action Committee that included Voorhis among its recommendations. Voorhis pointed out that Nixon's evidence was about the NCPAC, not the CIO PAC, but the damage was done. Nixon had successfully linked Voorhis in the minds of voters to "the PAC," a tactic that helped him defeat Voorhis in November.

The House GOP rewarded Nixon with a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he rose to national stardom during the investigation of Alger Hiss. Through the presentation of evidence before HUAC and at two trials, Hiss, a prominent employee in the U.S. State Department, was revealed to have passed information to the Soviets. Proof of this espionage has only grown more overwhelming in recent years with the declassification of the "Venona" intercepts, decrypted Soviet cables on communist activities in America. Nixon won reelection in 1948 with the endorsement of both parties.

In 1950, his reputation buoyed by the Hiss case, Nixon ran for the Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas in a campaign that echoed his race with Voorhis. This time, the Nixon campaign manual included a "pink sheet" comparing his opponent's voting record to that of Communist Party-liner Vito Marcantonio—what Nixon referred to as the "Douglas-Marcantonio axis." Nixon won a seat in the Senate and an indelible sobriquet—"Tricky Dick."The next rung up the ladder was the most important. In 1952, Dwight David Eisenhower, war hero and political phenomenon, gave Nixon the vice presidential nomination on the Republican ticket after the junior senator did some pre-convention maneuvering to lure California delegates into the Ike column. Then scandal struck, but not very hard. "SECRET RICH MEN'S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE FAR BEYOND HIS SALARY," screamed the New York Post. Nixon linked his troubles to the Reds. "You folks know the work that I did investigating Communists in the United States," he said at his next campaign stop. "When I received the nomination for the vice presidency I was warned that if I continued to attack the Communists in this government they would continue to smear me." Actually, the story came not from Communists but from Republicans—specifically, some disgruntled California politicos who thought Nixon should have been more steadfastly behind the favorite son presidential candidacy of Governor Earl Warren.

Nixon's fund may have been unseemly—it was actually used to keep him on the campaign trail, not living "in style"—but it was not illegal. The candidate defended it in a nationally televised address whose emotional high point—a promise made to his little daughter Tricia never to return one campaign gift, a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers—made it forever known as the "Checkers Speech." Public response to the speech was overwhelmingly positive. A political star was reborn. Ike and Dick won the 1952 election in a landslide.

As vice president, Nixon burnished his reputation for foreign policy expertise with international travel to dozens of countries. His South American tour garnered international headlines when a mob in Caracas, Venezuela, stoned his motorcade. The confrontations with the demonstrators abroad only made him more popular at home. His 1959 trip to the Soviet Union was even more dramatic and politically helpful. While taking in an exhibit showcasing a General Electric model kitchen at the U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair in Sokolniki Park, Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev traded words about the merits of their respective countries. Their exchange became known as the "kitchen debate":Nixon: There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, for example in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space; there may be some instances in which we are ahead of you—in color television, for instance.

Khrushchev: No, we are up with you on this, too. We have bested you in one technique and also in the other.

Nixon: You see, you never concede anything.

Khrushchev: I do not give up.

Nixon: Wait till you see the picture. Let's have far more communication and exchange in this very area that we speak of. We should hear you more on our televisions. You should hear us more on yours.

Khrushchev: That's a good idea. Let's do it like this. You appear before our people. We will appear before your people. People will see and appreciate this.

Earlier, when President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, Nixon's calm, understated performance as temporary steward of the nation's business won him glowing reviews in the news media. But the President's medical problem gave Democrats the opening to claim that a vote to re-elect Eisenhower in 1956 might be, in effect, a vote for Nixon to become President. Ike's popularity with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, however, made it difficult for the opposition party to take him on directly. Nixon, the partisan politician, made a much more tempting political target. In the end, such arguments had little effect on the voters, who re-elected Eisenhower and Nixon in a second landslide.

The Election of 1960

The presidential election of 1960 is best remembered for the first televised debate between Nixon and the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy. For many observers, the contrast between the pale, sweaty Nixon and the bronze, poised Kennedy captures the importance of image in politics, though the vote totals for the candidates—it was the closest election of the twentieth century—indicates that image is far from everything. (See Kennedy biography, "Campaign and Election" section for details.)Nixon blamed his defeat on other factors. An economic recession had bottomed-out shortly before Election Day. Also, Kennedy had the advantage of the challenger, the ability to stay on the offensive, while Nixon had to defend the record of the Eisenhower administration. And, fatefully, Nixon convinced himself that he was the victim of the Kennedys' ruthlessness:"We were faced in 1960 by an organization that had equal dedication to ours and unlimited money, that was led by the most ruthless group of political operatives ever mobilized for a presidential campaign. Kennedy's organization approached campaign dirty tricks with a roguish relish and carried them off with an insouciance that captivated many politicians overcame the critical faculties of many reporters. . . . From this point on I had the wisdom and wariness of someone who had been burned by the power of the Kennedys and their money and by the license they were given by the media. I vowed that I would never again enter an election at a disadvantage by being vulnerable to them—or anyone—on the level of political tactics."For Garry Wills, this passage from Nixon's memoirs suggests the inevitability of Watergate.

Nixon spent much of 1961 writing a book, Six Crises, and contemplating his return to politics. In 1962, he ran for governor of California and lost big. After his last defeat, he held what he claimed was his "last press conference," angrily telling reporters, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more."

Richard Nixon: Campaigns and Elections

The Election of 1968:

Richard Nixon's presidential defeat in 1960 and gubernatorial defeat in 1962 gave him the reputation of a loser. He spent six years shaking it before he could win the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. During that time, he joined a prestigious law firm in New York City, became financially well off, and argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Nixon played a marginal role in presidential politics in 1964, introducing his party's nominee at the GOP convention in San Francisco's Cow Palace: "He is the man who earned and proudly carries the title of Mr. Conservative. He is the man who, by the action of this convention, is now Mr. Republican. And he is the man who, after the greatest campaign in history, will be Mr. President—Barry Goldwater." Nixon campaigned for Goldwater and other Republicans that fall, earning the gratitude of conservatives, who together with their standard-bearer went down to defeat in the largest landslide in post-war history.

It looked like the end of conservatism, the triumph of liberalism. It was neither. Out of the wreckage of Goldwater's candidacy rose a charismatic conservative star, Ronald Wilson Reagan. On the strength of a single, nationally televised speech, Reagan took Goldwater's place as first in the hearts of the conservative movement, confronting Nixon with a formidable rival for the 1968 nomination. But Reagan had never held public office and had to run for governor of California before he could be a credible presidential candidate. He won the 1966 gubernatorial race in a landslide and immediately began seeking the presidential nomination. Nixon had a head start, however, spending 1966 campaigning for Republican candidates and cultivating party conservatives.

His hard work paid off. Thanks in part to an ill-timed blast from President Lyndon Johnson, who called Nixon a "chronic campaigner," the presidential hopeful found himself the center of attention right before an election in which Republicans made tremendous gains. It was going to be a Republican year anyway, with Vietnam and urban unrest dominating political debate, but Johnson's attack helped make it Nixon's year as well.

While Reagan continued to woo the conservative movement, Nixon picked off conservative leaders. Goldwater, Senator Strom Thurmond, and other mainstays of the Republican right-wing lined up behind Nixon. He entered every primary and assembled a team of media consultants who helped him create the image of a "New Nixon," more statesmanlike, less combative, more mature and presidential, an effort chronicled in "The Selling of the President 1968" by Joe McGinnis. The centerpiece of this self-recreation was a series of carefully managed television interview programs packaged by the Nixon campaign. These programs showed Nixon at his best, answering questions posed by ordinary Americans, and shielded him from questions by reporters, who sometimes brought out his worst.

At the Republican Party convention, Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot. Reagan moved to make the nomination unanimous. The presidential hopeful then tapped Maryland's governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. In his acceptance speech, Nixon offered hope to a country in chaos: "We extend the hand of friendship to all people. To the Soviet people. To the Chinese people. To all the people of the world. And we work toward the goal of an open world, open sky, open cities, open hearts, open minds."The Republicans' orderly, well run convention was a sharp contrast to their opponents' tumultuous gathering in Chicago. The Vietnam War had split the Democratic party. Antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy made a surprisingly strong showing against President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, leading Johnson to withdraw from the race in late March. Robert Kennedy then entered the race, winning the California primary in June and—on the same night—losing his life to an assassin's bullet, adding to the grief of a nation still mourning the death of Martin Luther King two months earlier. At the Chicago convention, antiwar forces were defeated by Johnson loyalists, who gave the nomination to Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Outside the convention hall, Chicago police clashed with demonstrators, igniting riots.

Nixon started the general election campaign with a double-digit lead over Humphrey, even in the face of a serious third-party challenge from candidate George Wallace. Wallace came to national prominence early in the 1960s as a staunch segregationist and broadened his appeal to the Right by lashing out at antiwar demonstrators. Nixon pressed his advantages. He refused to debate Humphrey; he also raised and spent much more money than his opponent.

Nevertheless, by Election Day, his lead had all but vanished. Humphrey was buoyed when the North Vietnamese accepted President Johnson's proposal for peace talks in Paris in return for a bombing halt. Publicly, Nixon supported the bombing halt and the negotiations; privately, however, his campaign urged South Vietnam's government to refuse to take part in the talks. South Vietnam complied just days before Americans went to the polls and made Nixon their President. But before Nixon took office, he closed ranks with Johnson and insisted that South Vietnam take part in the peace talks.

Although it was an extremely close race with respect to the popular vote, Nixon won the electoral college by a 3 to 2 margin. Wallace's third party candidacy stole votes from both of the major parties, but hurt the Democrats more; many Southern Democrats defected and Nixon was able to win some Southern electoral votes. Only 43 percent of voters supported Nixon, hardly a mandate. In fact, he defeated Humphrey by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote. The Democrats nevertheless maintained control of the House and Senate, making Nixon the first President elected without his party winning either house of Congress since the nineteenth century.

The Election of 1972

In hindsight, the magnitude of Richard Nixon's reelection victory in 1972—the largest Republican landslide of the Cold War—leads some to ask why the President ever got involved in the Watergate cover-up. Nixon won 49 out of 50 states, taking all but Massachusetts. He established an early lead over the Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and never lost it.

McGovern, on the other hand, stumbled early. He selected Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, only to learn later that the senator from Missouri had undergone treatment for mental illness. A political firestorm immediately erupted over whether a man with a history of mental illness should be next in line to become commander in chief in the nuclear age. McGovern hastily declared himself to be "1,000 percent" behind Eagleton. He then dropped him from the ticket. If selecting a vice president is the first presidential decision that a nominee ever makes, McGovern, by choosing and then rejecting Eagleton, had in effect admitted he made the wrong decision. Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, an architect of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps and Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, replaced Eagleton, but the damage was already done.

For Nixon, it was the best year of his political life. His diplomatic opening to China reached fruition with a widely televised trip to Beijing. Détente bore fruit with the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and a summit in Moscow. And Nixon's decision to bomb North Vietnam and mine Haiphong Harbor to stop a Communist offensive proved highly popular. When Henry Kissinger announced shortly before the election that he had resolved most major negotiating issues with North Vietnam and that therefore "Peace is at hand," it was only icing on the cake.

During most of this outwardly triumphant year, however, a scandal of epic proportions was quietly growing within the administration.

Richard Nixon: Domestic Affairs

The Nixon administration marked the end of America's long period of post-World War II prosperity and the onset of a period of high inflation and unemployment-"stagflation." Unemployment was unusually low when Nixon took office in January 1969 (3.3 percent), but inflation was rising. Nixon adopted a policy of monetary restraint to cool what his advisers saw as an overheating economy. "Gradualism," as it was called, placed its hopes in restricting the growth of the money supply to rein in the economic boom that occurred during Lyndon Johnson's last year in office.

But gradualism, as its name implied, did not produce quick results. As the congressional election year of 1970 began, Nixon, according to Haldeman's diary, repeatedly asked the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers "to explain why we hadn't solved the inflation problem." The President also said "that he never heard of losing an election because of inflation, but lots were lost because unemployment or recession. Point is, he's determined not to let the war on inflation get carried to the point that it will lose us House or Senate seats in November." Political concerns would play an overriding role in the economic decisions of Nixon's first term.

Nixon's fears proved well-founded. By the end of 1970, unemployment rose to the politically damaging level of 6 percent. In that year, Nixon appointed his chief economic adviser, Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve; Burns quickly asserted his independence by giving the President an ultimatum: if Nixon failed to hold federal spending under $200 billion, Burns would continue to keep the money supply tight to fight inflation. Nixon acceded to Burns demands. To save money, he delayed pay raises to federal employees by six months. One result was a strike by the nation's postal workers. Although Nixon used the U.S. Army to keep the postal system going, he ultimately yielded to the postal workers' wage demands, undoing some of the budget-balancing that Burns demanded.

Nixon found himself entering the congressional campaign season faced with unemployment, inflation, and Democratic demands for an "incomes policy" to check spiraling prices and wages. Some called for wage and price controls. In the fall, Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate but lost nine in the House, a development that Nixon blamed on the economy.

The economy continued to deteriorate. By the middle of 1971, unemployment reached 6.2 percent while inflation raged unchecked. Nixon decided his administration needed a single economic spokesman and tapped Treasury Secretary John Connally as its mouthpiece. Connally made sweeping statements about the President's intentions: "Number one, he is not going to initiate a wage-price board. Number two, he is not going to impose mandatory price and wage controls. Number three, he is not going to ask Congress for any tax relief. And number four, he is not going to increase federal spending."Within a matter of weeks, the Treasury Secretary and the President would reverse course. In August 1971, Nixon gathered all of his economic advisers at Camp David and emerged with a New Economic Policy that stood the old one on its head. The NEP violated most of Nixon's long-held economic principles, but he was never one to let principle stand in the way of politics, and his dramatic turnaround on economic issues was immediately and enormously popular. One participant in the Camp David meeting, Herb Stein, thought the assemblage of advisers "acquired the attitude of scriptwriters preparing a TV special to be broadcast on Sunday evening." The announcement had to be as dramatic as possible. "After the special," as Stein put it, "regular programming would be resumed."Nixon came up with a smash hit. He announced a wage-and-price freeze, tax cuts, and a temporary closure of the "gold window," preventing other nations from demanding American gold in exchange for American dollars. To improve the nation's balance of trade, Nixon called for a 10 percent import tax. Public approval was overwhelming.

Nixon then became the beneficiary of some good luck. An economic boom, which began late in 1971, lasted well into the 1972 campaign season, long enough for Nixon to parlay its effects into reelection that November.

The downturn resumed, however, in 1973. Expansive fiscal and monetary policies combined with a shortage of food (aggravated by massive Soviet purchases of American wheat) to fuel inflation. And then came the oil shock. Oil prices were rising even before the onset of the Arab oil boycott in October of 1973. Ultimately, inflation would climb to 12.1 percent in 1974 and help push the economy into recession. When Nixon left office, the economy was in the tank, with rising unemployment and inflation, lengthening gas lines, and a crashing stock market.

Regulation and Social Legislation

"Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy," wrote Herb Stein, the chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers, "than in any other presidency since the New Deal."The federal government took an active role in preventing on-the-job accidents and deaths when Nixon in 1970 signed into law a bill to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That same year, rising concern about the environment led him to propose an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and to sign amendments to the 1967 Clean Air Act calling for reductions in automobile emissions and the national testing of air quality. Other significant environmental legislation enacted during Nixon's presidency included the 1972 Noise Control Act, the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

Despite this blizzard of legislation, environmentalists found much to criticize in Nixon's record. The President impounded billions of dollars Congress had authorized to implement the Clean Air Act, lobbied hard for the air-polluting Supersonic Transport, and subjected environmental regulation to cost-benefit analyses which highlighted the economic costs of preserving a healthy ecosystem.

Nixon proposed more ambitious programs than he enacted, including the National Health Insurance Partnership Program, which promoted health maintenance organizations (HMOs). He also proposed a massive overhaul of federal welfare programs. The centerpiece of Nixon's welfare reform was the replacement of much of the welfare system with a negative income tax, a favorite proposal of conservative economist Milton Friedman. The purpose of the negative income tax was to provide both a safety net for the poor and a financial incentive for welfare recipients to work.

Nixon also proposed an expansion of the Food Stamp program. His Family Assistance Program was bold, innovative-even radical-and, apparently, insincere. "About Family Assistance Plan," Haldeman wrote in his diary, the President "wants to be sure it's killed by Democrats and that we make big play for it, but don't let it pass, can't afford it." One part of Nixon's welfare reform proposal did pass and become a lasting part of the system: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides a guaranteed income for elderly and disabled citizens. The Nixon years also brought large increases in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.


Watergate was so much more than a single crime and cover-up that it is impossible to summarize the tangle of abuses of presidential power that today are grouped under the name of the hotel where the Democratic National Committee had its offices. The arrest of five men in those offices on June 17, 1972, was the first step toward unearthing a host of administration misdeeds. It was to hide those other crimes that Nixon and his men launched the cover-up, the investigation of which helped to unravel that string of illegal conduct.

Indeed, Watergate was far from the first break-in. A year earlier, Nixon had unconstitutionally created his own secret police organization, the Special Investigations Unit, to unearth a conspiracy that he feared would leak some of his most damaging foreign policy secrets, including the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos. The President, however, could not convince FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that such a conspiracy actually existed. Nixon also wanted to expose the alleged conspiracy in the press, something the Justice Department could not legally do. He decided he needed his own team to investigate the conspiracy and leak damaging stories about it. Thus was born the SIU, better known by its nickname, "The Plumbers," an inside joke about its mission to fix leaks.

The immediate cause of Nixon's concern was the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a massive study of the Vietnam War as it was conducted by Nixon's predecessors. The study was commissioned by Robert S. McNamara, the secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. It did not contain a word about the Nixon administration but it did reference top secret documents from the two prior presidencies. The leak ignited Nixon's fear that his own politically damaging secrets would be exposed before the 1972 election. He suspected a conspiracy and resolved to destroy it before it destroyed him.

It was to find out more about this imaginary conspiracy that two of the Plumbers, ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, planned and carried out an operation to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Hunt and Liddy burglarized the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, looking for damaging information on the former Pentagon aide and military operative. Hunt recruited the break-in team through members of the Cuban expatriate community in Florida he knew from his time as a CIA agent working on the Bay of Pigs invasion. When some of those same Cuban expatriates were arrested in the Watergate complex, and when it was discovered that Hunt and Liddy were behind the Watergate break-in as well, Nixon sought desperately to cover up their earlier misdeeds.

In fact, it was his concern with those earlier transgressions that gave rise to a post-Watergate political axiom: that the cover-up of the crime can be more damaging than the crime itself. Nixon's creation of a secret police organization without congressional authorization—one that carried out an illegal break-in without a warrant, no less— would ultimately become a basis for one of the articles of impeachment brought against him by the House Judiciary Committee. As Howard Hunt would put it in an angry memo as his prosecution moved forward, "The Watergate bugging is only one of a number of highly illegal conspiracies engaged in by one or more of the defendants at the behest of senior White House officials. These as yet undisclosed crimes can be proved." Nixon's chief aide, Bob Haldeman, was caught on tape alluding to this very issue:Haldeman: The problem is that there are all kinds of other involvements and if they started a fishing thing on this they're going to start picking up other tracks. That's what appeals to me about trying to get one jump ahead of them and hopefully cut the whole thing off and sink all of it. [June 21, 1972, quoted in Stanley Kutler's Abuse of Power]The hope of cutting off the investigation led, two days later, to the conversation between Nixon and Haldeman that became known as the "smoking gun" tape when the White House released it under court order in 1974. In this exchange, Nixon decided to have the CIA tell the FBI to, in Haldeman's words, "Stay the hell out of this." Nixon suggested that the CIA say that "the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that, ah, without going into the details—don't, don't lie to them to the extent to say no involvement, but just say this is a comedy of errors, without getting into it, the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again."The White House managed to prevent Watergate's political fallout from affecting the 1972 election. But Nixon had hardly begun his second term when the dam broke. In February 1973, L. Patrick Gray, Nixon's nominee to succeed the late J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, revealed during his confirmation hearings that he had allowed John W. Dean, a White House legal counsel, to sit in on FBI interviews of Watergate suspects. Nixon refused to allow Dean to testify before the Senate Watergate committee chaired by Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), citing the doctrine of executive privilege. Gray's nomination was all but dead. "Let him hang there," John D. Ehrlichman said memorably. "Let him twist slowly, slowly, in the wind."At the sentencing hearing for the Watergate burglars on March 23, 1973, Judge John J. Sirica read a letter from James McCord, an ex-CIA man and the security chief for Nixon's reelection campaign until his arrest in the burglary. The letter made four points:

1. There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent.2. Perjury occurred during the trial of matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the government's case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants.3. Others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, when they could have been by those testifying.4. The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.

The investigation began to close in on Dean, who, unbeknownst to the President, decided to turn state's evidence. By the end of April, Nixon announced the resignations of Dean, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman. The next month brought the Senate Watergate hearings, televised and widely watched. As witness after witness revealed more details about scandals old and new, Nixon's approval rating sank like a stone. One witness, Alexander P. Butterfield, a former Haldeman aide who then headed the Federal Aviation Administration, revealed the existence of Nixon's White House taping system. Objective evidence existed to determine who was telling the truth—the White House or its accusers.

Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the tapes. In October, Nixon fired Cox, a move that prompted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. The "Saturday Night Massacre," as it quickly became known, backfired on Nixon. The outrage it inspired among the American public led him to reverse course and agree to turn over the tapes to Judge Sirica. A new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was appointed and subpoenaed 64 more tapes, including the July 23, 1972, "smoking gun" tape. Jaworski took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which voted 8-0 to uphold the subpoena. With the release of the tapes, the bottom fell out of Nixon's political support. Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative leader, told the President that there were a maximum of 18 senators who might vote against his conviction on the articles of impeachment—too few to save him. The Nixon presidency was over.

Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, to take effect at noon the next day.

In his inaugural address, incoming President Gerald R. Ford declared, "Our long national nightmare is over." One month later, he granted Richard Nixon a full pardon. " target="_blank">Address to the Nation Announcing Decision To Resign the Office of President (August 8, 1974)

Presidential Speech Archive

Richard Nixon: Foreign Affairs

President Richard Nixon, like his arch-rival President John F. Kennedy, was far more interested in foreign policy than in domestic affairs. It was in this arena that Nixon intended to make his mark. Although his base of support was within the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and although he had made his own career as a militant opponent of Communism, Nixon saw opportunities to improve relations with the Soviet Union and establish relations with the People's Republic of China. Politically, he hoped to gain credit for easing Cold War tensions; geopolitically, he hoped to use the strengthened relations with Moscow and Beijing as leverage to pressure North Vietnam to end the war—or at least interrupt it —with a settlement. He would play China against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union against China, and both against North Vietnam.

Nixon took office intending to secure control over foreign policy in the White House. He kept Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird out of the loop on key matters of foreign policy. The instrument of his control over what he called "the bureaucracy" was his assistant for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger. So closely did the two work together that they are sometimes referred to as "Nixinger." Together, they used the National Security Council staff to concentrate power in the White House—that is to say, within themselves.

Opening to China

A year before his election, Nixon had written in Foreign Affairs of the Chinese, that "There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation." Relations between the two great communist powers, the Soviet Union and China, had been deteriorating since the 1950s and had erupted into open conflict with border clashes during Nixon's first year in office. The President sensed opportunity and began to send out tentative diplomatic feelers to China. Reversing Cold War precedent, he publicly referred to the Communist nation by its official name, the People's Republic of China.A breakthrough of sorts occurred in the spring of 1971, when Mao Zedong invited an American table tennis team to China for some exhibition matches. Before long, Nixon dispatched Kissinger to secret meetings with Chinese officials. As America's foremost anti-Communist politician of the Cold War, Nixon was in a unique position to launch a diplomatic opening to China, leading to the birth of a new political maxim: "Only Nixon could go to China." The announcement that the President would make an unprecedented trip to Beijing caused a sensation among the American people, who had seen little of the world's most populous nation since the Communists had taken power. Nixon's visit to China in February 1972 was widely televised and heavily viewed. It was only a first step, but a decisive one, in the budding rapprochement between the two states.

Detente With the Soviet Union

The announcement of the Beijing summit produced an immediate improvement in American relations with the U.S.S.R.—namely, an invitation for Nixon to meet with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Russia. It was a sign that Nixon's effort at "triangulation" was working; fear of improved relations between China and America was leading the Soviets to better their own relations with America, just as Nixon hoped. In meeting with the Soviet leader, Nixon became the first President to visit Moscow.

Of more lasting importance were the treaties the two men signed to control the growth of nuclear arms. The agreements—a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and an Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty—did not end the arms race, but they paved the way for future pacts which sought to reduce and eliminate arms. Nixon also negotiated and signed agreements on science, space, and trade.

Withdrawal from Vietnam

While Nixon tried to use improved relations with the Soviets and Chinese to pressure North Vietnam to reach a settlement, he could only negotiate a flawed agreement that merely interrupted, rather than ended, the war.

In his first year in office, Nixon had tried to settle the war on favorable terms. Through secret negotiations between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese, the President warned that if major progress were not made by November 1, 1969, "we will be compelled—with great reluctance—to take measures of the greatest consequences." The NSC staff made plans for some of those options, including the resumed bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Nixon then took a step designed both to interfere with Communist supplies and to signal a willingness to act irrationally to achieve his goals—he secretly ordered the bombing of Communist supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia. Also in keeping with his intention to convey a sense of presidential irrationality—Nixon as "madman"—he launched a worldwide nuclear alert.

None of it worked. The North Vietnamese did not yield; Nixon did not carry out his threats; the war continued. Nixon did not know how to bring the conflict to a successful resolution.

The President did not reveal any of this to the American people. Publicly, he said his strategy was a combination of negotiating and "Vietnamization," a program to train and arm the South Vietnamese to take over responsibility for their own defense, thus enabling American troops to withdraw. He began the withdrawals even before he issued his secret ultimatum to the Communists, periodically announcing partial troop withdrawals throughout his first term.


After a coup in Cambodia replaced neutralist leader Prince Sihanouk with a pro-American military government of dubious survivability, Nixon ordered a temporary invasion of Cambodia—the administration called it an incursion—by American troops. The domestic response included the largest round of antiwar protests in American history. It was during these protests in May 1970 that National Guardsmen fired at rock-throwing protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four. Two weeks later, police fired on students at Jackson State University in Mississippi, leaving two more dead.

By the end of the year, Nixon was planning to finish the American military withdrawal from Vietnam within eighteen months. Kissinger talked him out of it. Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, recorded this discussion in his diary on December 21, 1970. "Henry was in for a while and the President discussed a possible trip for next year. He's thinking about going to Vietnam in April [1971] or whenever we decide to make the basic end-of-the-war announcement. His idea would be to tour around the country, build up [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu and so forth, and then make the announcement right afterwards. Henry argues against a commitment that early to withdraw all combat troops because he feels that if we pull them out by the end of '71, trouble can start mounting in '72 that we won't be able to deal with, and which we'll have to answer for at the elections. He prefers instead a commitment to have them all out by the end of '72 so that we won't have to deliver finally until after the [US presidential] elections [in November 1972] and therefore can keep our flanks protected. This would certainly seem to make more sense, and the President seemed to agree in general, but he wants Henry to work up plans on it."

In 1971, South Vietnamese ground forces, with American air support, took part in Lamson 719, an offensive against Communist supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia. Since American troops would not take part in ground combat operations in either country, Lamson was considered a test (at least a partial one) of the success of Vietnamization. By all accounts, it went badly, but it disrupted Communist supply lines long enough to aid the war effort.

Nixon and Kissinger anticipated that the biggest threat to their plans would be a dry-season Communist offensive in 1972. Their worst fears were realized when the North Vietnamese regular army poured into the South in March 1972. Nixon responded by implementing some of the plans he had made in 1969. He mined Haiphong Harbor and used B-52s to bomb the North. The combined power of the American and South Vietnamese military ultimately stopped the offensive, though not before the Communists had more territory under their control.

The North Vietnamese were eager to reach a settlement before the American presidential election and subsequent removal of U.S. forces from the country. Hanoi made a breakthrough proposal in October 1972 and reached agreement with Kissinger rapidly. The South Vietnamese government balked, however, chiefly because the agreement preserved North Vietnamese control of all the territory Hanoi currently held. To turn up the political pressure on Nixon, the North Vietnamese began broadcasting provisions of the agreement. Kissinger held a press conference announcing that "Peace is at hand" without giving away too many details.

After the election, Nixon told South Vietnamese president Thieu that if he did not agree to the settlement, Congress would cut off aid to his government—and that conservatives who had supported South Vietnam would lead the way. He promised that the United States would retaliate militarily if the North violated the agreement. To back up this threat, he launched the "Christmas Bombings" of 1972. When negotiations resumed in January, the few outstanding issues were quickly resolved. Thieu backed down. The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 23, 1973, bringing an end to the participation of U.S. ground forces in the Vietnam War.

Beyond the "Big Three"

Nixon's policies vis-a-vis China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam are his most famous and controversial, but he left his mark on a host of other diplomatic matters.

The 1973 October War alerted America to the power of oil-producing Arab nations to impose a great price - literally, in the form of higher fuel costs - to force a compromise on the disposition of lands Israel seized in the Six Day War of 1967. When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, they were backed up by Gulf oil states that announced a price increase of 70 percent; and when Nixon asked Congress for emergency aid to Israel, Arab officials imposed a total embargo on oil shipments to the United States. American dependence on foreign oil meant the crisis would not be resolved on military terms alone.

With Nixon distracted by Watergate, Kissinger took charge of policy. A large-scale American airlift of supplies prevented Israeli defeat; a ceasefire negotiated with the Soviet Union forestalled Israeli victory. When Israel continued fighting after the ceasefire deadline (with Kissinger's tacit acquiescence), the Soviets threatened unilateral action. Kissinger responded by putting American forces worldwide on DefCon (for Defense Condition) Three. The Soviets' tone changed. Instead of unilateral action, they now spoke of sending observers, not soldiers. The war ended soon thereafter with no apparent victor. Over the next several months, Kissinger helped redraw the lines of the Middle East and inspired the term "shuttle diplomacy" as he flew from capital to capital seeking agreement. The result was, as one observer put it, "a reasonably stable situation on the Sinai and Syrian fronts."In Chile, Nixon's opposition to the democratically elected president, socialist Salvador Allende, helped pave the way for a military coup whose legacy of death and despotism burden that nation still. Following Allende's election, Nixon authorized the CIA to prevent him from taking office by any means. General Renee Schneider, the Chilean army chief of staff, supported his country's constitution and opposed any coup plot. With U.S. encouragement, right-wing Argentine military officials tried to kidnap Schneider, wounding him fatally on October 22, 1970.

Nixon cut American aid to Chile, which had been running $70 million a year, to less than $1 million. The CIA continued to be involved in anti-Allende political activities before the socialist president died in a military coup on September 11, 1973. A junta led by General Augusto Pinochet replaced Chile's democracy with despotism. Allende supporters were rounded up and detained in Santiago's National Stadium. More than a thousand, including two Americans, were summarily executed. The evidence that has emerged to date indicates that Nixon had no direct involvement in the coup; the President, however, had done much to suggest that he would welcome one. Fearing a tyranny of the Left, he quickly embraced a tyranny of the Right.

Richard Nixon: Life After the Presidency

When President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, telling Americans, "Our long national nightmare is over." On September 8, President Ford pardoned Nixon of all crimes associated with the Watergate scandal. He granted, "a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974."Nixon was reluctant to accept the pardon because it implied guilt but his friends and advisers warned him that any legal battle would be protracted and expensive and it would be very hard to find an impartial jury or receive a fair trial. Ford's pardon of Nixon angered many in the public who felt that Nixon should have been held accountable for any crimes he might have committed. Historians point to the pardon as a significant factor in Ford's failure to win reelection in 1976.

After leaving Washington, Nixon and his wife Pat returned to California and "La Casa Pacifica," their home in San Clemente, California. The former President was a broken man with little idea of what to do next and how to pick up his life. He soon suffered a physical setback as well. At the end of October, Nixon underwent surgery to remove a blood clot that had formed in his leg. Although the surgery was successful, Nixon went into shock because of internal bleeding and had to undergo another operation. He spent considerable time in the hospital before returning home for a long convalescence. As 1974 came to an end, according to many accounts, Nixon hit one of the lowest points of his life. Yet the man who had come back so many times before had only just begun working on his final comeback.

He first began to look for ways to recover financially. He had spent more than $1 million defending himself in various lawsuits relating to Watergate and owed back taxes to the federal government. He needed to find ways to reestablish his financial well being. First, he agreed to write his memoirs, which were sold for more than $2 million; RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978) went on to become a best seller. He gave an interview to British television personality David Frost for $600,000. The interview aired in May 1977 to mixed reviews. The Nixons also sold their properties in Florida; all of this went a long way in paying off many of his debts.

Nixon then began tentatively to reenter to public eye. He traveled to China in 1976. Much of the international community could not understand the fuss over Watergate, and the former President was warmly received by his Chinese hosts. He made his first public speech in 1978 in a small town in Kentucky before a friendly audience, and he mostly concentrated his first post-presidential appearances on small gatherings of supporters. In 1980, the Nixons moved to New York City, which allowed them to be back in the heart of activity, and then two years later they moved to the community of Saddle River, New Jersey. He and Pat spent considerable time with their children and grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Nixon began to reclaim a place on the national scene. He dispensed his advice to all who would listen, including talking to President Jimmy Carter about normalizing relations with China in 1978. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush began to consult him although they did not publicize that fact. Republicans were still wary of the public's reaction to Nixon but they were interested in his opinions about foreign affairs. He remained an acknowledged expert on foreign policy, gave countless speeches around the world, and authored several well-regarded books, including Real Peace (1983), No More Vietnams (1985), 1999: Victory without War (1988), In the Arena (1990), Seize the Moment (1992), and Beyond Peace (1994). The high-water mark in his campaign for rehabilitation was probably a 1986 Newsweek cover story, entitled, "He's Back: The Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon."After Nixon left office, he battled with the federal government over his presidential papers and tapes. Although it was custom that Presidents controlled their papers, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservations Act to keep Nixon's presidential materials in the Washington area because some people were afraid the former President would destroy them. Eventually, they were stored at the National Archives in Maryland. Meanwhile, the former President and a group of his friends raised more than $20 million to establish the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda, California. The library was not an official "presidential library." It received no federal funds and did not contain any presidential papers, just materials from his pre- and post-presidential career. When it was dedicated in 1990, former Presidents Ford and Reagan and President Bush all attended. In 2007, the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened in Yorba Linda as part of the federal presidential libraries system. Nixon's presidential papers and tapes are now located in both Maryland and California.

Nixon died from complications of a stroke on April 22, 1994, and his funeral drew luminaries from around the globe, including every living President. President Bill Clinton's eulogy dwelled on Nixon's great accomplishments, particularly in foreign affairs, rather than on his constitutional crimes, remarking "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close."

Richard Nixon: Family Life

Richard and Pat Nixon were married in 1940, and she supported him throughout the ups and downs of his long political career. The Nixons had two children-Patricia "Tricia" and Julie-who were both grown when Nixon became President. Julie married David Eisenhower, one of Dwight Eisenhower's grandsons, in 1968, and Tricia married Edward Cox in the Rose Garden of the White House in 1971.

Nixon was very close to his family, especially during the Watergate scandal and after his resignation. Both Nixons were devoted grandparents, who moved back east in 1980 in part to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

Nixon was generally an introvert and a formal man, who often seemed socially ill at ease. He had few close friends with whom he could really relax. Still he charmed many people in the American public, especially those who admired his humble beginnings and his every-man appeal. He was a hard worker and an avid reader. During his years in the White House, he enjoyed escaping to Camp David; Key Biscayne, Florida; and San Clemente, California.

Nixon was a good piano player and liked to relax with family and friends around the piano, inviting guests to sing along with him to popular songs. He was an avid walker, and after leaving office, he took up golf, which helped his physical recovery after his surgeries in 1974. He was also a knowledgeable fan of football and baseball, so much so that he often used sports metaphors when talking about important political and diplomatic issues.

Richard Nixon: Impact and Legacy

Richard Nixon's six years in the White House remain widely viewed as pivotal in American military, diplomatic, and political history. In the two decades before Nixon took office, a liberal Democratic coalition dominated presidential politics, and American foreign policy was marked by large-scale military interventions; in the two decades after, a conservative Republican coalition dominated presidential politics, and direct military intervention was by and large replaced with aid (sometimes covert, sometimes not) to allied forces. Nixon intended his presidency to be epochal and, despite being cut short by Watergate, it was.

Nixon and his presidency are often termed "complex" (sometimes "contradictory"). Scholars who classify him as liberal, moderate, or conservative find ample evidence for each label and conclusive evidence for none of them. This should be expected of a transitional political figure. In foreign and domestic policy, Nixon's inclinations were conservative, but he assumed the presidency at the end of the 1960s, liberalism's postwar peak. He could not achieve his overarching goal of creating a governing coalition of the right without first dismantling Franklin Roosevelt's coalition of the left.

As President, Nixon was only as conservative as he could be and only as liberal as he had to be. He took credit for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency while privately noting that if he had not taken this liberal step, the Democratic Congress would have forced more liberal environmental legislation on him. This was a President who could philosophically oppose wage and price controls and privately express the conviction that they would not work, while still implementing them for election-year effect. Still his tactical flexibility should not obscure his steadiness of political purpose. He meant to move the country to the right, and he did.

Nixon's most celebrated achievements as President—nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and the diplomatic opening to China—set the stage for the arms reduction pacts and careful diplomacy that brought about the end of the Cold War. Likewise, the Nixon Doctrine of furnishing aid to allies while expecting them to provide the soldiers to fight in their own defense paved the way for the Reagan Doctrine of supporting proxy armies and the Weinberger Doctrine of sending U.S. armed forces into combat only as a last resort when vital national interests are at stake and objectives clearly defined.

But even these groundbreaking achievements must be considered within the context of Nixon's political goals. He privately viewed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the China initiative as ways to blunt criticism from the political left. And while his slow withdrawal from Vietnam appeared to be a practical application of the Nixon Doctrine, his secretly recorded White House tapes reveal that he expected South Vietnam to collapse after he brought American troops home and prolonged the war to postpone that collapse until after his reelection in 1972.

Ultimately, the White House tapes must shape any assessment of Nixon's impact and legacy. They ended his presidency by furnishing proof of his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, fueled a generation's skepticism about political leaders, and today provide ample evidence of the political calculation behind the most important decisions of his presidency. They make his presidency an object lesson in the difference between image and reality, a lesson that each generation must learn anew.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Ken Hughes

Mr. Hughes coordinates the team of scholars reviewing and transcribing President Richard M. Nixon’s White House tapes, as part of the Presidential Recordings Project at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.