Miller Center

Elliot L. Richardson (1973) - Secretary of Defense

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Elliot Lee Richardson was born July 20, 1920, in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned an A.B. cum laude (1941) and LL.B. cum laude (1947) from Harvard University. Richardson was both an associate and partner in the Boston law firm of Ropes and Gray. He was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 1965 to 1967 and Massachusetts attorney general from 1967 to 1969. President Richard Nixon appointed him secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1970. Richardson also served the Nixon administration as secretary of Defense (January to May 1973), and Attorney General (May to October 1973).

As Attorney General, Richardson gained attention for his role in what was known as the "Saturday night massacre." On October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, who was the Watergate special prosecutor investigating the break in at the Watergate hotel. Cox had ordered the president to turn over the secret White House tapes that Nixon had recorded. Nixon refused and demanded that Richardon fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned instead of following the president's order. Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned. Eventually Solicitor General Robert Bork fired the special prosecutor. (Read more about the Watergate scandal in the Richard Nixon Domestic Affairs essay.) 

A key symbol of Republican honesty and moderation, Richardson was immediately sought by the Ford administration. President Ford named him ambassador to Britain in 1975 and secretary of Commerce from 1976 to 1977. Richardson continued to serve in the administration of Jimmy Carter as a special representative for the Law of the Sea Conference from 1977 to 1980. Following government service, Richardson worked as a partner with the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. He died in 1999.

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.