Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon

Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-1994), 37th President of the United States of America, 1969-1974, was one of the dominant—and most hated—political figures of the second half of the 20th century. Entirely a self-made man, Nixon was deeply insecure, felt surrounded by enemies (especially in the media) and was determined to build himself up by destroying them. With few close friends or advisors in or out of politics, Nixon was the most conspicuous "loner" in American political history; he matched Franklin Roosevelt's record of running five times for national office (both men won four times.) He worked throughout the 1950s to rebuild the Republican party at the grass roots, then in 1972 ran virtually as an independent, ignoring the GOP and showing no coattails. He is best known for rebuilding the Vice Presidency as a powerful office, for ending the Vietnam War in 1973 (too slowly, said critics on the left), for opening relations with China, for detente with the Soviet Union, and for ending American dominance of world monetary policy. In domestic affairs his rhetoric appealed to conservatives, especially in opposing crime and school busing, while he expanded the budget and continued or expanded numerous liberal programs. He initiated a new era of environmentalism and affirmative action. He was disgraced by his use of federal power to cover up the Watergate scandal. When his support among Republican Senators collapsed in August 1974, he resigned to avoid near-certain impeachment. The last 20 years were a largely successful effort to rebuild his reputation in foreign policy and Nixon was in demand as a commentator on policy as well as elections.

Early career

Born to a poor Quaker family in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon was a good student at Whittier College (a local Quaker school), and Duke Law School. In 1942 Nixon became a lawyer for the Office of Price Administration, the wartime liberal New Deal program that regulated all prices and rationed basic commodities. After service in the Navy he entered an entirely unstructured California political environment-- parties hardly existed there in the 1940s, and many voters were recent arrivals. As a result Nixon never built a secure base in California (or anywhere else). Elected to the House in 1946 and 1948, and to the Senate in 1950, he was a generic Republican, hostile to Communism, internationalist in outlook, and middle-of-the road in economic and social issues. Nixon's first major breakthrough came in Congress, where his dogged investigation broke the impasse of the Alger Hiss spy case in 1948. The idea that Hiss--a senior FDR adviser--could be a Soviet spy threatened to delegitimize the New Deal itself, and made Nixon the hero to FDR's many enemies. New Dealers loathed him for exposing their weaknesses, which further strengthened his role in the GOP. In reality, Nixon's moderate position on policy issues was closer to the center of the Democratic party than to the GOP. In 1952 Democrats sought to discredit Dwight D. Eisenhower's moralistic crusade by tarnishing his running mate with unfair allegations; Nixon's "Checkers Speech" turned the tables and made him Vice President. His numerous foreign trips gave him a solid grounding in world affairs. With few formal duties, Nixon threw himself into state and local politics, making hundreds of speeches across the land. He remade the vice presidency, making it a launching pad for the White House. With Eisenhower uninvolved in party building, Nixon became the national leader, and his 1960 nomination was assured. He lost an agonizingly close race to John F. Kennedy. He was defeated again in 1962 for the governorship of California-- an inevitable result since he had no real base in the state. Nixon became a New York City lawyer, and built a network of associates who would eventually staff his administration. In 1964 Barry Goldwater's purge of Nelson Rockefeller and the eastern liberals, followed inexorably by Goldwater's massive defeat, left the GOP leaderless; Nixon filled the void.

Presidency 1968-74

Nixon's election in 1968 marked the end of the Fifth Party System, as the New Deal Coalition splintered over issues of race, Vietnam, bossism and radicalism. With the Democratic party in chaos in 1968, Nixon won a three-way race against Hubert Humphrey, a New Dealer, and George Wallace, an independent southern Democrat. He ran against George McGovern in 1972.

Foreign Policy

Nixon entered the White House pledged to "bring us together again." In foreign policy Nixon forged an amazing partnership with the equally brilliant, but far more flamboyant, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger began as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, but, in 1973, added the post of U.S. Secretary of State, displacing the less spectacular William Rogers.

Both were committed to a realism that focused on American economic advantages and jettisoned moralism in foreign policy, seeking detente with Communism and confrontation with old allies who now had become economic adversaries. Everyone assumed, mistakenly, that Nixon's anticommunist reputation at home indicated a hard-line cold warrior. But as early as 1959 (in his "kitchen debate" with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev) he was moving away from containment. Nixon concluded that containment (which he saw as a Truman policy) had failed. As a realist in foreign policy it was time to emphasize economic goals in foreign policy, and to de-emphasize expensive ideological or peripheral commitments. Furthermore having rich allies meant the American economy no longer could dominate or control the world economy. By the mid-1960s China and the USSR had become bitter enemies. Their armies growled at one another across a long border; the risk of war was serious.

Both Moscow and Beijing realized it would be wise to de-escalate tensions with the USA, but Lyndon Johnson ignored them both. Sensing fresh opportunity, Nixon played the two Communist giants one against the other. His utterly unexpected trip to China in 1972[1] in effect ended the cold war with that nation and ushered in an era of friendship that was still unfolding three decades later. Moscow rushed to catch favor, and Nixon's summit meetings with Brezhnev produced major arms agreements--especially a treaty banning anti-missile defenses in space. (It was thought that the balance of terror, with each side having thousands of nuclear missiles, guaranteed peace, and that a successful defense against missiles would dangerously destabilize this equilibrium.)

Nixon visits Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, Feb. 1972


For more information, see: Vietnam, war, and the United States of America.

Both Moscow and Beijing reduced sharply their military, economic and diplomatic support for America's remaining enemy, Hanoi. In 1968 Nixon carefully avoided entanglement in Vietnam (Humphrey ridiculed his silence by saying that Nixon was keeping "secret" his plans.) The US was in Vietnam because of its commitment to an obsolete policy of global containment of Communism. Nixon's solution in Vietnam was "Vietnamization"--to turn the war over to Saigon, withdrawing all US ground forces by 1971. Ignoring critics who said he was prolonging the war, he set his timetable by the rate at which he could obtain tacit approval from Moscow, Beijing, and Saigon itself. Eventually his policy worked: Saigon did take over the war; there and elsewhere containment was replaced by the "Nixon Doctrine" that countries have to defend themselves. Meanwhile the antiwar forces on the homefront were self-destructing, spinning headlong into violence, drugs, and a radicalism (typified by the Weathermen) that provoked a strong backlash in Nixon's favor. When he saw Mao in Beijing in February 1972, the guerrilla war was virtually over, with the Viet Cong defeated. Hanoi, however, disregarded the advice of its allies and launched its conventional forces in the Easter, 1972, invasion of the South. Saigon fought back, and with strong American air support, routed the Communists. Peace was at hand, as Kissinger said, but first Saigon had to be reassured of guaranteed future American support. This assurance came in the Operation Linebacker II air campaign in December 1972, when for the first time in the war Hanoi and its port were attacked. Reeling from the blows, Hanoi signed peace accords in Paris in January 1973, and released all American prisoners. Nixon, having achieved peace with honor, immediately withdrew all US air and naval combat forces and ended the draft; he continued heavy shipments of modern new weapons into South Vietnam despite mounting demands from Congress that all aid be stopped.

Economic policy

Nixon's domestic policies were as unpredictable as his foreign policies. His supporters and enemies always *thought* they knew where he stood and could predict his actions; they mistakenly assumed he opposed the New Deal's "tax-spend-regulate-elect" philosophy. In practice Nixon, like most eastern liberal Republicans in the tradition of Willkie, Dewey and Rockefeller, supported the core of New Deal policies, while claiming to do the job more efficiently and with less waste. While dropping the less successful Great Society programs, Nixon kept and expanded most of LBJ's new ventures. Welfare spending, aid to education, and support for the arts and humanities expanded sharply, as did Social Security and Medicare payments. Poverty plummeted among the old. With the winding down of the Cold War the defense budget was cut; the combination of prosperity, inflation, and progressive tax rates generated vast flows of revenue. There was little thought of tax cuts. Instead Nixon began sharing revenues with the states, in the form of direct grants. Nixon's did not speak for the taxpayer; experts who called for deregulating New Deal controls on finance, banking, transportation, and communications were ignored. Environmentalism came of age around 1970, and the administration worked successfully with Congress to develop a suite of new environmental regulations and controls that proved especially popular among the best educated voters. When an economic recession hit in 1971, Nixon declared himself a "Keynesian," and gave the Treasury portfolio to LBJ's close associate John Connally of Texas. Alarmed at the overextension caused by the dollar's traditional role in propping up the entire economy of the western world, they designed a "New Economic Policy" that put national interests first. A blizzard of policies ensued, including a 90-day wage and price freeze, unlinking the dollar to gold, devaluation of the dollar, a surtax on imports, and reduction of the trade deficit by brute force. America's allies and trading partners were aghast. In 1973 OPEC raised oil prices by a factor of ten, just as the US was changing from an exporter to an importer of the precious fluid. Inflation started to soar out of control. Despite his steadily weakening political position, Nixon reacted to the energy-and-inflation crises with voluntary ("jawbone") regulations and controls, mandatory restrictions on heating and air conditioning, another devaluation of the dollar, another round of mandatory price controls, and the threat (never actually put in effect) of gasoline rationing. It was 1942 all over again, only this time the economy was not thriving at all. When Nixon left office the indicators were all headed downward, and the long-term prognosis was gloomy.

Civil rights

Race relations were in very bad shape when Nixon was elected. A series of Civil Rights bills had been passed, and many traditional forms of segregation vanished. But integration was not happening, inner cities were aflame every summer, crime was skyrocketing, and whites were abandoning inner city schools. Nixon gauged every policy by its political repercussions. He never expected more than a minuscule share of the black vote, but it was important to retain the support of upper middle-class suburban whites who favored integration as a long-term goal. At the same time he sought to win over the "Silent Majority" of working class ethnics and white southerners who identified blacks with welfare and crime, and strongly opposed giving them any special legal or political advantages or additional welfare payments. Whites in numerous cities vehemently opposed forced busing of school children as ordered by federal judges. Nixon could do little to stop busing, except articulate his opposition. He distanced himself from militant blacks and instead promoted affirmative action quota plans in the construction trades, and set-asides for minority contractors, designed in the long run to enlarge the black middle class. As Congress increased the overall level of welfare payments, the White House quietly went along. By 1973 the riots had burned out--and the inner cities lay in ruins. Middle class blacks, however, were starting to make dramatic progress in such fields as education, sports, entertainment, the military and government service. The dual system of schools was abolished in the south, but nowhere in the country did black and white children --or adults for that matter--freely mix together.

Landslide reelection, 1972

The collapse of the New Deal voter coalition gave Nixon the opportunity to build what he called a "New Majority"-- a conservative coalition that augmented the traditional upper middle class Republican coalition with historically Democratic Catholics and southern whites. There was no longer a need for the GOP party apparatus, and Nixon cut himself entirely loose from it in 1972. The coalition did come together in 1972, as Nixon won a massive landslide against George McGovern. There were no coattails, however, as the Republicans remained a minority party in the electorate and in Congress. Nor was there a sense of identification with or loyalty to Nixonism. Instead Nixon had tapped a growing mood of malaise and alienation, not realizing that mood would soon turn against him.


For more information, see: Watergate scandal.

During the 1972 campaign, the Democratic National Committee headquarters was in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.. Republican operatives, without Nixon's prior knowledge, working for Charles Colson, were caught burglarizing the offices in search of incriminating data.

It was unlikely that anything found there would have assisted Nixon's victory in 1972. But he would do whatever it took to win, and would cover up any legal problems using the full powers of the presidency. Thread by thread for two years the whole Nixon system unraveled. Every week, practically every day in 1973-74 came a new revelation or twist, as Nixon's stock sank further and further. A Democratic-led congress, the courts, the special prosecutor, as well as the media, threw themselves into round after round of investigation.

Nixon's top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were forced to resign in April 1973; later they went to prison. Nixon's denials grew less credible. He ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of October 20, 1973, backfired, with the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigning in protest.[2]

Finally the Supreme Court ordered the release of tape recordings that Nixon realized contained the "smoking gun"--explicit evidence that he used federal power to try to cover up criminal activity. On August 9, 1974, a few days before the House could vote impeachment, Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Agnew and Ford

In a scandal unrelated to Watergate, Vice President Spiro Agnew was caught taking bribes and resigned the same month. Agnew had never been part of the White House inner circle, but the matter aggravated Nixon's image problems. He appointed Gerald Ford to replace Agnew.

One month later, on the eve of off-year elections, President Gerald Ford issued a pardon, which admitted guilt on Nixon's part but would save Nixon from trial, as well as the humiliation to the country of having a former President imprisoned. While it was viewed by many in retrospect as an effort by Ford to salvage the trust that Americans had in their presidency, at the time, it irreversibly damaged Ford and the Republican party, as the Democrats scored a landslide in 1974 attacking corruption, including the pardon. Ford would be defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Supreme Court appointments

In Nixon's campaign he criticized the Supreme Court under Earl Warren for handing down decisions he saw as too liberal, and promised to nominate conservative justices to the court.[3]

During his presidency Nixon appointed four justices to the Supreme Court, they are Lewis Powell, Harry A. Blackmun, William Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Warren Burger. These justices were generally more conservative than the previous Warren court. Under Burger, the court rolled back some of the liberal decisions of the Warren court, but the most important ones, such as Brown v. Board of Education that abolished segregation, were affirmed. One of the landmark cases in the Burger court, Roe v. Wade, was authored by a Nixon appointee, Harry Blackmun. William Rehnquist was the most conservative among all Nixon appointees, and was later elevated to the position of chief justice by President Ronald Reagan.


Nixon had remarkable skill in analyzing complex political situations, linking together all the main forces and anticipating with uncanny accuracy how all the key players would respond. His analytic skill substituted in large part for his unwillingness to twist arms like Lyndon Johnson, and his inability to appeal directly to the populace like FDR or Ronald Reagan. After his downfall he wrote a series of penetrating books which helped restore his respectability. British media star David Frost interviewed him for six hours on television in 1977; broadcast worldwide, the interviews reintroduced Nixon as a powerful analyst of world affairs. The flipside was Nixon's unceasing fixation on his enemies, perceived and real. He was morbidly fascinated with their weaknesses and illicit secrets; always searching for another Alger Hiss, he sent burglars to uncover more dirt -- until one inept team was captured breaking into his opponents' headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. His methods were a corruption of traditional republican values, and thus Nixon generated deep and abiding hatred not only from his enemies--he kept a written list--but from observers who otherwise admired his skills. His epitaph may well be, "The smartest president, who did the dumbest things."


for much longer guide see Richard Nixon, bibliography

  • Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon: A Life (1993).
  • Ambrose, Stephen. Nixon (3v 1987-1991), the standard scholarly biography excerpt and text search vol 1
  • Black, Conrad. Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (2007) 1150pp
  • Bundy, William. A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (1998). excerpt and text search
  • Congressional Quarterly. Congress and the Nation, 1968-1972 (1973). Detailed coverage of all the official actions in Washington
  • Dallek, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Greenberg, David. Nixon's Shadow: The History of the Image (2004), influential study of his changing reputation excerpt and text search
  • Hoff, Joan. Nixon without Watergate (1994) a favorable estimate of the presidential years; also titled Nixon Reconsidered; online edition
  • Kutler, Stanley I. Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (1992), strongly hostile excerpt and text search
  • MacMillan, Margaret. Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (2007)
  • Matusow, Allen J. Nixon's Economy: Booms, Busts, Dollars, and Votes (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Nixon, Richard. RN: Memoirs (1978),a primary source; one of the most important presidential autobiographies excerpt and text search
  • Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) very well written narrative of 1964-72
  • Reeves, Richard. President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2002). well-received study of the White House years (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Schoenebaum, Eleanora, ed. Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years (1979), biographies of all the main political figures
  • Small, Melvin. The Presidency of Richard Nixon (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Suri, Jeremi. Henry Kissinger and the American Century (2007)


See also