Richard Nixon

Official Portrait

Official Portrait

Richard Milhous Nixon became the 37th President of the United States in 1969. His time in office could not be described as anything other than eventful. Although he brought about positive political resolutions, such as the end of the Vietnam War, his notoriety continues to stem from the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought about the end of his presidency. He was perhaps the most able post-war political figure until his downfall, serving as vice-president twice, but was personally affected by the nervous mood of the nation leading him to take actions which would lead to his downfall.

Early Life

Richard Milhous Nixon was born in a small farmhouse in Yorba Linda, California on January 9th, 1913. His father was a grocer and owned a small lemon farm. However, despite these humble beginnings, Nixon soon proved he had a strong desire to succeed.

Initially, Nixon attended local Whittier College before moving to study law at Duke University in 1934. Following his graduation, he joined the small law firm of Kroop & Bewley before moving to Washington in 1937 where he began working for the Office of Price Administration. He married sweetheart Patricia Ryan in 1940.

Before his political career truly got underway in 1946, Nixon served in the US Navy for four years. In August 1942, he was given his commission as a lieutenant and was stationed in the Pacific as an operations officer in the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command. He left in January 1946 to run for a seat in the House of Representatives under the Republican Party.

Political Career

Upon his election to Congress in 1946, Nixon began to campaign against Communism. He joined the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and took a lead role in their investigations and interrogation of suspected subversives. The successful prosecution of Alger Hiss and major investigation into Hollywood made Nixon a national figure and brought him onto the main political stage.

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev on his trip to the USA, 19th June 1973

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev on his trip to the USA, 19th June 1973

In 1952, by which time he had been elected to the Senate, Nixon was selected by General Dwight Eisenhower as a running mate for the presidential election. They easily defeated Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, largely owing to Nixon’s smear campaign that labelled Stevenson a Communist. He served as Vice-President for eight years.

Nixon had taken a more active role in governmental issues following Eisenhower’s stroke at one stage and thus decided to run for President in 1960. Although the election was very close, Nixon ultimately lost to Democrat candidate John F. Kennedy by a small margin. Not to be discouraged, Nixon ran for Governor of California in 1962 but unfortunately lost to his opponent again.

Nixon, on the back of two such high-profile political defeats, returned home to practice law. He also read extensively and travelled to many different places throughout the globe after he announced his retirement from politics. However, Nixon’s quieter life was not to last.

1968 Presidential Election

By 1968, Nixon had emerged from retirement with a vengeance, announcing his intention to run for President a second time. The 1968 Presidential Election campaign was the most divisive in decades and was dominated by the war in Vietnam.

The Republican Party convention in Miami Beach, Florida, nominated Nixon in it’s first ballot, with Nelson Rockefeller second and in a distant third Ronald Reagan. The result was quite a surprise given Nixon’s failure in the 1960 Presidential election and the California Gubernatorial election in 1962. Nixon’s choice of running mate, Spiro Theodore Agnew, known to be a Conservative in his position as Governor of Maryland, was designed to appeal to the South where Democratic Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running a campaign known as the American Independence Party, on a pro-segregation policy.

Nixon won, and was inaugurated on January 20th, 1969 and vowed to bring the country together again.


1968 Presidential Election Campaign, Nixon doing the Victory Sign in Philadelphia

1968 Presidential Election Campaign, Nixon doing the Victory Sign in Philadelphia

On becoming President, Nixon reversed the Great Society changes that his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson had implemented. He adopted paternalistic populist positions against drug use and sexual permissiveness while painting himself as strong on law and order issues, but on most other issues was against ‘big government’ which he saw the Great Society era as representing. The changes did occur just due to Nixon’s own political positions however: the economy in late 1960s was less strong with inflation higher than wage rises bringing declines to living standards. Many blamed this on the Great Society experiment, allowing Nixon ease in changing this, but the truth is more that America’s geopolitical position had shifted and was economically had been overtaken by the European Economic Community with Japan’s share of world trade also rising fast. Nevertheless America’s middle class largely blamed Johnson‘s Great Society and the ‘big government’ which had accompanies it for the economic difficultly America was now facing while seeing it benefits, particularly of the spending from the War on Poverty in inner cities which appeared more divided than ever as a failed policy that hadn’t stopped the rise in crime eminating from inner city ghettos. To these middle class Americans, Nixon was the hope for restoring America’s economic position by cutting such spending. He did this by promoting ‘self-help’ as well as ‘local control’ while ending Johnson‘s welfare programmes and vetoing the Democratic initiatives in health and education.

Nixon’s appointment of Judge Warren E. Burger to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was designed to promote his law and order and tough on crime message, however on some important issues the court took liberal stands that dismayed Nixon such as in 1973’s Roe vs. Wade which legalised abortion, 1972’s Furman vs. Georgia which ruled most uses of the death penalty unconstitutional and 1969’s Alexander vs. Holmes which prevented Nixon from slowing the rate of school desegregation in Mississippi. Nixon’s attempt to end the Bussing programme which brought African American school students from their poor neighborhoods into white middle class areas for school, where they were often attacked by whites, was also prevented by the Supreme Court in 1971.

Nixon’s Foreign Policy & Vietnam

Nixon’s reign was important for the America’s role in the international community. His appointment of Henry Kissinger, an academic at Harvard University, as his National Security Advisor was a masterstroke. Between them, they improved relations with China and the Soviet Union and also initiated peace talks in the Middle East. They recognised the importance of the Sino-Soviet split, while to many others this would have gone unnoticed, and used it to improve relations with both countries.

Vietnam was also a key issue in the American conscious. After ferocious bombing campaigns in Hanoi and Haiphong during the 1972 election campaign and after Nixon’s landslide re-election, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, thus effectively ending direct US military involvement in Vietnam. Nixon managed to achieve the withdrawal that none of his predecessors could.

Despite this the war had lasted longer than anyone, including Nixon, had hoped and much of this was a result of Nixon’s determination to not leave in a way that he feared historians would paint as dishonourable. He feared being the first American President to have lost a war. This fear had a direct result on how Nixon behaved in office as he feared that everyone, except his trusted ‘court’ of advisors, was conspiring against him personally – ‘biased’ journalists, ‘student bums’, and the North Vietnamese.

1972 Election Campaign

Nixon fear partly came from how fragile he saw his Presidency after his narrow defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and his narrow defeat of Humphrey in 1968 – he was determined that the 1972 election would not be left to chance, and thus used the agencies of government including the IRS, CIA and FBI against opponents.

With the economic situation since taking over the Presidency becoming much worse, a result of America’s relative decline in world trade, the war in Vietnam, inflation and the cost of the Great Society programmes, Nixon looked like he stood a good chance of being a single term President. Indeed so bad was the economic situation that unemployment had doubled in his first term. Despite this he was almost unanimously chosen by the Miami Beach Republican Party Convention to run again, with 1347 votes for Nixon and only one going to Paul McCloskey of California who stood against Nixon on an anti-war platform.

The Democrat‘s most effective politician, the right-winger George Wallace, was shot and paralysed during the campaign leaving the Democrat’s nomination to George S. McGovern, who won on the first ballot at the Democrat’s Miami Beach conference. McGovern was far more liberal than Wallace and thus found it harder to appear to the middle class who were disillusioned by the Great Society era. That his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had to drop out of the race 19 dates later due to the revelation he had been treated fro psychiatric illness did not help, being replaced by Robert Shriver. McGovern was unable to win morally Conservative voters due to his liberal views on abortion and drugs, and his comment that he would ‘crawl to Hanoi’ to seek peace made him appear weak in foreign policy. This left Nixon so confident of victory that he left the majority of the campaigning to Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The election was a landslide for Nixon, securing 46.7 million votes against 28.9 million for McGovern, and all of the states except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. While the Presidential race was clearly in favour of Nixon, he actually lost ground in the Senate with the Democrats maintaining control of the House and gaining two seats in the Senate.


Nixon’s downfall was already in motion. During the 1972 election campaign, there had been a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, the Democratic Party headquarters, and there had been numerous rumours regarding Nixon’s involvement. On 17th June 1972 five men were caught breaking into the Watergate building to install surveillance devices, they were from the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), an organisation headed by Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell. The White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler initially dismissed the break in as ‘third rate burglary’, but due to investigation by the Washington Post and trial judge John J. Sirica, with the break that one of those involved revealed the White House link, led to a Senate Investigative Committee. This revealed that Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman knew of the break in and covered it up. In 1973 two of his advisors were forced to resign and a third, John Dean, refused and was fired. However, Dean then testified against Nixon in a Senate enquiry and calls for his impeachment began.

Those involved had first become known to the administration in the aftermath of the leak of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ from the efforts by Nixon to ensure no further leaks could happen. The ‘Plumbers’ Special Investigative Unit which was set up and hired E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy with the endorsement of Chuck Coulsen, the Special Counsel to the President. Liddy and Hunt would become central characters in the Watergate break in and its cover up. Liddy especially had a shady character, impressing those he worked with by speaking while holding his hand and arm over a candle and suggesting that the Nixon administration hire prostitutes to get information out of leading Democrats through sex. His elaborate plan, codenamed Operation Gemstone, was presented to White House staff on a flip-chart and only rejected due to its $1 million cost. It was a taped conversation in the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers leak which brought down Nixon as it clearly shows him ordering a break-in saying ‘Do you remember the plan for White House sponsored break ins as part of domestic counter intelligence operations? Implement it’.

Public opinion really dropped when Nixon was clearly trying to prevent his tapes being heard. He dismissed Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor, in October 1973 when he attempted to gain access to the tapes through a subpoena, with Nixon claiming Presidential privilege allowed him to keep them private and that national security would be at stake if others heard them. When in April 1974 he was forced to hand over edited transcripts damage came from the public revelation of Nixon’s private character: a deceitful, petty man who was prone to swearing. The initial forty hours of tapes increased the pressure and by July the Supreme Court ordered the rest to be given to Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and by the end of the month the House Judiciary Committee recommended Nixon be impeached on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and refusal to comply with the Committee’s subpoenas. On the 5th August Nixon released the transcript of what became known as the ‘smoking gun’ conversations on 23rd June 1972 which showed Nixon’s attempt at a cover up of Watergate, forcing him to resign on the 9th August to avoid impeachment and further charges.

The Watergate scandal ultimately led to Nixon becoming the first US President to resign from office on August 9th, 1974. However, he did manage to avoid imprisonment for his involvement, unlike the other members of his staff who were proved to have been implicated in the scandal. His successor, President Gerald Ford, controversially granted Nixon a full pardon on September 8th, 1974.

Nixon perhaps was unlucky, and while his actions were clearly illegal he was following a precedent set by previous presidents, with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson having conducting electronic surveillance of opponents and both using the FBI and CIA for political gain. The difference under Nixon was these techniques became central to the Presidency as Nixon became more paranoid, wishing to leave nothing to chance in the election campaign.

Later Life

Nixon dedicated the rest of his life to trying to restore his public reputation. He also travelled extensively and wrote and published ten books, all of which became bestsellers. He was also the first former President to give up the right to lifetime Secret Service protection in 1985.

Richard Nixon died of a stroke in New York City on April 22nd, 1994. He was aged 81.

Richard Nixon Facts

  • President No.: 37th
  • Term as President: 20th January 1969 to 9th August 1974 (5 years, 201 days)
  • Party: Republican
  • Married: Pat Nixon
  • Born: January 9, 1913 – Yorba Linda, California
  • Died: April 22, 1994, aged 81, buried at Yorba Linda, California
  • Education: Whittier College, Duke Law School
  • Career: Lawyer, businessman
  • Political Career: House (1946), Senate (1950)
  • Height: 5 feet, 11 inches
  • Age at inauguration: 53
  • Population when Richard Nixon was president? 203,302,031
  • Hobbies: Bowling, golf, piano
  • Pets: Dogs, a French poodle named Vicky, a Yorkshire terrier named Pasha and an Irish setter named King Timahoe.
  • Transportation used: Helicopter, airplane, car
  • Communication methods: Telephone, typed letter

Election Results

1968 Presidential Elections

PartyCandidateVice Presidential CandidatePopular VoteElectoral College VotePercent of Electoral CollegeNumber of States
RepublicanRichard Milhous Nixon
Spiro Theodore Agnew 3171047030155.932
DemocraticHubert Horatio Humphrey
Edmund Sixtus Muskie 3089805519135.514
American Independence Party George Corley WallaceCurtis Emerson LeMay9446167468.55

*Note the number of states includes DC, which was won by the Democrats.

1972 Presidential Elections

Party Candidate Popular Vote Electoral College Votes
Republican Richard Milhous Nixon
Spiro Theodore Agnew
46 740 323 520 – 49 states
Democrat George S. McGovern
Robert Shriver
28 901 598 17 – 1 plus D.C.


Richard Nixon Inaugural Addresses

Other Richard Nixon Speeches

Richard Nixon State of the Union Addresses

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