Richard Nixon (1913-94), the 37th U.S. president, is best remembered as the only president ever to resign from office. Nixon stepped down in 1974, halfway through his second term, rather than face impeachment over his efforts to cover up illegal activities by members of his administration in the Watergate scandal.
A former Republican congressman and U.S. senator from California, he served two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) in the 1950s. In 1960, Nixon lost his bid for the presidency in a close race with Democrat John F. Kennedy (1917-63). He ran for the White House again in 1968 and won. As president, Nixon’s achievements included forging diplomatic ties with China and the Soviet Union, and withdrawing U.S. troops from an unpopular war in Vietnam. However, Nixon’s involvement in Watergate tarnished his legacy and deepened American cynicism about government.
Education and Early Political Career
Richard Milhous Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California. He was the second of five sons of Francis Anthony Nixon (1878-1956), who struggled to earn a living running a grocery store and gas station, and his wife, Hannah Milhous Nixon (1885-1967). Nixon absorbed his parents’ discontent with their working-class circumstances and developed a strong sense of ambition.
He attended Whittier College, where he excelled as a debater and was elected president of the student body before graduating in 1934. Three years later, he earned a law degree from Duke University, where he was head of the student bar association and graduated near the top of his class. After Duke, he returned to Whittier, California, and began working as an attorney.
In 1940, Nixon married Thelma Catherine “Pat” Ryan (1912-93), whom he met while participating in a local theater group. The couple had two daughters, Patricia (1946-) and Julie (1948-). When America entered World War II (1939-45), Nixon joined the U.S. Navy and served as an operations officer in the Pacific.
Following the war, Nixon launched his political career in 1946 when he defeated a five-term Democratic incumbent to represent his California district in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a congressman, Nixon served on the House Un-American Activities Committee and rose to national prominence by leading a controversial investigation of Alger Hiss (1904-1996), a well-regarded former State Department official who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.
Nixon was re-elected to Congress in 1948 and two years later, in 1950, won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
An Unsuccessful Bid for the Presidency
Although Nixon’s attacks on alleged Communists and political opponents alarmed some people, they increased his popularity among conservative Republicans. In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower selected the 39-year-old first-term senator to be his vice-presidential running mate.
A few months after accepting the nomination, Nixon became the target of a negative campaign that raised questions about money and gifts he allegedly received from industry lobbyists. Nixon answered these charges in his famous “Checkers” speech, claiming that the only gift he ever accepted was a puppy named Checkers for his young daughter. The speech proved effective and preserved Nixon’s spot on the ticket.
Eisenhower and Nixon won the election of 1952 and were re-elected in 1956. In 1960, Nixon claimed the Republican presidential nomination but lost one of the closest elections in American history to U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The turning point of the campaign came in the first-ever nationally televised presidential debate. During the broadcast, Nixon appeared pale, nervous and sweaty compared with his tan, well-rested and vigorous opponent.
The loss to Kennedy dealt a terrible blow to Nixon’s ego. He claimed that the media disliked him and had slanted campaign coverage in favor of his handsome and wealthy opponent. Nixon returned home to California, where he practiced law and launched a campaign for governor in 1962. When he lost this election as well, many observers believed that his political career was over. As a disgusted Nixon told reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Winning the White House
Six years after losing the governorship in his home state, Nixon made a remarkable political comeback and once again claimed his party’s presidential nomination. He prevailed in the 1968 U.S. presidential election, defeating Democrat Hubert Humphrey (1911-78) and third-party candidate George Wallace (1919-98).
Nixon took office at a time of upheaval and change in the U.S. The American people were bitterly divided over the Vietnam War (1954-75), while women marched for equal rights and racial violence rocked the nation’s cities.
Declaring his intention to achieve “peace with honor” in Vietnam, Nixon introduced a strategy known as Vietnamization, which called for gradually withdrawing American troops from the war while training South Vietnamese army forces to take over their own defense. In January 1973, Nixon administration officials reached a peace agreement with Communist North Vietnam.
The last American combat troops left Vietnam in March of that year. The hostilities continued, however, and in 1975 North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and reunited the country under Communist rule.
In addition to dealing with the Vietnam War, Nixon made historic visits, in 1972, to China and the Soviet Union. He reduced tensions between these Communist nations and the U.S., helping to set the stage for establishing formal diplomatic relations. Nixon also signed important treaties to limit the production of nuclear weapons.
The Watergate Scandal and Beyond
While Nixon was running for re-election in 1972, operatives associated with his campaign broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Several members of Nixon’s administration had knowledge of the burglary and while Nixon denied any involvement, secret tapes of White House conversations later revealed that the president had participated in efforts to cover up the criminal activity.
Facing impeachment by Congress, Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974. He was replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford (1913-2006), who a month later pardoned Nixon for any wrongdoing. A number of administration officials were eventually convicted of crimes related to the Watergate affair.
After leaving the White House, Nixon retired to California (he and his wife later moved to New Jersey) and quietly worked to rehabilitate his image, writing books, traveling extensively and consulting with Democratic and Republican presidents. By the time he died on April 22, 1994, at age 81 in New York City, after suffering a stroke, some people viewed him as a respected elder statesman. Other Americans, however, rejected efforts to paint him as anything but a disgraced criminal.