Born in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Political Career to 1968
A graduate of Whittier College and Duke Univ. law school, he practiced law in Whittier, Calif., from 1937 to 1942, was briefly with the Office of Emergency Management, and served during World War II with the navy in the South Pacific. In 1946 he was elected to Congress as a Republican. In the House of Representatives he became nationally known for his work on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he was credited with forcing the famous confrontation between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, thus precipitating the perjury case against Hiss. In 1950 he was elected to the U.S. Senate after a particularly bitter electoral campaign. In the Senate, Nixon denounced President Truman's policy in Asia, supported Gen. Douglas MacArthur's proposal to expand the Korean War, and attacked the Democratic administration as favorable to socialism.
He was elected to the vice presidency on the Republican ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. He made frequent official trips abroad, notably in 1958 to South America, where he faced a hostile demonstration in Venezuela, and in 1959 to the USSR, where he engaged in a much-publicized informal debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Nixon received the Republican presidential nomination in 1960 with only a minimum of opposition and campaigned in support of the Eisenhower administration policies. He was defeated but gained almost as much of the popular vote as the successful John F. Kennedy. Nixon returned to politics in 1962, winning the Republican nomination for governor of California. After losing the election he returned to the practice of law.
In 1968 Nixon again won the Republican nomination for president; Spiro T. Agnew was his running mate. In a low-key campaign, Nixon promised to bring peace with honor in Vietnam and to unite a nation deeply divided by the Vietnam War and the racial crisis. He defeated his two opponents, Hubert H. Humphrey and George C. Wallace, but won only a plurality of the popular vote.
As President, Nixon began the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam. He achieved (1973) a cease-fire accord with North Vietnam, but only after he had ordered invasions of Cambodia (1970) and Laos (1971) and the saturation bombing of North Vietnam. In other areas of foreign policy, Nixon eased cold war tensions. He initiated strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union in 1969 and visited (1972) the People's Republic of China.
At home, Nixon reversed many of the social and economic welfare policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He vetoed much new health, education, and welfare legislation and impounded congressionally approved funds for domestic programs that he opposed. Nixon's Southern strategy, through which he hoped to woo the South into the Republican party, led him to weaken the Federal government's commitment to racial equality and to sponsor antibusing legislation in Congress. Nixon's first term in office was also beset by economic troubles. A severe recession and serious inflation brought about the imposition (1971) of a wide-reaching system of wage and price controls.
Despite these problems, Nixon and Agnew easily won reelection in 1972. Widespread popular distrust of his Democratic opponent, Senator George S. McGovern, brought Nixon a landslide victory. (Agnew was forced to resign in 1973, however, on charges of corruption that dated to when he was Baltimore co. executive, and Gerald R. Ford was nominated by Nixon and confirmed by Congress to succeed Agnew.)
Second Term: The Watergate Affair
Soon after his reelection Nixon's popularity plummeted as the growing revelations of the Watergate affair indicated pervasive corruption in his administration, and there was widespread criticism of the amount of government money spent on his private residences. Further problems ensued when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) found that Nixon's donation of papers to the Federal government, which had been taken as a deduction on his Federal income tax returns, had been made after a law went into effect disallowing such deductions. The IRS assessed (1974) Nixon for the back taxes plus interest.
Many public officials and private citizens questioned Nixon's fitness to remain in office, and in 1974 the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings. The House Committee on the Judiciary, which conducted the impeachment inquiry, subpoenaed Nixon's tape-recorded conversations relating to the Watergate affair and finally received (April 30) transcripts of most, but not all, of the tapes. Nixon also released transcripts of these conversations to the public, continuing to profess noninvolvement in the Watergate coverup despite growing evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski subpoenaed tapes that had been previously requested but that were not among those included in the transcripts. Nixon refused to relinquish these, basing his refusal on claims of “executive privilege,” i.e., the confidentiality of executive communications whose release might endanger national security. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that President Nixon must surrender these tapes to Jaworski.
The House Judiciary Committee had already completed its investigations and subsequently recommended (July 27–30) three articles of impeachment against the President. These charged him with obstruction of justice in the investigation of the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex; abuse of power through misuse of the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes, illegal wiretapping, establishment of a private investigative unit that engaged in unlawful activities, and interference with the lawful activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Dept. of Justice, and other government bodies; and failure to comply with subpoenas issued by the House Judiciary Committee.
On Aug. 5, Nixon made public the transcripts of three conversations covered by the Supreme Court ruling, and the tapes indicated that he had, six days after the Watergate break-in, ordered the FBI to halt its investigation of the burglary. Nixon's revelation provoked widespread calls for his resignation; finally, responding to pressure from his closest advisers, he resigned on Aug. 9, the first U.S. President ever to do so. He left the White House immediately and returned to his estate in San Clemente, Calif. His successor, Gerald Ford, granted him a full pardon for any illegal acts that he might have committed while President, thus quashing the possibility of criminal proceedings against the former President. Subsequently, four of his close associates, including John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman, were convicted (Jan. 1, 1975) on charges arising from the affair.
See his Six Crises (1962); biographies by Frank Mankiewicz (1973), Stephen Ambrose (1987), and C. L. Sulzberger (1987); Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days (1987); Franz Schurmann, The Foreign Politics of Richard Nixon: The Grand Design (1987); Joe McGinnis, The Selling of the President (1988).