The Political Career of Richard Nixon

A few weeks after the United States entered World War II a young mannamed Richard Nixon went to Washington, D.C. In January 1942 he took a job withthe Office of Price Administration. Two months later he applied for a Navycommission, and in September 1942 he was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade. During much of the war he served as an operations officer with the South PacificCombat Air Transport Command, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.

After the war Nixon returned to the United States, where he was assignedto work on Navy contracts while awaiting discharge. He was working in Baltimore,Maryland, when he received a telephone call that changed his life. A Republicancitizen’s committee in Whittier was considering Nixon as a candidate forCongress in the 12th Congressional District. In December 1945 Nixon accepted thecandidacy with the promise that he would “wage a fighting, rocking, sockingcampaign.”Jerry Voorhis, a Democrat who had represented the 12th Districtsince 1936, was running for reelection.

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Earlier in his career Voorhis had beenan active Socialist. He had become more conservative over the years and was nowan outspoken anti-Communist. Despite Voorhis’ anti-Communist stand the LosAngeles chapter of the left-wing Political Action Committee (PAC) endorsed him,apparently without his knowledge or approval.The theme of Nixon’s campaignwas “a vote for Nixon is a vote against the Communist-dominated PAC.” Theapproach was successful. On November, 5 1946, Richard Nixon won his firstpolitical election. The Nixons’ daughter Patricia (called Tricia) was bornduring the campaign, on February 21, 1946. Their second daughter, Julie, wasborn July 5, 1948.

As a freshman congressman, Nixon was assigned to the Un-AmericanActivities Committee. It was in this capacity that in August 1948 he heard thetestimony of Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed former Communist espionageagent. Chambers named Alger Hiss, a foreign policy advisor during the Rooseveltyears, as an accomplice while in government service. Hiss, a former StateDepartment aide, asked for and obtained a hearing before the committee. He madea favorable impression, and the case would then have been dropped had not Nixonurged investigation into Hiss’s testimony on his relationship with Chambers.

The committee let Nixon pursue the case behind closed doors. He brought Chambersand Hiss face to face. Chambers produced evidence proving that Hiss had passedState Department secrets to him. Among the exhibits were rolls of microfilmwhich Chambers had hidden in a pumpkin on his farm near Westminster, Md., as aprecaution against theft. On December 15, 1948, a New York federal grand juryindict ed Hiss for perjury. After two trials he was convicted, on Jan. 21, 1950,and sentenced to five years in prison. The Hiss case made Nixon nationallyfamous.While the case was still in the courts, Nixon decided to run for theSenate. In his senatorial campaign he attacked the Harry S. TrumanAdministration and his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, for being “soft” towardthe Communists.

Nixon won the election, held on Nov. 7, 1950, by 680,000 votes, and at38 he became the youngest member of the Senate. His Senate career was uneventful,and he was able to concentrate all his efforts on the upcoming 1952presidential election. The “Secret Fund” Nixon did his work well. He hammeredhard at three main issues–the war in Korea, Communism in government, and thehigh cost of the Democratic party’s programs. At their 1952 national conventionthe Republicans chose him as Eisenhower’s running mate, to balance the ticketwith a West coast conservative.

Only a few days after the young senator’s triumph his political careerseemed doomed. The New York Post printed a story headed “Secret Rich Men’s TrustFund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” The public was shocked. TheRepublicans were panic-stricken. Prominent members of the party urged Eisenhowerto dump Nixon before it was too late.

There was really nothing secret about the fund. Nixon was a man oflimited means, and when he won his Senate seat a group of businessmen hadpublicly solicited funds to enable him to keep in touch with the voters in hishome state while he served in the Senate. Nixon took his case directly to thepeople in a nationwide television hookup. He invited investigation of hisfinances and explained that no donor had asked for or received any favors.

Thebest-remembered part of his speech was his admission that an admirer had oncesent the Nixons a small cocker spaniel named Checkers. “The kids love that dog,and I want to say right now that regardless of what they say, we’re going tokeep it,” he declared. The speech was a political triumph. Eisenhower askedNixon to come to Wheeling, W. Va., where he was campaigning. The president-to-bemet his running mate at the airport with the words “Dick, you’re my boy.” TheRepublicans won by a landslide.

The only duties listed for the vice-president in the Constitution are topreside over the Senate and to vote if there is a tie. Eisenhower, however,groomed his vice-president for active duty. Nixon regularly attended Cabinetmeetings and meetings of the National Security Council. In the absence of thepresident he presided over these sessions. Thus Nixon was able to assume thepresident’s duties when Eisenhower was incapacitated by illness–after a majorheart attack in 1955, abdominal surgery in 1956, and a mild stroke in 1957.

During his eight years as vice-president Nixon made a series of goodwill toursthat took him to every continent. In 1958 he faced rioting, rock-throwing mobsin Peru and Venezuela. In 1959 he engaged the Soviet Union’s premier, NikitaKhrushchev, in an impromptu debate in Moscow.

In 1960 the Republican party chose its seasoned vice-president to runfor the nation’s highest office. His running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., aveteran of eight years as ambassador to the United Nations. Voters turned out inrecord numbers. When the 68 million votes were counted John F. Kennedy hadbecome the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, and Richard Nixon had lostthe presidential race by the narrow margin of about 100,000 votes. Nixon got49.55 percent of the vote; Kennedy, 49.71 percent. Nixon carried 26 states for atotal of 219 electoral votes. Kennedy carried 22 states and received 303electoral votes.

Although defeated in 1960, Nixon reemerged as the Republicanpresidential candidate in 1968. For his running mate Nixon chose Spiro T. Agnew,the governor of Maryland, a man little known outside his own state. The choicewas a surprise to political forecasters and a disappointment to some Republicans.

Nixon realized, however, that a conservative Southern candidate would have losthim badly needed big-city and liberal votes in the North and that a liberalNorthern Republican would have alienated the South, which backed him solidly atthe convention. Agnew was a compromise choice acceptable to both the North andthe South.Throughout the election campaign Nixon directed his attacks againstthe failures of the Democratic Administration. He deplored the growing rate ofcrime in the streets, called attention to the high cost and the limitations ofthe Democrats’ welfare programs, and denounced their inaction against inflation.

Early in the campaign the Republican candidates announced that they wouldrefrain from comments on the settlement of the Vietnamese conflict. The policywas adopted to prevent interference with peace negotiations begun in May betweengovernment representatives from the United States and from North Vietnam inParis, France. Nixon emphasized his determination to curb violence in thecities. At the same time he proposed a program of increased “black capitalism”and of tax incentives for private investors locating in the cities. On November5, 1968, Nixon’s long and loyal support of his party was repaid, and he waselected the 37th president of the United States. About a month before hisinauguration on Jan. 20, 1969, his younger daughter, Julie, was married to DavidEisenhower, the grandson of former President Eisenhower.

In his inaugural address President Nixon emphasized his determination toseek peace abroad, especially in Vietnam, and to bring about a reconciliation ofthe differences that divided the United States.All the men nominated by thepresident for Cabinet posts were approved by the Senate.

William P. Rogers was Nixon’s choice as secretary of state. David M. Kennedy became secretary of thetreasury; Melvin R. Laird, the secretary of defense. Clifford M. Hardin wasnamed the new secretary of agriculture; Walter J. Hickel, secretary of theinterior; Maurice H. Stans, secretary of commerce; George P. Shultz, secretaryof labor; John A. Volpe, secretary of transportation. Robert H. Finch wasdesignated to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; GeorgeRomney, Housing and Urban Development. John N. Mitchell was appointed attorneygeneral; Winton M. Blount, postmaster general.

The first changes in theoriginal Cabinet were made in mid-1970. Elliot L. Richardson replaced Finch. James D. Hodg son succeeded Shultz, who became head of the Office of Managementand Budget, a new agency created to replace the Bureau of the Budget. Later in1970 Nixon dismissed Hickel, with whom he had differences, and appointed formerRepublican national chairman Rogers C.B. Morton in his stead. Early in 1971 JohnB. Connally, Jr., a former governor of Texas, replaced Kennedy as secretary ofthe treasury. When the Post Office Department was reorganized in 1971, Blountlost his Cabinet status.

Also in 1971, Earl L. Butz succeeded Hardin. Early in1972 Mitchell resigned to head Nixon’s reelection campaign; Deputy AttorneyGeneral Richard G. Kleindienst replaced him. Mitchell left the campaign in earlyJuly. Peter G. Peterson replaced Stans, who also resigned to work for thecampaign. Shultz succeeded Connally. Nixon’s most important selection, perhaps,was that of a successor to retiring Chief Justice of the United States EarlWarren. The Senate approved his nominee, Warren E. Burger, a district judge inthe federalcourt system. He had difficulty, however, in getting Senate approval of anassociate justice to fill a later vacancy on the Supreme Court. After rejectingNixon’s first two nominees–both Southerners–the Senate accepted Harry A.

Blackmun of Minnesota, a United States court of appeals judge. Two more Nixonnominees, William H. Rehnquist and Lewis F. Powell, were accepted as associatejustices to replace Hugo L. Black and John M. Harlan, who retired in 1971. Upon becoming president, Nixon turned his attention primarily to foreignaffairs. In February 1969 he visited Belgium, England, West Germany, Italy, andFrance in an effort to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

To assure non-Communist Asian nations of continued United States support, Nixonembarked in late July on a tour of the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India,Pakistan, and South Vietnam. Nixon then visited Romania. He was the firstAmerican president to enter a Soviet-bloc nation since World War II. In the fall of 1970, to underscore United States determination tomaintain peace in the Mediterranean area, Nixon traveled to Italy, Spain, andYugoslavia, and visited the United States Sixth Fleet, stationed in the area.

The tour included meetings with NATO commanders, an audience with Pope Paul VI,and visits to England and Ireland. The change in administrations had littleinitial effect on the Vietnam peace talks being conducted in Paris. However, inJune 1969 President Nixon announced that he would begin a phased withdrawal ofAmerican forces. The first contingent of some 25,000 men returned to the UnitedStates in July. In April 1970 Nixon announced that United States troops had beensent into Cambodia to seek out and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supplybases. This extension of the war effort in Indochina aroused strong opposition.

On June 29 the last United States ground troops were withdrawn from Cambodia. In1971 and 1972 Nixon continued his efforts to “Vietnamize” the war. By autumn1972, United States troop strength in Vietnam–which in April 1969 had reached apeak of 543,000 men–was 32,200 men.

Early in 1972 the North Vietnamese mounted an offensive against theSouth, which had uneven success in defending itself. In a move to cut offmilitary supplies to Hanoi, Nixon ordered the mining of North Vietnamese portsand the bombing of overland supply routes from China. In October 1972 an accordfor ending the war was reached with North Vietnam, but South Vietnam’sgovernment opposed it.

Despite the continuing conflict in Vietnam, Nixon remained determined toinaugurate an era of negotiation with the Communist countries that weresupporting North Vietnam. He attended summit meetings in the People’s Republicof China in February 1972 and in the Soviet Union in May. Tensions were lessenedbetween mainland China and the United States.

With United States flags waving over the Kremlin, Nixon and his Soviethosts signed accords that had long been in preparation. The most importantagreement limited the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Plans were made also forpooling resources in space exploration and in medical and environmental research. A joint commission was established to effect trade agreements. From the Kremlin,Nixon made a televised speech to the Soviet people. He visited Iran and Polandbefore returning home.

In the summer of 1969 Nixon requested legislation to improve urbantransportation, raise social security benefits, combat crime, and reorganize thepostal service. He also urged the establishment of national minimum standardsfor welfare payments and the sharing of federal revenue with the states.

Nixon’s request fora multibillion-dollar antiballistic-missile defensesystem met with strong Congressional opposition. The 91st Congress, controlledby the Democrats, enacted a modified version of his recommendations by a narrowmargin. In the fall 1970 elections the Democrats retained control of both housesof Congress.

In June 1970 Nixon signed into law a bill lowering the voting age infederal elections from 21 to 18. In mid-1971 the 26th Amendment to theConstitution, extending the franchise to citizens 18 years of age in allelections, was ratified. In his January 1971 State of the Union message toCongress, Nixon outlined six sweeping proposals. He again called for the sharingof federal revenues with state and local governments. Nixon also sought adeficit federal budget designed to spur the lagging economy; the reform ofwelfare programs; a federal guarantee of adequate health care for all citizens;new measures to preserve natural resources; and revision of the structure of thefederal government.

In August 1971 Nixon imposed mandatory wage and price controls and a 10percent import surcharge to strengthen the economy. The Nixon Administrationapplied pressure to encourage foreign governments to help resolve theinternational monetary crisis by realigning their currencies. Foreigngovernments, in turn, urged Nixon to devalue the dollar. This he did in December1971, by ending the long-standing convertibility of the dollar into gold.

Shortly afterward he rescinded the import surcharge. Under a Supreme Court decision of 1969, communities had been required tostart busing students from one school district to another to achieve racialbalance as soon as so ordered by a federal district court. Congressionalapproval was given in June 1972 to legislation that would delay for up to 18months the implementation of those court orders. The bill also contained Nixon’sprogram to contribute 2 billion dollars over a two-year period to communities inthe process of desegregating their schools.

Nixon conducted his campaign for a second term by surrogate. While heseldom left his White House office, the vice-president and other associatescampaigned for him. Supporters interpreted his landslide vote as a mandate forhis programs. Soon after reelection, Nixon requested the resignations of some2,000 presidential appointees in a reorganization designed to streamline thefederal bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Nixon had broken all records for presidentialCabinet appointments by mid-1974.

Kleindienst resigned his Cabinet post in April 1973. He was replaced byRichardson, who was succeeded as secretary of defense by James R. Schlesinger,former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and of the Atomic EnergyCommission. In August Rogers resigned as secretary of state and was replaced byHenry A. Kissinger, Nixon’s top national security adviser. By mid-1974 Nixon hadmade 30 Cabinet appointments, breaking Jall records for an American president.

On October 10, 1973, Vice-President Agnew resigned from office and wasconvicted in federal court on a felony charge of income tax evasion. Nixon choseRepresentative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan as Agnew’s successor, and Congressconfirmed him.

On January 27, 1973, a Vietnam cease-fire agreement was signed bynegotiators in Paris. In March Nixon welcomed home the last American groundtroops and prisoners of war from Vietnam. American military involvementcontinued with bombing raids over Cambodia until mid-August.

In June 1973 Nixon hosted a visit from Leonid I. Brezhnev, generalsecretary of the Soviet Communist party. The two leaders signed a friendshipagreement. They also instituted accords for the expansion of scientific,technical, educational, and cultural exchanges, and for accelerated negotiationsto limit nuclear arsenals.

In February 1973 it was revealed that the United States and the People’sRepublic of China would set up government liaison offices in Washington, D.C.,and in Beijing. In May Nixon met French President Georges Pompidou in Iceland todiscuss military, political, and economic relations between the United Statesand its Western European allies.

War erupted in the Middle East in October 1973 when Syria and Egyptattacked Israel simultaneously. United States mediation led to the disengagementof Egyptian and Israeli troops in January 1974 and of Syrian and Israeli troopsin May. On a goodwill trip to the Middle East in June, Nixon visited Egypt,Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, and Jordan. To Egypt and Israel, Nixon offered aidin developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Later in June Nixon flew tothe Soviet Union for summit talks.

In his budget message and in a series of State of the Union messages toCongress early in 1973, Nixon announced the reduction of federal spending forsocial welfare. He asked that cities and states be granted funds in a revenue-sharing plan to take over federal programs in urban development, education,manpower, and law enforcement.

In February 1973 Nixon announced his second devaluation of the dollar. Faced with rising inflation Nixon in June ordered a 60-day freeze on all retailand wholesale prices except for raw agricultural commodities. Price controls insome form were in effect until Congress let them expire on April 30, 1974.

Inflation persisted. In December 1973 Nixon had asked for Congressional review of some of hisfinancial transactions. (Reports had been circulating about his low tax paymentsin proportion to his income.) In 1974 the Joint Committee on Internal RevenueTaxation and the Internal Revenue Service found that Nixon owed more than400,000 dollars in back taxes.

A major issue at the beginning of Nixon’s second term became known asthe Watergate scandal. In June 1972, agents hired by the Committee for theReelection of the President had been arrested while breaking into the DemocraticNational Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment-office complex inWashington, D.C. Early in 1973 they were convicted of burglary and politicalespionage. The Senate held hearings to probe allegations of attempts by highWhite House officials to cover up administration involvement in the case.

Several of Nixon’s top aides resigned as they became implicated. Meanwhile, theHouse Judiciary Committee began an inquiry into whether he had committedimpeachable offenses. On April 30, 1974, Nixon released edited transcripts ofWhite House conversations that he felt would reassure the public of hisinnocence regarding the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Instead, he lost manyof his supporters. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender additional WhiteHouse tapes sought by the special Watergate prosecutor as evidence in criminalproceedings. Three of these recordings documented Nixon’s personal order tocover up the Watergate break-in.

The House Judiciary Committee had already votedin late July to recommend Nixon’s impeachment. With Congressional supportdestroyed, Nixon chose to resign. Vice-President Ford succeeded him on Aug. 9,1974. Within a month President Ford granted Nixon a full pardon for all crimeshe may have committed during his administration. Nixon spent the next 20 yearstrying to rehabilitate his domestic reputation, though he never lost theadmiration of foreign leaders. He became a respected elder statesman in foreignaffairs. He revisited China in 1976 and 1989 and made several visits to Russia,the last early in 1994.

The dedication of the Richard Nixon Library in YorbaLinda 1991 was attended by all five living presidents. The 21-million-dollarlibrary and museum was built with private funds. Nixon’s wife, Pat, died in June1993. Nixon died on April 22, 1994, in a New York City hospital, four days aftersuffering a severe stroke.


  1. Ryan, James Richard Nixon (Chicago: Childrens, 1985) p. 115
  2. Aithea, Jonathan Nixon: A Life (New York: Regency, 1994) p. 267
  3. Kane, J. N. Facts About the Presidents (Norfolk: Wilson, 1984) p. 1006
  4. Kane, J. N. Facts About the Presidents (Norfolk: Wilson, 1984) p. 1043
  5. Hargrove, Jim Richard M. Nixon: The 37th President (Chicago: Childrens,1985) p. 553
  6. Aithea, Jonathan Nixon: A Life (New York: Regency, 1994) p. 318
  7. Ryan, James Richard Nixon (Chicago: Childrens, 1985) p. 213


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