The 37th president of the US, Richard Milhous Nixon remains the only US president to have resigned from office.
Born the second of five sons to Quaker parents in California on 9 January 1913, Richard Nixon practised law from 1937 to 1942 and then served in the US Navy in the Pacific during World War Two, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. As a Republican Congressman, Nixon showed great zealous and deep patriotism in unmasking ‘Un-American activities’ during the 1950s McCarthy era of communist witchhunts. He made his name in his rigorous prosecution of Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official accused of passing information to the Soviets.
Richard Nixon was elected to the Senate in 1950, aged 36, where his dealing with political opponents earned him the nickname, ‘Tricky Dicky’. From 1953 to 1961 Nixon served as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president. But allegations of financial irregularity almost finished his career and in 1952 Nixon had to defend himself on television – at the time a revolutionary use of this new medium. In answer to the charge that he had been accepting financial gifts, Nixon responded by saying the only gift he ever accepted was a puppy named Checkers for his daughter. The “Checkers” speech helped Nixon survive.
As vice president, Nixon helped Eisenhower retain the presidency, winning the 1956 elections. In 1960, Nixon stood for president. The campaign saw the first televised US presidential debate between Nixon and his Democrat rival, John F Kennedy. Those that listened on the radio put Nixon ahead but those who saw the four debates on television were swayed less by what was said and more by what they saw – a smooth, confident Kennedy versus an underweight, sweaty Nixon with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. In the end, Kennedy won the election by the narrowest of margins, winning the popular vote 49.7 percent to Nixon’s 49.5 percent. An embittered Nixon blamed the pro-Kennedy media.
Failure two years later in his bid for Governor of California marked the low-ebb of Richard Nixon’s pre-presidential career. He retired from politics, telling reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” He moved to New York, returning to law. However, after six years, in November 1968, and following President Johnson’s decision not to rerun for office, Nixon re-emerged and stood again for president, promising to “bring us together”, and pledging the gradual withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
This time, aged 55, he was successful, becoming the 37th president of the US. True to his promise, Nixon gradually handed back the organisation of the day-to-day military operations to the South Vietnamese in what he called a policy of ‘Vietnamization’. Following the Paris Accords with communist North Vietnam in January 1973, the last American soldiers left Vietnam in March that year. (The war, however, was set to continue for a further two years until, in 1975, North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and reunited the country under communist rule.)
During his first tenure as president, the US landed the first person on the moon.
Nixon advanced the Cold War period of détente, an acknowledgement of the differences between the East and the West and an attempt to make the world a more secure place. He oversaw the SALT agreements (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) with the Soviet Union, aimed at mutual limitation of aggressive weapons and recognised the People’s Republic of China. He visited both China (February 1972) and the Soviet Union (May 1972). But still a fervent anti-communist, Nixon helped undermine communist rule in Chile, resulting in Augusto Pinochet’s seizure of power and the removal and suicide of Salvador Allende, the first Marxist to have become president of a Latin American country through open elections. (Although Allende is believed to have taken his life there is still speculation that he was assassinated during the overthrow).
Nixon won a landslide election in 1972 with 61% of the popular vote and winning 49 of the 50 states, the first of only two presidents to have done so (the second, in 1984, was Ronald Reagan). But the Nixon era came to a premature end when a bungled burglary on the Democratic Party’s HQ in Washington DC started a trail that led right to the White House and the heart of government. Nixon’s attempt to cover-up his involvement only led to his downfall. Nixon initially denied any personal involvement, but the courts obliged him to relinquish tape recordings which showed that he had, in fact, tried to cover up and mislead the investigation. His claim that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” did not wash. Public opinion put legality above state brinkmanship and on 8 August 1974, rather than face impeachment, Nixon announced his decision to resign – in order to begin “that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” He duly resigned the following day, the only president in American history to do so.
“A nation I so deeply love.”
Within a month, his successor and former vice president, Gerald Ford, unconditionally pardoned the disgraced ex-president. In reply, Nixon said, ”No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish of my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and presidency, a nation I so deeply love and an institution I so greatly respect.”
Richard Nixon retired to California and died of a stroke, aged 81, on 22 April 1994.