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Richard M. Nixon
37th President of the United States
RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON was born January 9, 1913, in his father’s house in
Yorba Linda, California. He was the second of the five sons of Francis Anthony
and Hanna Milhous Nixon. His parents were Quakers, the Nixons being of
Scots-Irish descent and the Milhouses, Irish and English. They were hardworking
and serious, running a small lemon farm. Their farm failed in 1922 and the
family moved to Whittier, California, where young Nixon attended public schools,
while his father operated a combination general store and gas station. They had
little money, and the boys helped out tending the store, pumping gas and doing
other odd jobs. Nixon was an excellent student, graduating second in his class
at Whittier High School. He was invited by both Harvard and Yale to apply for
scholarships, but the Depression and his older brother’s illness made his
presence close to home necessary.
Nixon attended local Whittier College, a small Quaker institution, majoring
in history. He excelled in debating and won a public speaking contest and his
first election, as president of the student body. He was a good student,
graduating second in his class in 1934. He received a scholarship to Duke
University Law School and received his law degree in 1937. He returned home and
joined an established law firm in Whittier and at a local community theater
tryout, he met Thelma Catherine Ryan. Known as Patricia or Pat, she taught
shorthand and typing at a local high school, and they started dating when they
were cast in the same play. They were married on June 21, 1940, and they had two
daughters: Patricia, born in 1946 and Julie, born in 1948. Julie later married
David Eisenhower, grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Nixon went to work for
the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C. In 1942, he joined the
U.S. Navy as a lieutenant (junior grade) and served mainly in naval air
transport in the South Pacific. By the end of the War in 1945, he had achieved
the rank of lieutenant commander, and he was discharged in early 1946.
After his discharge, Nixon was persuaded by some California Republicans to
run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against a popular Democratic
incumbent, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon waged a hard aggressive campaign that would
become characteristic of his political career. The two men confronted each other
in a series of debates and Nixon won the election. After winning reelection in
1948, Nixon was appointed to the House Un-American Activities Committee as it
began its investigation of Alger Hiss, a State Department official who was
accused of passing secret documents to the Soviets. Nixon personally pressed the
investigation, and Hiss was indicted for perjury and Nixon gained a national
reputation as an enemy of Communism.
In 1950, Nixon was chosen as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
His opponent was Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon defeated he by a wide margin in a
campaign that was called one of the roughest, most bitter campaigns in political
In 1952, Nixon gained the attention of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who selected him
to be his running mate. Nixon’s candidacy received a setback when he was
accused of having improperly accepted campaign contributions, but no evidence
was produced to indicate he had misused the fund or given special favors. Nixon
made a televised speech to the nation in response to the allegations, known as
the “Checkers” speech because it contained a sentimental reference to his
dog, Checkers. Nixon made full disclosure of his personal finances and the
public received the speech favorably. The Eisenhower/Nixon ticket was swept into
office in a Republican landslide. Nixon received the vice presidential
nomination again in 1956, easily winning reelection with Eisenhower.
As Eisenhower neared the end of his second term, Nixon emerges as his logical
successor, and the overwhelming choice of his party. His opponent was Senator
John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. For the first time,
the American public was able to see a series of four televised face-to-face
debates between the two candidates for president. Kennedy’s youth and good
looks played well to the television audience and that partly attributed to
helping him win the election, one of the closest is U.S. history. Both
candidates received more than 34 million popular votes and Kennedy beat Nixon by
only 112,803, about two-tenths of one percent.
Nixon returned to California and his law practice following his defeat. In
1962, he became the Republican candidate for governor and again lost after a
bitterly fought campaign. Nixon moved to New York after his California defeat,
where he became a partner in a prominent law firm, but always keeping a close
eye on Republican politics. He campaigned for Republican candidates in the 1964
and 1966 elections and by early 1968 he had sufficiently recovered his political
standing. He announced his candidacy for the 1968 presidential nomination on
February 1. He won most of the state primary elections he entered and
accumulated so much strength that by the Republican Convention in August, his
nomination was an inevitable conclusion. His running mate was Governor Spiro T.
Agnew of Maryland and their opponents were Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and
Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine. A third party ticket headed by George C.
Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, complicated the election. Nixon won
with 301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 46.
Taking office in 1969, Nixon was faced with his most important issue, the
Vietnam War. By the end of 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed
there and antiwar sentiment developed at home. Nixon had campaigned against the
war, saying that he would bring the troops back home. He announced a policy of
gradual withdrawal of American troops along with “Vietnamiztion” of the
conflict, which would make South Vietnam responsible for its own defense against
the Communist North.
However, in April 1970, he authorized the invasion of Cambodia to pursue
North Vietnamese troops stationed there, expanding the war. The invasion of
Cambodia led to widespread American protests, mainly on university campuses. At
Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed and others wounded when
national guardsman fired into a group of demonstrators.
Nixon made great strides in foreign affairs, visiting China and the Soviet
Union and he initiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the
Soviets. In 1973, Nixon signed a peach accord with North Vietnam, finally
extricating the country from a conflict that had cost 58,000 American lives.
However, his achievements were overshadowed by a constitutional crisis at home.
On June 17, 1972, a break-in was discovered at the Democrats National Committee
headquarters in the Watergate building. Five men were arrested in an attempt to
steal documents and place wiretaps on the telephones. Nixon denied any knowledge
of the incident and went on to a landslide reelection victory in November.
Slowly, however, evidence was amassed that implicated the White House. Senior
Administration Officials were caught in a cover-up that unraveled under mounting
investigation. Threatened with impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.
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