Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994) was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974 when he became the only U.S. president to resign the office. Nixon had previously served as a U.S. Representative and Senator from California and as the 36th Vice President of the United States from 1953 to 1961.
Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California. After completing his undergraduate work at Whittier College, he graduated from Duke University School of Law in 1937 and returned to California to practice law. He and his wife, Pat Nixon, moved to Washington to work for the federal government in 1942. He subsequently served in the United States Navy during World War II. Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and to the Senate in 1950. His pursuit of the Hiss Case established his reputation as a leading anti-communist, and elevated him to national prominence. He was the running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican Party presidential nominee in the 1952 election. Nixon served for eight years as vice president. He waged an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1960, narrowly losing to John F. Kennedy, and lost a race for Governor of California in 1962. In 1968 he ran again for the presidency and was elected.
Nixon ended American involvement in the war in Vietnam in 1973 and brought the American prisoners home. At the same time he ended military draft. Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 opened diplomatic relations between the two nations, and he initiated détente and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union the same year. His administration generally transferred power from Washington to the states. He imposed wage and price controls, enforced desegregation of Southern schools and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon also presided over the Apollo 11 moon landing which signaled the end of the moon race. He was reelected by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history in 1972.
The year 1973 saw an Arab oil embargo and a continuing series of revelations about the Watergate scandal. The scandal escalated, costing Nixon much of his political support, and on August 9, 1974, he resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office. After his resignation, he was issued a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. In retirement, Nixon’s work authoring several books and undertaking of many foreign trips helped to rehabilitate his image. He suffered a debilitating stroke on April 18, 1994, and died four days later at the age of 81. Nixon remains a source of considerable interest among historians.
Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, in a house his father built. He was the son of Hannah (Milhous) Nixon and Francis A. Nixon. His mother was a Quaker and his father converted from Methodism to the Quaker faith; Nixon’s upbringing was marked by evangelical Quaker observances of the time, such as refraining from alcohol, dancing, and swearing. Nixon had four brothers: Harold (1909–33), Donald (1914–87), Arthur (1918–25), and Edward (born 1930). Four of the five Nixon boys were named after kings who had ruled in historical or legendary England; Richard, for example, was named after Richard the Lionheart.
Nixon’s early life was marked by hardship, and he later quoted a saying of Eisenhower to describe his boyhood: “We were poor, but the glory of it was we didn’t know it”. The Nixon family ranch failed in 1922, and the family moved to Whittier, California. In an area with many Quakers, Frank Nixon opened a grocery store and gas station. Richard’s younger brother Arthur died in 1925 after a short illness. At the age of twelve, Richard was found to have a spot on his lung and, with a family history of tuberculosis, he was forbidden to play sports. Eventually, the spot was found to be scar tissue from an early bout of pneumonia.
Nixon’s career was frequently dogged by his persona and the public’s perception of it. Editorial cartoonists and comedians often exaggerated his appearance and mannerisms, to the point where the line between the human and the caricature became increasingly blurred. He was often portrayed with unshaven jowls, slumped shoulders, and a furrowed, sweaty brow.
Nixon had a complex personality, both very secretive and awkward, yet strikingly reflective about himself. He was inclined to distance himself from people and was formal in all aspects, wearing a coat and tie even when home alone. Nixon biographer Conrad Black described him as being “driven” though also “uneasy with himself in some ways”. According to Black, Nixon “thought that he was doomed to be traduced, double-crossed, unjustly harassed, misunderstood, underappreciated, and subjected to the trials of Job, but that by the application of his mighty will, tenacity, and diligence, he would ultimately prevail”. Biographer Elizabeth Drew summarized Nixon as a “smart, talented man, but most peculiar and haunted of presidents”. In his account of the Nixon presidency, author Richard Reeves described Nixon as “a strange man of uncomfortable shyness, who functioned best alone with his thoughts”. Nixon’s presidency was doomed by his personality, Reeves argues: “He assumed the worst in people and he brought out the worst in them … He clung to the idea of being ‘tough’. He thought that was what had brought him to the edge of greatness. But that was what betrayed him. He could not open himself to other men and he could not open himself to greatness.”
Nixon believed that putting distance between himself and other people was necessary for him as he advanced in his political career and became president. Even Bebe Rebozo, by some accounts his closest friend, did not call him by his first name. Nixon stated of this, “Even with close friends, I don’t believe in letting your hair down, confiding this and that and the other thing—saying, ‘Gee, I couldn’t sleep’ … I believe you should keep your troubles to yourself. That’s just the way I am. Some people are different. Some people think it’s good therapy to sit with a close friend and, you know, just spill your guts reveal their inner psyche—whether they were breast-fed or bottle-fed. Not me. No way.” When told that most Americans, even at the end of his career, did not feel they knew him, Nixon replied, “Yeah, it’s true. And it’s not necessary for them to know.”