Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Nixon (1995) >>

Richard Nixon

"The history books will write Richard Nixon in large letters."
-Richard Nixon to his cabinet, November 11, 1971. (Morgan 155)

"There's no question but that a person in politics is always hurt when he loses, because like to play a winner. But the one sure thing about politics is that what goes up comes down, and what goes down often comes up."
-Richard Nixon (Wicker 1)

(1) When Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the staid president seemed to be fleeing from a political career overshadowed by controversy. Regardless of the scandals that would plague him, Nixon was seen by many as a "great statesman," as well as a "a foreign policy expert" (Hay 12). The following biography is a starting point for the historical topics covered in Oliver Stone's Nixon. There is no way to write the definitive historical record of a man so many saw so differently. What is most striking about the many biographies on his life is that fact that Nixon was an unbelievably intelligent man, graduating third in his class at Duke Law School -- how could so clever a leader be undone by a third-rate burglary? The contradictions and ambiguities in Nixon's legacy can be summed up in his own words, "The judgement of history depends on who writes it."

Nixon's Childhood and Early Life

"I would like to study law and enter politics for an occupation so that I may be of some good to the people."
-Richard Nixon in the 8th Grade

(2) Our 37th president was born on January 9th, 1913, in a small farmhouse in the desert town of Yorba Linda, California, and raised in the nearby town of Whittier. He was the second of five brothers and named after King Richard the Lionheart of England. Nixon's father, Frank, juggled several unsuccessful jobs, sometimes as a grocer or day laborer and is described in several biographies as a stern and stubborn man, who had a strained relationship with his children. Nixon would describe him in speeches and interviews as a "common" but great man. Nixon's mother Hannah was a soft spoken, devout Quaker, who tried to raise her children within the faith. Nixon described her as a "saint," and she seems to have had a particularly close relationship to the future president. The Nixon family would lose two sons, Arthur to a sudden illness when Richard was 12, and Harold, when Richard was 20, to tuberculosis. Hannah Nixon commented that Richard would try to make up for his brother's deaths by attempting to become three sons in one.

(3) Nixon was a successful student in high school, but his family did not have the finances to send him to Yale or Harvard, two top schools that had invited him to apply. Nixon would do his undergraduate work at nearby Whittier College and then continue his education at Duke University School of Law, where he specialized in constitutional law and would be named president of the Duke Bar Association. Although Nixon said that he never regretted attending Whittier, many remember Nixon comparing his working class beginnings to the privileged upbringing of his political contemporaries. Nixon hoped to work in New York but could not find jobs and thus returned to California and worked for a law firm in Whittier. He would meet a pretty high school teacher, Pat Ryan, at a local drama society, and after a two-year courtship the two were married in June, 1940. Pat Ryan had lost her parents at an early age and had shouldered the responsibility for her family. Nixon would tell Pat on their first date, "Don't laugh, but I'm going to marry you someday," and pursued her doggedly, even driving her to Los Angeles for dates with other men. Pat was invaluable to her husband's political career and one newspaper column even described her as "Nixon's Man Friday" (Nixon-Eisenhower 114). The Nixons would have two daughters, Julie and Patricia (Tricia).

Nixon's Early Political Career

(4) Nixon served as a Naval Officer starting in 1942, after which he again returned to Whittier. Republican party leaders approached him and suggested he run for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. Nixon was elected over the democratic candidate Jerry Voorhis, a victory that would begin his meteoric rise into the political arena. Nixon would sell himself as a "family man" and "champion of the forgotten man," but he was also extremely combative, attacking Voorhis for being a communist. He would later tell an aide he knew that Voorhis wasn't a communist, but the important thing was to win. Nixon would become a household name in 1948 as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his strident involvement in the case of Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union before and during World War II. Hiss was a respected former adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was accused of being a communist by Whitaker Chambers, an editor at Time Life, who had Communist ties himself. Truman denounced the committee's and Nixon's actions, but the future president in his usual combative manner would attack Hiss with full force.

(5) The decade's anti-communist hysteria seemed to convince Nixon that communism was a threat to American freedom and peace abroad. His dogged efforts in the case would establish his "anti-communist" credentials, important to future foreign policy issues in his career. After two terms in the House, Nixon was elected to the U.S. Senate after an equally combative campaign against Helen Douglas who vehemently opposed HUAC and was, like future political opponents of Nixon, from a well-educated and privileged background. Nixon would famously charge that "she was pink right down to her underwear," implying she was a communist sympathizer. She would give him the nickname that he would never be able to shake, "Tricky Dick," pointing out that he was bullying people into supporting him.

(6) Two years later, in 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate. The controversy that had started to characterize Nixon's political career would rear its head in the 1952 presidential campaign. The press charged Nixon profited from a $22,000 fund set up by one hundred California businessmen. Nixon was found innocent of any wrong-doing by an independent investigation, but the press and Republican leaders would ask him to resign from the Republican ballot. In an unprecedented move, Nixon would go on television to defend himself, in what is more popularly known as the "Checkers speech." In the sentimental speech, Nixon would outline all his financial information as well as the fact that his wife Pat owned "a respectable Republican cloth coat," to imply their humble circumstances. Nixon did point to a "donation" from a Texan supporter, a small, chocolate-colored cocker-spaniel, which six-year old daughter Tricia would name Checkers. Nixon added that although he was not a quitter, he would resign from the ballot for the good of the Republican party. 58 million people, the largest television audience to watch such a broadcast to that date, watched the speech and most supported Nixon. Although a significant portion of the public found his speech shamelessly manipulative, many saw Nixon as the epitome of the American rags-to-riches dream, and this allowed Nixon to remain on the ticket, as well as win the Vice Presidential office in 1952 and 1956.

(7) For the eight years Nixon was vice-president, he was involved in several important domestic and international happenings including the McCarthy hearings in 1954, the Suez Crisis of 1954, and an attack by hostile leftist crowds in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958. Nixon is considered one of our most active Vice presidents, not only taking part in important cabinet discussions, but even meeting with the "leader" of the communist world, Nikita Krushchev. It seemed that Nixon would be a strong candidate for the 1960 presidential election. The election would be lost by a razor-thin margin (113,000) to John F. Kennedy -- possibly because of several televised debates in which Kennedy appeared handsome and in control and Nixon, who was recovering from a knee injury, appeared tired and stiff, in an ill-fitting suit (Transcript of the first joint radio-television debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon). Nixon would make an unsuccessful bid for governor of California in 1962, after which he scathingly declared at a press conference, they "would not have Nixon to kick around anymore." Nixon and Pat moved to New York where he practiced business and law, wrote, and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. Pat who had never been particularly happy with the rigors of being a politician's wife, was hoping they could settle down and lead a normal life.

(8) Nixon was also able to establish fundraising networks in his years away from the political arena that were extremely helpful when he ran again for the presidency in 1968. The United States also went through major changes in those years -- Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson, his succesor, would win a landslide victory in 1964 and escalate the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. President Nixon entered the White House in 1968 when the nation was reeling from civil unrest in the form of anti-war and civil rights protests that would erupt in violence in many cities. Many compared the instability to the divisions during the Civil War and hoped for a leader who could possibly bring them together. In 1968 the country would see the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Robert Kennedy -- this coupled with Johnson choosing not to run again, cleared the way for Nixon into the White House for a nation looking for order. Nixon went on to defeat Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and third-party candidate George C. Wallace (view transcript of First Inaugural Address). Nixon's victory would be a comeback after 22 years of long political battles, however he had run on a promise of "peace" in America to those he called "the forgotten, or silent majority." Nixon's rhetoric often appears to create more divisions in an America already divided sharply over the war in Vietnam and civil rights.

Nixon as President

(9) Nixon placed many of his close advisers and friends in important positions, and their most important characteristic was loyalty to Nixon. Some of the most important of this circle included H. R Haldeman, who was his Chief-of-Staff and once claimed that he was proud "to be Richard Nixon's son-of-a-bitch," and John Ehrlichman, his main domestic policy advisor. Other advisors included Henry Kissinger, who advised him on matters of national security and foreign policy, as well as Melvin Laird, his secretary of defense, and attorney general John Mitchell, a close friend. Many felt that Nixon was displaying a disrespect for Congress, and often Nixon would resort to measures that were illegal in order to "streamline government." He would often bypass the State Department and only consult and execute his foreign policy goals with Kissinger.

(10) Although Nixon did make important decisions on several domestic issues, it would be his talent in matters of foreign policy that is one of the more interesting aspects of his career. Nixon, like many of his Cold War contemporaries, believed in the policy of containment by which democratic nations would go to all measures in order to keep out communist forces. When Mao Tse-Tung's Communist forces set up the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was a severe blow to containment, and the U.S. refused to recognize the People's Republic of China. Also in 1949, the Soviet's would test an atomic bomb, meaning the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on nuclear power (Timeline of the Cold War). Beginning with his inauguration in 1969, Nixon would attempt to begin a policy of linkage with the Soviet Union, resulting in three summit meetings with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Even though he had been an ardent critic of Communist China, after winning the 1972 presidential election, Nixon would visit the People's Republic with China. Nixon would be allowed to meet with Mao Tse-Tung, a significant step in Nixon's foreign policy strategy.

(11) The U.S.'s role in Vietnam seemed to be a more difficult problem (Timeline of the Vietnam War). When Nixon took office in January 1969, the lives of 540,000 young Americans who had been sent to Indochina under the policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were now in his hands. The President began withdrawing U.S. troops while still bolstering South Vietnam's capacity to defend itself -- Nixon soon found out, however, that it was not possible to play both sides of the fence. Nixon's bombing of Hanoi in 1969 angered many Americans who felt that the president was not ending the long conflict as he had promised. President Nixon approved the bombing of Cambodia even against the objections of many of his White House advisors while continually promising an "honorable end to the war." The invasion of Cambodia resulted in the largest anti-war protests the U.S. had ever seen, and three members of Kissinger's staff also resigned in protest. Nixon would refer to college student protestors as "bums," and he argued that the "silent majority" of America would want him to take an aggressive stand in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the protests reached a fevered pitch, and by May 1970 several students were killed at Kent State University and at Jackson State University. One angry father, whose daughter had been killed, would respond, "my child was not a bum." Nixon would argue that, like the protestors, he wanted to stop the war, end the draft, and stop the killing, but he believed that "his decisions would serve that purpose." Over the next three days, protestors flooded Washington, D.C., and after a tense press conference, President Nixon went to the Lincoln Memorial at dawn where a group of protestors had gathered. A young student told Nixon that he didn't understand that protestors were willing to die to stop the war, and Nixon responded that he hoped to create a world where people would not have to die for what they believed in.

(12) In his speeches Nixon continued to put down his critics and protestors and condemn politicians who did not support the war. It is believed Nixon would install at this time even more intricate microphones and taping systems in the White House, so that, at a later time, his aides could not claim that they had disagreed with his policies. Nixon's distrust would return to trap him. The North Vietnamese would reassert themselves and heavily attack South Vietnam, but Nixon did not want to intervene because to do so would have resulted in the Soviet pulling-out of an upcoming arms control summit; however, Nixon did not want to look weak when he went to the summit, since the Soviets were supplying weapons to the North Vietnamese. When negotiations between Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese reached a stand-still, Nixon ordered the Christmas bombing of 1972. These air raids would be the most intensive of the entire war, with over 100,000 bombs dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong. With the cease-fire in place on January 27, 1973, and North Vietnamese leaders agreeing to abide by the Paris Peace Accords, American involvement in the Vietnam War came to a close.


(13) On June 12, 1971, Nixon's daughter Tricia would marry Edward Cox in the White House Rose Garden. The next morning, the New York Times ran a front-page article on the wedding; however, across the page was the first installment of the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon did accomplish much whether at home or abroad, however his presidency will be remembered for the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. What the Watergate hearings exposed was a politician who had resorted to extreme "dirty tricks" in order to keep his executive control. Concerned about leaks to the press, Nixon used his close advisers to plan and execute investigations, background checks, wiretaps, and several other often illegal methods. However, this system was not foolproof as shown when the New York Times began to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers, leaked by Department of Defense employee Daniel Ellsberg, did not directly implicate Nixon in the expansion of the Vietnam War but exposed how the goverment, starting from Johnson's administration, had misled the American public about the Vietnam War. The documents would over time expose the plans of secret meetings with the Soviet Union regarding the arms race. Nixon, who believed that such information should not be exposed for the sake of national security was extremely angry, and as he had in the past, and would do so in the future, he and his advisors attacked the credibility of the Daniel Ellsberg. Both he and Kissinger felt that exposing such information could have significant effect on their foreign policy plans, especially on their plans of linkage with China. Most Americans did not know that Nixon and Kissinger were planning secret meetings with the North Vietnamese to end the war, as well as secret meetings with China to better relations between the nation and the U.S. Nixon tried to stop publication of the 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers but lost the case in court.

(14) In order to find damaging information on Ellsberg, Nixon and his advisor created a special investigative team called the "plumbers," since their job was to plug leaks. The "plumbers" consisted of top-level members such as Nixon himself, Haldeman, Kissinger, and Ehrlichman, but also included low-level staff such as Chuck Colson, a White House lawyer. The plumbers would hire G. Gordon Liddy, counsel to the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, or CREEP to Nixon's enemies), and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent with connections to anti-Communist Cubans. It was Colson, Liddy, and Hunt who would set up a plan to break into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist around September 4, 1971. Success with this break-in would pave the way for the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters at the Watergate office and apartment complex in Washington, D.C. On March 30, 1972, a meeting between Jeb Magruder (assistant director of CRP), John Mitchell (Attorney General and Director of CRP), and Liddy provided the latter with $250,000 to execute what Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press secretary, would call "a third-rate burglary." On May 27, 1972, and on June 17, five men broke into DNC headquarters, and they were arrested the second time by local police. The burglars were placing wiretaps and photographing documents -- among the burglars was the security director of CRP, James McCord, as well as some Cuban connections of Hunt's.

(15) Initial consensus said that Nixon had no foreknowledge of the burglary, and initially only Liddy, Hunt, and McCord were indicted by a grand jury under judge John Sirica. President Nixon would be charged with complicity in blocking the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in, since in taped conversations he advised Haldeman to put pressure on acting FBI director Patrick Gray to stop the investigation. Several more accusations were thrown at the president over the next two years, but when the June 23 taped conversation was released in the summer of 1974, those pointing the finger at Nixon believed they had found the "smoking gun" that proved Nixon guilty of obstruction of justice. As the Washington Post began an investigation into the connections between the burglaries and the White House, Nixon would beat democratic candidate George McGovern in a landslide victory (view Second Inaugural Address). The investigations by Judge Sirica proved even more troublesome for Nixon when in March 1973, McCord wrote a note to the Judge saying that the White House offered bribes to the Watergate defendants in return for their silence, suggesting a cover-up originating in the higher levels. This resulted in a special Senate Watergate committee, chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Soon accusations were flying and Nixon's aides were jumping ship -- Jeb Magruder (deputy chairman of CRP) claimed that John Mitchell approved the Watergate break-in. White House counsel John Dean would bargain with prosecutors to possibly avoid becoming a scapegoat for debacle, and Dean pointed the finger at Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Nixon requested and received the resignations of his close friends and advisors Dean, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman. In televised hearings, Dean would implicate Nixon to the Senate Committee, claiming the president would have no trouble raising money for bribes and also claiming the existence of an "enemies list," members of which the president targeted with wiretappings, tax audits, and other illegal or dirty tricks.

(16) After Dean's testimony, another aide revealed that President Nixon tape-recorded most of his White House conversations, including personal ones. The tapes were immediately subpoenaed, but Nixon claimed executive privilege so as not to have to turn them over, arguing that the tapes would reveal information that could damage the national security. The tapes would not only be requested by Judge Sirica and Ervin but also by special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, a special Watergate prosecutor appointed by then attorney general Elliot Richardson. However, in what seemed to be the greatest constitutional crisis the nation had faced to that point, Nixon responded by having Cox fired, along with deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus, which caused Richardson to resign in protest. Known more popularly as the "Saturday night massacre," the firings suggested Nixon had something to hide. A new special prosecutor, a Texas attorney, Leon Jaworski, was appointed, from whom Nixon expected to garner more sympathy. This would not be the case as more revelations were made about the dirty business in the White House -- Ehrlichman would be indicted for involvement in the Ellsberg break-in, and Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon's Vice President, was forced to resign in order to avoid prosecution for charges ranging from bribery to income tax evasion. Many felt that Nixon should resign as well, but he proclaimed, "I am not a crook," a denial which did little to convince people. The House of Representatives, on October 30, 1973, began impeachment investigations. Nixon did not cooperate with investigators, but after more pressure from the public, Nixon did release some tapes to investigators. However, some of these tapes contained gaps which appeared to have been deliberately erased, but Nixon would remain combative through the winter and spring of 1974. However, in February 1974, Sirica's grand jury named him an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Watergate break-in, making Nixon vulnerable to criminal charges. Questions about Nixon's private life became fair game for investigation: his finances, his property holdings, even his various friendships with wealthy business men.

Resignation and the Future

(17) The end of Nixon's presidency came first when the United States Supreme Court decided that Nixon could no longer claim "executive privilege" and must hand over his tapes to Leon Jaworski. One of the newly released tapes provided investigators with a "smoking gun" that proved that Nixon had been involved in the Watergate cover-up as early as June 23, 1972, only six days after the original burglars were captured. Nixon can be heard on the tapes urging that political pressure be put on FBI and CIA officials to stop the Watergate investigation. Nixon can also be heard cursing, making remarks of an anti-semitic or racist nature, and this image of Nixon's private "blemishes" further alienated Nixon in the public's mind. When the House Judiciary Committee passed three Articles of Impeachment in July 1974, the president was charged with obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and interfering with the impeachment process itself. Since he faced being tried publicly by Congress, and if found guilty facing the possibility of forced removal from office plus criminal charges, President Nixon decided to resign on August 9, 1974, prior to impeachment by the full House and the Senate trial that would have followed (view Nixon's Resignation Letter). Although entitled under the Constitution to a trial conducted according to rules of evidence, he said that he did not want the nation preoccupied with Watergate for months to come. His second Vice President, Gerald R. Ford, was sworn in as President the same day. Ford would pardon him of criminal wrongdoing in connection with Watergate; however, this did not remove the fact that Nixon's political career ended in shame and scandal. In the minds of the American public, Nixon is still guilty of abusing the powers of his office, and, even more importantly, he is seen as a political figure who resorted to "dirty tricks" and "amoral behavior." However, it seems that scholarship and time are doing much to change this attitude and many books, particularly Joan Hoff's and Monica Crowley's, argue that Nixon was a much more complex politician than he has been credited with, and both have looked at his policy records and writings for proof of his achievements.

(18) President Nixon died on April 22, 1994, in New York City and was buried on the grounds of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, at the side of his First Lady, on April 27, 1994 (see Nixon's Last Will and Testament). Five presidents and their first ladies gathered to honor him, and the eulogists at his State Funeral were President Bill Clinton, Senator Robert Dole, California Governor Pete Wilson, and his second Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. At Nixon's funeral, Senator Bob Dole articulated what he believed to be Nixon's legacy: "I believe the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon....No one knew the world better than Richard Nixon, and, as a result, the man who was born in a house his father built would go on to become this century's greatest architect of peace."

Hay, Jeff. Richard M. Nixon: Presidents and their Decisions Series. California: Greenhaven P, 2001.