Richard Nixon was one of the most problematic and controversial leaders in U.S. history.

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President Richard M. Nixon

Josh Steedman, PhD, is an educator and historian specializing in the history of the U.S. and Canada in the nineteenth century. Dr. Steedman’s dissertation is an examination of the effects of the Patriot War in the U.S. His current projects involve the history of American popular culture and globalizing U.S. history.

On August 9, 1974 President Richard Nixon made history; and though all presidents would like to leave a mark in the history books, this was not the sort Nixon had in mind. Chief of Staff Alexander Haig delivered a piece of paper to the President with a single sentence that stated: “I hereby resign the office of president of the United States.” Nixon promptly signed the paper and handed it back to Haig. Nixon’s tenure in the White House was coming to an end. Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice president, would be president by the end of the day. In their final minutes as the First Family, Nixon and his wife, Patricia, walked down a red carpet draped on the White House lawn and boarded the presidential helicopter, Army One. Before embarking into the post‐​presidential unknown, the now former president with a now uncertain future, turned to the press and smiled, flashed the iconic “v (victory)” sign with his hands, entered the chopper, and flew away. 1

Richard Nixon was one of the most problematic and controversial leaders in U.S. history. However, despite Nixon’s many, many flaws, the man nicknamed “Tricky Dick” was a formidable politician and possessed an astute political mind. Nixon was a student of American politics, a lifelong Republican, and vicious and crusading Cold Warrior. Both on the campaign trail and in office, Nixon embodied the stereotypical ethos of a politician: he said and did whatever he needed to do to win. In doing so, Nixon betrayed his supporters in the Republican Party and abused government power to defeat his opponents. Ultimately, his coziness with big government policies, coupled with his fall from grace following the Watergate scandal, transformed the GOP and led to the ascent of former actor‐​turned‐​politician Ronald Reagan to the nation’s highest office.

Richard Milhouse Nixon was born to Quaker parents in Yorba Linda, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. At a young age, Nixon’s father, Frank (1878–1956), encouraged Richard to embrace his Quaker faith and the Republican Party. Unlike Frank, Richard’s mother Hannah (1885–1967), identified with the Democratic Party. She also embraced the arts, especially music, and encouraged a young Richard to take up the piano (among other instruments). As a result of his hard work, he became an accomplished musician (something Nixon later showcased while in office). 2

In 1937, Nixon graduated from Duke University, then practiced law in California. During World War II, Nixon worked for the government overseeing the rationing of tires and other supplies for the war effort. Nixon, however, was unhappy as a wartime bureaucrat and, despite his Quaker heritage, he joined the naval reserves and was later deployed for active duty in East Asia and throughout the Pacific. 3

After returning stateside, Nixon ran for office in 1946 for one of Southern California’s House seats and easily defeated Democrat Jerry Voorhis. Nixon claimed Voorhis was a subversive and a communist sympathizer. 4 Though Voorhis was indeed an avowed socialist early in his life and was endorsed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ political action committee, Nixon was exploiting this history as a campaign tactic. In fact, Voorhis, far from being a Communist sympathizer, hoped to outlaw the Communist Party in the U.S. altogether. All the same, Nixon successfully appealed to Southern California’s growing conservative movement, foreshadowing the strategy behind Barry Goldwater’s nomination for the presidency in 1964. Nixon claimed he was a candidate with no strings attached, promised to accept no financial support from special interest groups, and thus won his seat in Congress, beginning a political career which spanned nearly three decades. 5

While in Congress, Nixon was a member of the House Un‐​American Activities Committee (HUAC), earning the reputation for being an anti‐ communist crusader. His views on the so‐​called “communist menace” and how to protect the nation from subversives materialized during his time on HUAC. Nixon was instrumental in the Alger Hiss spy case; during the trials of the Hollywood Ten, Nixon argued that asking questions such as “Are you a member of the Screen Writers’ Guild?” and “Are you, or have you ever been a member of the Communist party” fell within the legislative mandate of Congress. However, Nixon claimed that Congress could not punish the individuals brought before HUAC as the committee was not a part of the executive branch. 6

In 1952, General Dwight D. Eisenhower won the GOP presidential nomination. President Harry S. Truman asked Ike to consider running as a Democrat, but Eisenhower had longstanding ideological disagreements with the Democratic Party, so he distanced himself from the Democrats and aligned with the GOP. 7 Not even Eisenhower could run on his (substantial) military record alone, so he chose a more youthful running‐​mate with conservative credentials to appeal to the GOP base. But he also wanted to appease the GOP establishment by picking someone with experience and connections; Eisenhower eventually settled on Richard Nixon.

Nixon seemed a safe bet, but by September of 1952 certain liabilities began showing. Nixon accepted funds from private donors and the media questioned Nixon’s intentions: if he was accepting donations, and if he and Ike’s campaign was successful, would he give these donors special privileges? Would these donations affect the way Eisenhower and Nixon governed? Ike gave Nixon the chance to explain himself on national television. In what was dubbed the Checker’s Speech (named for the Cocker Spaniel that the Nixons had received as a gift), Nixon poured his heart out to the nation. Historian Kevin Mattson writes that television became “Dick’s format. His speech would symbolize just how much politics and television had merged by 1952.” Mattson continues, Nixon “would engage in an existential act of self‐​definition by going in front of cameras and baring his soul.” Nixon’s plea to the nation successfully won hearts and minds. He appeared to be a relatively normal guy, a family man, and a dog lover at that! 8 Nixon’s common man appeal secured his place on the ticket and helped Eisenhower win the presidency.

He was an unusually active vice president. Nixon presided over meetings and travelled abroad conducting diplomacy. Nixon loomed over the Eisenhower administration and the federal government as a whole, serving a full eight years and inserting himself into government whenever possible. One of Nixon’s more notable foreign policy achievements occurred in Moscow on July 24, 1959. In the so‐​called “Kitchen Debate,” Nixon and then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev discussed the merits of communism and capitalism. Nixon held his own (and perhaps won) against Khrushchev’s bombastic personality. Nixon, the fearsome cold warrior, showcased his political chops on the international stage and this formidable showing helped lead to his nomination for the presidency in 1960.

The Election of 1960 was the first U.S. election significantly affected by the widespread use of the television. The television was arguably Nixon’s domain, and, perhaps thanks to his familiarity with the format, Nixon ignored Eisenhower’s advice to avoid a televised debate against Senator John F. Kennedy. He believed he knew JFK’s weaknesses such that he could derail the senator’s presidential aspirations. He was wrong and stumbled out of the gate. For the television audience, appearances mattered. While the more youthful and photogenic Senator Kennedy napped before the debate and wore a bit of make‐​up, Nixon was recovering from a knee injury, did not shave, and looked a bit disheveled. Finally, discussion of substantive political issues focused on domestic affairs, a field in which Cold Warriors like Nixon struggled mightily. 9 He lost the debate, the election, and—it seemed—his whole career.

Yet Nixon staged an (in)famous and wildly successful comeback in 1968, running once again for president. Perhaps the literal definition of a political resurgence, the once‐​defeated Nixon beat the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey handily in the Electoral College, though the popular vote margins were much narrower. 10 The Nixon campaign succeeded by focusing on white voters in the American South who were angry about desegregation, later nicknamed “the Southern Strategy” and which transformed the electoral map for a generation. 11

Nixon campaigned on an idealistic platform. Though he claimed–rightfully so–that he could not fix all the problems that plagued the U.S. overnight, he promised to represent the long ignored interests of the so‐​called Silent Majority. 12 Nixon capitalized on an emerging “Republican majority – rooted in the South and Southwest, seething with rage over” Vietnam War protests, challenges to “white political power,” and “virtually every [other] traditional cultural norm.” Moreover, Nixon’s win in 1968 was a political gamble: it relied on hypothetical GOP gains in Congress during the next election cycle. Unfortunately for Nixon and the GOP, Republicans suffered “humiliating defeats” in 1970 and these losses made Nixon increasingly paranoid. He then pivoted to target those deemed the most dangerous challenges to his presidency. 13

Nixon’s terms in office overlapped with both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Thanks to increased media coverage, public opinion toward the unwinnable Vietnam War was increasingly negative. Protests erupted on campuses and throughout the US. When the National Guard killed unarmed college protestors at Kent State University, the political fallout drove Nixon over the edge. He began drinking, obsessing about the press, and, on one occasion, left the White House unescorted and attempted to “connect” with protestors at the Lincoln Memorial. 14

When Nixon took office, the Vietnam War was at its midpoint. Nixon wanted to find an end to the unwinnable conflict, and attempted to convince the leaders of the communist nations supporting the North Vietnamese to believe he was an unstable madman. 15 Nixon needed a way out of Vietnam without making the U.S. look weak to the international community. He eventually found an out. After a series of vicious bombing campaigns, and a series of troop replacements and withdrawals labeled “Vietnamization,” the U.S. gradually pulled out of Vietnam. Following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, American armed forces were officially removed and conflict on the Indochinese Peninsula temporarily halted. When fighting later resumed, the North Vietnamese quickly overtook the American‐​backed South Vietnamese.

When everything was said and done, the Vietnam War cost the United States $168 billion (over $1 trillion today adjusting for inflation.) 16 Nixon’s mishandling of the latter years of the war led to the deaths of an estimated 21,041 American soldiers in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, nearly 3 million Vietnamese soldiers died during the Vietnam War. According to historian Jon Wiener, since “Nixon entered office at the war’s midpoint, he is responsible for 1.5 million of the three million deaths.” These costs still effect Americans well in to the twenty‐​first century; the U.S. government pays about $22 billion to Vietnam War veterans each year and, as this population continues to age, the price will increase. There were no benefits to the loss of life, destruction, and cost of the Vietnam War. The nation fell back into the hands of the communist North Vietnamese, leaving a generation of Americans as victims of Nixon’s imperial failures. 17

Nixon’s consolidation of the government was a departure from the norm. In 1973, Thomas E. Cronin, a fellow at a California think‐​tank, said in an interview that the White House “has become a powerful inner sanctum of government, isolated from traditional, constitutional checks and balances.” 18 Nixon believed that government intervention would fix America’s problems. This approach was doomed from its inception, especially with a deeply disturbed individual at the helm. On December 2, 1970, Nixon signed an executive order which created the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This action came in response to a number of environmental disasters in the 1960s. Although the ideals behind the EPA seemed genuine and a means to remedy a decade of disaster, there are better ways to fix the environment. Critics of the EPA and government‐​led environmental reform “point to its high costs and inconsistent results.” The results of government oversight into the EPA are akin to “central economic planning.” Critics argued that the free market “would do a better job of advancing environmental concerns in concert with individual liberty. 19 Moreover, these fixes would be much more effective if they were left in the hands of state and local governments rather than relying on the federal government’s theoretical approach which lacked “real‐​world data.” 20

An increasingly paranoid Nixon began to manipulate the American economy. Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury, John Connally, convinced the president that “foreigners are out to screw us. Our job is to screw them first.” 21 The resulting “Nixon shock” unfolded in August of 1971. After a meeting at Camp David, the Nixon government closed the gold window, enacted a nationwide freeze on wages and prices–normally a wartime measure which had not occurred since the Second World War–and imposed a 10‐​percent tax on imported goods to give American goods an advantage on the market and as a means to force international economies to “revalue their currencies against the dollar.” 22 Although this could be seen as a “win” for Nixon in the short‐​term, it was a dangerous move for the rest of the country. Undoing Bretton Woods and the devaluation of the dollar threatened American economic might. Nixon’s actions created a great deal of economic uncertainty that has rippled down through the four decades following his Administration. 23

Nixon’s 1971 economic policy revolution failed utterly, especially the price controls. As presidential historian Gene Healy has written, “the people [ultimately] paid the price – but not until [Nixon] coasted to a landslide re‐​election in 1972.” 24 Nixon’s price controls “stimulated employment… without stoking inflation.” Now, Nixon needed to address the nation, but he did not want to interrupt American’s favorite television show, Bonanza. Nixon’s advisors recalled after the fact that “more time was spent discussing the timing of the speech than how the economy would work.” By 1974, months before Nixon resigned, “most of the price controls were abolished,” but the federal government remained involved in controlling the prices of oil and natural gas. 25

Nixon was a bully. He used the power and reach of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a means to intimidate and keep a tab on individuals whom he deemed subversive. Numerous celebrities were under surveillance during the Nixon years. Once such individual was the ex‐​Beatle and antiwar activist and British national John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. Both Lennon and Ono were nearly deported by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The FBI attempted to arrest Lennon on trumped up charges of narcotics possession and the popular rock and roller frequently found himself facing 60‐​day orders to leave the country. Nixon’s efforts to deport Lennon are illustrative of Nixon’s paranoid mindset. Although Lennon may have convinced individuals to organize in an effort to voice discontent against the ongoing Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration, he was by no means an actual threat to national security. With that being said, documents released via the Freedom of Information Act illustrate that the attempts of Nixon and head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to keep an eye on Lennon were bungled and haphazard at best. 26

As with the FBI, Nixon used the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to intimidate his enemies. When choosing a new IRS chief, Nixon wanted whoever would head this agency to ruthlessly pursue those who were against him. Nixon said, “Now it’s as simple as that. If he isn’t, he doesn’t get the job.” 27 During the Watergate scandal, Nixon wanted the IRS to investigate his enemies and Nixon believed that former Assistant Attorney General Johnnie Walters was the man for the job. According to a former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, Tim Naftali, “Nixon sought to use the enemies list to target his opponents and he wanted to use the IRS to achieve that goal.” Walters refused. He believed that the IRS should be nonpartisan because if it was politically motivated, he claimed, “Our tax system would otherwise fail and we can’t afford that.” 28

The enemies list Nixon maintained, coupled with his misuse of the IRS, made the lives of his enemies miserable. Nixon used his enemies list to “‘screw’” his “personal and political foes.” This abuse of power “was accomplished with onerous tax audits by the IRS, and by manipulating the availability of grants and federal contracts,” later highlighted in the second of his articles of impeachment. Nixon had violated the constitution, the constitutional rights of American citizens, and comported himself and these investigations in an abhorrent and “discriminatory manner.” 29

Nixon was also responsible for escalating the failed War on Drugs. In June 1971, Nixon, tired of antiwar and civil rights movements, used the power of the federal government to target young, left‐​wing anti‐​war demonstrators and African Americans demanding civil rights. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Nixon “increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no‐​knock warrants.” Former Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman further explained Nixon’s drug policy: “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” 30

Nixon had marijuana listed as a federal Schedule One drug, making mere possession illegal. This was a cynical move to disrupt the lives of anti‐​Vietnam protestors as well as “vilify them night‐​after‐​night on the evening news.” One year later in 1972, a Republican‐​led drug commission recommended broad decriminalization of marijuana. Their recommendation, however, was ignored by Nixon. The damage was done. These Nixon era policies disproportionally targeted and affected the lives of African Americans, as well as other minority populations, well into the twenty‐​first century. 31

Early on June 17, 1972, five men broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington, D.C. The DNC, housed at the Watergate apartment and office complex, was now the scene of a crime that would change the nation’s history. Historian John W. Dean suggests these events were seemingly “something like a scene from a circa 1940s low‐​budget black‐​and‐​white gangster B movie.” And, perhaps what is more puzzling is how someone as politically savvy as Nixon – albeit a “stressed‐​out” Nixon – could associate himself with these individuals, coordinate these actions, and become involved in such a blatant, illegal act. 32

Instead of openly admitting an “abuse of office,” Nixon “felt trapped and therefore tried to cover it up.” Ironically, the cover‐​up may not have been necessary as Nixon’s political rivals were unpopular; he might have even been favored for re‐​election had he not tried to cover‐​up the crime. In orchestrating a cover‐​up, Nixon committed obstruction of justice and violated the presidential oath of office. A Democratic Congress held Nixon accountable and an impeachment inquiry soon followed. 33 However, to remove Nixon, fellow GOP politicians needed to be thoroughly convinced that his malfeasance crossed the Constitutional threhold for high crimes and misdemeanors and thus was worthy of the president being removed from office.

Initially, Nixon refused to step down from the Presidency. His party, however, slowly turned against him. A triumvirate of GOP elder statesmen – Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes – met with Nixon and informed him that his party believed it was best for the nation and the future of the GOP for Nixon to resign. 34 He still refused; however, during the Watergate hearings, the Senate committee pressed Nixon to comply with a subpoena to release a series of tapes of recorded conversations that took place in the Oval Office. Nixon’s refusal to comply with the subpoena finally shifted a bi‐​partisan majority of Senators in support of impeachment. 35 After the GOP meeting, the threat of articles of impeachment, and loss of support Nixon knew his presidency was over. He addressed the nation from the Oval Office for the last time on August 8, 1974. Nixon announced that effective August 9, he resigned the presidency and Vice President, Gerald Ford, would assume the office. Nixon was the only president in U.S. history to resign. After he took office, Gerald Ford, shocked the nation by using his new powers as president to pardon Nixon for any criminal wrongdoing related to Watergate. It was a decision that defined Ford’s presidency as much as the ongoing economic recession and Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Ford stumbling and bumbling around the Saturday Night Live set. Ford wanted to give the country space to ‘move on,’ but while he managed to beat Ronald Reagan in the 1976 GOP primary, the general electorate voted to sweep out the lingering remnants of the Nixon administration and elected Democrat Jimmy Carter instead.

The Nixon presidency was a destructive force in American history. Although Nixon’s fall from grace may be the most cinematic aspect of “Tricky Dick’s” legacy, his actions affected the lives of generations of Americans. Nixon’s willingness to use big government solutions to advance policy goals and (successfully) win over voters, only added to future presidential administrations’ willingness to regulate everyday life. Furthermore, some of Nixon’s allies and operatives, such as Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, remained active in American politics well into the twentieth century. These men not only influenced policy, but Rumsfeld, in particular, was influential in America’s War on Terror – our new Vietnam. Finally, veterans of the Vietnam War suffered through decades of physical and emotional distress – a result of the imperial presidency spearheaded by Nixon himself. The physical and emotional statistics are damning; according to a 2013 study, four decades after the end of the war, 11% of male veterans displayed signs of Post‐​Traumatic Stress Disorder, 37% were diagnosed with major depression, and “two‐​thirds of veterans with current warzone‐​related PTSD discussed behavioral health or substance abuse concerns with providers.” 36 Statistics like these are devastatingly current, seemingly ripped from the headlines today. We should remember the Nixon administration and its many, many flaws so that this history doesn’t repeat itself…any more than it already has.

1. Kenturah Gray and Lauren Effron, “How President Richard Nixon spent his last days in the White House,” ABC News, June 15, 2017, retrieved August 19, 2019.

2. Conrad Black, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (New York: Public Affairs, 2007), 10–11. Sheryl Kaskowtiz, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 86.

3. Bela Kornitzer, The Real Nixon: An Intimate Biography (New York: Rand McNally and Company, 1960), 143–144. Roger Morris, Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), 193.

4. Herbert S. Parmet, Richard Nixon and His America (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1990), 111–113.

5. Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008), 26–28.

6. Irwin F. Gellman, The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946–1952 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,2017), 117–118.

7. Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President‐​Elect (1893–1952) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 512.

8. Kevin Mattson, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the Rocking Socking Election of 1952 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 8–10.

9. Larry J. Sabato, The Kennedy Half‐​Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 63–64.

10. Nixon won the popular vote by a little over 500,000 votes. The segregationist candidate, George Wallace, earned over 9,900,000.

11. Victor Li, Nixon in New York: How Wall Street Helped Richard Nixon Win the White House (Vancouver: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2018), 174–176.

12. Perlstein, Nixonland, 304–305.

13. Ibid., xii.

14. John A. Farrell, “The Year Nixon Fell Apart,” Politico Magazine, March 26, 2017, accessed December 9, 2019.

15. Elizabeth Drew, Richard M. Nixon (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007), 65.

16. Kimberly Amadeo, “Vietnam War Facts, Costs and Timeline: How the Vietnam War Affects You Today,” The Balance, February 19, 2020, accessed February 21, 2020.

17. Amadeo, “Vietnam War Facts, Costs and Timeline.”

18. John Herbers, “Nixon’s Presidency: Centralized Control,” New York Times, March 6, 1973.

19. “Environment,” The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy, (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008), 151–152.

20. Lynn Scarlet, “Environmental Ecology” in The Libertarian Reader: Classic & Contemporary Writings form Lao‐​Tzu to Milton Friedman, edited by David Boaz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 536–537.

21. Thomas W. Zeiler, “Nixon Shocks Japan, Inc.” in Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969–1977 eds. Fredrik Logevall and Andrew Preston (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 298.

22. Douglas A. Irwin, “The Nixon Shock after Forty Years: The Import Surcharge Revisited,” World Trade Review 12, no.1 (2013), 29.

23. Paul Krugman, “The Gold Bug Variations,” November 22, 1996, The Paul Krugman Archive, accessed on January 1, 2020.

24. Gene Healy, “Nixon’s Big Government Legacy: Remembering Richard Nixon’s wage and price controlsReason, accessed January 1, 2020.

25. Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, “Nixon, Price Controls, and the Gold Standard,” from The Commanding Heights (New York: Free Press, 1997), 60–64, “Commanding Heights,” PBS, accessed January 27, 2020.

26. “Uncovering the ‘Truth’ Behind Lennon’s FBI Files,” Fresh Air, National Pubic Radio, October 8, 2010, accessed January 1, 2020.

27. “Nixon and the IRS” quoted from the Washington Post, The Cato Institute, accessed January 12, 2020.

28. David Dykes, “Former IRS Chief Recalls Defying Nixon,” The Greenville (S.C.) News, May 26, 2013, USA Today, accessed February 12, 2020.

29. “Nixon’s Enemies List,” Real Clear Politics, History of IRS Abuse, May 5, 2013, accessed February 20, 2020.

30. “A Brief History of the Drug War,” Drug Policy Alliance, accessed February 23, 2020.

31. Ibid. “Race and the Drug War,” Drug Policy Alliance, accessed February 24, 2020.

32. John Dean, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), xvii.

33. Fred Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), x‐​xi.

34. David Crary, “GOP Unlikely to Reprise Role it Played in Nixon’s 1974 Exit,” Associated Press, October 5, 2019, accessed December 9, 2019.

35. The Associated Press, “ Watergate: The 25th Anniversary: The Articles of Impeachment Against Nixon ‚” accessed December 10, 2019.

36. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, “PTSD and Vietnam Veterans: A Lasting Issue 40 Years Later,” in Agent Orange Newsletter: Information for Vietnam Era Veterans and their Families,” Summer 2015, accessed March 1, 2020.