< Back to File

Nixon

GLOOMY GUS
Richard Milhous Nixon (1913-94) had a violent bully for a father and two of his brothers died from TB. He escapes home-life through a relentless work ethic earning a scholarship to college. Academically successful, he's socially awkward, or as Professor David Reynolds puts it; Nixon is the 'perpetual outsider'. Nixon's nickname there is 'Gloomy Gus'. Nixon serves during the Second World War and enters Republican politics on his return. He wages a dirty tricks campaign against his opponent saying she's 'pink right down to her underwear', i.e. a communist. In return, she gives him a nickname that will stay with him for life, 'Tricky Dick'. Nixon rides the anti-communist ticket all the way to the Vice Presidency in 1952. His constant hard work for the Party earns him the presidential endorsement for the 1960 election. The consensus view is that Nixon will win. But he narrowly loses to his good looking rival, Kennedy.

BOMBING FOR PEACE
It will be eight years before he has another chance and he uses those years to build up a small group of fiercely loyal advisers. To secure the Presidency, he tries to stall the Vietnam peace talks with President Johnson fearing any successes would lose Nixon the election. Ironically, in autumn 1968, Nixon's elected President by voters hoping he'll end Vietnam. And he does, eventually. As author Howard Zinn observes, Nixon did bring many Americans home, but he keeps up the war by dropping more bombs on this third world country than were dropped during the entire Second World War. And worse is to come. Along with his National Security Advisor, and later, Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Nixon secretly bombs Cambodia, believing it to be the Communist HQ of Vietnamese resistance. (Few now dispute that this precipitates the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge who would exterminate around two million of their own countrymen.) By 1970, news of the bombing leaks, leading to the first general student strike in U.S history. At Kent State University, the National Guard fires at protestors, killing four protesters. The following year, Nixon effectively pardons the only officer found guilty of killing 500 Vietnamese villagers in the My Lai massacre.

But internationally, Nixon is seen as a peacemaker. He will be the first President to visit both communist capitals, Beijing and Moscow, during the Cold War. Only a politician whose career was built on being rabidly anti-communist could have started thawing the Cold War. His policy of détente with Russia and playing them off against their supposed ally, China, manoeuvres both into cutting off aid to Vietnam, ultimately ending the war there.

POWER AT ANY COST
Nixon wins 49 out of the 50 states in his landslide presidential re-election. But one of the people working to re-elect him is caught with wire-tapping equipment attempting to break into Democrat offices in the Watergate hotel. He and four others soon talk and investigations expose a corrupt administration funding illicit operations and accepting illegal corporate donations. Nixon has been secretly recording his White House conversations (for his memoirs) and despite some deletions, his own words damn him.

Nixon resigns, but never repents. The following President, Ford, pardons him so that Nixon escapes criminal prosecution. But his Presidency did achieve many positives. Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, establishing the right to a safe and healthy workplace. He set up the Environmental Protection Agency. And most crucially, he established communications with China and Russia and ended Vietnam and the draft. But until his death from a stroke in 1994, he remains an outsider. As the final character in the 2008 film, 'Frost/Nixon' concluded,

He certainly never achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved. His most lasting legacy is that today any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix 'gate'.

http://aetn-uk-history.s3.amazonaws.com/topics-images/gettyimages-266790... He didn't enjoy people. Henry Kissinger on Richard Nixon

Nixon's opponents distrusted him way before Watergate and the favourite Democratic joke of the period was a picture of the then Vice President looking shifty, with the slogan underneath, 'Would you buy a used car from this man?', Howard Zimm argues that Ronald Reagan's Presidency was far more corrupt than Nixon's. By 1983, 225 of Reagan's appointees had been investigated for improprieties or even criminality. The Iran Contra affair (where arms were sold to Iran to fund a rebellion against the Nicaraguan left wing government) was arguably worse than Watergate and should have taken down Reagan as surely as Nixon except for one crucial difference. Reagan was popular., Arguably, Nixon never needed his dirty tricks campaign that included Watergate. His re-election was one of the most popular presidential landslide victories in American history.