Friday, August 8, marked the date when Richard Nixon made American history 40 years ago: he was the first, and so far the only, U.S. president to resign from office. He was replaced by Gerald Ford, his vice president.
It was Nixon who served as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower and traveled to Moscow in 1959 to represent the U.S. at the American National Exhibition. On July 24, as Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were touring the exhibits together, an unplanned moment in history took place, resulting in the famous “kitchen debate.”
When Nixon and Khrushchev came to the American exhibit, which featured a modern kitchen with all-electric appliances, Khrushchev’s temper flared at the introduction of two color television sets, yet another modern novelty the Soviets lacked. Using recent U.S. legislation as a backdrop, the two men had an impromptu and very heated debate on the merits of communism versus capitalism. It was filmed by American and Soviet television networks and shown on American television the next day.
At that time, most Soviet families lived in outdated communal housing, where kitchens and bathrooms were shared by multiple families, and kitchen activities were prearranged by posted schedules. The idea of one family having their own kitchen, and fitted with such modern appliances, was a marvel to the average Soviet family.
After he became president, Nixon became the first American president to visit Moscow. His trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 marked the first time in history that the stars and stripes of the American flag had flown over the Grand Kremlin Palace, a tribute to mark his visit.
It was Nixon who invited Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to Washington in June of 1973, and toured with him across the U.S. to spend time at Nixon’s home, the “Western White House” in California. It was Nixon who negotiated and signed historic arms treaties with the Soviet Union.
It was Nixon who in 1972 opened up China to the world by mediating disputes between China and the Soviet Union, thereby possibly averting a large regional armed conflict. The trade opportunities that resulted in Nixon’s bringing China out of isolation, and into the modern world, still benefit the U.S. economy today.
Although a Quaker, Nixon volunteered for military service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He joined the Navy, serving in the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command. After the war he left the Navy, but not before he had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Looking back at Richard Nixon 40 years ago it is hard to imagine his rise to the heights of politics so quickly. As a freshman Congressman from California, Nixon began to make a name for himself. He was the youngest member of the Herter Committee. It was that committee that toured Europe after the war to advise the U.S. on Europe’s need for foreign aid. Nixon is credited with helping formulate, and pass, the Marshall Plan that is largely responsible for the rebuilding of Europe.
An astute politician, Nixon “cross filed” for the 1948 California primary Congressional election, running as both the Republican and the Democratic candidate. He won the spot on the ballot for both parties and went on to easily win the general election. (Most states no longer allow candidates to cross-file.) In 1950 he ran, and won, the race for U.S. Senate. In that campaign Nixon drove across California in a paneled station wagon. The campaign became known as the “station wagon tour.”
In 1952, General Dwight David Eisenhower was running for president and he selected Nixon as his running mate. In September of that year, Nixon was faced with his first political crisis: opponents charged that a secret fund was reimbursing him for political campaign costs. Such a fund was not illegal, but Nixon went on national television to defend himself. With an audience of 60 million, his famous “Checkers speech” became the largest TV ratings program in American history up to that point. Checkers was the name of a small dog given to his six-year old daughter by a donor. Nixon told the nation that his family would not give up Checkers. It was a stroke of political genius. The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won easily.
In 1957, Nixon and Eisenhower faced a potential political crisis. Eisenhower was leaning toward support of Southern Democrats who opposed passage of the Civil Rights Act. Influential Southern Democratic senators like Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd and Lyndon Johnson opposed the bill. The crisis came to a head when President Eisenhower refused to meet with the outspoken black preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King. Instead, Nixon met with King, and afterward began to push Republican members in the Senate to oppose Southern Democrats, and vote for the legislation; the bill passed on September 9, 1957 and Eisenhower signed it into law.
In the presidential race to follow, Nixon was beaten by John F. Kennedy. He went into law practice for a while, but after a private meeting in 1967 with then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson at the White House, and after talking with his family, Nixon decided to get back into politics. He won the presidency in 1968.
Nixon easily won reelection in 1972, but not long thereafter, two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were tipped off about a break-in of Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate hotel in the District of Columbia. Woodward and Bernstein had found an informant, code-named “Deep Throat,” and their reporting exposed a litany of illegal election activities carried out by members of Nixon’s close administration advisers.
Congress appointed independent prosecutors, and the resulting investigation revealed that sources high in the Nixon campaign had worked to derail Democratic strategies. Several of the Nixon inner circle, with names like Eldridge Cleaver, John Dean and Chuck Colson served time in prison.
Congress was controlled in both houses by Democrats, who took up impeachment hearings. Republicans in the Senate met with Nixon and on August 8, 1974, Nixon took to the airways for one last broadcast from the Oval office. It was the thirty-seventh time that the thirty-seventh president had directly addressed the nation. He abdicated his office—the first time an American president had done so. Nixon and his wife Pat left for their California home the next day.
As part of Nixon’s presidential inauguration speech in 1969 he said, “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.” That was Richard Nixon, the peacemaker. The other Richard Nixon, the man who resigned the presidency 40 years ago, is the one most Americans remember.
By Jim Hanemaayer
See also Guardian Liberty Voice