Richard Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California. Unlike many presidents who came before him, he came from a family that often struggled against sickness and poverty. Two of his four brothers died by the time Nixon was 20. He paid for his education at nearby Whittier College by working long hours in his father’s grocery store.
After he graduated from law school at Duke University in North Carolina, he returned home to be a lawyer. Back in southern California, Nixon met his future wife, Thelma "Pat" Ryan, when they acted together in a local play. Not long after that, he served as a noncombat naval officer from 1942 to 1946 during and after World War II.
GETTING INTO POLITICS
After the war ended, Nixon won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 and the U.S. Senate in 1950. By then, his opponents were calling him "Tricky Dick" because of what they called the "dirty tricks" (he was accused of illegal campaign funding and spreading false rumors about his political opponents, among other things) he used to get elected. He became Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president from 1953 to 1961. He lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy and the 1962 California governor’s race before finally being elected president in 1968.
In the White House at last, Nixon focused on protecting the environment and reducing crime in the United States. Internationally, he improved relations between the United States and China, becoming the first U.S. president to visit that country while in office.
During Nixon’s presidency, the United States was involved in what was known as the "space race," or a competition against the former Soviet Union, now Russia, to see who could land a person on the moon first. As part of a mission authorized by Nixon, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. (Read about the first moon landing.)
Nixon entered the White House with a pledge to end the Vietnam War, a war between what was then the two separate countries of North and South Vietnam, in which the United States sided with South Vietnam. But this was more difficult than he thought it would be. In response to tense protests against the war across the United States, Nixon withdrew troops from the region, and the United States officially left the war in 1973. But the conflict continued without U.S. involvement, with fighting spreading to surrounding countries. Two years later, North Vietnam defeated the U.S. ally and took control of South Vietnam, becoming one unified country, Vietnam. Many Americans were angry about the cost of a war the United States did not win: 58,000 U.S. lives and $110 billion since 1956. Many people blamed Nixon for not getting the United States out of the war sooner, even though the war had been going on long before he became president.
Nixon further upset U.S. citizens by using some of the same dirty tricks he was accused of doing as a member of Congress. He and other staff members broke many laws in their efforts to discover embarrassing information about his opponents (a list of more than 40,000 names). They hired people to listen in on phone conversations, silenced helpers with money, spent federal campaign funds improperly, used government records illegally, and filed false tax reports. But Nixon’s biggest scandal was still to come.
THE WATERGATE SCANDAL
In 1972 members of Nixon’s administration hired men to steal files from Democratic Party offices at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. (They hoped to find secrets there that would help Nixon, a member of the Republican Party, be re-elected later that year.) The burglars were caught, but the investigation didn’t move quickly enough to stop Nixon’s re-election in 1972.
For more than two years, Nixon and others tried to hide their involvement as newspaper reporters and members of Congress led investigations into the break-in. Eventually the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, forced Nixon to release secret tape recordings he had made of his White House conversations. The tapes confirmed that Nixon had lied about his innocence in planning and covering up illegal activities.
On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from office. If he hadn’t, he likely would’ve been impeached—or officially charged with misconduct in office—by the House of Representatives. If that had happened, he would’ve faced a trial in the Senate that could have removed him from office.
Nixon’s first vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned from office in an earlier, unrelated scandal involving bribery, or promising favors to people in exchange for money. So Nixon’s new vice president, Gerald R. Ford, became president. Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed or participated in as president, sparing him from future legal charges, called indictments.
After leaving the White House, Nixon moved to New York City, where he lived another 20 years. He later tried to win back people’s respect by writing books about government and policy. In the end, though, his abuses of presidential power became more important than his accomplishments, and many historians call Nixon’s presidency one of the worst in U.S. history. He passed away on April 22, 1994.
From the Nat Geo Kids book Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum and Brianna Dumont, revised for digital by Avery Hurt