U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Happy Anniversary?

Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency 40 years ago today.  His one-sentence resignation letter is “Today’s Document” at the National Archives website.

The question mark in the title of this post is not meant ironically.  It’s an open question, for an open thread.

For those of us who work on recent U.S. history, the 1970s are a period in which the paths of historical inquiry inevitably pass through (or around) personal memory — either our own memories, or the memory of those who were “there” and are often still here. And many (all?) periods in American history also have their corresponding “memories,” their particular character and place in the popular imagination or the broader culture.

So I’m wondering how the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation plays today as an event in American memory, and what we make of that as historians.

I am not sure how I’d answer this question myself, so I’m hoping somebody else will chime in here.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a thought-provoking post, L.D.! I suppose, to add to this, can memory of Watergate be separated from memory of the rest of the decade? As in, thinking of the 1970s as multiple failures of leadership (Vietnam, Watergate, the Ford pardon of Nixon, the energy crisis, hostage crisis)?

    And I wonder how we square that memory with concerns about the economy, race, gender, etc. There was so much going on when Nixon resigned–reading Perlstein’s book, The Invisible Bridge, has reminded me of that.

    To end my rambling response, the biggest thing is that it colors our memory of Nixon. No matter what else you think of Richard M. Nixon, Watergate and his resignation’s always lingering, even if you try to ignore it.

  2. So I’m wondering how the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation plays today as an event in American memory

    I’m going to duck this question, and instead mention that I heard today (on C-Span radio) both Nixon’s televised resignation speech and the more informal farewell remarks (also televised) that he gave to the cabinet and other staffers in the East Rm of the White House the following day.

    The farewell remarks in the White Hse were somewhat familiar to me (no doubt because I’d heard some of them replayed over the years), but listening to the resignation speech was fascinating, because I had essentially no memory of it whatsoever, even though I was “around” (to use your post’s word) in 1974 and I must have watched it at the time. The section at the end about his hopes that his legacy will be a more peaceful world etc. was not just pro forma, as it lasts for some time and even includes the Kissingeresque phrase “structure of peace.” It’s too bad Nixon’s evident intelligence didn’t reside in a less disturbed, tortured, troubled, unscrupulous (and those are the very mildest words I can think of) personality — a thought that has no doubt occurred to and been expressed by many others.

    I’m certainly not anywhere close to objective about Nixon, but even though I view him as someone who did a series of horrible, unforgivable things throughout his career (too numerous to list), I can still acknowledge that he did have real accomplishments. I’ll leave it at that, at least for now.

  3. there was still a sense with lbj’s decision not to run that we could win; there was still hope. with nixon’s resignation there was no similar sense; hope had been extinguished. we knew what had happened to the country and realized we were powerless. some call watergate a bloodless dallas. I call it just another step.

    people get the governments they deserve.

    some call

  4. “. . . I’m wondering how the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation plays today as an event in American memory, and what we make of that as historians.”

    I’m wondering if younger Americans (say, born in the mid-to-late 1990s) view these “happenings” as “media events”; that their memory of the past is filtered through the form of news events today (such as LeBron James announcing his basketball intentions), which operate with a certain amount of compartmentalization. So, if a movie star discloses something intimate or “newsworthy,” this might register to some younger Americans today as a “popular culture” event, whereas, looking back at old footage of Nixon’s resignation speech/letter, there might be an immediate reaction on the part of some American youth that will classify this as “political” (and possibly irrelevant depending on the individual’s background).

    I’m just curious if memory and the designations assigned by people to historical events/people/places form one process that leads to the notion of “memories” vs. “memory,” as you mentioned in the rest of your blog?


  5. Harry,
    Current college students may be familiar with this version of Richard Nixon, from the animated series Futurama:

    Of course, this may be the equivalent of not knowing who Nixon was. But that’s what the history survey is for, right?

    I think it’s probably true that Nixon, Watergate, the war in Viet Nam, may have a place in the mental catalogue of today’s students as selected film clips/TV segments — much like the Civil Rights movement, or the Kennedy assassination, or the moon landing are “historic” precisely because we have video footage. I suppose a variation of “pics or it didn’t happen” would be “pics or it didn’t matter.”

    However, while the Watergate break-in itself was not a media event, the Watergate hearings certainly were. Perhaps if the “silent majority” had not been able to tune in daily to a live broadcast of the Congressional hearings, Nixon might have weathered the storm. I tend to think not, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

    • We forget sometimes, I think, that time moves on and the things that resonated with or interested us hold no (or different) meaning and importance for those younger than we are. This problem may even be more acute for historians whose purpose is knowing the past. (Anyway in my case there’s quite a gap between a college student and me in years; a gap I maintain through being stuck in time. Hey, what can I say, the music’s a lot better.)

      As for Watergate, we really know so little about what really went on. Just as with the assassinations of the ‘60s an area of silence and obfuscation has been created around a cover story.

      Let’s ask though:

      • Why were those men there?
      • What were they after?
      • Did they want to get caught?
      • Why did so many of them have roles in the Bay of Pigs and Operation 40 and relationships with the CIA (Hunt, McCord, Barker, Sturgis)?
      • Was Nixon taken in? Was an operation grafted onto another operation?
      • As a briefer for Naval Intelligence while he was in the service, what was Bob Woodward’s role as a reporter.
      • What was the Washington Post’s relationship with the CIA vis a vis Operation Mockingbird?
      • Why do so many of the burglars figure in the JFK assassination in some way?
      • Why were Arlen Specter (Mr. Magic Bullet himself), J. Lee Rankin and John McCloy (all of whom had roles on the Warren Commission) at some point sought out by the White House/President?
      • What was the significance of the call girl ring run out of the DNC that Phillip Bailey; madame, former stripper and mob employee and mistress Heidi Rikan; and Mo Biner (Dean) had roles in.
      • Did Dean marry Biner so she couldn’t testify against him? Her name was in Heidi Rikan’s back book of Watergate prostitution clients and she had been the girlfriend of Bobby Baker. Small world it seems. ‘
      • Was that book one of the things sought by the burglars? Did that worry Dean?

      And this is just the tip of the iceberg. These would constitute the unraveling of only a few of the threads of the Gordian Knot that is Watergate.

      I’m afraid the silent majority didn’t watch the hearings; they were at work in their factory jobs (yes we still had those then in America) and saw clips on the news. Their attitude was much ado about nothing. “What did he do that was so bad” did blue-collar workers utter words frequently. It was college kids, lawyers, liberals, journalists, Democrats and assorted others who were the audience, I would think. In essence the hearings were a dog and pony show to go along with that Frank Capra movie the American people were being sold. Hey the Constitution still works and it and the All the while the real wheels of power ground no in the background crushing Richard Nixon in the process.

      Damn, the CIA can be so good when it wants/needs to be.

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