A position on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 was anything but a prime assignment. Staffed by right-wing zealots and conducted with the decorum of a kangaroo court, the committee had largely failed in its mission to flush out Communist subversives in America. Nonetheless, freshman Congressman Richard M. Nixon, Republican from California's twelfth district, accepted a seat on HUAC. Nixon recognized that anti-Communism was growing in popularity in the United States. He had seized upon the issue in his campaign for Congress and had ridden an anti-Communist wave to the House of Representatives. Now he would use HUAC as his springboard to national celebrity.
Save his skill as a debater and his capacity for perseverance, little in Nixon's past marked him as a likely candidate for politics. He was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, to Frank Nixon, a hardworking, opinionated businessman, and Hannah Milhous Nixon, a devout, compassionate Quaker housewife. When Richard was nine, the family moved to nearby Whittier, California, where Frank Nixon opened a grocery store and gas station. Richard learned the value of hard work, putting in long hours at the family store.
The Nixons often lived at the edge of poverty and suffered their share of misfortune. Two of Nixon's four siblings, Arthur and Harold, died of tuberculosis as boys. Forced to attend to her ailing sons, Hannah Nixon did not intentionally neglect Richard -- he would later refer to his mother as a saint. But the boy experienced little overt affection and grew up a loner.
Richard worked diligently in high school, offsetting his social awkwardness with academic achievement. Harvard and Yale both offered him scholarships, but Harold's struggles with tuberculosis and the Nixons' tenuous financial position during the Great Depression forced Richard to remain close to home.
At Whittier College, Nixon distinguished himself as a formidable debater, an enthusiastic actor, and a fearless, if ineffectual, football player. Richard brought his combative nature to the social playing field as well as the gridiron. In opposition to the exclusive Franklin Club, an elite society which denied him admittance, he helped found the Orthogonians, an organization for working-class students.
Nixon flourished in Whittier College politics. He won election as freshman class president. He served as the student body's vice president in his junior year and its president in his senior year. But despite his political successes, he never forgot the slights of the Franklins. Early on, Nixon defined himself as a "have not." He would resent the "haves" for the rest of his life.
At Duke Law School, where he studied after Whittier, Nixon applied himself with characteristic tenacity. His determination earned the respect of his fellow classmates -- and election to the presidency of the Duke Bar Association. But all of his work, it seemed, went for nothing. After graduation, he applied to prestigious Eastern law firms -- again the elites rejected him. With bitter reluctance, he settled for work at a law firm in Whittier.
Bored with the life of a small-town lawyer, Nixon traveled to Washington, where he worked in Franklin Roosevelt's Office of Price Administration (OPA). During this brief stint, his distaste for Eastern liberal intellectuals, many of whom worked in OPA, grew. And amid the tangle of bureaucratic red tape, he reinforced his negative opinion of the New Deal's socialistic big-government programs.
When a committee of local Republicans drafted Nixon as a Congressional candidate in 1946, he got his first opportunity to take on the New Deal. President Harry Truman had struggled unsuccessfully to quell postwar labor unrest -- millions of workers struck for higher pay, causing nationwide shortages of consumer goods. Nixon might have beaten his opponent, Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, on economic issues alone. Instead, he seized upon Red-bashing.
By 1946, Americans had begun to equate Communism with all that they hated and feared. Voorhis, a hardworking five-term Congressman, had previously been endorsed by CIO-PAC, a political labor organization suspected of Communist affiliation. He declined CIO-PAC endorsement in 1946, but Nixon accused him of ties to the group.
In the first of a series of debates between the two candidates, Voorhis denied CIO-PAC affiliation. With a dramatic flourish, Nixon produced a document showing that Voorhis had been endorsed by a related group, the National Citizens Political Action Committee. Nixon knew the difference between the two groups -- most of the voters did not. And when Nixon distributed flyers distorting Voorhis's voting record as pro-Communist, the incumbent's fate was sealed. Using anti-Communist smear tactics, Richard Nixon had become a Congressman.
Nixon's attacks on Communism recommended him to sit on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. As HUAC's only lawyer, he brought it a previously unknown fairness and civility. Nixon earned his peers' respect, but received little public attention. This changed almost overnight in August, 1948, when former Time magazine editor and admitted Communist Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of spying for the Communists.
Hiss was everything Nixon despised. Wealthy, liberal, educated, and handsome, he had graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a clerk under Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and worked in Franklin Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Administration. He had served as an aide to Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference and as temporary secretary-general to the United Nations. At the time of the HUAC hearings, he headed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
From the start, most Americans believed Hiss. Chambers, overweight and disheveled, looked the villain's part. Hiss denied that he had ever met Chambers. Nixon, however, suspected otherwise. He dissuaded other committee members from dropping the case. Then, by questioning Chambers about Hiss's personal life, he determined that the two men must have met before.
On August 17, Nixon brought Hiss to the witness stand. Under a stinging cross-examination, Hiss admitted that he had known Chambers, albeit under the name George Crosely. Hiss continued to deny being a spy. In November, Chambers suddenly produced copies of State Department documents typed on Hiss' typewriter. Hiss was indicted for perjury and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. Nixon, who shared the media limelight with Chambers, became an instant celebrity, loved by conservatives and hated by liberals.
If there was ever an easy target for Nixon's Red-bashing campaign tactics, it was his Democratic opponent in the Senate race of 1950, Helen Gagahan Douglas. A wealthy, educated, New Deal congresswoman, Douglas had belonged to numerous progressive organizations. She had spoken out against anti-Communist scare tactics and condemned HUAC as a smear organization. Many California businessmen hated her.
Led by his unscrupulous campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, Nixon made every effort to paint Douglas as being soft on Communism. His campaign workers referred to her as the "pink lady," and as he did so effectively in his fight against Jerry Voorhis, Nixon linked her voting record with alleged Communist sympathizers in the House. He was not the first to do so.
Douglas's opponent in the Democratic primary had circulated flyers comparing her voting record to that of leftist Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Nixon and Chotiner refined the effort, printing a flyer claiming that Douglas had voted with Marcantonio a total of 354 times. The flyer was printed on pink paper -- a less than subtle implication that Douglas was a Communist. A later analysis showed that Nixon had once again unfairly distorted an opponent's voting record, but the flyer did its dirty work. On election day, Nixon won 59% of the vote, and a Senate seat.
Two years later, Nixon's star rose further, when he won a position as Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate. But liberals would not forget how Nixon had played the Communist card in his ruthless drive to the top. When he was elected to the presidency in 1968, they would be waiting to challenge him.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?