Nixon, Fear, & Failure


A new stage of international politics was being established from the rubble of the globally altering nuclear weapons debut. A multi-actor board game had transitioned into an antagonistic chess battle. The Soviet Union and the United States had become the primary actors in the international playing field as a series of confrontations, both subtle and transparent, arose between the then-considered superpowers. The Cold War era had established itself as a power and an ideological clash between the two nations. The bipolar division between communism and capitalism split the world into spheres of influence where proxy battles ensued. 

This era of world history was protagonized by many figures. One of the most notorious was that of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s presidency happened during the peak of the Cold War when the Domino Theory was at the core of American foreign policy. This theory refers to the hypothesized chain effect of communist conversions in a region when a non-communist state became communist. During this era there were recurrent high-profile proxy wars which prevented the domino effect, there were growing American fears and concerns about this expansion closer to home. 

Despite us putting public figures at a higher standard, all individuals are influenced by their upbringing and political context. Nixon had a particular formation that cemented a fear of failure. His relationship with his family, his friend, and his greatest political adversary created a deep dread of defeat. 

Richard Nixon was born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California, and was the second of five brothers. Nixon was an outstanding student at both Whittier College and Duke University Law School. He wed Patricia Ryan in 1940, and the couple had two daughters. Nixon served as a Navy lieutenant commander in the Pacific during World War II and started his political career upon his return. Nixon held office in Congress, the vice presidency, and eventually the commander and chief.

While this sounds like a regular upbringing that leads to an illustrious career, he experienced a series of events that would embed a need to prove himself. Nixon’s young life was full of financial and personal unrest, especially related to his family. 

Nixon’s childhood was characterized by economic instability and a strenuous relationship with his father. Francis Nixon owned a ranch in rural California, where Richard Nixon was born. Notwithstanding, his father encountered operational complications that forced his family to move to a more urban part of the state closer to his mother. The ranch was the first of many unsuccessful business attempts from the 37th president’s father. 

Throughout Nixon’s memoir, he elaborates on how his father continuously condemned his sons for what he considered privilege. Francis Nixon repeatedly heckled his sons, telling them they were overtly more fortunate than he was growing up. His father believed that if he had the education and opportunity bestowed upon his children, he would be vastly more successful than he was in actuality. A copious amount of self-pity and disappointment was routinely projected onto his children. The continuous berating of entitlement simultaneously reinforced his dread of failure, a resentment towards his father, and a desire not to end up like him.

In spite of having a troublesome relationship with his father, Nixon had a fruitful and celebrated academic career and left his hometown with a prestigious Duke Law School scholarship. Nevertheless, disappointment returned when he and his two close friends from law school began to search for full-time employment. After law school, Nixon and two of his friends applied for jobs across the country. Still, while his friends secured prestigious positions with a law firm and an oil corporation in New York, Nixon received only a tepid response from the Donovan firm. When he was unable to secure a job with the FBI, Nixon was forced to return to his native city to practice law, leading him to feel his trauma of failure to grow. This perception was likely compounded by the knowledge that politics was his second choice career after his initial ambition to achieve success in the private sector and by the shadow cast by his father’s own strife with failure. 

After returning to California to start his law practice, Nixon eventually served as a Navy lieutenant during World War II. On his return to the United States, he started his political career. To the content of his ego, his political career began when Republican figures in his hometown approached him on the prospect of running for Congress in 1946. He was reelected in 1948, won the seat for a seat as California’s representative in the US Senate in 1950, and then became Eisenhower’s Vice President in 1956. The start of his political career was nothing less than a sensation. These achievements promoted him to run for president in the 1960 presidential election. While he breezed past the primaries, he faced a promising young Democratic candidate called John F Kennedy.

The 1960 presidential elections were pivotal for Nixon’s phobia of failure. Kennedy was an embodiment of everything Nixon was not. Young, charismatic, and from an old-money aristocratic family, a person worthy of his father’s admonishment. Furthermore, Nixon had built his reputation on his debate skills and was confident in his ability to beat the Democrat adversary on the stage. Nixon had measured and tested himself against Kennedy throughout their political careers, and the debate was partly motivated by a desire to best him personally. The debate, where Keneddy was generally seen as a clear winner, is considered one of the defining moments of the competitive 1960 election. The fact that Nixon had lost in a game he felt most prepared for made it an even more painful blow to his ego.

As we can see, despite his successful academic and political career, Nixon’s trauma of failure continued to grow, culminating in his defeat in the 1960 presidential debate against the charismatic and young John F. Kennedy. We can see that no one is exempt from trauma and external influence. We are all chained to our context and while change and growth are possible, we will always be a product of our environment.

Featured image: AP Photo/Archivo

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