A tour of Latin America ended abruptly and tragically when American Vice-President Richard Nixon was killed in a riot. Venezuelan protestors had surrounded his limousine. In a show of foolhardy bravery, Nixon got out to calm the mob. Someone threw a lead pipe, which hit him in the head. A blood clot killed him later that evening at the Caracas hospital.
It was a heartrending end to a classic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American life story. Richard Nixon had been born the child of Quakers in California in 1913. The family ranch was lost in 1922, and his father struggled on with a grocery store. He awoke at four every morning to drive the vegetable truck for his store, excelled in school, and was voted student body president. Family illness kept him from accepting a scholarship to Harvard, so he worked the store and attended Whittier College, where he was turned down by the affluent Franklin Literary Society since he did not come from a prominent family. Nixon countered by forming his own society, the Orthogonians, graduated with a huge range of extracurricular activities, and went on to Duke University School of Law on scholarship.
Due to budget cuts, Nixon was turned down for his dream job at the FBI. Instead, he began practicing law in California and moved to Washington, DC, in 1942 to further his prospects. Deskwork was tedious to him, so Nixon joined the Navy where he worked in logistics. Home from the war, he was invited back to California to run against Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis, who had already been elected five times. Nixon won after fighting a brutal campaign that destroyed Voorhis’s character by suggestion communist connections.
Nixon became a national figure from his work on the House Un-American Activities Committee, contributing to the revelation that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. He then worked his way up to the Senate, defeating fellow California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas by handing out the “Pink Sheet” that showed her left-leaning voting record. Republican king-makers handpicked him for the vice-presidency in 1952. When Nixon’s “political fund” from backers was revealed in the press, he gave his passionate “Checkers Speech” that displayed his humility, accused “the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them” of undermining American government, and admitted he had received a gift of a Cocker Spaniel puppy that his daughter named “Checkers,” which he was going to keep (no explanation was given for the $18,000 in cash except that it was for “reimbursements”). Eisenhower and Nixon won the election handily, as they did again in 1956.
As vice-president, Nixon did a great deal of executive work while Eisenhower presided. He chaired meetings on domestic policy, including those for national security. When Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, Nixon stepped in to run the country for six weeks. Outside of Washington, Nixon was especially active in goodwill tours, going to East Asia in 1953 and Africa in 1957. His tour of Latin America in 1958 began with a surprise visit to take questions from college students about American foreign policy. In Lima, Peru, however, the tour took a bad turn when student demonstrators greeted him by throwing trash and chasing him back to his limousine. More demonstrators spat on him at the hotel later that day. Nixon left for Caracas, where the mob went even further.
The American reaction to the death of a popular, if wily, vice-president was angry mourning. The United States had instituted a blockade of Venezuela in 1902 alongside Britain, Germany, and Italy after the winners of the Venezuelan civil war refused to pay debts, an action that mirrored the European intervention in Mexico forty years before. Eventually the two countries had found common ground over oil exports, though many Venezuelans felt that the wealthy Americans were taking advantage of their rates. A new military intervention by the U.S. Navy to round up those responsible sparked anti-American protests all over Latin America, spurring further engagement with the Soviet Union, who readily accepted them as they did Cuba.
The Republican Party particularly missed Richard Nixon, whom they felt could certainly have defeated Democrat John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. The Democrats controlled the White House until losing to Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 when Johnson did not run for another term and the Democrats split over the Civil Rights question. Rockefeller proved adequate overseeing the end of Vietnam and the introduction of Civil Rights, many laws modeled on ones he championed as governor of New York. He widely expanded the administration and increased spending to fight the growth of crime, specifically that which centered on drugs. For international affairs, Rockefeller focused his support through the UN and NATO. Rockefeller handily won reelection in 1972, but he was blamed for the struggling economy. Conservatives overtook the Republican Party, which put Ronald Reagan in office in 1976 in a narrow defeat of Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.
The United States continued to struggle economically through the final decades of the century. Increased government spending and encouraged consumerism kept jobs afloat, but collapsing unions and low minimum wages sparked deflation. Japanese and German international trade regularly undersold American goods, promoting isolationism, cutting off potential markets like communist China and Latin America, which faced constant revolution. Through it all, however, the American opinion is lasting that they can trust their president to do what is best for the country.
In reality, Nixon survived the riot in Caracas. He stayed in the limousine, unlike his attempts to deal face-to-face with demonstrators in Peru. Nixon was defeated by JFK in 1960 and partly retired from politics, but he returned with gusto upon the post-Johnson shake-up of the Republican Party to win elections in 1968 and 1972. During his second term, he would be implicated in the Watergate Scandal and become the first American president to resign.