When Nixon became ex-President of the US

When Nixon became ex-President of the US

Letters are by definition – are they? – predicated upon separation, distance; they are written to heal the breach of separation between the writer and the recipient. This is one of those truisms that is not always true, although it sometimes is, and what is surprising is only that it has come to be seen as definitional of ‘the letter’ in its contemporary genre incarnation, rather than more simply as a variant.


This is the letter (in the public domain) written by (ex-)President Richard Nixon when, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he resigned as President of the United States. The date is 9 August 1974; it is from The White House in Washington; it is addressed to Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, the political official seen as appropriate to receive his resignation. It is entirely to the point, with just one sentence: “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” That’s it; but that is enough to do the business it is concerned with. It made the resignation happen, it was the resignation, it is the resignation.

However, from Kissinger’s viewpoint, it was not quite enough. There were other things that were necessary as a consequence. These are indicated by the hand-written noting of the precise time that the letter was received, with Kissinger’s initials on the bottom right of the letter. With history and immense legalities being made, such precision to the minute was called for. There is no address given for Kissinger at the bottom left of the letter, and presumptively this was because it was an office also in The White House. The separation here was not a physical one, with a person in one place writing to another person in another place, but a separation between 11.34 and presidency, and 11.35 and ex-presidency and Nixon’s tacit admission of guilt then subsequent disgrace. And what was clearly crucially necessary was the precise time at which Nixon’s’s letter was received: 11:35 AM.

This chimes the exact moment at which Nixon’s resignation was made to happen; and thereafter he had resigned, it had been done. Then, in the long after to 11:35 AM on 9 August 1974, Kissinger and many others in the wake of him receiving this highly performative letter were, as a direct result, involved in a myriad of activities which have, eventually, brought the presidency, the US, and those parts of the world it influences, to now.

No separation of space and little separation of time, although time is clearly central in other ways, regarding this letter. It is not a communication to heal a breach between people parted, but it is a communication nonetheless and of the most highly performative kind. It is every bit as performative as Austin points out that ‘I will’ in a marriage ceremony is. It is in effect a statement of ‘I did’, a very public and entirely consequential admission, in spite of the misleading ‘this is a private letter’ trappings. He did.

Last updated: 21 July 2016


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