Share This Article

Personal Letters Reveal Nixon’s Biggest Secret

Love can do strange things to people. It even turned Richard Nixon—not exactly known as a romantic—into a serious pitcher of woo. Six courtship letters between the 20-something future president and his beloved are being displayed this year at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum to mark Pat Nixon’s 100th birthday, and they show a little-known side of a man who fiercely controlled his public persona.

“Somehow on Tuesday there was something electric in the usually almost stifling air in Whittier,” Nixon waxes in one of three letters he wrote to Pat Ryan between 1938 and 1940. “And now I know. An Irish gypsy who radiates all that is happy and beautiful was there.” Another ends: “Let’s go for a long ride Sundays; let’s go to the mountains weekends; let’s read books in front of fires; most of all let’s really grow together and find the happiness we know is ours.”

The letters show “a wonderful side of Dick Nixon,” says Olivia Anastasiadis, supervisory museum curator at the Nixon facility. “This outpouring of love, it’s just all over these pages. How could she not be moved?” The three letters from Ryan to Nixon seem restrained by comparison, but eventually she was, indeed, moved. The couple married in 1940.

World’s Oldest Forest Uncovered in New York

In a new twist on an old cliché, scientists in upstate New York almost couldn’t see the paleo-forest for the paleo-tree holes. After working several days at a quarry recently reopened for nearby construction, Binghamton University paleobotanist William Stein and colleagues made a “last walk-through” among the volcano-shaped divots marking spots where stumps of the earliest known tree species—about 390 million years old—had been removed over the years. This time, however, they detected a new context: signs of the floor of what is considered the world’s oldest known forest. The fieldwork Stein and cohort did—finding two other species of early trees—has revolutionized notions of how complex these ecosystems were. Because the onset of forests like this one, about an hour southwest of Albany, has been linked with major glaciation, Stein believes that his work might teach us something about the consequences of contemporary deforestation. “It’s a way of learning what we might expect,” he says. “It could lead to an increase in global temperature.”

Forensic Experts Rescue USS Monitor Crew From Anonymity

Even in a world where the forensic experts—at least on CSI—effortlessly work wonders, the re-created faces of sailors who died in the 1862 sinking of the Union ironclad the USS Monitor are astounding. Working from skulls of two unidentified sailors whose remains were recovered 10 years ago, technicians at Louisiana State University came up with vivid, full-color busts and photographs. “They cease to be two skeletons,” says James Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program, which has spearheaded the identification project. “Suddenly they were somebody’s son or brother.” Delgado hopes that the reconstructions will ultimately lead to identification and a proper burial of the sailors.

Civil War Death Toll Rises Dramatically

For more than 100 years, the number of Civil War dead has been set at 618,222—a figure jury-rigged from late-19th-century records now considered suspect—but a new statistical analysis makes a convincing case that casualties were probably much greater: upwards of 850,000. J. David Hacker, who teaches history at Binghamton University, crunched census data to interpolate a mortality rate for white males during the 1860s. By applying this to the 1860 white male count, he came up with a number for how many of them should have been around 10 years later. That total was significantly lower than the 1870 census count—a difference Hacker attributes to the bloody harvest of the Civil War. Taking the limits of the census data, and adding black casualties, he came up with a range of numbers for what he found, statistically, to be “excess death”— 650,000 to 850,000, with a “preferred” estimate of 750,000. “I’m not saying I have a precise number,” says Hacker. “I’m saying the traditional count is low, maybe way too low.”

Plastic Jefferson

The statue of Thomas Jefferson that greets visitors to “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty”—a show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—may represent the future of museum display and outreach. It appears to be a bronze copy of a bronze statue found at Jefferson’s estate, but it is actually a newfangled plastic surrogate. Lasers were used to create a 3-D digital model of the original. Those data were fed into a 3-D printer, which produced four separate plastic chunks that were fused into the much lighter and much cheaper version. The same process will create digital versions for study and could be used to turn out touring copies of Smithsonian objects that cannot be exhibited for space reasons. The process still needs to be refined. Some of the handcrafted details of the original Jefferson statue have been lost, including the precise color and patina of the original bronze. “There are some limitations inherent in all this,” says Ivan Schwartz of StudioEIS, which created the plastic copy. “This is still a kind of facsimile process.”


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.