Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William P. Rogers (1957–1961): Attorney General

William Pierce Rogers was attorney general under President Eisenhower from November 7, 1957, to January 20, 1961. Rogers graduated from Colgate University in 1934 and from Cornell Law School in 1937, after serving as editor of the Cornell Law Quarterly (1935-1937).

In 1938, after a brief stint with a Wall Street law firm, Rogers was appointed assistant district attorney by New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey as part of a sixty-man task force to root out organized crime. Rogers handled more than one thousand criminal cases, mainly involving racketeering and bookmaking, in his four years with Dewey.

In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, seeing combat in the Battle of Okinawa and surviving two kamikaze attacks. After the war, he returned to work in the New York district attorney's office, then headed by Frank Hogan.

In April 1947, Rogers was selected as counsel to the Senate's special committee to investigate the national defense program and became the committee's chief counsel in July of that year. While serving on the committee, Rogers became friends with Richard Nixon, then a junior representative from California. He encouraged Nixon to investigate Alger Hiss, which gained Nixon national attention and ultimately led to Hiss's conviction on perjury charges. Rogers left the committee for the Washington law office of Dwight, Royall, Harris, Koegel and Caskey in March 1950.

As a delegate to the 1952 Republican National Convention, Rogers helped to secure delegates for Eisenhower and later served as a close adviser to vice presidential nominee Nixon, advising him to make the "Checkers Speech" that helped to salvage Nixon's position in the face of alleged financial improprieties.

Rogers would serve as deputy attorney general (1953-1957) and later attorney general (1957-1961) in the Eisenhower administration. He became attorney general shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and worked to implement one of its most important provisions, the establishment of a civil rights division within the Justice Department. Rogers also advocated a constitutional amendment to clarify the transfer of power in times of presidential disability, owing to the confusion caused by Eisenhower's heart problems.

After 1961, he rejoined his law firm and later argued on behalf of the New York Times in the landmark libel case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). President Lyndon Johnson selected Rogers as an American delegate to the United Nations in 1965, where he served as a member of the Southeast Asia committee in 1967.

On January 23, 1969, Rogers was sworn in as secretary of state under President Nixon and served in the administration until he resigned on September 23, 1973. He devised the Rogers Plan for peace in the Middle East, calling for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger hampered Roger's work by conducting his own policy negotiations -- with Nixon's blessing -- in secret.

When asked for assistance in dealing with the Watergate scandal, Rogers refused; Nixon thus asked for Rogers's resignation in a memo delivered by Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. Rogers resumed his private legal practice, returning to government at the request of President Ronald Reagan to chair the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Accident in 1986. He died in 2001.