See his Reflections of a Radical Moderate (1996).
As of 2008, Richardson is the only individual to serve in four Cabinet-level positions within the United States government: Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1970 to 1973, Secretary of Defense from January to May 1973, Attorney General from May 24 to October 1973, and Secretary of Commerce from 1976 to 1977.
In 1942, following America's entry into World War II, Richardson entered the combat medical corps in the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. He participated in the June 6, 1944 Normandy Invasion, where he carried a legless man to safety under enemy fire.
He was among the first troops of the "Big Ivy" to come up Causeway No. 2 from Utah Beach which had been under fire from German artillery at Brécourt Manor. He was among the many that noticed the guns ceasing their firing after (unbeknown to him), paratroopers of the 101st under Dick Winters had knocked them out. After Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers was published, he wrote to Winters and thanked him.
He continued on in the war in Europe with the 4th Infantry Division and received numerous decorations, including the Purple Heart medal. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of first lieutenant.
After his graduation from Law School, Richardson clerked for Appeals Court Judge Learned Hand, and then for Justice Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court. Richardson then served as U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts from 1959 to 1961, and was later elected the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and Attorney General of Massachusetts.
Richardson's son, Henry S. Richardson, is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses in moral and political philosophy.
Having served three relatively uneventful years as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for a popular sitting President, few would suspect the pivotal role Richardson would play in the chaos that would soon ensue.
Richardson was appointed United States Secretary of Defense on January 30, 1973. When President Nixon selected Richardson as Secretary, the press described him as an excellent manager and administrator, perhaps the best in the cabinet. In his confirmation hearing, Richardson expressed agreement with Nixon's policies on such issues as the adequacy of U.S. strategic forces, NATO and relationships with other allies, and Vietnam.
Although he promised to examine the budget carefully to identify areas for savings, and in fact later ordered the closing of some military installations, he cautioned against precipitate cuts. As he told a Senate committee, "Significant cuts in the Defense Budget now would seriously weaken the U.S. position on international negotiations—in which U.S. military capabilities, in both real and symbolic terms, are an important factor." Similarly, he strongly supported continued military assistance at current levels. During his short tenure, Richardson spent much time testifying before congressional committees on the proposed FY 1974 budget and other Defense matters.
Richardson would serve as Secretary of Defense for only a few short months, before becoming Nixon's Attorney General, a move that would soon put him in the Watergate spotlight.
In October 1973, after just five months as Attorney General, President Nixon ordered Richardson to fire the top lawyer investigating the Watergate scandal, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson refused the order and resigned from the Nixon administration. President Nixon subsequently asked Richardson's second-in-command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to carry out the order. But he also refused and tendered his resignation. The third in command, Solicitor General Robert Bork, also planned to resign but Richardson persuaded him not to in order to ensure proper leadership at the Department of Justice during the crisis. Bork carried out the President's order, thus completing the events generally referred to as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Just prior to the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Richardson was portrayed as a cartoon figure with Agnew and Nixon on the cover of Time Magazine dated October 8, 1973. Agnew was quoted as saying: "I am innocent of the charges against me. I will not resign if indicted!
From 1977 to 1980, he served as an Ambassador at Large and Special Representative of President Jimmy Carter for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and head of the U.S. delegation to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Richardson was associated with the Washington, D.C. office of the New York City law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, of which John J. McCloy was a founding partner. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Richardson was the attorney for Inslaw, Inc., an American software company which alleged that their software had been pirated by the U.S. Justice Department.
In 1994 Richardson backed President Bill Clinton during his struggle against Paula Jones' charge of sexual harassment. In 1998, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
On December 31, 1999, Richardson died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston, Massachusetts, at the age of 79. Major media outlets, such as CNN, recognized him as the "Watergate martyr" for refusing an order from President Nixon to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.