views updated May 17 2018


WATERGATE. The largest scandal of Richard M. Nixon's presidency unfolded with the burglary on 17 June 1972 of the National Democratic Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment-office complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were employees of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP, called "CREEP" by Nixon's opponents) and were supervised by members of the White House staff. Watergate came to symbolize the efforts of the Nixon administration to subvert the democratic order through criminal acts; the suppression of civil liberties; the levying of domestic warfare against political opponents through espionage and sabotage, discriminatory income tax audits, and other punitive executive sanctions; and attempted intimidation of the news media. President Nixon's direct role in White House efforts to cover up involvement in the Watergate break in was revealed in a tape of a 23 June 1972 conversation with White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, in which Nixon discussed a plan to have the CIA pressure the FBI to cease investigation of the Watergate case by claiming that national security secrets would be threatened if the Bureau widened its investigations. It was after this so-called "smoking gun" tape was made public on 6 August 1974 that President Nixon resigned from office on 9 August 1974.


Watergate's roots can be traced to White House disappointment with the 1970 congressional elections. Fears that they foretold Nixon's possible defeat in 1972 were aggravated by massive antiwar demonstrations in Washington in 1971. These demonstrations were similar, the Nixon White House believed, to those that had brought down Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. In an atmosphere of a state of siege, White House special counsel Charles W. Colson developed a list of enemies, including several hundred persons from various walks of life. To cope with the menaces it perceived, the administration recruited undercover agents and made plans for domestic surveillance.

After leaks to the press had led to news accounts, in May 1969, of secret American air bombing raids in neutral Cambodia, the telephones of reporters and of the staff aides of Henry A. Kissinger, then national security assistant to the president, were wiretapped. The White House was further jarred by the publication in June 1971 in the New York Times and other newspapers of the "Pentagon Papers," a confidential Defense Department study of decision making in the Vietnam War. In response, the White House increased the number of operatives trained in security and intelligence and established a "plumbers" unit to prevent "leaks." The Plumbers included E. Howard Hunt Jr., a former CIA agent, and G. Gordon Liddy, a former assistant district attorney in Dutchess County, New York. To secure information to prosecute or discred it Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the "Pentagon Papers," Hunt and other operatives in September 1971 broke into the office of Lewis Fielding, Ellsberg's psychiatrist, where they photographed records and papers.

In the first quarter of 1972, CRP raised unprecedented sums, from which various White House individuals, including Liddy, could draw directly. During the early presidential primaries the Plumbers and their hirelings engaged in espionage and sabotage against the candidacy of Senator Edmund S. Muskie, then considered the strongest potential Democratic presidential nominee. After Muskie's campaign foundered, similar activities were perpetrated against the two remaining leading candidates, Senator George McGovern, the eventual nominee, and Senator Hubert H. Humphrey. Liddy and others devised plans to disrupt the national Democratic convention and, through various contrived acts, to identify McGovern's candidacy with hippies, homosexuals, and draft evaders.

In January 1972 Attorney General John N. Mitchell, White House counsel John W. Dean III, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, an aide to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and, in actuality, the chief administrator of CRP, attended a meeting held at the Justice Department. At that meeting Liddy presented a $1 million budgeted plan for electronic surveillance, photography of documents, and other activities for the approaching campaign. The plan was rejected as too expensive. At a second meeting in February, Liddy presented a revised plan and reduced budget. The approved plan centered on bugging

Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Miami convention as well as the headquarters of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. But the top priority target was the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington and especially the office of the chairman, Lawrence R. O'Brien, whom the White House regarded as the Democrats' most professional political operative and a formidable competitor.

On the night of 27 May 1972 Liddy, Hunt, and James W. McCord Jr., another former CIA operative who had joined the Plumbers, along with a six-man group—chiefly Cuban exiles from Miami led by a former Hunt associate, Bernard L. Barker—taped doors leading to the Democratic headquarters, wiretapped the telephones in the offices, stole some documents, and photographed others. They subsequently monitored the bugs while making futile attempts to break into McGovern's Washington headquarters. Since one tap had been placed improperly in the initial break-in, a Plumbers team returned to the Watergate Democratic headquarters on 17 June. Frank Wills, a security guard at the complex, noticed that some doors had been taped open and removed the tape. When he later returned and found doors retaped, he summoned the Washington police, and the five burglars, including McCord, were arrested and booked. E. Howard Hunt's White House telephone number was found on the person of two of the burglars, the first indication of White House involvement in the burglary.

The Cover-Up

A cover-up began (and never ended) in order to destroy incriminating evidence, obstruct investigations and, above all, halt any spread of scandal that might lead to the president. In his first public statement concerning Watergate on 29 August, Nixon declared that White House counsel John W. Dean III had "conducted a complete investigation of all leads" and had concluded that "no one in the White House staff" was "involved." Dean in fact coordinated the cover-up.

Hunt and four of the burglars pleaded guilty to all charges; McCord and Liddy stood trial and were convicted(30 January 1973) in the U.S. District Court of Judge John J. Sirica. Throughout the trial Sirica indicated that he believed that more than the seven men were involved. On 23 March, Sirica released a letter to him from McCord, in which McCord stated that higher-ups in CRP and the White House were involved, that the defendants

had been pressured to plead guilty, and that perjury had been committed at the trial. The president repeatedly professed ignorance of CRP and White House involvement in Watergate. However, his claims were eventually challenged when specific aspects of his own conduct were revealed in criminal trials of his associates, in investigations by the Senate Watergate committee (chaired by Senator Sam Ervin), in staff studies by the House Judiciary Committee, and in tapes of White House conversations.

In statements before the Senate Watergate committee, Dean revealed that the president had promised clemency to Hunt and had said that it would be "no problem" to raise the "million dollars or more" necessary to keep Hunt and other defendants silent. In an address on 30 April 1973 the president accepted "responsibility" for the Watergate events but denied any advance knowledge of them or involvement in their cover-up. A steady procession of White House aides and Justice Department officials resigned and were indicted, convicted (including Mitchell, Dean, Haldeman, and John D. Ehrlichman), and imprisoned. Nixon himself was named an unindicted coconspirator by the federal grand jury in the Watergate investigation, and the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that finding to stand. Relentless probing by Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox led Nixon to order his firing. Both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned, refusing to carry out Nixon's order. Robert H. Bork, the new Acting Attorney General, fired Cox. Leon Jaworski, Cox's successor, and the House Judiciary Committee, which considered impeachment of the president, were repeatedly rebuffed in requests for tapes and other evidence.

The impeachment charges that were ultimately brought against the president asserted that he had engaged in a "course of conduct" designed to obstruct justice in the Watergate case, and that in establishing the Plumbers and through other actions and inaction, he had failed to uphold the law. On 9 August 1974, faced with imminent impeachment, Nixon resigned as president. On 8 September 1974 his successor, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned Nixon for all federal crimes he "committed or may have committed or taken part in" while in office.

From the time of his resignation to his death in April 1994 Richard Nixon devoted much of his energy to rescuing his reputation from the long shadow of Watergate. For many Americans, acceptance of Ford's pardon by Nixon brought the presumption of felony guilt. Nixon fought attempts to make public his papers as well as the Watergate tapes. In public forums after his resignation Nixon minimized the ethical and legal misconduct of his staff and himself, focusing attention instead on the political context that led to his resignation. In 1990 Nixon's benefactors opened the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, without the benefit of the president's official papers, which are held, by act of Congress, in the Maryland facilities of the National Archives and Records Administration. After Nixon's death the tapes were made public and revealed an extensive pattern of Nixon's personal involvement and criminal action in Watergate.


Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President's Men. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Lukas, J. Anthony. Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. New York: Viking, 1976.

Rather, Dan, and Gary Paul Gates. The Palace Guard. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

White, Theodore H. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

Richard M.Flanagan

Louis W.Koenig

See alsoImpeachment ; Nixon Tapes ; Nixon, Resignation of andvol. 9:Nixon's Watergate Investigation Address .


views updated Jun 11 2018



The Watergate scandal involved Richard M. Nixon (19131994) during his second term as president of the United States. The scandal led to his impeachment and resignation from office.

In June 1971 a former employee of the U.S. Department of Defense, Daniel Ellsberg, gave The New York Times a secret government history of the Vietnam War (19571975) known as the Pentagon Papers. These revealed, among other things, a secret bombing campaign against neutral Cambodia. The White House issued an injunction against publication on the grounds of national security, but the injunction was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, which saw it as a form of prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment. In response, Nixon directed aides to find damaging information about his perceived political enemies. By September 1971, a special investigative group known as the plumbers was hired by Nixons assistant for domestic affairs, John Erlichman, to burglarize the office of Ellsbergs psychiatrist, which was located in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.

On the night of June 17, 1972, a security guard working at the Watergate Hotel noticed a piece of tape between the door of the basement and the parking garage. Upon investigation by the Washington police, five men were discovered and arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex, in a failed attempt to place listening devices and take photographs of committee documents. Later, one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., was found to be in possession of phone numbers belonging to E. Howard Hunt (19182007) and G. Gordon Liddy, former employees of Nixons reelection committee. At his arraignment, McCord identified himself as a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In attendance on the day of McCords arraignment were Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who began what became one of the most significant journalistic investigations of the twentieth century. A then-unknown individual with close ties to the White House, dubbed Deep Throat by Woodward, provided the journalists with information and assistance that helped them follow the story from an insignificant burglary to a cover-up orchestrated by the Nixon administration. Thirty years later, Deep Throats identity was revealed when former FBI agent Mark Felt admitted that he had been Woodwards source.

In 1972 the Federal Bureau of Investigation established that the Watergate Hotel break-in stemmed from a spying effort conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort. Despite this finding, Nixon won reelection in a landslide over the Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern in November 1972. By January 1973, however, the original burglars, along with Hunt and Liddy, went to trial, pleading guilty in a failed attempt to shield those above them from further inquiry. When the presiding judge, John Sirica (19051992), threatened thirty-year sentences, the defendants began cooperating with the prosecution. As the investigation broadened, the U.S. Senate established a committee, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (18961985), to investigate the Watergate break-in.

By May 1973 two of Nixons White House aides, H. R. Haldeman (19261993) and John Ehrlichman (19251999), resigned amidst growing evidence of their knowledge of the events. Both would later go to prison for their role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. The Watergate hearings were broadcast live on television from May to August 1973, and were immensely popular, with dire consequence for the Nixon administrations approval ratings. As a result of these investigations, it was revealed that Nixon had recorded all his phone calls and conversations in the Oval Office. When Congress requested these tapes as part of the investigation, the president refused to turn them over. In an attempt to save himself from further political embarrassment and possible criminal indictment, Nixon directed Attorney General Elliot Richardson (19201999) to instruct special counsel Archibald Cox (19122004) to drop the subpoena for the White House tapes. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. When the attorney general refused, Nixon fired both Richardson and his deputy in what is now known as the Saturday night massacre. A young solicitor with the attorney generals office, Robert Bork, assumed the role of attorney general. Bork then fired Cox, but was pressured to name another prosecutor, Leon Jaworski (19051982).

Citing executive privilege, Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena for the White House tapes, creating a constitutional conflict between the president and Congress. In July 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled, in United States v. Nixon, that the president had to turn over the tapes to the committee. According to the Court, the president had no unqualified privilege of immunity. Less than one week later, a review of the tapes proved Nixons role in the conspiracy to cover up the Watergate break-in. On one tape, Nixon and Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, directed the CIA to obstruct the FBI and the Justice Departments investigation into the break-in. It then became clear that the president and his aides had broken the law by orchestrating a cover-up, using the CIA to block the FBI investigation, lying to Congress, and destroying documents related to the investigation. Another scandal erupted when it was disclosed that an eighteen-minute gap had been found on one of Nixons tapes. The gap was explained as an accident by Rose Mary Woods (19172005), Nixons secretary.

In July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment against the president for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Two additional articles of impeachment did not pass the committee: one for federal income tax evasion, and another for the authorization and subsequent concealment from Congress of American bombing operations in Cambodia. Throughout the ordeal, Nixon steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. On August 8, 1974, after consulting prominent members of Congress on the likelihood of the committee indictment being affirmed by the full House, Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office. Vice President Gerald R. Ford (19132006) assumed the presidency. Ford pardoned Nixon of all charges related to the Watergate break in and cover-up on September 8, 1974.

In the aftermath of the Watergate affair, the media became more confident and aggressive in their coverage of Washington politics. Investigative journalists began looking into the public and private lives of politicians as never before. As a result, there have been numerous gates since Watergate, each referring to another scandal at the highest levels of government. Additionally, Congress passed numerous good government bills in the years following the Watergate scandal. These addressed such issues as campaign finance reform, disclosure of campaign contributors and expenses to the Federal Election Commission, ethics in government, and a greater role for Congress in the appointment of independent counsels. Nixon continued to proclaim his innocence in the Watergate affair until his death in April 1994.

SEE ALSO Democratic Party, U.S.; Government; Government, Federal; Impeachment; Nixon, Richard M.; Republican Party; Vietnam War


Kutler, Stanley. 2002. Abuse of Power. New York: Touchstone.

Schudson, M. 2005. Watergate in American Memory. New York: Basic Books.

Woodward, Bob, and Carl Bernstein. 2005. All the Presidents Men. New York: Pocket Press.

James Freeman


views updated May 29 2018


On the evening of June 16, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., discovered a piece of tape on the lock of the door that led to the National Democratic Headquarters and set off a chain of events that would, ultimately, bring down the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon. Afterwards, Americans would wonder why Nixon and the Republican party risked so much on such a minor event when Nixon was leading in the election polls, and the Democratic party was in disarray. Indeed, Nixon would go on to win the presidency by a landslide, with 520 electoral votes. Only 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency.

The break-in at the Watergate was only part of a larger campaign designed by Nixon supporters to rattle Democratic candidates and tarnish the reputation of the whole party. This campaign included harassment of Democratic candidates, negative campaign ads, two separate break-ins at the National Democratic Headquarters, and an additional break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg was the individual who offered up the "Pentagon Papers" for public consumption, detailing the strategy—or lack of it—for the United States' position in Vietnam.

Theodore H. White, chronicler of presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, points out in Breach of Faith that the Watergate break-in was riddled with mistakes. G. Gordon Liddy, advisor to Richard Nixon, had been given $83,000 from Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) to provide the necessary equipment. When the tape was placed over the lock, it was placed horizontally rather than vertically, which made it more noticeable. The tape had been spotted earlier in the day and removed by a security guard. It was replaced in the same position. Since only outside personnel were used for the break-in, they were easy to spot as not belonging in the Watergate. The electronic surveillance equipment purchased by Liddy was inferior and had no cut-off between those conducting the actual break-in and those listening in another hotel across the street. When the break-in was discovered, the police were led to Howard Hunt and Liddy in a hotel across the street. Furthermore, all participants had retained their own identification papers.

Instead of being honest with the American public and taking his advisors to task, Richard Nixon immediately became embroiled in a cover-up that would slowly unravel over the next two years—leading to Nixon's resignation in August 1974. As the facts surrounding the break-in were made known, it was revealed that the Nixon presidency had been involved in serious manipulation and abuse of power for years. It seemed that millions of dollars coming from Nixon supporters had been used to pay hush money in an ill-advised attempt to hide the truth from Congress and the American people. Richard Nixon, it was discovered, truly lived up to his nickname of "Tricky Dick."

During the investigation, the names of Richard Nixon's advisors would become as well known to the American people as those of Hollywood celebrities or sports heroes. Chief among these new celebrities were close friends of the President: John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman. Ehrlichman served as the President and Chief of the Domestic Council while Haldeman acted as Chief of Staff. Both would be fired in a desperate attempt to save the presidency. Another major player was John Dean, the young and ambitious Counsel to the President. John Mitchell, the Attorney General, and his wife Martha provided color for the developing story. Rosemary Woods, the president's personal secretary, stood loyally by as investigators kept demanding answers to two questions: "What did the president know?" and "When did he know it?" The answers to the two questions provided the crux of the investigation. If it had been proved that Nixon was the victim of over-enthusiastic supporters rather than a chief player in the entire scenario, his presidency would have survived. When Nixon learned of the break-in was integral to understanding his part, if any, in the subsequent cover-up.

An investigation revealed that Nixon knew about the break-in from the beginning and that he was involved in the cover-up as it progressed. When the Nixon presidency was over, James David Barber, political scientist and author of The Presidential Character, detailed its crimes: "Making secret war; Developing secret agreements to sell weapons to enemy nations; Supporting terroristic governments; Helping to overthrow progressive governments; Receiving bribes; Selling high political offices; Recruiting secret White House police force; Impounding sums of money appropriated by Congress; Subverting the electoral, judicial, legal, tax, and free speech systems; and Lying to just about everyone."

In the early days of the Watergate investigation, most forms of media reported the break-in as a minor story with little national significance. However, two aggressive young reporters who worked for The Washington Post began to dig deeper into the background surrounding the actual crime. Aided by an informant, who would be identified only as "Deep Throat," Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovered one of the major stories of the twentieth century and became instrumental in forcing the first presidential resignation in American history.

As Congress began to hold congressional hearings, Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon presidential aide, revealed that a complex taping system was in place, including in the Oval Office, Camp David, the Cabinet rooms, and Nixon's hideaway office. Nixon's distrust of others would prove to be his own undoing. He fought to maintain control over the tapes and went so far as to fire a number of White House officials in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." The Supreme Court did not accept Nixon's argument that the tapes contained only private conversations between the president and his advisors and, as such, were protected by executive privilege. From the time in 1974 that the Court in U.S. v. Nixon ordered the president to release the tapes, it was widely accepted that Nixon had lost the presidency.

The tapes released in the 1970s contained 18 minutes of silence that have never been explained. In 1996 the lawsuit of historian Stanley I. Kutler and the advocacy group Public Citizen resulted in the release of over 200 additional hours of tape. In Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, Kutler writes that the new information reveals that Nixon was intimately involved both before and after Watergate in abuses of power. A taped conversation on June 23, 1972, proved that Nixon and Haldeman talked about using the CIA to thwart the FBI investigation into the cover-up. When the New York Times published the "Pentagon Papers," Nixon told his advisors: "We're up against an enemy conspiracy. They're using any means. We're going to use any means." This conversation goes a long way in illustrating Nixon's paranoia and his adversarial relationship with the American citizenry. It also points out his belief in his own invincibility.

In mid-1974, after Nixon had been named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate affair, the House of Representatives approved the following articles of impeachment: Article I: Obstruction of justice; Article II: Abuse of power; and Article III: Defiance of committee subpoena. These charges arose from months of listening to those involved in the Nixon presidency and the Watergate cover-up explain the machinations of the Nixon administration. In order to save themselves from serving time in prison, most Nixon cohorts were willing to implicate higher-ups. Ultimately, Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord, and four Cuban flunkies were convicted and served time in jail.

Until the final days of his presidency, Richard Nixon insisted that he would survive. When he recognized that it was over and that he had lost, he went into seclusion. Reportedly, Alexander Haig, his Chief of Staff, oversaw the dismantling of the presidency. On August 8, 1974, wearing a blue suit with a blue tie and a flag pin in his lapel, Richard Nixon announced to the world that he no longer had a political base strong enough to support his remaining time in office and resigned the presidency. The following day, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president of the United States.

Although it was a bitter and disillusioning time for the American people, Watergate proved that democracy continues to work—and that not even the president is above the law and the United States Constitution.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Barber, James David. The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1992.

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President's Men. New York, Touchstone Books, 1994.

Fremon, David K. The Watergate Scandal in American History. Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Genovese, Michael A. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Kutler, Stanley I., editor. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. New York, The Free Press, 1997.

Lukas, J. Anthony. Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. New York, Viking, 1976.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Imperial Presidency. New York, Popular Library, 1974.

Schudson, Michael. Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York, Basic Books, 1992.

White, Theodore H. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. New York, Atheneum Press, 1975.


views updated May 29 2018


Watergate is the name given to the scandals involving President richard m. nixon, members of his administration, and operatives working for Nixon's 1972 reelection organization. The name comes from the Watergate apartment and hotel complex in Washington, D.C., which in 1972 was the location of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). On June 17, 1972, several burglars were caught breaking in to DNC headquarters. The break-in and the subsequent cover-up by Nixon and his aides culminated two years later in the president's resignation. Nixon's departure on August 9, 1974, prevented his impeachment by the Senate. President gerald r. ford's pardon of Nixon one month later prevented any criminal charges from being filed against the former president.

It has never been disclosed what the burglars who broke into DNC headquarters were seeking, but they were acting on orders from Nixon's first attorney general, john n. mitchell, who was heading Nixon's reelection campaign, and several other high officials in the campaign staff and the White House. Though Nixon may not have known in advance about the break-in, by June 23, 1972, six days later, he had begun to participate in the cover-up. On that date he ordered the central intelligence agency (CIA) to direct the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) to stop investigating the burglary, on the pretense that an investigation would endanger national security. This particular plan failed, but Nixon and his aides contained the damage during the fall presidential campaign. Nixon won a landslide victory over Democratic Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota in November 1972.

During the first two months of 1973, Watergate receded from the public eye. However, on March 23, 1973, Judge John J. Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed harsh sentences on the Watergate burglars. Sirica, who had presided at the trial, was convinced that the burglars were acting at the direction of others not yet revealed. He told the burglars that he would reduce their sentences if they cooperated with the investigation then being conducted by the U.S. Senate. He also released a letter from convicted burglar James W. McCord Jr., who said that pressure had been applied to convince the burglars not to reveal all that they knew, that administration officials had committed perjury, and that higher-ups were involved.

A federal grand jury soon began to receive information from campaign insiders about campaign and White House involvement in the cover-up. In addition, the continuing investigative work of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward provided more details about the inner workings of Nixon's 1972 campaign and its connections with the White House. Finally, the Senate investigating committee headed by Senator sam j. ervin jr. began to call Nixon aides to testify before it.

Nixon, who initially called the break-in "a third rate burglary," sought to have his chief aides—John D. Ehrlichman and H. R. ("Bob") Haldeman—"stonewall" prosecutors. The three men attempted to make John Mitchell the scapegoat, but public pressure forced Nixon to accept the resignations of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, White House counsel John W. Dean III, and Attorney General richard g. kleindienst on April 30, 1973.

Nixon appointed elliot l. richardson attorney general to succeed Kleindienst, who had been accused of political improprieties. Richardson appointed Harvard law professor archibald cox as special Watergate prosecutor to investigate whether federal laws had been broken in connection with the break-in and the attempted cover-up. Richardson assured Cox, who was a personal friend, that he would have complete independence in his work.

At the Senate hearings, Dean and others disclosed the "dirty tricks" used by Nixon's political operatives and the cover-up activities after the break-in. However, in July 1973 the Watergate investigation changed course when Alexander Butterfield, a Haldeman aide, disclosed that Nixon had secretly taped all conversations in the Oval Office. Cox immediately subpoenaed the tapes of the conversations. When Nixon refused to honor the subpoena, Judge Sirica ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. After the federal court of appeals upheld the order, Nixon offered to provide Cox with written summaries of the conversations in return for an agreement that Cox would not seek the release of any more presidential documents.

Cox refused the proposal. On Saturday, October 20, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson and his deputy attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than carry out the order. Cox was fired that night by solicitor general robert h. bork. The two resignations and the firing of Cox became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The national outrage at Nixon's actions forced him to appoint a new prosecutor, leon jaworski. Jaworski immediately renewed the request for the tapes.

Although Nixon released edited transcripts of some of the subpoenaed conversations, he refused to turn over the unedited tapes on the grounds of executive privilege. When the district court denied Nixon's motion to quash the subpoena, he appealed, and the case was quickly brought to the Supreme Court.

Nixon contended that the doctrine of executive privilege gave him the right to withhold documents from Congress and the courts. In united states v. nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), the Supreme Court recognized the legitimacy of the doctrine of executive privilege but held that it could not prevent the disclosure of materials needed for a criminal prosecution. The Court ordered the judge to review the subpoenaed tapes in private to determine which portions should be released to prosecutors. This confidential review would prevent sensitive but irrelevant information from being disclosed. Nonetheless, the Court directed Nixon to turn over the tapes.

The decision was handed down on July 24, 1974, at the same time the House Judiciary Committee was nearing completion of its impeachment hearings. Despite more than a year of damaging disclosures, many congressional Republicans remained loyal to the president, arguing that he had committed no criminal offenses that would make him liable for impeachment. Nevertheless, the committee voted three articles of impeachment against Nixon: for obstructing justice in the Watergate investigation, for exceeding presidential power in waging a secret war in Cambodia without congressional approval, and for failing to cooperate with Congress in its attempt to gather evidence against him.

Nixon complied with the Supreme Court decision and turned over the tapes. When prosecutors discovered the June 23, 1972, conversation in which Nixon directed the CIA to halt the FBI investigation, they knew they had the "smoking gun" that tied Nixon to the cover-up. On August 6, 1974, Republican congressional leaders were informed about the contents of this tape. Nixon's political support vanished.

Faced with an impeachment trial, Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, and left office the next day. Though President Ford pardoned Nixon, most of the other participants in Watergate were convicted for their crimes. Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, among others, spent time in prison.

further readings

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. 1999. All the President's Men. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.

Davis, Richard J. 2002. "Watergate: A Look Back." New York Law Journal (June 17).

Genovese, Michael A. 1999. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Gormley, Ken. 1999. Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation. New York: Perseus.

Little, Rory K. 2000. "From Watergate to Generation Next: Opening Remarks." Hastings Law Journal 51 (April).

Olsen, Keith W. 2003. Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Woodward, Bob. 2000. Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Executive Privilege; Ford, Gerald Rudolph; Impeachment; Pardon.


views updated May 14 2018



Five men, known as the "White House plumbers," broke into the Watergate apartment and office complex on June 17, 1972. The well-trained burglars' mission was to raid Democratic Party offices in the complex and obtain secret documents pertaining to the presidential election. The five men, Frank Sturgis, Bernard Baker, Eugenio Martinez, Virgilio Gonzalez, and James McCord were caught and arrested. Subsequent investigations revealed the involvement of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy in planning the break-in, and possible connections to the White House and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Three of the "White House plumbers," Liddy, McCord, and Hunt were former members of the CIA. When investigations revealed that the burglars used sophisticated eavesdropping and espionage equipment, the scandal grew to encompass the United States intelligence community. Eavesdropping devices, including wiretaps and tape recorders, were planted in the target Watergate offices before the break-in to monitor communications. During the burglary, the men used miniature cameras, complex lock

picks, and military issue walkie-talkies. Authorities discovered small canisters of tear gas on two of the men. Some of the tools were even marked with government identification numbers, evidence that the operation was planned or authorized by a member of the government. The White House, and President Richard Nixon himself, were soon implicated, elevating the Watergate incident to full-fledged political scandal at the highest political level.

The men involved in the Watergate affair were members of the Committee to Re-elect the President sometimes referred to colloquially as "CREEP." Months before the break-in, members of CREEP advised President Nixon to develop "political intelligence capabilities" to further his campaign. Facing public backlash from the war in Vietnam, Nixon's committee sought to discredit Democratic opponents in an attempt to gain ground in the election. Following the Watergate burglary, and the arrest of the "White House plumbers," Federal authorities conducted a full investigation of the incident. The White House, and CREEP, attempted to block full disclosure of the scandal.

The cover-up of the Watergate affair was itself a deft intelligence maneuver. Members of CREEP destroyed pertinent documents and encouraged allies in the United States intelligence community to do the same. The Nixon White House destroyed tape archives of phone conversations. FBI Acting Director Patrick Gray later resigned his post after admitting to destroying Watergate documents at the request of CREEP officials. Those in custody gave a series of false statements, committing perjury, in an attempt to distance the scandal from the Nixon administration. As a result, only three of the original eight men arrested were indicted. For a while, the cover-up was successful.

Following Nixon's re-election, the U.S. Senate began a formal inquiry of the Watergate scandal. The previous CIA and FBI investigations failed to implicate the Office of the President because none of the persons questioned mentioned the involvement of the White House in CREEP operations. In March 1973, Hunt asked for a significant sun of "hush money" to refrain from going to the FBI or Senate committee with information about the scandal. He received $75,000.

Most of those involved in the scandal decided to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights and not testify to the Senate committee. Nixon announced a new investigation of the scandal on March 21, 1973, but immediately began to stonewall the process. A letter from McCord to Judge Sirica on March 23 formally implicated the White House plumbers, CREEP, and the president in the Watergate scandal. The cover-up fell apart, and a desperate administration resorted to a series of "dirty tricks" to shift the focus of the investigation away from the Nixon administration.

The "dirty tricks" focused on discrediting those who testified against CREEP, White House, and intelligence agencies. Some were accused of sexual misconduct, others of financial irregularities. Stink bombs were planted in offices. However, the most devious trick was the falsification of State Department cables by Hunt to implicate former President John Kennedy in the assassination of the South Vietnamese President Diem. Hunt tried to sell the cables to the media, in an attempt to anger and influence predominantly Democratic Catholic voters. The timely surfacing of the mysterious cables, as well as public disclosure of campaign finance irregularities by the Nixon administration further fueled the scandal.

While the break-in itself was an illegal act, the Watergate scandal had far greater legal consequences. The involvement of former CIA members raised questions about the prevalence of political espionage in the United States government. Using the resources of the intelligence for political espionage or personal gain is strictly illegal under American law. In addition, the involvement of the White House implied the Office of the President resorted to gross abuses of its power and authority. Subsequent Senate hearings and FBI investigations reached similar conclusions, and nearly 30 people in the Nixon administration were fined or imprisoned.

Complex intelligence operations and sophisticated equipment had permitted the "White House plumbers," CREEP, and Nixon to perpetrate and hide many of their crimes. However, the same sophistication of cloak and dagger operations ultimately undid the Nixon administration and broke the mysteries of the Watergate scandal. Nixon recorded most conversations in his office. An intense legal battle, eventually reaching the Supreme Court, ensued over the tapes, their possible editing, and their admissibility in Senate Select Committee hearings. Facing impeachment after the subpoena of the tapes, Nixon resigned his office. Although he was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford, some of the people involved in the scandal served long prison terms, never breaking their cover story in relation to the scandal.

The most important political scandal in U.S. history was perhaps best put in perspective by the late comedian Bob Hope, who said of Watergate, "It gave dirty politics a bad name."



Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President's Men, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Kurland, Philip B. Watergate and the Constitution (The William R. Kenan, Jr., Inagural Lectures). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.


United States National Archives and Records Administration. Watergate resources. <http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/watergate_and_constitution/teaching_activities.html>(01 December 2002).


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Watergate affair

views updated May 23 2018

Watergate affair (1972–74) US political scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It arose from an attempted burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate building, Washington D.C., organized by members of Nixon's re-election committee. Evidence of the administration's involvement provoked investigations by the Senate and the Justice Department, which ultimately implicated Nixon. He was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, but his close advisers ( Halderman, Erlichman, and Mitchell) were convicted.



views updated Jun 11 2018

Watergate a US political scandal in which an attempt to bug the national headquarters of the Democratic Party (in the Watergate building in Washington DC) led to the resignation of President Nixon (1974).

Five men hired by the Republican organization campaigning to re-elect Richard Nixon President were caught with electronic bugging equipment at the offices. The attempted cover-up and subsequent inquiry gravely weakened the prestige of the government and finally led to the resignation of the President in August 1974.