Watergate Affair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Watergate break-in and subsequent revelations of criminal activities on the part of the Nixon White House permanently changed Americans’ view of the presidency and public officials in general, fomenting distrust and cynicism.

Summary of Event

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested during a bungled break-in at the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel-apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Their action was later found to be at the behest of the Committee to Reelect the President and to involve major figures in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon in the conspiracy and in the subsequent attempted cover-up. When in 1974 definitive proof was made public of Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up of the break-in, if not the break-in itself, he became the first president in American history to resign from office. Watergate scandal (1973) Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] [kw]Watergate Affair (June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974) Watergate scandal (1973) Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] [g]North America;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Affair[00780] [g]United States;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Affair[00780] [c]Government and politics;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Affair[00780] [c]Crime and scandal;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Affair[00780] Cox, Archibald Dean, John W., III Ehrlichman, John Ervin, Sam Haldeman, Bob Hunt, E. Howard Jaworski, Leon Kleindienst, Richard Liddy, G. Gordon Magruder, Jeb Stuart McCord, James W., Jr. Mitchell, John (1913-1988) Nixon, Richard M. [p">McCord, James W., Jr.Nixon, Richard M.;Watergate affair Richardson, Elliot Ruckelshaus, William D. Sears, Harry L. Sirica, John J. Stans, Maurice H. Vesco, Robert L.

Nixon had risen politically during the first few years of the Cold War, in a period of concerted anticommunism that dominated U.S. politics after 1945. He had used attacks on Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gehagen Douglas to win seats, respectively, in the assembly and senate of California, beating both opponents by accusing them of being “soft on communism.” As a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Nixon had gained national prominence by accusing Alger Hiss Hiss, Alger of communist sympathies (accusations never fully proven). The 1948 Hiss case propelled Nixon into the vice presidency under Dwight D. Eisenhower for two terms (1953-1961). Nominated by the Republicans for the presidency in 1960, Nixon lost an extremely close election to John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, John F. Nixon then proceeded to lose in a 1962 bid for the governorship of California. He made a comeback in 1968 to capture the Republican nomination for the presidency. With the Democrats deeply divided over U.S. involvement in Vietnam, epitomized by violent confrontations outside the Democratic National Convention, Nixon captured the presidency in 1968.

A 1971 portrait of Bob Haldeman.

(NARA)

Nixon’s first term was marked by a foreign policy aimed at scaling down American involvement in Vietnam while bombing the North Vietnamese into negotiations to end the war there. Détente with the Soviet Union and attempted solutions to problems in the Middle East, coupled with rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, marked the achievements of Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, Kissinger, Henry in foreign affairs.

Domestic politics under Nixon were clearly related to the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Elected on a “law and order” platform in the turbulent years of the late 1960’s, Nixon’s domestic policies hinted at repression, real and threatened. When secret bombing missions against Viet Cong supply routes in Cambodia were disclosed in the press in May, 1969, the president, believing these leaks to be subversive, authorized seventeen wiretaps on newsmen and his own White House aides for “national security” purposes.

In July, 1970, Nixon approved the Huston Plan, which called for a major expansion of intelligence gathering within the United States. He reversed his public support for this controversial plan a few days after its adoption, yet events clearly indicated that this administration was intent on destroying the influence of domestic opponents to the regime. The Justice Department under Attorney General John Mitchell stepped up surveillance of the growing antiwar movement, as did the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in a clear departure from its mandated purposes. Antiwar demonstrators faced increased arrests and detention, along with disruption and spying by paid informants and government operatives. Nixon, Mitchell, and the others were in the process of eliminating domestic “security threats” through repressive moves.

In the 1972 presidential campaign, Nixon faced Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern, McGovern, George who stood to the left of many in his own party. For the Nixon team, the Democratic campaign fell under the rubric of “security threat.” The Watergate break-in, which would ultimately topple Nixon, occurred during a campaign that the president was virtually assured of winning. McGovern had alienated substantial numbers of moderate Democrats with his liberal views, and his ideological isolation brought defeat as sure as the defeat of ultraconservative ideologue Barry Goldwater in 1964. The break-in was thus totally unnecessary, given that the reelection of Nixon seemed assured. Ironically, the very “law-and-order” issue Nixon used so effectively against his enemies over the years of his public service would become the basis of an effective campaign to remove him from office.

On June 20, 1972, Nixon reacted to the arrests in a telephone conversation with Mitchell. There is no record of what was said, because the call was not taped by Nixon’s now-fabled recording system. That same day, Nixon discussed the burglary with White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman in a conversation recorded by the president but later found to have an 18.5-minute gap, an erasure Nixon blamed on mechanical failure; the contents of that key discussion were lost. Later attempts to explain how this gap occurred were neither proven nor accepted by the courts. On June 23, 1972, Nixon and Haldeman held a recorded conversation in which Nixon and Haldeman agreed to order the CIA (against its legally mandated activities) to impede an investigation of the break-in by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This event alone pointed the finger back to the White House as at least a coconspirator in the cover-up of the events at the Watergate complex. This use of the CIA was a clear obstruction of justice by the Nixon White House.

On September 15, 1972, E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, and the five burglars were indicted. The linkage of the president and his highest advisers to the Watergate affair was not yet clear. As a consequence of this lack of public knowledge of the president’s involvement, Nixon won reelection in November, 1972, with a very convincing plurality of votes. In January, 1973, the seven men directly involved in the burglary were convicted.

The Watergate affair refused to go away. February, 1973, saw the U.S. Senate establish a select committee under the chairmanship of Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, to investigate the break-in. Ervin was a good choice, as he had a well-deserved reputation for being both a constitutional expert and a staunch defender of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches of government. Also in that month, the president and his counsel, John W. Dean III, made arrangements to cover up the involvement of the administration in the break-in, using “hush money” as the method to keep those convicted from talking. It was this hush money which Dean later claimed was one of the reasons that he began to talk to the special prosecutor’s office as a witness against Nixon and his closest advisers.

On March 23, 1973, on the day the “Watergate Seven” were sentenced, District of Columbia federal judge John J. Sirica read a letter from one of them, James W. McCord, Jr., indicating that their trial had been fixed through pressures to plead guilty and that the burglary had been approved by the highest Nixon advisers. By April 15, 1973, Dean was also talking to federal prosecutors. On April 30, Haldeman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and recently appointed Attorney General Richard Kleindienst tendered their resignations in the face of widening controversy and the growing evidence of their own complicity in at least the cover-up if not the actual planning of the burglary itself. Dean was fired by the president that same day. By May, Dean was openly providing the Sirica grand jury with documentation, and by June he was testifying to the Senate against the president, charging him with participating in the cover-up.

In July, 1973, the Watergate affair entered a new phase when the existence of the presidential tapes was revealed to the Senate committee during the testimony of White House staffer Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield, Alexander Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and Judge Sirica opened a drive to subpoena the tapes as evidence. Nixon appealed Sirica’s ruling, only to lose again at the court of appeals in October, 1973. Throughout this period, Nixon consistently claimed his innocence while refusing to release the tapes for what he claimed were both national security and executive privilege reasons. Suspicion was fanned by the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973, when Cox and his task force were fired by the president with no warning, accompanied by the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson (who had succeeded Kleindienst) and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus. In the flurry of activity that followed, the Nixon administration came under immense pressure to turn over the tapes. On October 23, 1973, Nixon promised to give the tapes to Sirica’s court.

The new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and the House Judiciary Committee both pursued the tapes and evidence, receiving most of the transcripts by April, 1974. When the president refused to release the sensitive tape of June 23, 1972, a tape that would have revealed Nixon’s participation when previously he had claimed no direct involvement, Jaworski took the matter to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Nixon must turn over all tapes to Jaworski. By late July, 1974, the House had voted three separate articles of impeachment against Nixon. On August 5, 1974, the White House released the transcripts of the key June 23, 1972, conversation. Many of Nixon’s friends heard the tape, including Senator Goldwater. His response after hearing the tape was that Nixon’s enemies did indeed have a “smoking gun”—that is, evidence that pointed to the president’s direct involvement in the scandal—and that Nixon should resign to preserve the integrity of the office of the president. On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first president of the United States to resign from office.

Significance

The Watergate scandal left an indelible mark on U.S. history and changed the way people viewed government. Nixon had lied to the public, to his supporters, and to his own family for more than a year. Many of his supporters at last deserted him in anger or disappointment. His authority was gone. As Nixon prepared to leave the White House, he repeatedly said that while he was not a “quitter,” he had been convinced that it was in the best interests of the nation that he resign. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald R. Ford, Ford, Gerald R. granted Nixon a full pardon for any federal crimes he may have committed while president. Watergate scandal (1973) Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colodny, Len. Silent Coup: The Removal of a President. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Colodny portrays Nixon as a president betrayed and misinformed by his senior staff but who did the right thing in assuming the blame for Watergate and hence was forced from office. The book’s theories have enjoyed little support from historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emery, Fred. Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Times Books, 1994. Emery makes the case that Nixon was not unaware, at least at the fringe of the Watergate affair, that some actions were being taken on his behalf that were not as aboveboard as they should have been.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Leon, and William Levantrasser, eds. Watergate and Afterward: The Legacy of Richard M. Nixon. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The conclusions of a symposium held on what to make of Watergate. This collection explores all facets of the era and its main figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Genovese, Michael A. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Presents a historical overview of the crisis, examines Nixon’s political personality and relationship with the media. Contains a brief legal section. For grades 10 and up.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liddy, G. Gordon. Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Watergate as told by one of the Watergate Seven and one of its flashiest and most controversial figures. Liddy’s account covers the break-in, the trials, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liebovich, Louis W. Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Retrospective. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Drawing from newly available sources that help shed new light on the Nixon administration’s treachery, this book reexamines the scandal and demonstrates how the administration attempted to battle and manipulate the press.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McQuaid, Kim. The Anxious Years: America in the Vietnam-Watergate Era. New York: Basic Books, 1989. A good overview of the times in which the Watergate events took place: at the end of the “communist scare” years, when there was uncertainty over U.S. world power because of the nation’s problems in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nixon, Richard. Selections. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Watergate in the words of the president whose administration was finally ended by the revelations of the crimes of the affair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Keith W. Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. While not as thorough as other sources, this succinct account is a straightforward summary of the key events and players in the scandal.

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