Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A burglary of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., was directly linked to the reelection campaign of Republican U.S. president Richard Nixon. The president tried to cover up the linkage, thereby making him an accessory to a crime. Nixon resigned in 1974, the first U.S. president to have done so, and several others were sent to prison for their roles in the scandal.

Summary of Event

U.S. president Richard Nixon, a Republican, was running for reelection in 1972. His opponent, Democrat George McGovern, favored a rapid withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Vietnam. Believing that McGovern’s election would have catastrophic consequences for the United States, Nixon urged his staff of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP) to discredit his opponent. Often upset that information was leaked to the press to discredit him, Nixon had authorized the establishment of a “plumbers” unit, called the Special Investigations Unit, not only to fix the “leaks” but also obtain derogatory information about McGovern and others. [kw]Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation (June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974) [kw]Nixon’s Resignation, Watergate Break-in Leads to President (June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974) Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] Watergate scandal Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1972 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Washington Post;and Watergate[Watergate] Washington Post;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] Mitchell, John McCord, James W., Jr. Dean, John W. Bernstein, Carl Woodward, Bob Hunt, E. Howard Liddy, G. Gordon Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] Watergate scandal Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1972 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Washington Post;and Watergate[Watergate] Washington Post;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] Mitchell, John McCord, James W., Jr. Dean, John W. Bernstein, Carl Woodward, Bob Hunt, E. Howard Liddy, G. Gordon [g]United States;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Espionage;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Corruption;June 17,1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Government;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Politics;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Organizedcrime and racketeering;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] [c]Publishing and journalism;June 17, 1972-Aug. 9, 1974: Watergate Break-in Leads to President Nixon’s Resignation[01400] Felt, W.Mark Wills, Frank

Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward in 1973. The two Washington Post reporters broke the story of the Watergate break-in and conspiracy in the summer of 1972.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Accordingly, on May 28, 1972, James McCord, Jr., head of security for CRP, broke into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Hotel to plant electronic eavesdropping devices. Two more break-ins occurred at the DNC offices.

During the early morning hours of June 17, after a briefing by CRP member G. Gordon Liddy, five persons broke into the DNC headquarters to photograph and steal documents. McCord, in command, was assisted by Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis, all of whom were from Miami, Florida, and were connected in one way or another with the Central Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.;and Cuba[Cuba] Cuba;and Central Intelligence Agency[Central Intelligence Agency] Agency. Also, all were committed to the overthrow of the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Most acted under the assumption that they were trying to prove that Castro gave money to the Democratic Party. Afterward, they burglarized the McGovern campaign headquarters as well.

Hotel security officer Frank Wills found and then removed tape on interior doors leading to the basement garage that morning (June 17). The door was then retaped by one of the burglars, who had returned to the hotel complex. Wills, in turn, found the retaped doors ten minutes later and summoned District of Columbia police. Three plainclothes officers, who arrived in an unmarked car that failed to catch the attention of a lookout on the street outside the hotel, caught the five burglars in the act of breaking into the headquarters. In their arraignment the following afternoon, the accused pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. The prosecutor then obtained a warrant to search the rooms of the burglars who had been staying at the hotel; the search uncovered bugging equipment, tools, and forty-two hundred dollars in one hundred dollar bills.

Bob Woodward, a reporter for The Washington Post who covered the break-in story from the time of the first arraignment, checked out the names of the five accused burglars and discovered that one of them, McCord, was CRP’s top security expert. With Washington Post veteran reporter Carl Bernstein, Woodward reported McCord’s affiliation along with a denial by CRP chairman John Mitchell, later proved false, that he had any connection with the break-in. Bernstein and Woodward had a hunch, supported by Washington Post city editor Barry Sussman, that several persons would not have committed such a crime without a more sinister motive, so they began asking questions around town. So did other reporters.

Next, Bernstein flew to Miami, where the Dade County district attorney had launched its own investigation of the break-in. Martin Dardis, investigator on the case, had obtained a twenty-five thousand dollar cashier’s check written on the CRP bank account to Kenneth Dahlberg, top CRP Midwest fund-raiser, which had been deposited into the real estate firm of one of the accused burglars, Barker. (During World War II, Dardis rescued Dahlberg during a battle, so they remained close friends.) The check was an anonymous donation to CRP by a Midwest business executive who was not connected to Watergate. Dahlberg had exchanged the check for cash, leaving the uncashed check at CRP headquarters in Washington, D.C. The check was a payment to Barker for his role in “dirty tricks” operations.

On August 1, Woodward and Bernstein elevated the break-in from a mere burglary to a conspiracy when they reported the link between the CRP check and one of the burglars. They had identified a Money laundering;and Watergate[Watergate] money-laundering scheme for illegal operations, in which the Watergate burglary was only one operation.

Richard Nixon leaves the White House on August 9, 1974, his final day as president of the United States.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As a reporter for local District of Columbia news, Woodward had established few contacts inside government. Bernstein also lacked relevant contacts. When their further inquiries led nowhere, the associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), W. Mark Felt, volunteered information on Nixon but only on condition of anonymity and through clandestine meetings in a basement garage. Felt was labeled Deep Throat by Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons. The identity of Deep Throat, although much speculated on, was not revealed until 2005.

Rather than placing the five on trial as ordinary burglars, prosecutors probed deeper and referred the matter to a federal grand jury to determine who had ordered them to commit the crime. As a result, the five were indicted on September 15 with CRP employees Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, Jr., for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws.

On September 29, Bernstein and Woodward reported that CRP chairman Mitchell, while attorney general, controlled a secret fund to conduct intelligence-gathering activities against the Democrats. The FBI also was investigating, and it corroborated the reporters’ suspicion that the break-in was part of CRP spying. The two reporters, on October 10, published their news story, linking the break-in to CRP and making a connection to Nixon.

The trial of the seven conspirators was delayed until after the 1972 election, when Nixon defeated McGovern by a landslide. On January 11, 1973, three days after the trial began, Hunt pleaded guilty, as did four of the original burglars on January 15. On January 30, in the court of Judge John J. Sirica, Liddy and McCord were convicted of burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, and illegal wiretapping. Sentencing was delayed while Sirica sought additional information from those found guilty.

On February 7, based mostly on the August 1, 1972, news story, the U.S. Senate voted 77-0 to authorize a special committee to investigate the matter, which appeared to involve high-ranking officials of the Nixon administration. The committee chairman, Senator Sam Ervin, then issued subpoenas to various officials in preparation for hearings.

On March 19, McCord, one of the original five burglars, responded to various questions from Sirica. He intimated that efforts had been undertaken to cover up the connection between the burglars and those who hired them, who were much higher up in CRP and even in the White House. He said that perjury had been committed during the trial and that those who pleaded guilty had been pressured to do so. On April 17, the White House denied prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in. Nixon, however, did know and had discussed how to cover up his role in discussions with his White House lawyer, Dean, John W. John W. Dean III. Meanwhile, Dean privately informed the Senate committee of Nixon’s culpability. On April 30, Nixon announced the firing of Dean and the resignations of White House advisers Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. His aim was to appear to punish those implicated in the Watergate affair and thereby to suggest that he had no connection with or prior knowledge of the break-in or the cover-up.

Senate hearings began May 17. What eventually emerged from testimony before the Senate was the knowledge that Nixon was intimately involved in the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and a domestic espionage program beyond the Watergate affair. There were many calls for an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ), but there also were suspicions that an independent inquiry by subordinates of Nixon could not be objective. On May 19, accordingly, Attorney General Elliot Richardson named Archibald Cox Cox, Archibald as a special prosecutor for the DOJ to investigate.

During testimony before Senator Ervin’s committee on July 16, the deputy assistant to the president, Butterfield, Alexander Alexander Butterfield, confirmed that Nixon had been taping his conversations. Cox, Ervin, and Sirica subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon initially refused, but district and appeals courts ordered him to hand over the tapes; he agreed to release some. However, eighteen and one-half minutes of one tape had been erased on five separate occasions, suggesting yet another effort by Nixon to cover up his role. Nixon then tried to avoid handing over the rest of the tapes, instead offering to release edited transcripts. The transcripts, released in installments up to April 30, 1974, revealed a Machiavellian president using foul language. The U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and Watergate scandal[Watergate scandal] Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-0, ordered the tapes released on July 24.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee began Impeachment;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] impeachment hearings against the president on May 9. By the end of July, the committee adopted three articles of impeachment (for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and refusal to abide by lawful congressional subpoenas). On August 5, Nixon released tapes proving that he ordered the cover-up of the break-in, whereupon Republican Party members of Congress who had been loyal to him indicated that they would vote to remove him from office. On August 8, Nixon announced his resignation, effective at noon the following day. Vice President Gerald R. Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;and Watergate[Watergate] Ford was sworn in as the next U.S. president.


Nixon’s misconduct remained under investigation after his resignation. On September 8, Ford issued a “full free and absolute” [p]Ford, Gerald R.;pardon of Nixon pardon of Nixon for “all offenses against the United States” committed from January 20, 1969, to August 9, 1974. Forty senior government officials were indicted for various crimes. Eighteen, including Dean, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Hunt, Liddy, McCord, and Mitchell, served time in prison.

Subsequently, Congress and reporters probed more deeply into government operations, finding scandals of various sorts. Congress passed many laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974 Privacy Act of 1974 and the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976 (both amendments to the Freedom of Information Act of Freedom of Information Act of 1966 1966), to restrict presidential power and to make executive operations more accountable and transparent.

Nixon later tried to redeem his reputation by writing insightful books about politics, appearing as an elder statesman providing wisdom to those in power. However, more than two hundred hours of additional tapes were released as late as 1996 and 1997, revealing Nixon as an Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Richard Nixon[Nixon] anti-Semite who had an intense desire to demonstrate that his “enemies” were disreputable by informing the press of real or manufactured derogatory information. His many accomplishments as president remain overshadowed by an unflattering image in some quarters that he was manipulative, paranoid, and vindictive, while his defenders still believe that he was unjustifiably persecuted.

As a result of the Watergate scandal, a pattern emerged among public officials inside U.S. government. Those who disagree with policy are now more inclined to leak secrets to the press to sabotage unpopular policy making. The scandal also led to public cynicism in government, producing a distrust that remains a part of the political environment in the United States. Finally, later scandals—notably Irangate, "Irangate"[Irangate] "Koreagate"[Koreagate] Koreagate, and Monicagate—have been ascribed the suffix “gate,” which testifies to the legacy of Watergate. Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Watergate[Watergate] Watergate scandal Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1972 Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Washington Post;and Watergate[Watergate] Washington Post;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] Mitchell, John McCord, James W., Jr. Dean, John W. Bernstein, Carl Woodward, Bob Hunt, E. Howard Liddy, G. Gordon

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. 1974. Paperback ed. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. Written by the two journalists who broke the Watergate story to the media. Explains not only the events of the scandal but also how Bernstein and Woodward sought evidence by tracking down leads and cross-checking facts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Final Days. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976. After a background summary of the Watergate scandal, this book chronicles how President Nixon tried to avoid his ultimate demise and resignation. Day-by-day events are presented until Nixon finally resigns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Conrad. Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007. Many observers believe that Nixon was one of the most intelligent U.S. presidents, and this biography lavishes praise on him for his many important accomplishments while identifying why the multifaceted Nixon has been denied a better place in history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kutler, Stanley I., ed. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. New York: Free Press, 1997. Transcripts of the Nixon tapes that editor Kutler obtained through legal means over the objections of Nixon’s daughters after the former president’s death. This book reveals how Nixon’s most trusted advisers were sycophants rather than genuine counselors to a president who was intent on breaking the law. Includes an introduction and commentary on the tape transcripts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nixon, Richard M. Real Peace: A Strategy for the West. New York: Random House, 1994. One of several books by the former president written to rehabilitate his image as an important commentator and thinker on U.S. foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Keith W. Watergate: The Presidential Scandal That Shook America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. An academic study focusing on the political implications of the scandal and its effect on the American public. Perhaps the most unbiased account on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Anthony. The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. New York: Viking Press, 2000. An analysis of Nixon from his earlier years until he became a politician who sought to destroy his political opposition. Contains a litany of outrageous deeds that Nixon committed during his life, thereby demonstrating a pattern of mean-spirited behavior that came to the fore when he assumed the presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sussman, Barry. The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate. 3d ed. Arlington, Va.: Seven Locks Press, 1992. A detailed, insightful account of the Watergate scandal by the Washington Post editor who supervised Bernstein and Woodward and encouraged them to focus their reportage on a larger conspiracy. Recommended by John W. Dean, convicted for his role in the scandal, as one of the best books on the subject. Originally published in 1974.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Bob. The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Woodward elaborates on the secrecy surrounding his (and Bernstein’s) major contact and informer in the Watergate scandal, W. Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Discusses how the Watergate scandal changed the presidency and how Watergate became the paradigm for understanding how later scandals are handled by government officials.

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