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date: 24 February 2020

The Watergate Crisis

Summary and Keywords

The Watergate affair has become synonymous with political corruption and conspiracy. The crisis has, through fact, fiction, and debate, become considerably more than the arrest of five men breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC in the early hours of Saturday, June 17, 1972. Instead, the term “Watergate” has since come to represent the burglary, its failed cover-up, the press investigation, the Senate enquiry, and the eventual resignation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States, Richard Nixon. Arguably, Watergate has come to encompass all the illegalities of the Nixon administration. The crisis broke when the Vietnam War had already sunk public confidence in the executive to a low ebb, and in the context of a society already fractured by the turbulence of the 1960s. As such, Watergate is seen as the nadir of American democracy in the 20th century.

Perversely, despite contemporaries’ genuine fears for the future of the US democratic system, the scandal highlighted the efficiency of the US governmental machine. The investigations that constituted the Watergate enquiry, which were conducted by the legislative and judicial branches and the fourth estate, exposed corruption in the executive of the United States that stretched to the holder of the highest office. The post-war decades had allowed an imperial presidency to develop, which had threatened the country’s political equilibrium. Watergate disclosed that the presidency had overreached its constitutional powers and responsibilities and had conspired to keep those moves hidden from the electorate. More significantly, however, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon revealed that the checks-and-balances system of government, which was conceived almost 200 years before the Watergate affair, worked as those who devised it had planned. Watergate should illustrate to Americans not just the dangers of consolidating great power in the office of the president, but also the means to counteract such growth.

Keywords: Watergate, Richard Nixon, impeachment, resignation, scandal, imperial presidency,

Prelude to a Scandal

A Siege Mentality

In June 1972 Richard Milhous Nixon, the thirty-seventh president of the United States, should have felt confident of winning a second term in office in the November election. He had displayed his brilliance in foreign policy to the American public through a surprise visit to China in February of that year. His meeting with Chairman Mao, part of his efforts to encourage rapprochement with the communist Chinese government, garnered Nixon praise. He gained further prestige by visiting the Soviet Union in May. The Moscow summit produced the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) between the two nations. The agreement, conducted through back channels by the National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, was the first step to transforming US foreign policy from one of containment to that of détente.1

Nixon’s opponents, the Democratic Party, were in disarray. Their association with the Vietnam War, and their failure to convince the American public that they were the party of law and order, made their chances of winning the 1972 presidential election slim at best. The Democrats were still scarred from the 1968 national convention, which had been marred by televised violence between the police and anti-war demonstrators in the streets of Chicago. The party had failed to find a leader who could unite the radical left-wing elements of the party with the traditional New Deal Democrats. Despite challenges from the center and the conservative right in 1968, Nixon had no such public concerns regarding his leadership in 1972.

Nixon’s policy of the Vietnamizing the conflict in South East Asia, which had significantly reduced US casualties, and his summit successes in Beijing and Moscow made him seemingly unbeatable in the 1972 election. In spite of this, he was plagued by insecurity, just as he was throughout his entire career. Arthur Burns, Counselor to the President, noted his intelligence and ability but stated that he “lacked self-assurance.”2 The biographer Richard Reeves has suggested that Nixon’s self-doubt and paranoia meant that he “assumed the worst in people and he brought out the worst in them.”3 Nixon believed he would warrant a place among the pantheon of American presidents only if he were re-elected, and his insecurity over whether he would achieve that goal drove him to subvert the presidential election of 1972.4

Nixon saw enemies everywhere. Part of his insecurity stemmed from the protests surrounding the Vietnam War. Despite Vietnamization, the anti-war protests continued, particularly when Nixon announced that the United States was supporting a South Vietnamese campaign into Cambodia in April 1970. The protests increased further after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, in May 1970. Nixon believed, as had his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, that the protests were orchestrated by foreign communist governments. The administration felt that the student protests had developed into what it termed “revolutionary terrorism” conducted by “determined professionals” and supported by foreign powers.5 In an effort to confirm those suspicions, in July 1970 Nixon ordered the intelligence community to investigate suspected communist ties to the protestors under what became known as the Huston Plan.

The plan, which was named after Nixon’s aide Tom Charles Huston, was coordinated by the White House and mandated the intelligence community to target student protestors. The plan fell apart when the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, refused to cooperate with the planned series of extra-legal activities, such as illegal wiretapping, the compilation of watchlists, opening mail, and warrantless surveillance. Hoover’s decision came not because of his concerns for the civil liberties of Nixon’s targets, but because he feared the Bureau would not be able to pass the blame on to the White House. Before agreeing to allow the FBI to participate in the Huston Plan, Hoover demanded a signed order from Nixon to exonerate the Bureau from any possible blame. Nixon, realizing that such an order would destroy any chance of his denying involvement, withdrew the order five days later. Nonetheless, the intelligence community conducted the activities that it had agreed to, although not as part of any coordinated effort. More importantly, Hoover’s refusal to involve the FBI led Nixon to use private means, rather than those of the state, to collect political intelligence on his opponents.6

Setting a Precedent with the Plumbers

Nixon’s paranoia increased when the New York Times printed extracts of the top-secret report that would become known as the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. Commissioned in 1967 by the then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the forty-seven-volume report examined US foreign policy toward Vietnam and criticized both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for misleading the American public over the progress of the conflict. By the end of 1969 one of the experts involved in collating the information on the US war effort, the strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg, had become disillusioned by the war. After secretly photocopying 7,000 pages of the report, Ellsberg leaked it to anti-war politicians and the press. On June 14, 1971, the New York Times published the first of nine planned features on the report.

The Nixon administration attempted to stop the publication of the report, even though it did not criticize the Nixon administration directly. They claimed it would damage national security and gained a court order preventing further publications. Over the ensuing two weeks, the New York Times appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the court order. Ellsberg, despite being hunted by the FBI, also supplied the documents to the Washington Post. On June 30, citing the First Amendment rights of the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court judged in favor of the New York Times. Incensed by the Supreme Court’s decision, Nixon took steps to ensure that there would be no further leaks of information from the White House.7

When beginning his presidency, Nixon had been warned by his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, about the risk of leaks.8 The failure of the White House to halt the publication of the Pentagon Papers led Nixon to order the creation of a Special Investigation Unit in June 1971. The clandestine group, which was run through the White House by the presidential aide John Ehrlichman, became known as “the Plumbers” because it was their job to stop the leaks. The unit consisted of former intelligence-agency personnel, such as the former FBI agent Gordon Liddy and the former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt, and undertook a series of dirty-tricks operations. First to be targeted was Daniel Ellsberg.9 In a failed effort to find information that could be used to attack his character, the Plumbers broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in September 1971. There is no clear evidence to suggest that Nixon ordered the break-in, but the group apparently believed they were acting with presidential approval. Nixon did want the group to break into a safe in the Brookings Institute as he believed it contained information about the Democratic Party that could be used in the 1972 election.10 Despite the secretive nature of the Plumbers, Ehrlichman was worried that their activities would become public and damage Nixon irreparably, and so the unit was disbanded in late 1971.

In order to class as a truly historic president, Nixon believed he needed to win a second term in office so that his foreign policy could come to fruition. He blamed lack of money for his loss of the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy. The increasing cost of presidential campaigns, and Nixon’s fear of being outspent by rivals, led to the creation of the Committee to Re-elect the President, or CREEP. The organization acted primarily to raise funds for Nixon’s 1972 election campaign, but also surreptitiously as a slush fund. Through a complex system, money was donated to the fund from individuals and organizations, among them American Airlines.11 Some donations were exchanged for future appointment to public offices: $250,000 guaranteed the donor an ambassadorship, for example.12 Some of this money was then used to fund another dirty-tricks campaign, one that included gathering political intelligence, disrupting the Democratic Party’s primary elections, and illegal surveillance of the leading Democrat nomination hope, Senator Ted Kennedy. This same campaign fund also financed a number of illegal entries into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC, beginning on May 26, 1972. After three unsuccessful attempts a team of operatives successfully broke into the DNC headquarters on May 28, photographed key documents, and planted listening devices. When one of the devices malfunctioned the team decided to break in again and replace it. They planned the operation for June 17, 1972.13

A Cancer Close to the Presidency

The Break-In

In the early hours of June 17, five burglars broke into the DNC office. A security guard in the Watergate complex had become suspicious of masking tape placed over door locks and called Washington DC police to investigate. Foolishly, the burglars had left a trail of taped-over locks for the police to follow. When plainclothes detectives found the intruders they initially thought an ordinary burglary was in process; however, they quickly reassessed the situation after arresting the five men. The burglars were dressed in business suits, wore surgical gloves, and carried lock-picking tools, camera equipment, and electronic listening devices; they also had large amounts of cash, including sequential $100 bills. Concerned that the listening devices indicated that federal laws regarding communications security had been broken, the police called in the FBI.14

Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, who had spent the previous month planning the operation under the codename Operation Gemstone, had watched the drama unfold from an observation post in the Watergate Hotel. In another building, co-conspirator and former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin had kept watch on the road outside the office building. At first Baldwin had paid no attention to the unmarked police car when it parked outside the Watergate office. But when lights began to go on inside, Baldwin realized something was wrong. On seeing casually dressed individuals brandishing pistols on the sixth-floor terrace he asked Hunt and Liddy, via walkie talkie, how the burglars were dressed. “Our people are dressed in suits,” he was told. Now certain that something was amiss, he issued his warning; but it came too late to abort the operation. Had Baldwin recognized earlier that it was the police who had parked outside the building, the burglars would have been able to make their escape.15

Realizing the mission was a complete failure, Hunt and Liddy told Baldwin to leave his position, and promptly fled the scene. In their haste they left behind incriminating evidence in the hotel rooms occupied by the burglars, such as a sealed envelope signed by Hunt, and address books containing Hunt’s name with “W. H.” and “W. House” next to it.16 Later that evening Hunt called a local lawyer to ensure that the burglars had legal support. Almost immediately, Douglas Caddy appeared at police headquarters to represent the burglars. The police and FBI were bemused because the suspected burglars had refused to make any telephone calls, and Caddy declined to inform the authorities how he had become aware of their arrest.17

The group behind the burglary consisted of former members of the Plumbers and the intelligence community. Four of the burglars were identified as being from Miami, three of which were Cuban-Americans, while the other two were American. They had originally given false names, but one American eventually identified himself as James W. McCord Jr. The five men were arraigned for bail hearings the following afternoon. When questioned about their occupation by Judge James A. Belsen, four stated that they were anti-communists, while McCord identified himself as a security consultant. When pressed by Belsen as to who he had worked for, McCord eventually revealed it was the CIA. Sitting in the court was a young Washington Post journalist, Bob Woodward. When he returned to the office of the Washington Post, Woodward worked with seven other reporters on the story for the Sunday edition of the paper. The article deliberately avoided speculating as to why burglars would target the DNC office.18

The Cover-Up

Nixon did not order the break-in, but his obsession with information that could be used to destroy his political opponents had led his aides within the White House to act on his behalf. It has been suggested that had Nixon come clean at this point he may have survived the ensuing investigation.19 Instead, confident that it could be done successfully, the White House, under the direction of the president, instigated a cover-up. The concern in the White House was that revealing the true nature of the burglary would lead to the disclosure of the Nixon administration’s other nefarious activities over the previous two years: the illegal wiretapping, the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s, and the illegal use of campaign funds.20

Gordon Liddy’s delay in informing his superior, Jeb Magruder, of the arrests seriously hampered any chances that the Nixon administration had of quashing the investigation early on. Magruder, the Deputy Director of CREEP, did not find out about the arrests until Liddy rang him around noon on June 17. He subsequently informed the CREEP Director, former Attorney General John Mitchell. By that time the authorities had already been investigating for almost twelve hours. On the following day, June 18, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst rejected Liddy’s efforts, on behalf of Mitchell, to intervene in the investigation; he objected to it not on legal grounds, but on political grounds. Kleindienst recognized that his involvement would also implicate Nixon.21

Nixon learnt of the break-in and its connection to CREEP whilst travelling back from a weekend break in the Bahamas, on the evening of June 19. During the last thirty minutes of the flight back to Washington, as Nixon recorded in his diary, Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, informed the president that the burglary had involved an employee of CREEP. Nixon, recognizing the gravity of the situation, agreed with both Haldeman and Ehrlichman that the White House needed to be kept away from the burglary and investigation. In particular, Nixon was concerned that his aide Charles Colson might raise suspicions by being too eager to fix the problem.22 Colson, who had also been part of the command structure of the Plumbers, later admitted that he was prepared to “blink at certain ethical standards, to be ruthless in getting things done.”23

Nixon’s determination to distance the White House from the burglary was a wasted effort. The FBI had already linked Hunt to the burglary, and had quickly established that Hunt had been in the CIA and was a White House consultant. Furthermore, McCord’s connection to CREEP had been discovered and reported by the Associated Press. When the press asked about these connections, Ron Ziegler, the White House Press Secretary, tried to dampen interest by describing the incident as “a third-rate burglary attempt” and not worthy of further discussion.24 Nixon was furious at what he believed was biased journalism. He knew that his election campaign had been bugged by the Johnson administration during the 1968 presidential election. He suggested that the White House make this the focus of the press so as to quieten the growing concern surrounding the Watergate break-in.25

At this stage of the crisis the cover-up was being managed by Haldeman, Mitchell, and Ehrlichman. John W. Dean, Counsel to the President, destroyed incriminating documents in Hunt’s safe in the White House, as well as further evidence. But such efforts failed to stop the press connecting Hunt to Colson and, consequentially, to the Nixon administration.26 At a press conference on June 22, Nixon denied any collusion between the White House and the burglars, telling reporters that “the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident.”27 Privately Nixon was aware that CREEP, under the direction of Dean, was surreptitiously providing financial support to the burglars in the form of bail, legal expenses, and family funds, while, at the same time, Mitchell and Magruder were trying to cover up CREEP’s involvement with the burglary.28

On June 23, Nixon and Haldeman discussed the burglary and the steps that needed to be taken. The FBI, under the leadership of Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, was not under the control of the White House. By investigating the source of the burglars’ money, the Bureau was establishing solid links to CREEP and the White House. Haldeman suggested to Nixon that the FBI investigation could be blocked if the CIA suggested it had been responsible for the operation. Nixon agreed. “Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it,” he told Haldeman.29 The Deputy Director of the CIA, Vernon Walters, told Gray of Nixon’s worries about the FBI enquiry.30 Shortly afterward Gray instructed his agents to stop their investigation of the money. From that point onward, day-to-day management of the crisis was conducted by Dean, regularly reporting to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who, in turn, would inform Nixon of any developments.31

Following the Money

But while the FBI slowed its investigations, Bob Woodward and his fellow Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein were increasing their interest in the developing story. Bernstein had joined his colleague as the lead writers on the topic. Generally, the media paid little attention to the events associated with the break-in, preferring instead to focus on the upcoming presidential election. While the White House cover-up was at its most effective, during 1972, Woodward and Bernstein had followed and reported on the story on an almost daily basis, but their revelations of connections between White House officials and the burglars were dismissed by the Nixon administration as a political vendetta conducted by junior journalists at the Washington Post. Outlets other than the Washington Post were convinced that the incident was associated only with fringe members of the administration, something those of the top were keen for the press and public to believe.32

An anonymous source, placed at a high level within the executive branch, aided Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation. Called “Deep Throat” by the Washington Post’s managing editor, Howard Simmons, the source was used only to confirm information that Woodward gathered from other sources, and to add perspective to the investigation.33 Throughout the investigation, and for thirty years afterward, Woodward never revealed who the source was. In 2005 it was confirmed by Woodward that Deep Throat was, in fact, Mark Felt, a Deputy Director of the FBI during the Watergate crisis.34

The role that Woodward and Bernstein played during the Watergate crisis was significant. During the presidential election campaign of 1972, the press treated Nixon remarkably well. He received the endorsement of the majority of media outlets, while his opponent, Senator George McGovern, was criticized for a conducting a poor campaign. In spite of Nixon’s persistent claims that he was persecuted by the press, Nixon’s achievements as president received considerable coverage, while McGovern’s faults were publicly examined in numerous articles and opinion pieces.35

The story of Watergate moved away from the front pages as election day grew nearer. Only a few dogged journalists covered the story. However, Woodward and Bernstein’s constant coverage of the burglary, its connection to the White House, and its wider implications kept the story in the public domain throughout 1972. During the campaign, the Washington Post reported that a $25,000 check had been deposited in the bank account of one of the burglars, how John Mitchell had controlled a secret fund that was used for political espionage, and that the FBI believed that Watergate was part of a wider operation run by the Nixon campaign. The interviews conducted by Woodward and Bernstein on the doorsteps of various CREEP employees gave them an instinctive understanding that they were on the right track.36

Unmasking the Conspiracy

Judge John Sirica

By the start of 1973 the interest in Watergate had resumed. The main cause of this was the start of the trial of the Watergate burglars on January 10. The trial also included Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, who had both been indicted for their suspected role in the burglary. The Nixon administration had been successful in thwarting the efforts of the FBI to bring anyone else to trial. Colson or Dean ensured they were present and obstructive when agents interviewed any White House officials during the investigation, and CREEP lawyers acted as legal advice to any of the organization’s employees who were questioned by agents. The Bureau’s approach was directed by Gray, who, in turn, was under strict orders from the White House. The administration’s objective was to minimize the information available.37

District Court Chief Judge John Sirica, a hardline Republican, presided over the trial. Sirica, considered by many to be a friend of the Nixon administration, had deliberately not heard the case until after the 1972 landslide election victory for Nixon.38 But Sirica was unhappy with the investigation and the testimony of the burglars, who failed to account for where the cash discovered on them came from. Sirica constantly interrupted McCord and Liddy’s defense, believing that there was more to the case than they were revealing. Hunt had recognized that the trial could do significant damage, and so offered to plead guilty to three charges. Sirica refused to accept this, so Hunt pled guilty to all charges, as did the Cuban-Americans. On January 30, McCord and Liddy were found guilty by the jury after only ninety minutes of deliberation. Sirica was convinced that the public had not heard all the facts.39

On March 19, while on bail awaiting sentence, McCord wrote to Sirica. He claimed that perjury had been committed during the trial, and that political pressure had been put on the defendants to force them to plead guilty and stay silent. McCord, a CIA loyalist, asserted that the CIA was not involved at all, although no-one had publicly claimed that it was.40 In a failed attempt to get the others to talk, Sirica ordered McCord’s letter to be read out in court before sentencing. The defendants’ continued silence led Sirica to sentence the four Miami-based operatives to forty years imprisonment, while Hunt was sentenced to thirty-five years, and Liddy to twenty. However, Sirica informed all of the defendants, except Liddy, that he would review all the sentences in three months. Any reduction in the sentences would hinge on their cooperation with other investigations into the burglary. In particular, Sirica hoped that the impending US Senate’s investigation “would get to the bottom of what happened in the case.”41

The Senate Investigation

In February 1973, after the burglars were found guilty, the US Senate established the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Chaired by a North Carolina Democrat, Sam Ervin, it became popularly known as the Watergate Committee. Throughout the committee’s public hearings, which were held in the Senate Caucus Room, Ervin played to the packed audiences that came to watch the proceedings. The chairman referred to himself as a “country lawyer,” but behind the southern brogue and self-effacement was an electric legal mind. Ervin managed to simplify the complex investigation so that it was understandable to the growing television audience. From May 1973, and for almost four months, the committee’s public hearings entranced the nation. Prior to the hearings, television news programs devoted almost 20 percent of their coverage to Watergate news items. Over 300 broadcast hours of testimonies allowed the break-in to grow from “a third-rate burglary” to the talking point of every household in the United States. Newspaper coverage increased, with the New York Times running an average of fourteen items a day during May 1973.42

The television coverage of the Senate hearings did not cause excitement at first, but public interest developed when—prompted by Senator Howard Baker’s oft-repeated question “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”—the testimonies of CREEP and White House officials began to create a dark image of the Nixon White House. Nixon’s defense had relied on his aides taking the blame and not implicating the president. Sirica’s tough jail sentences had convinced Magruder, Mitchell, and Dean to sever ties with the administration and work with the Justice Department authorities in early April 1973. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who had been implicated by those cooperating with the investigations, and Attorney General Kleindienst were asked by Nixon at the end of April to resign. In a televised statement Nixon described Haldeman and Ehrlichman as “two of the finest public servants,” denied any personal involvement in any cover-up, but admitted that “there had been an effort to conceal the facts.” In an effort to grasp the initiative from the Senate, Nixon instructed the new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to appoint “a special supervising prosecutor for matters arising out of the case.”43 Richardson chose the former Solicitor General, Archibald Cox, for the role.

Nixon had hoped that the resignations of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean and the appointment of Special Prosecutor Cox would draw matters to a close. That hope was soon quashed by Dean’s testimony to the Senate investigation. Dean recognized that the burglars’ increasing demands for money and the publicity from McCord’s letter would damage the administration. He had warned Nixon, as late as March 1973, of “a cancer within, close to the presidency.”44 Dean’s 246-page statement and five-day testimony placed Nixon at the center of the cover-up. His claims were refuted by Nixon’s loyal aides Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell in the Senate hearings, and by Nixon himself in a 4,000-word statement.45

That is until July 16, when another White House aide, Alexander Butterfield, testified to the Senate. When questioned, Butterfield revealed the existence of a taping system throughout the White House that he had installed for Nixon. Nixon had wanted to ensure that his memoirs were as correct as possible, so had ordered the recorders to be installed to help him write his autobiography. Nixon’s vanity about being a renowned president had worked against him. As a result of Butterfield’s testimony, the Watergate Committee’s focus turned to acquiring the tapes. The committee issued subpoenas demanding they be delivered, but Nixon claimed executive privilege on the grounds that their release would compromise national security.46

The Saturday Night Massacre

The Watergate Committee and the Special Prosecutor took their request for the tapes to the courts. On August 29, Judge Sirica ruled that the tapes should be given to the two investigations. The ruling was upheld by the US Court of Appeals on October 12. By now Watergate was severely affecting the daily business of the presidency. Henry Kissinger bemoaned the fact that Nixon was distracted from his foreign policy. Instead of paying attention to negotiations with China, Nixon was “playing back tape recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office to see whether they were damaging to him.”47

Nixon had expected Cox to work as part of the executive branch and to limit the damage to his administration. Cox’s subpoena of the tapes convinced Nixon that he was a danger and not an ally, and that he needed to be removed from office. Nixon became increasingly isolated in the White House, a situation exacerbated by Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation. Agnew had been found by federal investigators to have accepted cash bribes while Governor of Maryland. To avoid jail, Agnew pleaded no contest and resigned on October 10. His culpability illustrated the corruption within the Nixon administration and forced Nixon to choose Gerald Ford, the House minority leader, as the new Vice President.48

The Court of Appeals ruling forced Nixon into negotiation over the tapes. Nixon offered Cox a typed transcript of the tapes, whose authenticity had been confirmed by the Democrat Senator from Mississippi, John Stennis. Cox turned down the compromise and continued to pursue them legally. The Watergate Committee leadership agreed to present the proposal back to the committee after meeting Nixon on Friday, October 19. Nixon, misreading the situation, released a statement saying that an agreement had been reached. In his statement Nixon directed Cox, “as an employee of the executive branch, to make no further attempts by judicial process to obtain tapes, notes, or memoranda of Presidential conversations.”49 Cox, in a televised press conference the following lunchtime, defiantly expressed his dissatisfaction with the compromise and stated that whether the United States would “continue to be a government of law and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people to decide.”50

Nixon felt that Cox had attacked him personally, “and I wanted him out,” he later wrote.51 Nixon informed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned just after 4:30 p.m. Assistant Attorney General Ruckelshaus also resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork, who believed that Nixon had the constitutional right to dismiss Cox, was given the task and carried out the order. As well as the resignations, Nixon abolished the office of the Special Prosecutor and ordered the FBI to seal Cox’s team’s office.52

There was considerable public outcry at the dismissals, which were dubbed by the press as “The Saturday Night Massacre.” Public opposition manifested in the half a million telegrams that were sent to Congress that week criticizing Cox’s dismissal.53 In an effort to regain public support Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski as special prosecutor at the end of October. Jaworski’s office, according to Bork, would have “no restrictions placed on his freedom of action.”54 Jaworski continued to request the release of the tapes from the White House. Nixon’s attempt to exert the power of the executive branch had spectacularly backfired.


Almost immediately after the resignations in the Justice Department, the House Judiciary Committee set up an investigation into the possibility of impeaching the president. The demand for what became known as the Nixon tapes intensified. Nixon had released seven of the subpoenaed tapes in November. On inspection there was found to be a gap of eighteen and a half minutes on one tape, and two of the tapes were said to not exist. Jaworski and the House Judiciary Committee demanded even more of the tapes. In April 1974, Nixon supplied edited transcripts of the tapes to Jaworski and the Judiciary Committee. Apart from the president’s constant use of foul language, the tapes revealed nothing incriminating.55

Unsatisfied, Jaworski appealed to the Supreme Court for the original tapes to corroborate the transcripts. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court, despite recognizing Nixon’s claim to executive privilege, ruled that the president had to supply tapes to Judge Sirica. The release of the tape containing what became known as the “smoking gun” conversation, held between Nixon and Haldeman some two years earlier, put Nixon at the very heart of the conspiracy. This conversation, in which the pair discussed using the CIA to block the FBI, indicated that Nixon was complicit in obstructing justice. On the same day, the House Judiciary began impeachment proceedings. Three counts were voted against Nixon: that he had obstructed justice, that he had abused power, and that he had unconstitutionally defied a congressional subpoena. Despite being tempted to fight the charges, the president’s mind was swayed when the leading Republican senator Barry Goldwater told him that he could rely on only “four firm votes” of support in the Senate, on August 7.56 That would not be enough to stop Nixon becoming the first president to be removed from office by impeachment.

The End of the Affair?


Goldwater had recognized that Nixon had intended to fight the impeachment charges “until it was absolutely clear that the situation was hopeless.”57 However, the released tapes had revealed that Nixon, as president, had lied to his staff, supporters, and the nation. As a consequence many, including Goldwater, felt they could no longer trust him.58 On August 8, 1974, in a fifteen-minute televised interview, Nixon announced his resignation from noon the following day. In his farewell speech he told Americans that “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.”59 His successor, Gerald R. Ford, took office and announced that “our long national nightmare is over.”60 Ford hoped that the press and public’s obsession with Watergate would die away. He was wrong.

After a month of endless questions about whether Nixon would face criminal charges, and faced with the prospect that the issue could continue in the courts for several years, Ford announced to the nation that he was granting Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon” for any offence that he had committed “or may have committed or taken part in” during his presidency.61 The American public were shocked. Ford’s ratings in the polls dropped twenty points in one week, and there were suggestions of a cover-up.62 In a public attempt to explain his reasoning, Ford appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by William Hungate. In doing so, he became the first president since Abraham Lincoln to testify before Congress. Ford stated that the pardon was “in the best interests of the country,” and that “there never was at any time any agreement whatsoever” that his presidency was dependent on pardoning Nixon. Ford’s assertion that he had eased congressional doubts was supported by Special Prosecutor Jaworski, who stated his approval of the pardon.63

Watergate’s Legacy

For the Watergate burglars and conspirators, the immediate effect of Watergate was custodial sentences. In addition to the sentences issued by Sirica in 1973, Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Colson all served time in prison for their role in the conspiracy and for obstructing justice.64 The Ford administration suffered too: Watergate and the Nixon pardon had failed to restore trust between the executive and legislative branches. As a consequence Ford faced challenges to his every executive decision from Congress, and challenges to his leadership of the Republican Party from the party’s conservative wing, led by Ronald Reagan.65

For many, Nixon’s overreach showed that the US democratic system was broken. Passages of his presidency illustrated an imbalance in the American Constitution, weighted in favor of the executive branch, that allowed Nixon to act as an imperial president.66 However, the failure of the Constitution’s checks-and-balances system of government was brief and temporary, and was corrected by legislators, prosecutors, and litigators who believed in the rule of law over the rule of men. The process of the revelation and rectification of Watergate is evidence that the US democratic system works.67 Although Nixon later told David Frost of his belief that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” his removal from office indicates that the separation of powers is an effective means of government when the countervailing forces against imbalance are prepared to act.68

Despite this, Watergate did have a long-lasting effect on US politics and culture. The legacy of Watergate has no clear epilogue in “the seamless web of the American political experience.”69 The episode illustrated to the American electorate “the excesses that liberal standards had endorsed” during the modern era.70 In a society already fractured by clashes on US involvement in Vietnam, Watergate left deep scars. Subsequent political misdemeanors became magnified, sometimes injudiciously, into crises that often ended political careers. This politics of scandal is firmly embedded within US politics and political culture. In homage to the destructive crisis of the Nixon administration, each scandal, large or small, has since been suffixed with “-gate.”71

In the wake of Watergate and the Nixon pardon, the 1974 midterm elections saw a number of Democrats defeat their Republican counterparts. The Watergate Babies, as the freshmen Representatives were called, had been elected on promises of political reform. “We were a conquering army. We came here to take the Bastille,” said Rep. George Miller.72 Spurred by this initial impetus Congress passed legislation promoting government openness and limiting the president’s power in foreign affairs. Yet congressional ambition to reform lasted only briefly. The ultimate ambivalence of Congress toward acting as a countervailing measure to the executive branch, combined with the White House’s “counterrevolution against checks and balances” in the 1980s, has since allowed the presidency to grow in strength and power once more.73

Discussion of the Literature

The secondary literature on Watergate is immense and cannot be covered comprehensively here. Watergate has been used as a case study for historians, political scientists, constitutional scholars, and students of the US presidency, and for studies of investigative journalism. It has, of course, been the focus of many memoirs of those involved in the crisis, particularly those within the Nixon administration. It is a significant component of all Nixon biographies.

In an attempt to explain the reasoning behind their involvement in the burglary and its subsequent cover-up, Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean have all written accounts of their time within the White House during the period. There is no real consensus either on the cause of the scandal, or on who was to blame. Nixon’s extensive memoirs refuse to accept that he did anything wrong. Based on his diary, Haldeman’s account is supportive of Nixon during the crisis, but damning of him in general, revealing a paranoid and often-bigoted president. Ehrlichman is extremely critical of almost every official in Washington, especially Nixon. In his self-serving account, Dean also failed to give any explanation as to why Watergate developed in the way that it did, but, importantly, his was the first account to emerge from within the executive.74

Mark Feldstein had noticed that analysis of the role of the press during the Watergate scandal has fallen into three categories: the heroic narrative, the villainous narrative, and the minimalist narrative.75 The heroic narrative includes interpretations that conclude that the press played a positive and integral role in the crisis. The clearest example of this is the contribution of Woodward and Bernstein. “Woodstein,” as the partnership became known, were trailblazers in reporting Watergate, keeping the story alive when much of the press was uninterested. While their investigative journalism does much to justify this championing of the press, it was their bestselling book, All the President’s Men, that cemented the portrayal when it was released in 1974.76 Here, the two authors are the main protagonists, and cast themselves in a heroic role. This was re-enforced two years later by the motion-picture adaptation of the book.77 Both scholars and other journalists have supported this depiction of the press, in general, as the heroes of the crisis.78

However, the role of the press has also been criticized, particularly by conservative commentators. Feldstein’s “villainous narrative,” in direct opposition to the heroic narrative, identifies the press as having had a negative but significant role in the Watergate crisis. Revisionist scholarship has argued that the press conducted a witch-hunt, led by an east-coast liberal media. The media campaign, according to this analysis, was designed to effect an undemocratic coup that would topple Nixon, the media’s greatest critic. This narrative, although not entirely convincing, has been incorporated into scholarly work.79

A third narrative has also been identified, according to which the media had little influence on the course of events. This “minimalist narrative,” to use Feldstein’s term, holds that the media simply reflected the various events of the crisis, and that the Watergate affair was complex had a number of causes. Scholars have argued that the media did not expose Watergate, nor did it impeach Nixon. Instead, the media’s contribution to Watergate was to cover the events that were already taking place.80

Scholars of the executive branch have identified Watergate as being fatal to the Nixon presidency, and highlight the effect that the crisis had on the office of the president. Nixon-centric scholarship place the roots of the crisis in the divisions caused by Vietnam, and in Nixon’s failure to end the war as he promised in his 1968 election campaign. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and his efforts to contain leaks from the executive branch were the first steps toward the criminal acts that the administration undertook during the Watergate crisis.81 Melvin Small, for example, argues that Watergate reflected the entire Nixon presidency, and that the affair began not in June 1972, but when Nixon took office.82

Examination of Nixon’s actions during Watergate has illustrated his inability to distinguish “the crucial from the irritating.” Throughout the Watergate affair, as one scholar has observed, Nixon “selected courses of action that turned out to be unviable.”83 Others note how Nixon’s paranoia and inherent distrust of people both spurred the desire for political intelligence that led to the break-in at the Watergate complex, and shaped his decision-making during the subsequent crisis.84 Nixon’s inability to deal with the Watergate crisis led to a period of heightened distrust. Congress, the public, and the press were emboldened to question and challenge the executive branch in the immediate aftermath, restricting the political opportunity available to Ford and Carter.85

While much of the literature has focused on Nixon, scholars have also situated the crisis within the wider growth of the modern imperial presidency. The development and expansion of the executive branch from the start of the 20th century had been made possible through the careful manipulation of such national and international emergencies as the New Deal, the Second World War, and the Cold War. A succession of presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Nixon, had used these crises to assume a mantle of secrecy to avoid public scrutiny. The centralization of power within the executive branch enabled an authoritative presidency increasingly to adopt corrupt practices. “Watergate was a symptom, not a cause,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, and illustrated “the unwarranted and unprecedented expansion of presidential power.”86 Modern-day scholars place Watergate within a longer timeline of corruption and abuse of power by the executive branch, one that includes the Iran-Contra affair and President Clinton’s impeachment. For many presidential scholars, the expansion of assumed powers that allowed George W. Bush to bypass Congress in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, illustrate that the imperial presidency has not declined at all.87

Primary Sources

There is a wealth of primary sources on the Watergate burglary, investigation, and the ensuing cover-up. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library has a considerable number of records kept within its archive. Immediately after Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974 to obtain ownership of Nixon’s White House papers. There was concern within Congress that Nixon could be tempted to destroy any incriminating evidence against him or his aides. Although Nixon contested a protracted and expensive legal campaign to regain possession of the White House papers, the courts ruled that he did not have legal ownership. New legislation releasing Nixon’s presidential papers in 2004, and the Nixon Library’s coming under federal management in 2007, have since enabled a great deal of Nixon’s presidential papers to be researched at the library.

Included in the Nixon Library’s archives are White House memoranda of the period, the transcripts and recordings of the Nixon tapes, and an oral-history library of interviews conducted with the principal actors from Watergate. Many of these are available online through the Nixon Library website. In addition to the Nixon Library, the Gerald R. Ford Library has a number of documents available that reveal the process and reasoning that led to Nixon’s pardon in August 1974. Further information on speeches given by Nixon and Ford while in office can be found in the archive The Presidency Project, which is hosted online by the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The National Archives holds several important documents relating to the investigation surrounding the Watergate burglary. The Watergate Road Map, a sealed report opened only in October 2018, is the collection of evidence amassed by the second Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. The report, containing 150 documents and statements, was delivered to the House Judiciary Committee in early 1974, after Jaworski realized he was unlikely to get an indictment against a sitting president. The National Archives also hold digital and physical copies of the hearings and final report of the Watergate Committee.

The archives of the press coverage of the crisis are extensive. The Washington Post ran more contemporary articles than any other publication on Watergate. While the majority of these articles can be read only with a subscription, a number may be accessed free through the online collection associated with the newspaper’s Watergate timeline. There has been a growth in digital newspaper archives since 2010, in part because an electronic archive demands less space than a document-based repository. This growth of online archives, especially those dedicated to regional publications, gives researchers access to more articles associated with Watergate than in previous years. While considerable research has been conducted around the reporting of Watergate, the proliferation of accessible resources, especially those in online and digital format, allows modern researchers the opportunity to revisit and reassess earlier conclusions.

Further Reading

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. London: Simon and Schuster, 1974.Find this resource:

Dean, John W. The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It. London: Penguin, 2014.Find this resource:

Emery, Fred. Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Touchstone, 1995.Find this resource:

Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: The Life. London: Scribe, 2018.Find this resource:

Haldeman, H. R. The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1994.Find this resource:

Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Norton, 1990.Find this resource:

Lang, Gladys Engel, and Kurt Lang. The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Liebovich, Louis W. Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.Find this resource:

Nixon, Richard. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.Find this resource:

Olsen, Keith. Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.Find this resource:

Schudson, Michael. Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1993.Find this resource:

Small, Melvin. The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.Find this resource:

Werth, Barry. 31 Days: Gerald R. Ford, the Nixon Pardon, and a Government in Crisis. New York: Anchor Books, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) Iwan Morgan, Nixon (London: Arnold, 2002), 137.

(3.) Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 13.

(5.) United States Senate, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, S Rep 94–755, vol. 2, The Huston Plan (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976), 396.

(6.) Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, The FBI: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 180.

(8.) Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, vol. 1 (New York: Warner, 1978), 442.

(9.) Emery, Watergate, 53–55.

(10.) United States Senate, Final Report of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, S Rep 93–981 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), 124–125 [hereafter referred to as Watergate Report].

(11.) Seymour Hersh, ‘Airline Discloses Illegal Donation to ’72 Nixon Drive’, New York Times, July 7, 1973.

(12.) Morgan, Nixon, 179.

(13.) Emery, Watergate, 6.

(14.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 187–189.

(15.) Watergate Report, 1–2.

(16.) Farrell, Richard Nixon, 471.

(17.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 188.

(19.) Michael A. Genovese and Iwan W. Morgan, “Remembering Watergate,” in Watergate Remembered: The Legacy for American Politics, ed. Michael A. Genovese and Iwan W. Morgan (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 14–15.

(21.) Emery, Watergate, 142–147.

(22.) Dean, Nixon Defense, 10–12.

(23.) Charles Colson, Born Again (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1977), 65.

(24.) Emery, Watergate, 161.

(25.) Dean, Nixon Defense, 21–22.

(26.) Genovese and Morgan, “Remembering Watergate,” 14.

(27.) Richard Nixon, “The President News Conference,” June 22, 1972.

(28.) Watergate Report, 51.

(29.) Conversation 741–10, Audiotape 741, Oval Office Sound Recordings, White House Tapes, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA.

(30.) Keith W. Olsen, Watergate: The Presidential Scandal that Shook America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), 51.

(31.) Farrell, Richard Nixon, 479.

(33.) Bernstein and Woodward, All the President’s Men, 65–67.

(34.) John D. O’Connor, “I’m the Man They Called Deep Throat,” Vanity Fair, May 31, 2005.

(35.) Liebovich, Richard Nixon, 56.

(36.) Farrell, Richard Nixon, 483

(37.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 210–211.

(38.) Emery, Watergate, 217.

(39.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 253–254.

(40.) Letter from James W. McCord Jr. to Judge John Sirica, March 19, 1973, filed in United States v. George Gordon Liddy, et al., C.R. 1827–1872, United States District Court for the District of Columbia; Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21; and NARA, College Park, MD.

(41.) Walter Rugaber, “Watergate Judge Wants U.S. to Revive Its Inquiry,” New York Times, February 2, 1973.

(43.) Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation about the Watergate Investigations,” April 30, 1973.

(44.) Conversation 886–008, Audiotape 886, Oval Office Sound Recordings, White House Tapes, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA.

(45.) Richard Nixon, “Statement about the Watergate Investigations,” May 22, 1973.

(46.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 368–371.

(47.) Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 353.

(48.) Farrell, Richard Nixon, 519–520.

(50.) Douglas E. Kneeland, “Bork Takes Over,” New York Times, October 21, 1973.

(51.) Nixon, The Memoirs, 933.

(52.) Lang and Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion, 98–101.

(53.) Watergate Report, xxxiii.

(54.) “Remarks of Acting Attorney General Robert H. Bork Announcing His Appointment of Leon Jaworski, November 1, 1973,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon (1973)

(55.) Morgan, Nixon, 185–186.

(56.) Barry Goldwater and Jack Casserly, Goldwater (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 354.

(57.) Goldwater and Casserly, Goldwater, 354.

(58.) Dean, The Nixon Defense, 646.

(60.) Gerald R. Ford, “Remarks on Taking the Oath of Office,” August 9, 1974.

(61.) Gerald R. Ford, “Remarks on Signing a Proclamation Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon,” September 8, 1974.

(62.) John Robert Greene, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 53–57.

(63.) Gerald R. Ford, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald Ford (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 197–199.

(64.) Kutler, Wars of Watergate, 575–576.

(65.) Greene, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, 58–59; and see also Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).

(66.) Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency, with a new introduction (Boston: First Mariner, 2004), ix–x. The first edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1973.

(67.) James P. Pfiffner, The Modern Presidency, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson, 2008), 266.

(68.) David Frost, Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 254–256.

(69.) Ruth P. Morgan, “Nixon, Watergate, and the Study of the Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1996): 217–238.

(70.) Barton J. Bernstein, “The Road to Watergate and Beyond: The Growth and Abuse of Executive Authority since 1940,” Law and Contemporary Problems 40, no. 2 (1976): 58–86.

(71.) Michael A. Genovese, “The Long Legacy of Watergate,” in Genovese and Morgan, Watergate Remembered, 185.

(72.) George Miller quoted in John A. Lawrence, The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 1.

(73.) Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr. and Aziz Z. Huq, Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror (New York: The New Press, 2007), 156–157.

(74.) Nixon, The Memoirs; H. R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1994); John Ehrlichman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); and John W. Dean, Blind Ambition: The White House Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976).

(75.) Mark Feldstein, “Wallowing in Watergate: Historiography, Methodology, and Mythology in Journalism’s Celebrated Moment,” American Journalism 31, no. 4 (2014): 550–570.

(76.) Bernstein and Woodward, All the President’s Men.

(77.) Alan J. Pakula, dir., All the President’s Men (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1976).

(78.) Michael Schudson, Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1993); David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York: Norton, 2003); and Liebovich, Richard Nixon.

(79.) Victor Lasky, It Didn’t Start with Watergate (New York: Dial Press, 1977); Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Jonathan Aitken, Nixon: A Lif, (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1996); and Conrad Black, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (New York: Public Affairs, 2007).

(80.) Kutler, The Wars of Watergate; and Lang and Lang, The Battle for Public Opinion.

(81.) Michael A. Genovese, The Watergate Crisis (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).

(83.) Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan (New York: Free Press, 1980), 213–214.

(84.) Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

(85.) Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(86.) Schlesinger, Imperial Presidency, 275.

(87.) Pfiffner, Modern Presidency; Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered; and Cronin and Genovese, Paradoxes of the American Presidency.