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The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph

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Digital History ID 3352



Shortly after 1 a.m. on June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Washington, D.C., Watergate office complex spotted a strip of masking tape covering the lock of a basement door. He removed it. A short while later, he found the door taped open again. He called the police, who found two more taped locks and a jammed door leading into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Inside they discovered five men carrying cameras and electronic eavesdropping equipment.

At first, the Watergate break-in seemed like a minor incident. The identities of the burglars, however, suggested something more serious. One, James McCord, was chief security coordinator of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP). Others had links to the CIA.

Over the course of the next year, it became clear that the break-in was one in a series of secret operations coordinated by the White House. Financed by illegal campaign contributions, these operations posed a threat to America's constitutional system of government and, eventually, forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency.

The Watergate break-in had its roots in Richard Nixon's obsession with secrecy and political intelligence. To stop "leaks" of information to the press, in 1971 the Nixon White House assembled a team of "plumbers," consisting of former CIA operatives. This private police force, paid for in part by illegal campaign contributions, engaged in a wide range of criminal acts, including phone tapping and burglary, against those on its "enemies list."

In 1972, when President Nixon was running for re-election, CREEP authorized another series of illegal activities. It hired Donald Segretti to stage "dirty tricks" against potential Democratic nominees, which included mailing letters that falsely accused one candidate of homosexuality and fathering an illegitimate child. It considered a plan to use call girls to blackmail Democrats at their national convention and to kidnap anti-Nixon radical leaders. The committee also authorized $250,000 for intelligence-gathering operations. Four times the committee sent burglars to break into Democratic headquarters.

Precisely what the campaign committee hoped to learn from these intelligence-gathering activities remains a mystery. It seems likely that it was seeking information about the Democratic Party's campaign strategies and any information the Democrats had about illegal campaign contributions to the Republican Party.

On June 23--six days after the botched break-in--President Nixon ordered aides to block an FBI investigation of the White House involvement in the break-in on grounds that an investigation would endanger national security. He also counseled his aides to lie under oath, if necessary.

The Watergate break-in did not hurt Nixon's re-election campaign. Between the activities of the burglars and the president were layers of deception that had to be carefully peeled away. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, sensing that the break-in was only part of a larger scandal, slowly pieced together part of the story. Facing long jail terms, some of the burglars began to tell the truth; the truth illuminated a path leading to the White House.

If Nixon had few political friends, he had legions of enemies. Over the years he had offended or attacked many Democrats--and a number of prominent Republicans. His detractors latched onto the Watergate issue with the tenacity of bulldogs.

The Senate appointed a special committee to investigate the Watergate scandal. Most of Nixon's top aides continued the cover-up. John Dean, the president's counsel, did not. Throughout the episode he had kept careful notes, and in a quiet, precise voice he told the Senate Watergate Committee that the president was deeply involved in the cover-up. The matter was still not solved. All the committee had was Dean's word against the other White House aides.

On July 16, 1973, a former White House employee dropped a bombshell by testifying that Nixon had recorded all Oval Office conversations. Whatever Nixon and his aides had said about Watergate in the Oval Office, therefore, was faithfully recorded on tape.

Nixon tried to keep the tapes from the committee by invoking executive privilege. He insisted that a president had a right to keep confidential any White House communication, whether or not it involved sensitive diplomatic or national security matters. Archibald Cox, a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate affair, persisted in demanding the tapes. In response, Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox; Richardson refused and resigned; Richardson's assistant, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned. Ruckelshaus's assistant, Robert Bork, finally fired Cox, but Congress forced Nixon to name a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.

In the midst of the Watergate investigations another scandal broke. Federal prosecutors accused Vice President Spiro Agnew of extorting payoffs from building contractors while he was Maryland's governor and a Baltimore County executive. In a plea bargain, Agnew pleaded no contest to a relatively minor charge--that he had falsified his income tax in 1967--in exchange for a $10,000 fine. Gerald Ford, whom Nixon appointed, succeeded Agnew as vice president.

The Watergate scandal gradually came to encompass not only the cover-up but a wide range of presidential wrongdoings. These transgressions included: extending political favors to powerful business groups in exchange for campaign contributions; misusing public funds; deceiving Congress and the public about the secret bombing of Cambodia; authorizing illegal domestic political surveillance and espionage against dissidents, political opponents, and journalists; and attempting to use FBI investigations and income tax audits by the IRS to harass political enemies.

On July 24, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the House of Representatives impeach Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and refusal to relinquish the tapes. On August 5, Nixon obeyed a Supreme Court order to release the tapes, which confirmed Dean's detailed testimony. Nixon had indeed been involved in a cover-up. On August 9, he became the first American president to resign from office. The following day Gerald Ford became the new president. "Our long national nightmare," he said, "is over."

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