Watergate scandal

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The Watergate complex, where the break-in which ignited the scandal occurred.

Watergate is a general term for a series of political scandals, which began with the arrest of five men who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington D.C. office/apartment complex and hotel, called the Watergate, on June 17, 1972. The attempted cover-up of the break-in ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Investigations conducted by the FBI, Senate Watergate Committee, House Judiciary Committee, and the press revealed that this burglary was one of several illegal activities authorized and carried out by Nixon's staff. These investigations added fuel to a mounting campaign against Nixon by left-wing organizations opposed to the Vietnam War, a news media that sensed the President's vulnerability, Democrats in Congress, and a growing number of Republicans who sought to distance themselves from the troubled White House.

After enduring two years of mounting evidence against the President and his staff, which included former staff members testifying against them in a Senate investigation, it was revealed that Nixon had a tape recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations. Evidence, spoken by Nixon himself and recorded on tape, revealed that he had attempted to cover up the break-in.

This recorded conversation later became known as the Smoking Gun. After a series of court battles, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the President must hand over the tapes; he ultimately complied. With certainty of an impeachment in the House of Representatives and of a conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned ten days later, becoming the only United States President to have resigned from office.


On June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed tape covering the locks on several doors in the complex. He called the police and within minutes, five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee's office. The five men were Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis. The five were charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. On September 15, a grand jury indicted them and two other men for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws. The two others were: E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and Gordon Liddy.

They were tried and convicted in January 1973. All seven men were either directly or indirectly employees of President Nixon's Campaign to Re-elect the President, and many people, including the trial judge, John J. Sirica, suspected a conspiracy involving higher-echelon government officials.[1] In March 1973, James McCord wrote a letter to Sirica charging a cover up of the burglary. His letter transformed the affair into a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude.[2]


Nixon aides Ehrlichman (left) and Haldeman

The connection between the break-in and the President's re-election campaign fund-raising committee was highlighted by the Watergate scandal media coverage. In particular, investigative coverage by Time Magazine, The New York Times , and particularly The Washington Post, fueled focus on the event. Given tips by an anonymous source, whom they would identify only by the code name "Deep Throat," Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information suggesting that knowledge of the break-in and attempts to cover it up led deep into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House itself. Rather than ending with the trial and conviction of the burglars, the investigations grew broader; a Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin was set up to examine the scandal and began issuing subpoenas to White House staff.

Under heavy pressure, on April 30, 1973, Nixon was forced to ask for the resignation of two of his most influential aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both of whom would soon be indicted and ultimately go to prison. He also fired White House Counsel John Dean, who had just testified before the Senate and would go on to become the key witness against the President.

On the same day, Nixon appointed a new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and gave him authority to designate a special counsel for the growing Watergate inquiry, who would be independent of the Justice Department hierarchy. On May 19, 1973, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position.


President Nixon

The hearings held by the Senate committee, in which Dean was the star witness and other former administration officials gave dramatic testimony, were broadcast from May 17, 1973 to August 7, 1973, causing devastating political damage to Nixon. An estimated 85 percent of Americans with television sets tuned in to at least one portion of the hearings.

One of the most memorable questions of the hearings came when Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee asked "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" which focused attention for the first time on Nixon's personal role in the scandal. In July, the hearings revealed the existence of audio tapes made by a recording system installed at the White House. This revelation radically transformed the investigation. The tapes were soon subpoenaed by special prosecutor Cox and then by the Senate. Nixon refused to honor the subpoena, citing the principle of executive privilege.

Saturday Night Massacre

Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox

Cox's refusal to drop the subpoena led to the "Saturday Night Massacre" on October 20, 1973, when Nixon compelled the resignations of Richardson and then his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, in a search for someone in the Justice Department willing to fire Cox. Ultimately it would be Solicitor General Robert Bork (years later a failed nominee for U.S. Supreme Court Justice) who dismissed Cox. Public reaction was immediate and intense, with protesters standing along the sidewalks outside the White House holding signs saying "HONK TO IMPEACH," and hundreds of cars driving by, honking their horns. Allegations of wrongdoing prompted Nixon famously to state "I am not a crook" in front of 400 Associated Press managing editors at Walt Disney World in Florida, on November 17, 1973.

The new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, continued the investigation. While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he did agree to release edited transcripts of a large number of them. Nixon cited the fact that any sensitive national-security information could be edited out of the tapes.

The transcripts largely confirmed Dean's account and caused further embarrassment when a crucial, 18.5 minute portion of one tape, which had never been out of White House custody, was found to have been erased. The White House blamed this on Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong foot pedal on her tape player while answering the phone. Later forensic analysis determined that the gap had been erased in several segments, tending to refute the "accidental erasure" explanation.

On January 28, 1974, Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI during the early stages of the Watergate investigation. On February 25, 1974, Nixon's personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, pleaded guilty to two charges of illegal election-campaign activities. Other charges were dropped in return for Kalmbach's cooperation in the forthcoming Watergate trials.

On March 1, 1974, former aides of the President, known as the Watergate Seven—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson—were indicted for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury also secretly named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. Dean, Magruder, and other figures in the scandal had already pleaded guilty. On April 7, 1974, the Watergate grand jury indicted Ed Reinecke, Republican lieutenant governor of California, on three charges of perjury before the Senate committee. On April 5, 1974, former Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin was convicted of lying to the grand jury.

The issue of access to the tapes went to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in United States v. Nixon, the Court ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void, and they further ordered Nixon to surrender them to Jaworski.


Nixon's resignation letter, August 9, 1974

Nixon's position was becoming increasingly precarious, and the House of Representatives began formal investigations into the possible impeachment of the President. The committee's opening speeches included one by Texas Representative Barbara Jordan that catapulted her to instant nationwide fame. The House Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 on July 27, 1974, to recommend the first article of impeachment against the President: Obstruction of justice. The second (abuse of power) and third (contempt of Congress) articles were passed on July 29, and July 30, 1974, respectively. Also on July 30, Nixon complied with the Supreme Court's order and released the subpoenaed tapes.

Nixon is seen leaving the White House shortly before his resignation became effective on August 9, 1974.

In August, the previously unknown tape from June 23, 1972, was released. Recorded only a few days after the break-in, it documented Nixon and Haldeman formulating a plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved. With few exceptions, Nixon's remaining supporters deserted him.

After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to convict and remove him, Nixon decided to resign. In a nationally televised address on the evening of August 8, he announced he would resign, effective at noon Eastern Time on Friday, August 9, 1974. Though Nixon's resignation obviated the pending impeachment, criminal prosecution was still a possibility. He was immediately succeeded by Gerald Ford, who on September 8, 1974, issued a pardon for Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed as President.

In a televised broadcast to the nation, Ford explained that he felt the pardon was in the best interests of the country and that the Nixon family's situation "is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must."

Nixon maintained his innocence until his death, although his acceptance of the pardon was construed by many as an admission of guilt. He did state in his official response to the pardon that he "was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy."


Charles Colson pleaded guilty to charges concerning the Ellsberg Pentagon Papers case; in exchange, the indictment against him for covering up the activities of the Watergate affair was dropped, as it was against Strachan. The remaining five members of the Watergate Seven indicted in March went on trial in October 1974, and on January 1, 1975, and all but Parkinson were found guilty. In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Mardian; subsequently, all charges against him were dropped. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell exhausted their appeals in 1977. Ehrlichman entered prison in 1976, followed by the other two in 1977.

The effects of the Watergate scandal, however, did not end with the resignation of President Nixon and the imprisonment of some of his aides. The effect on the upcoming Senate election and House race only three months later, was enormous. Voters, disgusted by Nixon's actions, became thoroughly disillusioned with the Republican Party. In that election, the Democrats gained five seats in the Senate and a remarkable 49 in the House.

Choung Ek Killing Field: The bones of young children who were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers

As a result, the weakened Ford was forced to hasten the American withdrawal from Vietnam, resulting in the communist takeover of the South and the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia, following which more than a million people lost their lives in the "killing fields."

The Watergate Scandal caused many changes in campaign financing. The scandal became a huge factor in the Freedom of Information Act in 1986, as well as laws requiring new financial disclosures by key government officials.

While not legally required, other types of personal disclosure, such as releasing recent income tax forms, became expected. Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had recorded many of their conversations, but after Watergate, this practice purportedly ended.

The scandal led to an era in which the reporters and press became more interested in finding the dirt of the politicians and national figures. For instance, Wilbur Mills, a powerful congressman, was in a drunken-driving accident. The incident, similar to others which the press had previously never mentioned, was reported, and Mills soon had to resign from his position as the chairman of the United States House Committee on Ways and Means. In addition to reporters becoming more aggressive in revealing the personal conduct of key politicians, they also became far more cynical in reporting on political issues.

Since Nixon and many senior officials involved in Watergate were lawyers, the scandal also severely tarnished the public image of the legal profession. In order to defuse public demand for direct federal regulation of lawyers (as opposed to leaving it in the hands of state bar associations or supreme courts), the American Bar Association (ABA) launched two major reforms. First, the ABA decided that its existing Model Code of Professional Responsibility (promulgated in 1969) was a failure, and replaced it with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983. The MRPC has been adopted in part or in whole by 44 states. Its preamble contains an emphatic reminder to young lawyers that the legal profession can remain self-governing only if lawyers behave properly. Second, the ABA promulgated a requirement that law students at ABA-approved law schools take a course in professional responsibility (which means they must study the MRPC). This requirement remains in effect.

The Watergate scandal left such an impression on the national and international consciousness that many scandals since then have been labeled with the suffix "-gate"—such as Koreagate, Contragate/Iran-gate, Whitewatergate, Travelgate, Fornigate/Monicagate/Zippergate, and so on.


  1. John J. Sirica, 1979, page 56.
  2. Samuel Dash, 1976, page 30.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dash, Samuel. Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin Committee—The Untold Story of Watergate. Random House, 1976. ISBN 0-394-40853-5
  • Gettlin, Robert and Len Colodny. Silent Coup: The Removal of a President. St. Martin's Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0312051565
  • Nixon, Richard. The White House Transcripts, edited by Gerald Gold. Viking Press, 1974. ISBN 978-0670763241
  • Schudson, Michael. Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. Basic Books, 1992. ISBN 978-0465090842
  • Sirica, John J. To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon. W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1979. ISBN 0-393-01234-4
  • White, Theodore Herald. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. Scribner, 1975. ISBN 978-0689106583
  • Woodward, Bob and Carl Bernstein. All the President's Men. Pocket, 2005. ISBN 978-1416522911


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