On the early morning of June 17, 1972, five burglars were caught inside the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. The burglars, who had been attempting to tap the headquarters' phones, were linked to President Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President. Over the next few months, what had started out as a minor break-in quickly escalated into a full blown political scandal. It was the cover-up, not the break-in, which eventually led to the resignation of the President and the distrust of a nation.
Long before the Watergate break-in, the Nixon administration had been very careful, almost paranoid, about their public image, and did everything they could to avoid unfavorable publicity. In fact, paranoia was a "habitual characteristic of Nixon," furthered by the public's criticism of his policies regarding the Vietnam War, according to Nixon White House official Jeb Stuart Magruder. That atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion was fueled by the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, defense department documents concerning the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. These highly secret papers were leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. When Nixon learned of the leak, he challenged the publication of the papers all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost the decision 6-3 in favor of publication.
Shortly after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon established a White House special investigations unit to trace and stop any further leaks to the press. This special investigations unit was nicknamed the "Plumbers" and was headed by two of the President's men, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. In an attempt to stop news leaks, the Plumbers investigated the private lives of Nixon's enemies and critics. In fact, shortly after the leak of the Pentagon Papers, Liddy and Hunt organized a break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in order to steal damaging information to discredit him (Sirica 45). The White House rationalized these and other illegal actions by the Plumbers as protecting national security. However, the motivating factor for these illegal actions was actually to protect Nixon's public image as well as his political survival (Sirica 45).
The atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion in the Nixon White House was epitomized by the President's infamous enemies list. The enemies list contained the names of Nixon's political enemies, potential enemies, critics, Democrats, and anyone else seen as a threat to the Nixon administration. This list was extremely long and was continuously being updated. The names on the list ranged from Ted Kennedy to Jane Fonda to Joe Namath. (Aris 20) The enemies list was an example of the extreme measures Nixon's administration took in order to shape the public's perception of Nixon's presidency.
In 1971, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) was formed. Jeb Stuart Magruder took over the responsibilities as Director of the Committee. Later, John Mitchell, who was replaced by Richard Kleindienst, resigned from his position as Attorney General in order to lead Nixon's campaign and Magruder assumed the position of Deputy Director. In December of 1971 the President appointed G. Gordon Liddy as general counsel to CREEP to advise the committee on election laws and to provide more political intelligence about Democrats and Nixon's other enemies. CREEP played "dirty tricks" on Nixon's opponents and in one instance, single-handedly ruined the Democratic frontrunner Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign by making damaging charges against Muskie and his wife. In a tearful speech in the New Hampshire snow, Muskie emotionally came to the defense of his wife, a costly political move that made him come across to many as unpresidential and unqualified.
G. Gordon Liddy was behind most of CREEP's political tricks and illegal activities and in 1972 proposed a huge intelligence operation against the Democrats, illegally funded by CREEP's campaign funds. This intelligence operation included plans for a small-scale burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters, located in the Watergate office complex. When Liddy proposed the operation, Muskie was ahead of Nixon in some opinion polls and CREEP was pressured to act. Magruder, who had been given the authority by John Mitchell, reluctantly gave Liddy approval to perform the break-in. Magruder felt he had to "give Liddy the money now or it's going to be too late." (Magruder intv) Although Nixon gave no direct orders to the Committee concerning the break-in, there was "enough evidence from [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman to indicate the President knew" of the plans for the break-in before it occurred, according to Magruder.
The break-in on June 17, 1972, was not the only break-in of the Democratic Headquarters that occurred. The first break-in was on May 28, 1972, when five burglars, carrying out Liddy's plan, broke into the headquarters in an attempt to tap the phones. The tapped phone conversations were carried to the Howard Johnson hotel across the street where they were monitored by CREEP members. However, when the transcripts of the phone calls reached Committee officials, they were deemed worthless. (Sirica 47) Another burglary was planned to bug the phones of the Democratic National Chairman, Lawrence O'Brien, who was rumored to have damaging information about President Nixon.
On June 17, 1972, five burglars under the orders of the President's re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. This time the burglars were caught by security guard Frank Wills, who noticed tape over the locks on the doors. The burglars were arrested and charges were also filed against G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Four of the five burglars caught inside of the Watergate, Bernard Barker, Virgilio,Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis, were anti-Castro Cuban exiles who believed that they were furthering the anti-Communist cause by performing the break-in. The fifth burglar was James McCord, who was CREEP's security director. In addition, the burglars left behind $14,000 in hundred dollar bills that could be traced directly to the Committee to Re-elect the President.
Despite the money that was left behind and Liddy and Hunt's obvious connections to the Nixon administration, the media, along with White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, dismissed the break-in as a "third rate burglary attempt" (quoted in Dart and Hallman 4) throughout the 1972 presidential election. Two young reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were the first reporters to reveal to the public how deeply involved in the scandal the White House had become. However, CREEP's role in the Watergate break-in was greatly underestimated during the election because of Nixon's commanding lead in the polls over the Democratic presidential candidate, the liberal George McGovern. In fact, Nixon, along with Vice President Spiro Agnew, won a landslide victory over the McGovern/Shriver ticket, winning 49 of 50 states to become President and Vice President of the United States for a second term. However, the Watergate break-in was not forgotten. Shortly after the election, the story of the scandal was broken wide open, starting with the prosecution of the seven men arrested in connection with the break-in.
Opening statements in the break-in trial began on January 10, 1973. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the case, which began to direct the nation's attention to the Watergate affair. The seven men, Barker, Gonzalez, Martinez, Sturgis, McCord, Liddy, and Hunt, were charged with various counts of conspiracy, burglary, illegal wiretapping, and illegal possession of eavesdropping equipment. (Sirica 67) Although most of the trial was fairly routine, allegations began to unfold about the White House's knowledge of the break-in and a possible cover-up that could lead all the way to the President himself. The testimony of the White House's knowledge of events was limited and Magruder and Herbert Porter, the scheduling director for CREEP, along with other witnesses, placed full responsibility for the break-in on G. Gordon Liddy. However, Liddy refused to testify during the trial. On January 30, the verdict was announced: Liddy was guilty of six counts and McCord was guilty of eight. At the end of the trial, Judge Sirica stated in court, "I am still not satisfied that all the pertinent facts that might be available ... have been produced before an American jury." (quoted in Sirica 88) At the time no one realized how right he was, or how high up in the White House the cover-up reached.
In March of 1973, just days before the sentencing of the men convicted in the break-in trial, Judge Sirica received a letter from James McCord alleging a cover-up by the White House. According to the letter, the defendants in the trial were pressured politically to plead guilty and remain silent. McCord also alleged that counsel to the President John Dean and the former Attorney General John Mitchell had instructed the defendants to commit perjury. These allegations of obstruction of justice and cover-up by the highest officials in the White House drew national attention to the scandal.
Instead of revealing what he knew and when he knew it, Nixon attempted to handle the situation by "stonewalling" - denying all knowledge of the break-in and covering up everything. In a meeting with Dean, Mitchell, and Presidential aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, he instructed them, "I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up, or anything else if it'll save it - save the whole plan. That's the whole point." (quoted in Sussman 295) However, the more the White House stonewalled, the worse the scandal became. "Once things started going, it was hard to stop," said Magruder.
Despite Nixon's "stonewalling" and an attempt to shift blame away from the White House and place it solely on Hunt and Liddy, new information about the White House involvement in the scandal surfaced rapidly after the disclosure of the McCord letter. It was revealed that not only had the defendants in the break-in trial been pressured politically to keep their mouths shut, but they had also been paid hush money that had been approved by the President himself. It was also revealed that the so-called "slush fund," out of which the burglars had been paid, was controlled by former Attorney General John Mitchell. In an attempt to eliminate any further unfavorable publicity, Nixon dismissed Dean and accepted the resignations of Ehrlichman and Haldeman and Attorney General Kleindienst on April 30, 1973.
However, the unfavorable publicity was furthered by the establishment of a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities by the Senate after a vote of 77-0. In February of 1973, Senator Sam Ervin (D) of North Carolina was appointed as chairperson of the committee. On May 17, 1973, the Senate Committee opened hearings to investigate the Watergate cover-up. During the hearings, Jeb Stuart Magruder testified that the authority to approve the burglary of the Democratic Headquarters was given to him by the former Attorney General, the highest ranking law enforcement official in the nation, John Mitchell. In addition, Dean testified that Nixon had full knowledge of the break-in and had organized the cover-up himself. However, the testimony of the deputy assistant to the President, Alexander Butterfield, was the turning point of the investigation.
On July 16, 1973, Butterfield disclosed the existence of listening devices in the Oval Office which recorded every conversation that had occurred. On July 23, Archibald Cox, the Senate Watergate Committee special prosecutor, subpoenaed the White House tapes but Nixon refused to turn them over to the committee, citing executive privilege. Nixon's executive privilege claim began a lengthy legal battle over the tapes that lasted more than a year and went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Nixon knew that the Senate Watergate Committee was coming dangerously close to the truth and on October 20, 1973, he ordered what is now known as the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre." That night, the President ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss Archibald Cox for his refusal to accept edited White House transcripts of the tapes. Richardson refused to fire Cox and he resigned, leaving the President's orders to be carried out by his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus also refused to fire Cox and he too resigned. Robert Bork, third in the chain of command, followed Nixon's orders and fired Cox, but then he also resigned. After the "Saturday Night Massacre," it was clear that Nixon was hiding his involvement in the Watergate scandal and pressure was put on him to resign.
Three days after the "Saturday Night Massacre," Nixon released some of the tapes, under immense pressure from the public, the Senate committee, and Judge Sirica. The tape of a conversation between Nixon and H.R. Haldeman which occurred on June 20, 1972, revealed that Nixon knew of the break-in at least three days after it happened and immediately ordered a cover-up. Even more suspicious was the eighteen-and-a-half minute gap in that same tape, which experts claim to be the result of at least five separate erasures. (Farnsworth 2) On April 30, 1974, Nixon released edited transcripts of more White House tapes and on July 24, the Supreme Court ordered him to release even more tapes. On August 5, 1974, Nixon released more tapes which proved he knew of CREEP's involvement in the burglary and that he had ordered a cover-up. After the release of those tapes, impeachment was inevitable.
On July 30, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 recommending impeachment of Nixon on three charges. On August 9, 1974, before the articles of impeachment could be voted on, Richard Nixon became the first and only President of the United States to resign from office.
In September of 1974, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon." (quoted in Farnsworth 3) The "third rate burglary attempt" that Nixon had worked so hard to cover up led to his resignation and instilled in the American public a suspicion of government whose effects this country still feels today.
Aris, Stephen. Watergate: The Full Inside Story. London: The Sunday Times, 1973.
Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob. All the President's Men. New York: Warner Books, 1976.
Dart, Bob and Hallman, Sarah. "What Happened to the People of Watergate?" The Louisville Courier-Journal, June 14, 1992.
Dean, John. Blind Ambition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Magruder, Jeb Stuart. Telephone Interview. 2 April 1996.
Sirica, John J. To Set the Record Straight. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979.
Sussman, Barry. The Great Cover-up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate. New York: Morrow Publishers, 1978.
White, Theodore Harold. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975.