The Watergate Scandal and crisis that rocked the United States began on the early morning of June 17, 1972 with a small-scale burglary and it ended August 9, 1974 with the resignation of Republican President Richard Milhous Nixon. At approximately 2:30 in the morning of June 17, 1972, five burglars were discovered inside the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington DC. The burglars, who had been attempting to tap the headquarters’ phone were linked to Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Over the next few months, what had began as a minor break-in quickly escalated into a full-blown political scandal. It was the cover-up, not the actual break-in that led to Nixon’s downfall and the start of a period of distrust of the government by the American people.
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 characteristic of Nixon furthered by the public’s criticism of his policies regarding the Vietnam War. 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, which were leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. (Bernstein and Woodward 165) 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 Presidents men, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. (Bernstein and Woodward 207) In an attempt to stop news leaks, the Plumbers investigated the private lives of Nixon’s enemies and critics. The White House rationalized any 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.
In 1972, the Committee to Re-Elect the President was formed and Jeb Stuart Magruder became the Director. In December of 1972, Nixon appointed G. Gordon Liddy as general counsel to CREEP. The Committee 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 again Muskie and his wife in 1971. (Bernstein and Woodward 114) Liddy was behind most of CREEP’s political tricks and illegal activities and in 1972 he proposed a huge intelligence operation against the Democrats, illegally funded by CREEP’s campaign funds. This operation included plans for a small-scale burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters, located in the Watergate office complex. Magruder, who had been given the authority by John Mitchell, reluctantly gave Liddy the approval to perform the break-in. (Westerfeld 35)
On June 17, 1972, five burglars under the orders of CREEP broke into the Democratic National Headquarters. At about 2:30 a.m., security guard Frank Willis noticed tape over locks of the doors and called the police. The five burglars were arrested, four of which were anti-Castro Cuban exiles who believed they were furthering the anti-Communist cause by performing the break-in. (Bernstein and Woodward 34-35) The fifth burglar was James McCord, a former CIA agent and CREEP’s security director. The police seized from the scene a walkie-talkie, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35-millimeter cameras, lock picks, pen-size teargas guns, and bugging devices that apparently were capable of picking up both telephone and room conversations. In addition, the burglars left behind $14,000 in hundred dollar bills that could be traced directly to CREEP. (Bernstein and Woodward, 15-16) Charges were filed against the five burglars and also against G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt for their role in the break-in. CREEP’s role in the break-in was deeply underestimated during the election in part because of Nixon’s commanding leads in the polls. In fact, President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew won a landslide victory over Democratic McGovern and Shriver, winning 49 of 50 states to become President and Vice President for the second term. (Westerfeld 45) However, shortly after the election, the story of the scandal was broken wide open, starting with the prosecution of the seven men connected to the break-in.
Opening statements in the trial began on January 10, 1973. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the case. The seven men, Barker, Gonzalez, Martinex, Sturgis, McCord, Liddy, and Hunt were charged with various counts of conspiracy burglary, illegal wiretapping, and illegal possession of eavesdropping equipment. (Sirica 67) All of the men pled guilty except Liddy and McCord. 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. All witnesses placed full responsibility on Liddy. Liddy refused to testify. On January 30, the verdict was announced: Liddy was guilty of six counts and McCord was guilty of eight. (Sirica 88) Judge Sirica was convinced that relevant details had not been unveiled during the trial and offered leniency in exchange for further information.
In March of 1973, just days before the sentencing of the men convicted, Sirica received a letter from McCord alleging a cover-up by the White House. He stated that the defendants were pressured 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. (Sirica 222) These allegations drew national attention to the scandal.
Instead of revealing what he knew and when he knew it, Nixon attempted to deny all knowledge and cover up everything, a technique he called “stonewalling.” In a CREEP meeting, President Nixon instructed the others to stonewall also. (Sirica 222) Despite his attempt of stonewalling, new information was revealed that not only had the defendants in the break-in been pressured to plead guilty, they had also been paid hush money that had been approved by the President himself.
In February, 1973, a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was established by the Senate. On May 17, 1973, the Senate Committee opened hearings to investigate the Watergate cover-up. Dean, the Counsel to the President testified that the President knew of the break-in and organized the cover up himself. (Westerfeld 43) The testimony of the deputy assistant to the President, Alexander Butterfield, was the turning point of the investigation. On July 16, 1973, he disclosed the existence of listening devices in the Oval Office, which recorded every conversation in order to help preserve all documents. On July 23, Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes but Nixon refused to turn them over, citing executive privilege. (Sirica 67) This 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 getting dangerously close to the truth and on October 20, 1973, he ordered what is now known as the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.” That night, Nixon ordered Cox to not subpoena any more tapes, although Cox said he would. President Nixon was beyond furious and then ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to dismiss Archibald Cox, Special Prosecutor. Richardson refused to fire Cox and he resigned, leaving the orders to be carried out by Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelhaus. He 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. (Bernstein and Woodward 333) After the “Saturday Night Massacre,” it was clear that Nixon was hiding involvement in the Watergate Scandal.
The nation raged in anger, so three days after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Nixon agreed to released some of the tapes and appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. The tape of a conversation between President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman revealed that the President knew of the break-in 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. After those tapes, impeachment was inevitable.
On July 30, the House of Representatives voted 27-11 recommending the impeachment of Nixon on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential power, and trying to impede the impeachment process by defying committee subpoenas. (Watergate) At nine o’clock on August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon made his last speech as president. He only admitted losing the support he had from Congress. He said “I have never been a quitter, to leave office before my term is complete is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But, as president, I must put the interest of America first. Therefore, I shall resign to presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” (Westerfeld 56) The next morning, Nixon addressed a tearful White House staff. He then boarded a helicopter and began his journey home to California. At noon, the Vice President, Gerald R. Ford, who had been appointed after Agnew resigned, was inaugurated. He became the thirty-seventh president of the United States, and the only to never be elected. He told the American people in his first speech, “Our long national nightmare is over.” (Westerfeld 57) In September of that same year, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon.”
Undoubtedly, Nixon’s downfall was his cover-up scheme in the Watergate scandal. Prior to the scandal, Nixon was a popular president, despite his foreign policies in Vietnam. Nixon, himself, has thought about how different his presidency could have been if he were elected in 1960. He would have followed Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had an 8-year scandal-free administration. Instead, he followed in Lyndon B. Johnson’s steps of corruption, spying, recordings, extended illegal use of the FBI, and exploited access to TV. (Nixon 624-25) This fed into his insecurities and habitual paranoia, which facilitated his downfall.
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