On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon became the only American President to resign his office. The reasons for his resignation are gathered together in a story that is often called “Watergate,” although the Watergate scandal involves far more than the office building and apartment complex of that name in Washington DC.
The seeds of the Watergate scandal were planted early in the Nixon administration when President Nixon and his advisors decided that the White House staff should include a Special Investigations Unit independent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other branches of the executive branch of American government that would normally conduct investigations at the order of the President. Nixon felt that he needed an independent unit for two reasons. First, as Vice-President under Dwight David Eisenhower, Nixon witnessed first-hand the fact that government agencies are frequently filled with people hired by previous administrations whose priorities and loyalties remain those of their appointers. Before Eisenhower’s election, the White House had been home to Democratic presidents for twenty years. After Eisenhower, the White House was home to Democratic presidents for another eight years. Many of the workers Nixon inherited in his administration had been hired under Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. Nixon wanted a team of investigators who would be loyal personally to him and his associates.
Moreover, Nixon intended to ask these investigators to look into matters that were not the business of the FBI or the CIA. He wanted information about his potential opponents in the next election, such as Edward Kennedy and Edmund Muskie. Nixon also wanted to identify which employees in the White House were “leaking,” that is, talking to reporters about government matters that Nixon preferred to keep secret. (These were not necessarily nefarious schemes; they included efforts to bring an end to the Vietnam War and to begin negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.) Because of their assignment to identify leaks, the Special Investigations Unit at times referred to themselves as “Plumbers.”
Four “Plumbers” worked in the White House. They were E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA official and writer of spy novels, recommended by Charles Colson; Egil “Bud” Krogh, a former partner of attorney John Ehrlichman, and then a special advisor to the President; G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and failed candidate for the U. S. House of Representatives, briefly employed by John Mitchell’s Department of Justice; and David Young, a special assistant to the National Security Council that was headed by Henry Kissinger. The team hired additional investigators, including retired police officers Jack Caulfield and Tony Ulasewicz, as well as several associates of Howard Hunt from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
Among the “leaks” investigated by the “Plumbers” was the revelation of a secret report about the handling of the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Known as the Pentagon Papers, this report was given to various newspapers by Daniel Ellsberg, also an assistant to the National Security Council. Nixon and Kissinger deplored the publication of the Pentagon Papers, not because they revealed any wrongdoing by the Nixon administration (They didn’t.), but because their publication risked revealing sensitive sources aiding the American government, as well as causing doubts in other governments (including China) that Nixon’s White House could keep important secrets hidden. The Plumbers sought and received permission through Ehrlichman to break into the office of LewisFielding, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find information derogatory to Ellsberg. They failed to find Ellsberg’s personal files, and to hide their activities the team hired by the Plumbers damaged the office in such a way that it would appear that the break-in had been the work of criminals seeking prescription medications.
With an election year approaching, Attorney General John Mitchell was named head of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), and Liddy was transferred to the CRP. His assignment was to investigate the plans of the Democratic Party and their candidate for President, so that Nixon’s campaign would have advance warning of any surprises from their opponents. Nixon stressed to his advisors and to the CRP that intelligence about Democratic plans was essential to his re-election. Liddy, believing that he had carte blanche to pursue such intelligence and to hinder the Democratic effort, presented a complicated and highly illegal scheme to Mitchell and the other directors of the CRP, seeking a budget of one million dollars. Appalled, Mitchell refused Liddy’s request, but Liddy allowed himself to be persuaded that the refusal was due to expense and not to legal objections. His second presentation scaled back the original plan and requested only half a million dollars. Again, Mitchell said no.
By the time of Liddy’s third presentation, Mitchell was already receiving pressure directly from Nixon, asking about the CRP’s intelligence campaign relative to the Democratic Party. Liddy’s proposal, now costing only $250,000 was one of many items on the agenda of a CRP planning meeting and was reluctantly approved. Liddy assembled a team of agents to seek information on the plans of the Democratic Party; these agents included some of the Cubans who had been hired by the Plumbers because of their relationship with Hunt. Liddy also recruited the help of James McCord, a former CIA agent who had been hired by the CRP to seek and remove electronic listening devices from the Republican and CRP offices in Washington DC.
Liddy sent his team, including McCord, in to the Democratic National Office located in the Watergate Complex in Washington DC. Their first foray into the office was largely successful, but some of the listening devices they installed did not work properly. The team was sent in again the night of June 16, 1972, and the five burglars were arrested early in the morning of June 17. They used tape to keep doors from locking behind them after they entered the building, and when a security guard first removed the tape, they replaced it. The five were wearing suits and plastic gloves and were caught with cameras and listening devices. They also had stacks of one hundred dollar bills in their wallets. Through a room key carried by one of the burglars, they were traced to a nearby motel room, where one of the burglars had left his wallet which included Howard Hunt’s office phone number in the White House. McCord was also quickly identified as an employee of the CRP.
By this time, illicit gathering of intelligence about the Democratic Party was unnecessary for Nixon’s victory. No secret plan of the Democrats was going to overwhelm Nixon’s eventual victory, in which he gained majorities in forty-nine of the fifty states. Moreover, as Nixon could have told Liddy and his burglars, no sensitive information was likely to be found in the official National Office of the Democratic Party. The trail of evidence leading from the burglars back to the White House was so blatant that some conspiracy theorists have speculated that the effort was deliberately bungled to embarrass the President. In fact, the errors revealed not a hidden conspiracy but the massive incompetence of Liddy, Hunt, and the men working for them.
Had Nixon disavowed and condemned the burglary and all those involved, the Watergate scandal would have been a minor event in the election campaign, barely worthy of a footnote in history books today. Instead of viewing the event as a moral problem, though, Nixon treated it as a political problem. He tried to diminish or remove any connection between the arrested men and his presidency, while at the same time he wanted to treat those arrested as naïve campaign volunteers who were trying to help the president and the country and who deserved at least some financial support. Given the Cuban connections of most of the men arrested, Nixon suggested that funds be raised from the Cuban-American community to pay for their legal defense and to support their families while they were imprisoned. Because of the CIA connections of Hunt, McCord, and the Cubans, Nixon also suggested that the CIA might inform the FBI that investigation of this crime could uncover legitimate CIA activities that were better kept secret. A recording of the conversation where Nixon proposed this manner of impeding the investigation was released in the summer of 1974, effectively ending Nixon’s efforts to complete his term as President of the United States.
By the end of June 1972, Nixon had returned his attention to national matters and to his own re-election, trusting his staff to handle the matter of the Watergate break-in, investigation, and forthcoming trials. Attorney John Dean represented the President and even attended sessions in which FBI agents interviewed CRP and White House staff. Meanwhile, television and newspaper reporters sought more information about the scandal and its underlying causes and significance. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post covered the story from the time of the arrest on June 17. Both reporters had sources within the FBI—Woodward’s source being Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI, although his identity was hidden for years under the code name “Deep Throat.” These sources shared with both reporters every rumor that was mentioned during the investigation, and most of those rumors were printed in the Post. Over the summer and fall, the reporters developed a story of a large secret fund, fed by illegal donations from corporations and used for illegal activities by agents of the campaign. These rumors were generally untrue, but because they were reported in the newspaper, many of them have been repeated in studies and books about Watergate and are still widely believed to be true. Felt even persuaded Woodward that the reporters were being followed and were in personal danger. Bernstein, Woodward, and their editors reacted to the threat Felt described, but no danger to the reporters actually existed.
Nixon was re-elected in November 1972, but the investigation into the Watergate crimes continued. Money was raised for the defendants, which by this time included Hunt and Liddy. Money delivered to Hunt was kept by him and his family, while Hunt told the others that no money had been given. The five burglars, along with Hunt and Liddy, were sentenced at the end of January 1973. Appalled at the length of the sentence and irate that he had received no financial support, burglar James McCord wrote a letter to Judge John Sirica in March 1973, suggesting that many of the parties guilty of complicity in the Watergate scandal were going unpunished. A few days later, John Dean suggested to Nixon that the demands of the defendants (namely Hunt, although Dean seems not to have been aware of Hunt’s duplicity) could be as much as one million dollars. To Dean’s surprise, the President replied that the money could be found.
Meanwhile, L. Patrick Gray—acting director of the FBI since the death of J. Edgar Hoover—had been nominated by Nixon to be the next director of the FBI. Members of Congress questioned him during his nomination hearings about Watergate. Learning that he had allowed John Dean to sit in on interviews, and—worse—that Gray had taken and destroyed evidence relevant to the Watergate scandal, Congress refused to accept the nomination. Concerned by the growing scandal, President Nixon asked John Dean to write a report on the Watergate scandal, including what had been known about the scandal by members of the administration. Dean was concerned that such a report would lay the blame for covering up Watergate crimes upon Dean himself. He therefore began negotiating with Judge Sirica and with the members of Congress, offering to tell them all that he knew about Watergate.
At the end of April 1973, President Nixon called for the resignations of his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, his special advisor John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindiest. At the same time, Nixon fired John Dean. In May, the President appointed Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor to investigate any and all crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Nixon promised the full cooperation of the White House in Cox’s investigation.
Contrary to the President’s hopes, Congress did not stop looking into Watergate after the Special Prosecutor was named. During a routine questioning of Alexander Butterfield, a White House employee, members of Congress learned for the first time that the President had secretly recorded many of his conversations in the White House. This information was widely published, and both Cox and the Congressional committee began demanding that they be allowed to hear the recordings of conversations relating to Watergate. President Nixon said that executive privilege protected his recordings from Congress and even from his own Special Prosecutor. American courts, culminating in the Supreme Court, ruled that executive privileges did not cover materials, including audio recordings, that were evidence in the investigation of a crime.
Nixon and his lawyers offered to provide edited transcripts of the recorded conversations. Many of them were released over the following months, but the effort became a public relations disaster. The words “expletive deleted” were substituted for even the mildest of vulgar language, leaving an impression in the minds of many readers that the President and his advisors cursed and swore frequently. The printed words, separated from facial expressions and vocal inflections, were open to several interpretations, some of which suggested the President’s innocence while others seemed to prove his guilt.
By October Nixon realized that he was trapped in a losing battle. In an effort to regain control of the situation, he decided to fire Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor. Both Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than submit to the presidential order to fire Cox. Public reaction was swift and severely critical. Several resolutions of impeachment were presented in Confess in the following days. Eventually Nixon backed down and appointed a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who picked up the case where Cox had been interrupted and continued to demand more of the President’s recordings.
News of the scandal continued to obsess the nation, as various court cases, Congressional hearings, and the work of the Special Prosecutor continued to appear in the daily news. President Nixon tried to do his job, but more of his time and attention was drawn to the scandal too. (At the same time that he fired Cox, a war was being fought in southwest Asia between Israel and its neighbors.) Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 due to a scandal not involved with Watergate. Complex negotiations with the Soviet Union and with the People’s Republic of China were weakened because of the President’s political weakness. When the Supreme Court ruled in July 1974 that the President must release his tapes to investigators, and when the conversation from June 1972 was released (which mentioned asking the CIA to impede the FBI’s work), the Nixon presidency was effectively ended. A group of Republican Senators visited the President in the White House and warned him that, in their opinion, he would surely be impeached and convicted. Nixon finally resigned on August 9, 1974. A month later, President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as part of the Watergate scandal. Several dozen of Nixon’s advisors and workers were tried, convicted, and sentenced to time in prison for their role in the scandal.
What caused the Watergate scandal, and was it inevitable? Nixon said more than once that he regretted running the executive branch in such a way that its employees would even consider criminal behavior justified for the service of the President. Also, he said he regretted following his political instincts to deal with the situation rather than seeing its moral side. Watergate definitely would not have happened if Nixon’s aides and advisors had taken more care about who they hired. Liddy, Hunt, and their associates were a disaster waiting to happen. Trusting Gray and Dean was also a mistake; their errors in judgment had the President deep in trouble before he understood what had happened. Nixon might have survived had he not created evidence by recording his conversations. He meant to keep them secret, using them in the future to construct his memoirs. Once their existence was known outside of the White House, the outcome of the scandal was probably unavoidable.
Some historians claim that Watergate was an inevitable result of flaws in Nixon’s personality, or that Watergate was an inevitable result of corruption in government (including both the FBI and the CIA). Richard Nixon was in fact a man of high moral character; if anything, his desire to assist men who had broken the law while thinking they were serving him did more harm to Nixon than any part of the later cover-up. While the Watergate hearings led to new suspicions about abuse of power in the government, prompting additional hearings which revealed such abuses by the FBI and the CIA, they were also exaggerated by the willingness of some politicians and some journalists to believe the worst of Nixon and his men, then to seek evidence to verify their beliefs.
Richard Nixon served his country during a time of massive upheaval, a time of political assassinations, unrest over the Vietnam War, conflict over civil rights, riots in the cities, countercultural movements across the country, growing awareness of the vulnerability of the natural environment, and increasing bitterness between the two major political parties. Much of the population’s unease was focused on its President. What Nixon’s press agent described as “a third-rate burglary” without doubt was too petty an event to merit the overthrow of a government. Yet the President re-elected by one of the largest margins in American history was forced to resign less than two years later. No wonder some people assume that Nixon’s White House had greater evil lurking under the surface, exposed only by a third-rate burglary. No wonder others assume that the Watergate scandal must have been engineered by some sort of conspiracy intended to get Nixon out of the way and seize power over the American government.
The story of Watergate is not a story of grand crimes or grand conspiracies. It is the story of petty men—Hunt, Liddy, and Dean, among others—whose poor judgment led to a scandal and a crisis that spiraled out of anyone’s control. In some ways the resignation of President Nixon was the final act of a catharsis for all the turmoil of the 1960s. In that case, perhaps something like Watergate was bound to happen after all.