The genesis of Watergate can be traced to the leaking of the top-secret United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, often referred to as the Pentagon Papers, that occurred beginning in June 1971. The papers revealed highly classified—not to mention embarrassing—policy decisions made vis-à-vis the Vietnam War going back to the 1940s. By 1971, the Vietnam War had become a political nightmare for Nixon and had deeply divided the nation. The Pentagon Papers served only to heighten public distrust and discontent with the war. Nixon was livid at the leaks and vowed to get even with the man who had released the information, RAND Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg. In fact, the first illegal break-in encouraged by the Nixon administration occurred in September 1971, when quasi-government operatives ransacked the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in an attempt to discredit the RAND employee. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration tried unsuccessfully to halt the publication of more sensitive information.
Now obsessed with plugging any leaks from within, Nixon's aides formed an informal committee of secret operatives whose job was to stop leaks, stonewall Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probes, and retaliate against those who did leak information. The committee was fittingly called the "Plumbers."
On 17 June 1972, Washington, D.C., police arrested five men for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex (hence the name of the scandal). While the motive of the break-in is still unclear, one of the burglars, James W. McCord Jr., was on the payroll of the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP). This seemed to implicate White House involvement, although the connection would not be made in full for many months.
Officials at the White House, meanwhile, began to cover their tracks, engaging in an ever-widening cover-up that only bred more illegal activities. When questioned about the Watergate break-in, Nixon's press secretary famously dismissed it as a "third-rate burglary" of which the White House had no knowledge, and Americans believed him.
Nixon's secret taping system recorded a discussion on 23 June 1972 between the president and his chief of staff in which Nixon agreed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should be employed to block the FBI investigation into the Watergate affair. This was clear evidence that the White House was involved in the botched break-in. Nixon went on to win a landslide reelection in November 1972, and Watergate seemed all but forgotten. But the walls were about to close in beginning with the trial of the Watergate burglars in January 1973.
The five burglars pled guilty but said nothing. Indeed, CREEP had paid them hush money not to reveal anything that would implicate the president. But McCord, encouraged by the fact that he would receive leniency if he cooperated, recanted his testimony and implicated CREEP in instigating the break-in and in paying hush money to the accused. The rope was now getting tighter for Nixon, who continued to deny any involvement in the growing scandal. Congress now clamored for bipartisan hearings on the Watergate scandal, which began in May 1973 and lasted until August. The nation was riveted by the televised hearings, which revealed one bombshell after another. Perhaps as much as 85 percent of the American public viewed some or all of the hearings. The first bombshell was the realization that the White House had been directly involved in the scandal, indicated by the testimony of John Dean, Nixon's lawyer. The second was the revelation that Nixon had employed a secret taping system in the Oval Office that recorded virtually all conversations. Nixon's popularity began to plummet, and there were sporadic calls for his impeachment, even by stalwart Republicans.
As soon as the existence of the taped conversations was revealed, Archibald Cox, Watergate special prosecutor, and the U.S. Senate moved to subpoena the tapes. Nixon refused to surrender them, citing executive privilege and "national security concerns." Neither party agreed with that logic, however, and many Americans now believed that Nixon was either directly involved in the scandal or was trying to cover something up. In October 1973, when Nixon ordered Cox to withdraw his subpoena, the special prosecutor refused. The White House promptly fired him. That in turn led Nixon's attorney general and his deputy to resign in protest. A new prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, again subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon, now under immense pressure, responded by releasing selectively edited transcripts of the tapes, which pleased no one. Worse yet, one of the tapes that the White House did release to Jaworski had an unexplained gap, which White House officials blamed on a clerical error committed by Nixon's personal secretary. In the spring of 1974, Congress continued to insist that it receive all of the contested tape recordings. Nixon stood firm.
In July 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon administration must turn over all of the tapes requested by Congress. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, articles of impeachment were being prepared against the president. Nixon now had no choice but to surrender the tapes, which he knew would condemn him. On 27 July 1974, the House of Representatives passed the first of three impeachment articles against Nixon, citing him for obstruction of justice. On 29 and 30 July, respectively, two more articles of impeachment passed—one for abuse of power, the other for contempt of Congress. After being told by a delegation from his own party that he would not survive an impeachment trial in Congress, Nixon decided to resign the office of the presidency on 9 August 1974. He was succeeded by his vice president, Gerald R. Ford.
Although the immediate crisis that was Watergate ended with Nixon's resignation, the episode had troubling and long-term implications for American politics and government. Many Americans rightly conflated Watergate with Vietnam. Indeed, just as U.S. policymakers led the nation into a costly, unpopular, and unwinnable war with little public discussion and no real congressional oversight, so too had the Nixon administration engaged in secretive and unsavory activities in the name of national security. As a result, Americans' trust in their politicians—and their political system—suffered a major blow. Many also talked with consternation about the unchecked powers of the presidency, which the Nixonian abuses of power so clearly highlighted. Watergate undermined the power of the Republican Party for a time and may indeed have led to the rise of President Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency in 1976 based in large part on his outsider status, personal integrity, and self-effacing manner. In the end, Watergate displayed in shocking clarity the results of the so-called imperial presidency and a national security state in which personal freedoms were subordinated to political whim and alleged public safety.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Hoff, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. New York: Basic Books, 1994.; Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York, Knopf, 1990.; Summers, Anthony. Arrogance of Power: Nixon and Watergate. London: Orion, 2001.; Woodward, Bob. Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.