Nixon and Watergate

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Learning objectives

  • Explain the key reasons for the Watergate Scandal and its key features
  • Explain its impact on Nixon, US politics and the new laws
  • Explain why President Ford pardoned them

Key words

  • CRP – Committee for Re-election of the President
  • Enemies List
  • Saturday Night Massacre

Key names in the White House

  • Richard Nixon, president 1969-74
  • Bob Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff
  • John Ehrlichman, the White House Assistant for Domestic Affairs and Head of the White House Plumbers
  • John Mitchell, former Attorney General, Director of CRP  (and his wife, Martha Mitchell!)
  • John Dean, White House Lawyer

Those who planned the burglary

  • E. Howard Hunt, White House Plumber and member of CRP, previously CIA
  • G. Gordon Liddy, White House Plumber and member of CRP, previously FBI

The Burglars

  • James McCord, Campaign Co-ordinator of CRP, former FBI and CIA agent
  • 4 others!


  • Bob Woodward
  • Carl Bernstein

Watergate 2

  • 1971
    • Nixon sets up the plumbers in response to the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg.
  • 1972
    • 17th June – 5 people arrested for Watergate break-in
    • 19th June – Washington Post reports links between Watergate burglars and CRP. John Mitchell denies this.
    • 23rd June – Nixon attempts to prevent FBI investigation into Watergate (the ‘smoking gun’ revealed to the public in August 1974 when the last White House Tapes are released).
    • 1st August – Washington Post reports that cheque is given to CRP was paid to one of the Watergate burglars
    • 30th August – Nixon announces that John Dean has investigated and found that no one from the White House were involved
    • 15th September – the five burglars along with Hunt and Liddy are charged with conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping
    • 11 November – Nixon is re-elected
  • 1973
    • 8-30 January – Trial of the Watergate burglars begins
    • 7 Feb – Senate creates Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities
    • 19th March – James McCord writes to trial judge claiming that the White House staff had told them to lie during the trial
    • 23rd March – John Dean tells Richard Nixon that there is a ‘cancer within the presidency’ and ‘it’s growing daily’.
    • 23 April – Nixon denies advance knowledge
    • April 30th 1973 – Nixon requested resignations of Bob Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff; and John Ehrlichman, the White House Assistant for Domestic Affairs and Head of the White House Plumbers.  In a televised address he tells the nation – ‘there can be no whitewash at the White House’.
    • 17 May – Select Committee hearings begin – they are broadcast on Television
    • 25 June – John Dean testifies and says Nixon was involved in cover-up within days
    • 7 July – Nixon says he won’t testify or grant access to files
    • 16 July – White House Taping System is revealed by Alexander Butterfield, deputy assistant to the president, at the hearings on Watergate.
    • 23 July – Senate Committee demands tapes
    • 25 July – Nixon refuses to hand them over
    • 9 August – Senate Committee begins a law suit against Nixon to force him to hand over the tapes.
    • 23 October – ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ – Nixon threatens Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox with the sack unless he stops demanding the tapes.  Cox continues to demand the tapes.  Nixon orders the Attorney General to sack Cox. He refuses and resigns.  Nixon then orders the Deputy Attorney General to sack Cox and he refuses and resigns.  Finally, Nixon finds someone willing to sack Archibald Cox – Solicitor General, Robert Bork.  Cox’s office is then sealed off.  It is all a public relations disaster for Nixon.  Nixon hands over some edited transcripts of the tapes.
    • 17th November – During an hour long televised address to 400 Associated Press managing editors, Nixon declared that he had not profited from public service. “I have earned every ceNixon hands over some edited transcripts;e got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
    • 21 November – a 20 minute gap in conversation between Nixon and Haldeman from 20 June 1972 is discovered
  • 1974
    • 6th February – House of Representatives allows investigation into whether Nixon can be impeached
    • 24th July – Supreme Court orders tapes to be handed over
    • 27th-30th – investigation decides Nixon can be impeached
    • 5th August – Final tapes are released; the tape from 23rd June 1972 provides the ‘smoking gun’
    • 9th August – Nixon resigns, Gerald Ford becomes president
    • September – Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed; and spared him, and the country, a criminal trial.

Introduction to Watergate
Detailed account of the events:

Clips from speeches 

There can be no whitewash – 30th April 1973

‘I’m no crook’ – 17th November 1973

Resignation – televised address – August 8th 1974

Farewell to White House Staff – August 9th 1974

Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland – the Rest is History podcast – on Watergate

The Rest Is History: 106. Watergate: part 1 on Apple Podcasts

The Rest Is History: 107. Watergate: part 2 on Apple Podcasts

There is an excellent Netflix documentary on the role of John Mitchell’s wife, Martha Mitchell, called the ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect’

Home – Netflix 

There is now a mini-series about her role on Amazon Prime:

Gaslit (TV Series 2022) – IMDb

15 key moments in the Watergate scandal 

  1. In response to leak of the Pentagon papers to the New York Times in 1971 Nixon set up the ‘plumbers’ who try to find dirt on Daniel Ellsberg and to destroy political opponents such as Edmund Muskie.
  2. Plumbers conducted a break in at the Democratic Campaign Headquarters in the Watergate hotel complex, and five burglars were arrested on 17th June 1972.
  3. Nixon ordered members of CIA to tell FBI not to investigate Watergate on 23rd June 1972. (This was later revealed by the White House Tapes and led directly to Nixon’s resignation on August 9th, 1974.)
  4. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post got information directly from the FBI that the break in involved persons under the direction of members of CREEP: G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. They publish a series of articles between June and August in which various links are made between CREEP and the break in.
  5. Nixon announced on 30th August 1972 that John Dean – the White House Lawyer – had investigated and found that, despite the involvement of CREEP, there were no links between the burglary and the White House.
  6. Trial of the burglars began in January 1973 leading to the conviction of the five burglars, Liddy and Hunt. Before sentencing, on 19th March, one of the burglars, James McCord, wrote to the trial judge claiming that he and the other burglars had been told to lie by prominent members of the White House.
  7. Nixon (by now accepting that there were connections with the White House) denies that he had prior knowledge about the burglary. He announces the sacking of John Dean and the resignations of Bob Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff) and John Ehrlichman (Head of Plumbers) and a new investigation under special prosecutor for the White House, Archibald Cox. He claims in a televised address ‘there can be no whitewash at the White house’.
  8. Televised hearings – The Senate Investigation began televised hearings in May 1973. John Dean’s testimony was explosive – he claimed that Nixon tried to cover up the break in by means of bribery.
  9. Taping System revealed – On July 16th 1973, Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s deputy assistant revealed that Nixon had recorded all conversations and phone calls in the Oval Office. The Senate and Archibald Cox fought to have Nixon hand over the tapes.  He refused, yielding only redacted transcripts in October 1973.
  10. The Saturday Night Massacre – 23rd October 1973 – Nixon ordered Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, when the latter refused to give up his subpoena on the tapes. But the Attorney General refused and resigned.  Nixon then ordered the Deputy Attorney General to fire Cox, but he too refused and resigned.  Eventually, Nixon found someone in the Justice department willing to fire Cox – Solicitor General, Robert Bork.
  11. ‘I’m no crook’, Nixon told a television audience in November 1973.
  12. The Supreme Court, in the case of USA vs Richard Nixon ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes on July 24th, 1974
  13. Impeachment procedures began on July 27th The House Judiciary Committee drew up the first article of impeachment against the president on the 29th July – the Obstruction of Justice. On July 30th , it drew up a second: Contempt of Congress.
  14. ‘Smoking Gun tape’: On the 5th August – a tape of Nixon trying to stop an FBI investigation into the break-in on 23rd June 1972 – a few days after the burglary – was made public, showing that he had known about the break within days of it occurring and had been trying to cover it up ever since.
  15. Nixon resigned on the 9th August 1974, before he could be impeached. A month later, Gerald Ford issued Nixon with a full pardon.

5 Key impacts of Watergate and Vietnam

  1. Nixon’s authority weakened prior to his resignation, as key advisers were resigned (e.g. Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman) or sacked (e.g. John Dean), and his leadership became mired in investigations and the cover up.
  2. The scandal ended Nixon’s presidency and political career (e.g. the Supreme Court ordered him to hand over the tapes, the results of which were the revelations about Nixon’s knowledge of events early in 1972), proving that he had lied;
  3. The scandal weakened the prestige and authority of the presidency, changing relations with congress and impacting on public attitudes.
  4. The scandal boosted the Democratic party, which took control of both houses of Congress in 1974 and contributed to Jimmy Carter’s presidential victory in 1976.
  5. The Watergate scandal increased congressional control over the Executive and its agencies through a series of legal changes:
    1. 1973 House and Senate Open Meeting Rules – all committee meetings had to be open to the public
    2. 1973 War Powers Act – stopped a president going to war without congress’ approval (given 60 days to send in military before permission sought, and 60 days to withdraw if permission not granted).
    3. 1974 Election Campaign Act – arising directly from the misappropriation and direction of funds by the CREEP, it set limits on campaign contributions from individuals, parties and Political Action Committees (PACs) and regulated how that money was spent.
    4. 1974 – Freedom of Information Act – set rules on how the government could collect information on individuals, and allowed people to find out what information the government held on them.

Debate about Nixon’s presidency – the good, the bad and the ugly

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