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The Watergate Break-in
On June 17, 1972, police apprehended five men attempting to break into and wiretap Democratic
party offices. With two other accomplices they were tried and convicted in Jan., 1973. All seven
men were either directly or indirectly employees of President Nixon's reelection committee, and
many persons, including the trial judge, John J. Sirica, suspected a conspiracy involving higherechelon government officials. In March, James McCord, one of the convicted burglars, wrote a
letter to Sirica charging a massive coverup of the burglary. His letter transformed the affair into a
political scandal of unprecedented magnitude.
The Investigations
When a special Senate committee investigating corrupt campaign practices, headed by Senator
Sam Ervin, began nationally televised hearings into the Watergate affair, former White House
counsel John Dean testified that the burglary was approved by former Attorney General John
Mitchell with the knowledge of chief White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H. R. (Bob)
Haldeman; he further accused President Nixon of approving the coverup.
Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed (May, 1973) a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox,
to investigate the entire affair; Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of
political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of citizens by the
administration, and corporate contributions to the Republican party in return for political favors.
In July, 1973, it was revealed that presidential conversations in the White House had been tape
recorded since 1971; Cox sued Nixon to obtain the tapes, and Nixon responded by ordering
Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned instead, and his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, also
refused and was himself fired. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally fired Cox (Oct. 20, 1973) in
what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Nixon's action led to calls from the press, from government officials, and from private citizens
for his impeachment, and the House of Representatives empowered its Judiciary Committee to
initiate an impeachment investigation. Meanwhile, in response to a public outcry against the
dismissal of Cox, President Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworksi, and
released to Judge Sirica the tapes of the Watergate conversations subpoenaed by Cox. Jaworski
subsequently obtained indictments and convictions against several high-ranking administration
officials; one of the grand juries investigating the Watergate affair named Nixon as an unindicted
coconspirator and turned its evidence over to the Judiciary Committee.
Responding to public pressure, in Apr., 1974, Nixon gave the Judiciary Committee edited
transcripts of his taped conversations relating to Watergate; however, Nixon's actions failed to
halt a steady erosion of confidence in his administration, and by the middle of 1974 polls
indicated that a majority of the American people believed that the President was implicated in
the Watergate coverup. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that
ordered Nixon to turn over to special prosecutor Jaworski additional subpoenaed tapes relating to
the coverup. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee completed its investigation and adopted
(July 27–30) three articles of impeachment against President Nixon; the first article, which cited
the Watergate break-in, charged President Nixon with obstruction of justice.
Nixon's Resignation and the Aftermath
On Aug. 5, Nixon made public the transcripts of three recorded conversations that were among
those to be given to Jaworski. At the same time he admitted that he had been aware of the
Watergate coverup shortly after the break-in occurred and that he had tried to halt the Federal
Bureau of Investigation's inquiry into the break-in. Several days later (Aug. 9) Nixon resigned
and was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford.
President Ford issued a pardon to Nixon for any and all crimes that he might have committed
while President. However, Nixon's chief associates, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell, were
among those convicted (Jan. 1, 1975) for their role in the affair. In addition to the governmental
upheaval that resulted from the Watergate affair, the scandal provoked widespread loss of
confidence in public officials and tended to foster a general suspicion of government agencies.
See L. Chester et al., Watergate: The Full Inside Study (1973); M. Myerson, Watergate: Crime in
the Suites (1973); C. Bernstein and B. Woodward, All the President's Men (1974); P. B. Kurland,
Watergate and the Constitution (1978); L. H. Larve, Political Discourse: A Case Study of the
Watergate Affair (1988); F. Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall
of Richard Nixon (1994).
Brief Timeline of Events
* November 1968: Richard Milhous Nixon, the 55-year-old former vice president who lost the
presidency for the Republicans in 1960, reclaims it by defeating Hubert Humphrey in one of the
closest elections in U.S. history.
* July 23, 1970: Nixon approves a plan for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by
the FBI, CIA and other agencies. He has second thoughts a few days later and rescinds his
* June 13, 1971: The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers -- the Defense
Department's secret history of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post will begin publishing the
papers later in the week.
* September 9, 1971: The White House "plumbers" unit - named for their orders to plug leaks in
the administration - burglarizes a psychiatrist's office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the former
defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
* June 17, 1972: Five men, one of whom says he used to work for the CIA, are arrested at 2:30
a.m. trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and
office complex.
* June 19, 1972: A GOP security aide is among the Watergate burglars, The Washington Post
reports. Former attorney general John Mitchell, head of the Nixon reelection campaign, denies
any link to the operation.
* August 1, 1972: A $25,000 cashier's check, apparently earmarked for the Nixon campaign,
wound up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar, The Washington Post reports.
* September 29, 1972: John Mitchell, while serving as attorney general, controlled a secret
Republican fund used to finance widespread intelligence-gathering operations against the
Democrats, The Post reports.
* October 10, 1972: FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in stems from a massive
campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort,
The Post reports.
* November 11, 1972: Nixon is reelected in one of the largest landslides in American political
history, taking more than 60 percent of the vote and crushing the Democratic nominee, Sen.
George McGovern of South Dakota.
* January 30, 1973: Former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. are
convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men
plead guilty, but mysteries remain.
* April 30, 1973: Nixon's top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and
Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resign over the scandal. White House counsel John Dean
is fired.
* May 18, 1973: The Senate Watergate committee begins its nationally televised hearings.
Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson taps former solicitor general Archibald Cox as the
Justice Department's special prosecutor for Watergate.
* June 3, 1973: John Dean has told Watergate investigators that he discussed the Watergate
cover-up with President Nixon at least 35 times, The Post reports.
* June 13, 1973: Watergate prosecutors find a memo addressed to John Ehrlichman describing in
detail the plans to burglarize the office of Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg's
psychiatrist, The Post reports.
* July 13, 1973: Alexander Butterfield, former presidential appointments secretary, reveals in
congressional testimony that since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone
calls in his offices.
* July 18, 1973: Nixon reportedly orders the White House taping system disconnected.
* July 23, 1973: Nixon refuses to turn over the presidential tape recordings to the Senate
Watergate committee or the special prosecutor.
* October 20, 1973: Saturday Night Massacre: Nixon fires Archibald Cox and abolishes the
office of the special prosecutor. Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General
William D. Ruckelshaus resign. Pressure for impeachment mounts in Congress.
* November 17, 1973: Nixon declares, "I'm not a crook," maintaining his innocence in the
Watergate case.
* December 7, 1973: The White House can't explain an 18 1/2 -minute gap in one of the
subpoenaed tapes. Chief of staff Alexander Haig says one theory is that "some sinister force"
erased the segment.
* April 30, 1974: The White House releases more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the
Nixon tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, but the committee insists that the tapes
themselves must be turned over.
* July 24, 1974: The Supreme Court rules unanimously that Nixon must turn over the tape
recordings of 64 White House conversations, rejecting the president's claims of executive
* July 27, 1974: House Judiciary Committee passes the first of three articles of impeachment,
charging obstruction of justice.
* August 8, 1974 (effective at noon, August 9): Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. president
to resign. Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumes the country's highest office. He will later
pardon Nixon for any and all crimes that he might have committed while President.
Some Discussion Items
1. Critique the decision to break into the Democratic Party headquarters.
2. Critique the Nixon administration decisions to cover-up and deny any involvement during the
period before McCord wrote to Judge Sirica charging a massive cover-up.
3. Critique the subsequent attempts to cover-up and stonewall. What are some alternatives that
might have been more successful?
4. What indications of “groupthink” can you find or infer?
5. Critique President Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon.