Richard Nixon and Watergate - Bill of Rights Institute
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Richard Nixon and Watergate

Written by: Anthony D. Bartl, Angelo State University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of continuing policy debates about the role of the federal government over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Barbara Jordan and Watergate Decision Point; the Nixon Tapes: The “Smoking Gun” Tape, 1972 Primary Source; the Herblock, Watergate Cartoons, 1973-1974Primary Source; and the Barbara Jordan, Speech on Impeachment, July 25, 1974 Primary Source to discuss the controversy of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation.


Richard M. Nixon was the first U.S. president ever to resign. He did so under threat of impeachment in the wake of the Watergate investigation, named for the hotel and office complex that housed the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which individuals connected to his administration had broken into and tried to bug (i.e., electronically eavesdrop) in advance of the 1972 election. When the burglars were caught, their White House handlers engaged in a criminal cover-up, including perjury and obstruction of justice, in an effort to insulate the administration from the investigation. These efforts had the opposite effect, however, making the Nixon administration even more complicit and reflecting badly on a president under whose watch such criminality appeared to flourish. Since then, “Watergate” has become the symbol of high-level political scandal.

The road to Watergate begins with a covert White House unit called “the Plumbers,” which was convened by Nixon’s chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman for the purpose of plugging information leaks from the White House. Charles Colson was one of the conspiracy’s earliest and most enthusiastic volunteers. He (and Nixon) believed there was a “counter-government” in the bureaucracy that was undermining the administration, with the help of the liberal-dominated media and the Democratic-controlled Congress. Only the “silent majority” who had voted for Nixon seemed to be on his side. “Some aspects of this perception were true, some were exaggerated, and some were neurotic,” writes one Nixon biographer. In any case, the creation of the Plumbers was a Rubicon of sorts for the Nixon administration, which allowed people with questionable ethical judgment to engage in illegal activity to try to thwart the president’s alleged enemies.

Photograph of John Ehrlichman

John Ehrlichman, shown in 1969, was a high-level advisor to President Nixon at the time of the Watergate scandal.

The most significant of the information leaks consisted of the “Pentagon Papers, ” a top-secret 7,000-page government report on the origins and conduct of the Vietnam War, which the New York Times began to publish in installments in June 1971. The source for the documents was Daniel Ellsberg, a 40-year-old analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he had access to a copy of the report. Nixon wanted to ignore the whole episode because it was damaging to his two Democratic predecessors, not to him, and he even hoped it might confirm President Kennedy’s role in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem (it did not).

The map of Indochina includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Most of north and central Vietnam and some isolated areas in southern Vietnam and Cambodia are shaded to show areas in which Communist-instigated guerilla attacks have recently occurred. Areas surrounding those isolated areas and parts of Laos are shaded to indicate areas in which Communist rebels are challenging government authority.

This map of Indochina was a part of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government report about the Vietnam War leaked to the public in 1971.

But Henry Kissinger convinced Nixon that the Pentagon Papers contained sensitive material that would compromise U.S. Cold War intelligence operations, make the president look weak on the world stage (especially to the Vietnamese), and undermine ongoing secret negotiations (especially with China). Nixon tried to use the courts to halt publication, but the Supreme Court ruled in New York Times v. United States (1971) that the First Amendment forbids the government from restraining the freedom of the press, even when it exposes sensitive military and intelligence-gathering secrets. The Plumbers formed the following month, and Ehrlichman authorized them to break into and steal files from the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Some of the law-breaking Plumbers subsequently went on to work with another group, the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP). Individuals affiliated with CREEP had already broken into the DNC headquarters once and tapped the phones when they were caught and arrested during a second break-in on June 7, 1972. The often-assumed motive for the operation is that it was a standard instance of bugging political opponents to discover campaign strategies. Lyndon Johnson had used the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to do the same to the Republican National Committee and the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and, indeed, to Nixon’s own campaign jet in 1968. (The practice was hardly invented by Johnson; Kennedy, Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt had all engaged in similar activity.) But there is no solid evidence for this motive. In fact, Nixon considered his opponent George McGovern completely unelectable, and he hardly campaigned against him. When the election did come, Nixon won by one of the biggest landslide victories in presidential election history, losing only the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. With the additional loss of one “faithless elector” from Virginia, the final electoral college tally was 520 to 13.

Nixon had no direct knowledge either of the Watergate break-ins or of the earlier burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. He was aware that the Plumbers had generally engaged in certain “dirty tricks,” in Ehrlichman’s words, and it was surely understood from the outset that they would be engaging in legally questionable activity. Much of this the president might have rationalized as a necessary response to the leaking of top-secret information and other threats to national security. But such a defense could not be plausibly invoked for Watergate.

An aerial shot of the Watergate complex in Washington D.C.

A photograph of the Watergate complex where the initial break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters occurred.

The connections between the burglars and CREEP were soon discovered. Because the FBI had jurisdiction over wiretapping, it took up the investigation. Mark Felt, the bureau’s second in command, began leaking information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who was covering the story with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein (Felt’s identity as the source dubbed “Deep Throat” remained secret until 2005). The media covered the investigation with interest, but the Post, whose editor Ben Bradlee believed Nixon was impeding the paper’s application for broadcasting licenses, pursued the story with special fervor. Still, the investigation had little impact on the election and might have petered out if Nixon had handled the matter better – for instance, if he had immediately ordered his subordinates to cut all ties with all those involved – or if the burglars had drawn a more lenient judge than “Maximum John” Sirica. Under threat of severe sentencing, six of the seven individuals arrested in connection with the Watergate break-in cooperated with the prosecutors. Only G. Gordon Liddy refused, and Sirica sentenced him to 20 years in prison, plus a $40,000 fine.

Connections to CREEP soon led to the highest levels of the Nixon administration, including Ehrlichman, White House counsel John Dean, and Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. Dean began to cooperate with the U.S. attorneys in charge of the investigation and later testified that he had destroyed evidence as part of a cover-up that involved Ehrlichman and Haldeman. When Nixon found out, he fired Dean and asked Ehrlichman and Haldeman to resign. Soon after, newly appointed Attorney General Elliot Richardson named Archibald Cox as “special prosecutor” to investigate Watergate and related crimes. Cox was a close associate of Nixon’s old political enemies, the Kennedy brothers, and he filled his investigative team with partisan Democrats, many of whom were hostile to Nixon.

During routine questioning by a Senate staffer, White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office that stayed on at all times. Judge Sirica granted Cox’s request to subpoena the tapes, but Nixon refused to comply with the subpoena, claiming presidential executive privilege gave him total discretion over the privacy of the conversations. Nixon also ordered Cox to drop the request, and when Cox refused, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned rather than comply, and when Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to do it, Nixon fired him as well. This left Solicitor General Robert Bork in charge of the Justice Department, and he carried out Nixon’s order to fire Cox. The media dubbed this event the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

The political backlash from Cox’s firing led Nixon to let Bork appoint Leon Jaworski to replace Cox as special prosecutor, and Jaworski also demanded the tapes. Nixon again refused, and the case went to the Supreme Court as United States v. Nixon (1974). In a unanimous opinion (minus Justice Rehnquist, who recused himself), the court said that a blanket claim of executive privilege, absent any specific claims that national security would be jeopardized, could not justify a president’s refusal to comply with a judicial subpoena. “The generalized assertion of privilege,” wrote Chief Justice Burger (a Nixon appointee), “must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” Nixon turned over the tapes.

Meanwhile, a grand jury had indicted Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and the rest of “the Watergate Seven” for crimes related to covering up the CREEP conspiracy or otherwise impeding the Watergate investigation – crimes such as conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The House Judiciary Committee had also been busy gathering evidence, and it opened formal impeachment hearings on May 9, 1974. On July 25, Texas Democrat and Judiciary Committee member Barbara Jordan delivered a speech discussing the nature of constitutional checks and balances and the House’s responsibility to serve as a check on executive power. It is considered by some to be one of the most important political speeches of the twentieth century.


View this video of Barbara Jordan’s speech to learn more.

At the end of July, the Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to recommend articles of impeachment. On August 8, Nixon announced he would resign his office the following day. In his televised resignation speech, he said he was stepping down against his personal inclination, because the nation needed a Congress and a president working full time on its behalf, and because “the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations”. When Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president, he expressed what was surely the common mood of the day: “Our long national nightmare is over.” But it was not.

Nixon stands at the entrance to a helicopter with both hands outstretched, his fingers showing a peace sign.

Former President Nixon departing the White House aboard Marine One shortly after his resignation on August 9, 1974.

Fearing the continuation of “bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed,” Ford granted Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon” for crimes he “committed or may have committed” during his presidency. Ford did not think it was good for the country to see an ex-president put on trial, nor did he think Nixon could hope to get a fair trial under the circumstances. Ford’s public approval plummeted as a result, destroying any hopes he might have had of winning the 1976 presidential election. It was his turn to put the good of the nation before his own interests.

When Nixon left the White House, as Henry Kissinger observed, “the presidency was in shambles.” The strong executive branch promoted by intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger had given way to fears of an “imperial presidency” under Nixon, which, in turn, led to fears of an “imperiled presidency” under the administrations succeeding him. The volume of Congressional legislation aimed at restraining executive power during this period demonstrates the people’s new distrust of government in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. The division and distrust that arose then continues to ripple through American politics today.


Review Questions

1. The top-secret report Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times was

  1. the Warren Report
  2. the White House tapes
  3. the Pentagon Papers
  4. the Ellsberg Dossier

2. The organization that hired the Watergate burglars to break in to the DNC headquarters was the

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation
  2. National Security Council
  3. White House Plumbers
  4. Committee to Re-Elect the President

3. What did President Richard Nixon cite to justify his refusal to hand over the White House tapes in response to the court-ordered subpoena?

  1. Executive privilege
  2. Prerogative powers
  3. Confidentiality
  4. National security

4. In United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court determined that

  1. President Nixon could use a blanket claim of executive privilege to keep secret the tapes of Oval Office conversations
  2. the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox was justified
  3. President Nixon needed to prove how national security would be jeopardized by release of the tapes
  4. Justice John Sirica was overstepping his authority as a federal judge in regard to sentencing the “Watergate burglars”

5. The “Saturday Night Massacre” resulted in the dismissal of

  1. Attorney General Elliot Richardson
  2. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus
  3. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox
  4. Solicitor General Robert Bork

6. Which of the following occurred as a result of the Watergate scandal?

  1. The impeachment of President Richard Nixon
  2. The resignation of President Richard Nixon
  3. The firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox
  4. Growing trust in the checks and balances system established by the Constitution

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the events that led to the Watergate scandal.
  2. Describe the significance of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’

AP Practice Questions

We have elected to employ an adversary system of criminal justice in which the parties contest all issues before a court of law. The need to develop all relevant facts in the adversary system is both fundamental and comprehensive. The ends of criminal justice would be defeated if judgments were to be founded on a partial or speculative presentation of the facts. The very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full disclosure of all the facts, within the framework of the rules of evidence.

In this case we must weigh the importance of the general privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications in performance of the President’s responsibilities against the inroads of such a privilege on the fair administration of criminal justice.

We conclude that when the ground for asserting privilege as to subpoenaed materials sought for use in a criminal trial is based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice. The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.

Majority Opinion by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, United States v. Nixon, July 24, 1974

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. This Supreme Court decision was written in response to

  1. the Saturday Night Massacre
  2. the bombing of Cambodia
  3. President Nixon’s refusal to hand over the White House tapes
  4. the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox

2. Which of the following is the reason given for the decision in this case?

  1. Presidential privilege must supersede the need for evidence in a criminal trial.
  2. Due process and presidential privilege are mutually exclusive.
  3. Full disclosure of all facts is required for the judicial system to function properly.
  4. Public confidence in the presidency must be maintained.

3. Which of the following was a direct result of the ruling of this case?

  1. Public faith in the court system declined.
  2. The Supreme Court proceeded with an impeachment trial of President Nixon.
  3. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned.
  4. President Nixon handed over all of the White House tapes.

Primary Sources

Articles of Impeachment Adopted by the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, July 27, 1974. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/articles-impeachment-adopted-the-house-representatives-committee-the-judiciary

Ford, Gerald R. “Address to the Nation Pardoning Richard Nixon,” September 8, 1974. Text: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/geraldfordpardonofnixon.htm Video: https://www.c-span.org/video/?153623-1/president-gerald-fords-pardon-richard-nixon

Jordan, Barbara. “Statement on the Articles of Impeachment.” July 25, 1974. Text: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/barbarajordanjudiciarystatement.htm Video: https://www.youtube.com/embed/UG6xMglSMdk

New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/403/713/

Nixon, Richard M. “President Nixon’s Resignation Address.” August 8, 1974. Text: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/richardnixonresignationspeech.htmlVideo:https://www.c-span.org/video/?320753-1/president-nixons-resignation-address

United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 663 (1974). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/418/683/

Suggested Resources

Bernstein, Carl, and Bob Woodward. All the President’s Men. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Black, Conrad. Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007.

Buchanan, Patrick. Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles that Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever. New York: Crown Forum, 2017.

Kutler, Stanley l. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992.

Milkis, Sidney, and Michael Nelson. The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018, Eighth ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2019.

Small, Melvin. The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997.