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Read about the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.


  • In June 1972 a group of spies with ties to President Richard Nixon was caught while attempting to place listening devices in the office of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate building.
  • After a lengthy investigation, which Nixon attempted to undermine by refusing to turn over tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the House of Representatives impeach Nixon for obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
  • Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned in August 1974, succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford.
  • Watergate, as the scandal came to be known, added to a general sense that the golden age of the postwar era in the United States had ended.


Richard Nixon had not clawed his way up to the presidency without scratching a few people along the way. From early in his career, Nixon had made an art of employing "dirty tricks" to win elections, and by the time he made it into the White House he had many enemies. After a military analyst leaked the Pentagon Papers—documents that revealed that the US government had lied to Congress and the American people about the scope of the Vietnam War—Nixon became obsessed with maintaining secrecy in his administration. He employed a group of aides that he called "plumbers" in order to plug any further leaks.1
The plumbers helped Nixon's fundraising organization, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), with a series of illegal activities aimed at maintaining the president's power and harassing individuals on an internally-circulated "enemy list." CREEP and the plumbers undertook a variety of dirty tricks during the election of 1972, including but not limited to forging documents that might incriminate or embarrass Democratic opponents, conducting illegal surveillance, breaking into a psychiatrist's office in order to steal information to discredit a political enemy, placing spies undercover in Democratic campaigns and press corps, and renting facilities and ordering campaign supplies in the name of Democratic challengers and sticking them with the bill.2

The Watergate break-in

CREEP eventually made a fatal blunder. On June 17, 1972, a security guard caught a group of five "burglars" in Washington, DC's Watergate office complex, home of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters. The incident seemed fairly innocuous until the FBI discovered that the burglars had ties with the CIA. Over time, it became clear that the burglary was in fact a botched attempt at wiretapping the phones at the DNC headquarters in order to spy on the presidential campaign of George McGovern.3
The Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. Image courtesy the Gerald Ford Library and Museum.
During the election of 1972, McGovern accused Nixon and the Republicans of breaking in to his office, but at that time there was little solid information tying the men involved with the break-in to the president. Nixon won the election handily, with 520 electoral votes compared to McGovern's 17.
By early 1973, however, the truth was beginning to trickle out. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post, had reported on the Watergate story since the break-in. They received tips from a highly-placed anonymous source known only as Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to have been FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt) and kept the story alive by publishing their research into the break-in and alleged cover-up.4
Although several of the Watergate burglars cracked and pointed fingers at Nixon in their testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there was no hard evidence connecting the president to any wrongdoing on the part of his subordinates. Perhaps the investigation would have ground to a halt had the existence of a voice-recording device in the Oval Office not emerged: all of Nixon's conversations had been taped. The Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the tapes.5

Denial and "executive privilege"

Nixon refused to hand over the tapes, citing "executive privilege," or the right of the president not to respond to certain subpoenas or reveal confidential White House information. After the revelations from the Pentagon Papers that the president secretly had carried the Vietnam War into the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, it began to seem as though Nixon believed he was above the law. His administration was further compromised when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after federal prosecutors charged him with taking bribes. Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as Agnew's successor.6
In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the House of Representatives impeach Nixon for obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Nixon finally handed over the tapes after a Supreme Court order in August 1974.

Revelations and resignation

Nixon's resignation speech, August 9, 1974. Image courtesy National Archives.
The tapes confirmed that Nixon had been involved in covering up the Watergate affair; in what has been called the "smoking gun" tape, Nixon ordered the FBI not to investigate the break-in any further, a clear obstruction of justice.
On August 8, 1974 Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment. His successor, Gerald Ford, immediately pardoned Nixon for all crimes, discovered and undiscovered. Ford became the first and only person to have served as both vice president and president of the United States without having been elected to either office. Ford's connection with the disgraced Nixon ensured that he would not be elected to a second term.7
The Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal and Nixon's subsequent fall from grace contributed to a growing sense in the United States that the government was unprincipled and untrustworthy.8

What do you think?

What role did the media play in the Watergate scandal?
Why do you think Nixon didn't destroy the Oval Office tapes that incriminated him?
Do you think Nixon's resignation was a sign that the American system of government was broken, or was it a sign that government was working?

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