The Watergate Scandal: A Turning Point in American History

The Watergate Scandal: A Turning Point in American History

Imagine a scandal so big that it leads to the only resignation of a U.S. President in history. That’s what happened with the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. It was a time of political espionage, secret recordings, and a cover-up that shook America to its core.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Watergate scandal was and what it meant to American history.

The Beginning

In June of 1972, in Washington, D.C., an event occurred, a burglary, which ended up holding worldwide importance. It was on this date that five people broke into the Democratic National Headquarters to bug their telephones. These men were members of the ‘Plumbers,’ a group of anti-Castro Cuban refugees, former FBI agents, and former CIA agents, among others. The group was strongly Republican. The place they broke into was The Watergate Hotel.

Many people remember the name Watergate as a blanket term used to describe the fall of President Richard Nixon. But do you remember the specifics of those events? It has taken years filled with books and interviews to begin to understand what the scandal and its complications truly were. This article will attempt to be a ‘primer,’ a starting point from which you may go and research this even further.

In the early 1970’s America was still reeling from its turbulent time in the 1960s. One of the issues that was greatly contested in the 60s, Vietnam, had carried itself over into the new decade. By this time, though, the opinions and thoughts of many concerning the war had started to change. Daniel Ellsberg was one of these individuals. A former Defense Department analyst, his thoughts on the war had turned, and in 1971, he turned over a secret Pentagon report concerning the history of the war to the New York Times. The Times immediately began publishing these ‘Pentagon Papers‘, which greatly infuriated many of those in charge of the country, including President Nixon. When Nixon was unable to stop the publication of the papers through legal channels, he turned in another direction for help.

The Plumbers were a ‘secret’ unit created and maintained by the White House with the expressed purpose of ‘fixing leaks’ in the administration. The Plumbers were immediately charged with going after Ellsberg. The thought was that if the paper’s publication could not be stopped, the next step would be to discredit the man who provided those papers. This included breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to dig up what they could.

They worked tirelessly at their goal and were soon rewarded with another job in the following election year: derailing the Democratic ticket. On June 17, 1972, a group of men broke into the DNC Headquarters to find what they could and bug the offices. A sharp-eyed security officer saw the break-in, called the police, and the burglars were quickly taken into custody. Over the next few days and months, amazing insights into these men came out. One of the burglars used to be a GOP security aide and another was found to have a 25,000$ check that was supposed to have gone to Nixon’s re-election campaign. In fact, it turned out that all of the burglars were on the payroll of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (C.R.E.E.P.).

As this unfolded, Nixon went on to win the presidential election in one of the biggest landslides in history. It would be Nixon’s last big win. Following his re-election, the repercussions of the Watergate break-in grew larger. Several of the burglars went to jail. As the connection between these burglars and the Republican White House grew stronger, several White House staffers were forced to resign, and White House Chief Counsel John Dean resigned.

Rumors swirled about the break-in, the similar events that many believed had also occurred, and Nixon’s involvement in it all. In May of 1973, the Senate opened up hearings on the Watergate break-in, and under intense pressure, Nixon had Archibald Cox appointed as Special Prosecutor to the case.

Nixon’s Downfall

The Senate investigation went forward and immediately became damaging to the President in June as John Dean became the first (former) White House staff member to admit that he had discussions with the President concerning Watergate and how to cover it up. In July, things got worse as it was revealed in the Senate hearings that Nixon had a sophisticated taping system set up in the Oval Office with which he had taped all of his conversations. The Senate Committee and Special Prosecutor Cox immediately requested that Nixon hand those tapes over. Citing everything from national security to executive privilege, Nixon refused to hand over the tapes.

The pressure on Nixon continued to grow strong, so much so that on October 20, 1973, he was moved to commit the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’ Unable to shake Cox’s pressure, Nixon contacted Attorney General Elliott Richardson and ordered him to fire Cox. Richardson refused and was himself immediately fired. Nixon then turned to the Assistant Attorney General to fire Cox. He, too, refused and was fired. Nixon finally found someone who would fire Cox, but the resulting backlash forced Nixon to have a new Special Prosecutor appointed. Leon Jaworski was given that task and immediately began pressing Nixon to hand over the tapes.

Throughout the rest of 1973, the country stood by breathlessly as Nixon, the Senate, and the prosecutors went round and round. First, Nixon said that one of the key tapes that the prosecutors wanted had an 18 ½ minute gap on it, then Nixon tried to send written (and heavily edited) transcripts of many of the taped conversations in lieu of the actual tapes. The pressure continued to be placed on Nixon, though, to hand over the tapes.

In July of 1974, Jaworski had no other choice but to name Nixon as an un-indicted co-conspirator in the obstruction of justice over the Watergate matter. Nixon continued to claim Executive Privilege in his refusals to hand the materials over. The matter was taken up by the Supreme Court, who unanimously rejected Nixon’s argument and ordered that he turn the tapes over. When he refused, the House of Representatives, three days later, voted to impeach the President.

Nixon now realized that he was in a corner from which there was only one way out, and so it was that on August 8, 1974, Richard M. Nixon became the first United States President to resign. Gerald Ford, who had become Vice President upon the resignation of Nixon’s Original VP, Spiro T. Agnew, assumed the highest office of the land. Days after becoming President, Ford pardoned Nixon completely. Nixon was the only ‘Watergate conspirator’ who spent no time in jail.

Why The Watergate Scandal Matters

Watergate changed a lot in America. New laws were made to make the government more open and to keep a better watch on the power of the President. People started to question their leaders more and demand more honesty and transparency.

Watergate wasn’t just about Nixon or a break-in. It was a lesson in the power of the press, the importance of honesty in government, and the strength of our democracy. It showed that no one is above the law, not even the President. And it reminded everyone that it’s our job to keep an eye on those in power and hold them accountable.

The lessons learned from these events are enormous. The story of Watergate is a complex and deep one full of intrigue and backroom deals, public politics, and personal motivations. It is a deeply American event that touched the world.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.