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Modern Americas

Watergate: How Lies and Corruption Ended an American Presidency

by Teresa Decio, 3 December 2022


Photo: Richard Nixon, in the White House in 1972

Richard Milhous Nixon was elected president of the United States in November 1968, assuming the office of the presidency in January 1969.

From the beginning of his presidency, his administration was plagued by leaks to the press.

In an effort to eliminate these leaks, Nixon assembled a group of men to investigate and put a stop to them, but in an unofficial capacity. The men who worked on this project were called 'the plumbers'.

They were Egil Krogh, David Young, Howard Hunt, and G Gordon Liddy. These men had ties to the FBI and CIA.

Photo: Egil Krogh (left) and David Young

'The plumbers' conducted an illegal operation in September 1971 which would be a sign of other more serious and egregious offences to come. A major leak had already occurred earlier, in June 1971, in which important secrets had been exposed regarding the inept military and governmental responses to the conflict in Vietnam.

Photo: Gordon Liddy and the Pentagon Papers

This leak involved the 'Pentagon Papers', a compilation of military and government records which were leaked by Department of Defense analyst, Daniel Ellsberg.

The Nixon administration lost a case which was heard by the Supreme Court in which it argued that the leaking of the documents was a threat to national security and, therefore, that they should not be published by the New York Times or Washington Post.

Photo: Daniel Ellsberg and wife after charges of espionage were dropped in 1973

The United States Supreme Court ruled six to three that the president did not have the authority to stop the publication of the 'Pentagon Papers'

President Nixon and his chief advisors, namely John Ehrlichman ('Domestic Affairs Assistant' and counsel to the president), H R Haldeman (chief of staff), and Henry Kissinger (secretary of state), wanted desperately to discredit the 'Pentagon Papers'.

Photo: of John Ehrlichman (left) and H R Haldeman (at the White House while serving Nixon)

To do this they tasked 'the plumbers' with breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist office in Los Angeles with the intention of finding confidential records which would indicate that Ellsberg was psychologically unstable.

Photo: President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office

'The plumbers' were not able to acquire the desired records, but they were successful in making the break-in appear to be a random robbery.

Photo: Ellsberg filing cabinet

At this time, other discussions were taking place about how to stop leaks and bad press reports, such as a tentative plan to firebomb the Brookings Institute.

The Brookings Institution was a liberal 'think tank' which produced studies which opposed and/or contradicted conservative policies, such as those of the Nixon administration.

The plan was far-fetched to say the least, calling for 'the plumbers' to firebomb a room which housed the safe and then borrow a fire truck so that they could ride in and put out the fire, which would grant them access to the safe. It should be noted that the plan also called for 'the plumbers' to dress like and impersonate fire-fighters.

Cooler heads prevailed in these discussions and the plan was 'nixed'.

Photo: A modern photo of the Brookings Institution

However, the paranoia and animosity persisted towards political enemies, eventually leading to the Watergate scandal itself.

Nixon and his close advisers were so desperate to win the presidential election of 1972 that they devised a plan to break into the Democratic headquarters which were housed in the Watergate hotel in Washington DC. The idea was that they would steal documents about possible strategies which the Democrats could potentially use during the campaign.

Photo: Watergate hotel, photo used in the criminal proceedings

The plan called back two of 'the plumbers' to work with CREEP (the 'Committee to RE-Elect the President'). The CREEP chairman was John Mitchell, who also served as attorney general for the Nixon administration.

G Gordon Liddy would lead the break-in operation along with Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis. It bears repeating that these men had connections to the CIA and FBI and, in the case of Gonzalez and Martinez, they had previously helped with the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba which was intended to oust Fidel Castro.

Photo: James McCord (left) with John Mitchell and wife Martha Mitchell (right)

The date of 17 June 2022 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in. On that fateful day in 1972, Liddy, Gonzalez, Barker, McCord, Martinez, and Sturgis waited until the dark of night before they broke into the Democratic National Headquarters office in the Watergate hotel.

There they planted illegal bugging equipment and took photographs of any documents they could find which would indicate possible strategies which the Democrats might use to win the election.

Photo: Watergate eavesdropping bug

James McCord placed tape on the doors in the garage and on the eighth and tenth floors to allow for an easy and quick exit from the building after the mission was completed.

However, a security guard who was working for the Watergate hotel, Frank Willis, spotted the tape whilst doing his routine security check. Willis became very suspicious, so he called the police.

Photo: Frank Willis, receiving a plaque from US Congress, 18 Oct 1974

From a lookout post across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel, Alfred Baldwin was watching for police officers, and would report any possible police presence via walky-talky.

He was not the most dependable choice for the job, however, as he was also distracted by a screening on television of the 1958 movie, Attack of the Puppet People.

Photo: 'Attack of the Puppet People', Alta Vista Productions, 1958

Two plain clothes officers - John Barrett and Paul Leeper - responded to the security guard's call. Alfred Baldwin eventually realized there were plain clothes officers on the scene and did try to warn the Watergate burglars on the walky-talky, but McCord decided to turn down his walky-talky so as not to be disturbed, with the result that he did not hear Baldwin's warning.

The burglars did not realize the police were there until they had entered the office. They tried to hide. A scene of utter mayhem was discovered with 'dishevelled and messed-up' desks, eavesdropping equipment, cameras for taking photos of documents, and numerous hundred dollar bills.

The burglars were curiously dressed, in suits and ties, and Leeper noted: 'I don't think I've ever locked up another burglar that was dressed in a suit and tie and was in middle age'.

Photo: Watergate burglars with attorney, by Wally McNamee, 1973

A US district judge in Washington, DC, also thought there was something odd about these burglars when they appeared before him. He did not believe the defendants (as photographed above, from left to right) Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis (with attorney Henry Rothblatt), Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, James McCord (not pictured), and G Gordon Liddy (also not pictured), in their claim that they were acting on their own to help get Nixon re-elected.

Judge Sirica gave the harshest sentences he could for the burglary, in the hope that it would get the burglars to divulge the truth.

Photo: Judge John Sirica

Interestingly enough, even with some news reports about the break-in, the majority of Americans voted in Nixon as president in the elections of 1972. The criminal efforts to cover up the Nixon administration's involvement began when the burglars pleaded guilty.

In the cases of Liddy and McCord, they were found guilty of 'spying against the Democrats' and were sentenced to up to forty-five years in prison. The FBI took the reigns on the investigation, so Nixon instructed Haldemann to have the CIA 'thwart the FBI investigation'.

John Dean, an attorney who served as special counsel for the White House, attended several meetings with Mitchell, Ehrlichmann, and Haldemann and became concerned about criminality. He met with Nixon, during which time his concerns were summarily dismissed.

He even asked to resign, to which Haldemann responded that he was not being loyal or a true American by refusing to continue to serve the United States president at this difficult time (CNN documentary: Watergate: a blueprint to a scandal).

Dean felt that he had been made to feel guilty if he didn't aid in the cover up. He even tried to take White House files which detailed CREEP activities to a rural location where he could burn them. Unfortunately his car, a maroon 911 Porsche, broke down so he reconsidered his actions.

When he was asked to write a special report to exonerate the Nixon White House from any wrong-doing, he fervently refused. He was assured that he would not have to write the report and that his name would not be mentioned in any potential reporting about the scandal.

Photo: John Dean, White House special counsel 1971-1973, plus a maroon Porsche 911

John Dean married Maureen Kane on 13 October 1972, and was offered use of the presidential retreat resort, Camp David, for his honeymoon (CNN documentary: Watergate: a blueprint to a scandal).

However, it was not the romantic honeymoon the newlyweds had hoped for. While watching the national news one evening at Camp David, Dean heard that the Nixon administration was still planning to have him write a special report which would declare the Nixon administration's innocence.

This was when he realised that he needed to take drastic action to avoid being used as a scapegoat.

John Dean went to the FBI and the United States Congress with his knowledge of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. He became a crucial witness both in the criminal and congressional hearings which detailed the sordid actions which had been taken by the Nixon White House.

The Nixon White House vehemently denied his allegations. Nixon tried a number of 'tricks', such as getting rid of key officials in the United States Justice Department in an effort to halt the investigations.

The 'Saturday Night Massacre' as it came to be called happened on 20 October 1973 when Nixon fired the special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation, Archibald Cox, as well as accepting resignations from Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.

Photo: John and Maureen Dean at the Watergate hearings

In the end it was not John Dean's testimony which brought down the administration. It was the revelation from Alexander Butterfield, who served as deputy assistant to President Nixon in 1969-1973, that recording equipment had been installed in the oval office so that Nixon could have recordings to use when writing a detailed memoir of his presidency (CNN documentary: Watergate: a blueprint for scandal).

Photo: Alexander Butterfield at the Watergate hearings

The United States Congress subpoenaed the tapes but Nixon refused to hand them over, citing executive privilege. The Nixon administration claimed that the tapes held sensitive information regarding national security.

Photo: White House audio recorder

In a case which was heard by the United States Supreme Court, 'The United States v Richard Nixon', the Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon tapes did not pertain to national security and that executive privilege could only be claimed when legitimate national security issues were involved.

The tapes, commonly referred to as the 'smoking gun', played a crucial role both in the congressional and criminal investigations. Once the tapes were released it became clear that the United States Congress would impeach Nixon and that it was very likely that criminal charges could brought against the president.

Photo: President Nixon boarding Marine One

Richard M Nixon resigned from the office of the presidency on 8 August 1974. Nixon's vice-president, Gerald Ford, assumed the office and, during his first year, granted a criminal pardon to Nixon.

Photo: Gerald Ford taking the oath of office

The other key players had to face real prison time. James McCord served four months of a one-to-five year sentence. Virgilio Gonzalez served one year. G Gordon Liddy served four and-a-half years. John Ehrlichman served eighteen months. John Dean served four months. H R Haldeman served eighteen months, and John Mitchell served nineteen months.

The United States continues to grapple today with the true meaning and repercussions of the Watergate scandal. The Watergate scandal resulted in widespread apathy towards the US government and politicians in general. Phrases like 'they all lie' and 'most politicians cheat but only some get caught' have become popular.

However, Watergate also brings to light questions to which not just Americans but all global citizens should give some thought. What is acceptable conduct for elected leaders? What responsibility do we have as global citizens to make sure our elected officials do and say the right things?

Main Sources

All That's Interesting - 'These men had ties to the FBI and CIA...'

Britannica - 'The "Pentagon Papers" were a compilation of military and government records...'

Miller Center - 'The United States Supreme Court ruled six to three...' / 'The "plumbers"...' / 'Cooler heads prevailed...'

ABC News - 'Willis became very suspicious and called the police...' / 'He was not the most dependable choice for the job...' / 'Middle age...'

NY Times - 'A scene of utter mayhem was discovered...'

Miller Center - 'The FBI took the reigns...'

History.com - 'The "Saturday Night Massacre" as it came to be called...'

Constitution Center - 'The Supreme Court ruled that the Nixon tapes did not pertain...'

History.com - 'John Dean served four months. H R Haldeman served eighteen months, and John Mitchell served nineteen months...'


Image Sources

Pimall - 'Watergate bugs...'

Washington Post - 'Frank Wills receiving a plaque...'

Vox - 'John Dean and wife Maureen during Watergate hearing...'

NBC News - 'Alexander Butterfield testifying at Watergate Hearings...'

National Archives - 'Recorder used to tape Nixon's conversations...'

Gerald Ford Foundation - 'Gerald Ford taking oath of office...'



All photos on this page copyright © their original authors and licence holders. Reproduction is made on a 'fair dealing' basis for the purpose of disseminating relevant information to a specific audience. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred. Text copyright © Teresa Decio. An original feature for the History Files.