The Watergate scandal

The Watergate scandal

The Watergate scandal was a case of political espionage that led, in 1974, to the resignation of Richard Nixon, then President of the United States. The multi-pronged affair began in 1972 with the arrest, inside the Watergate building, of burglars at the Democratic Party offices in Washington. Investigations by journalists and a lengthy investigation by the US Senate have shed light on large-scale illegal practices within the presidential administration itself.

Although the burglary appears to have been carried out by former White House employees, the case initially made very little noise. On the surface, the FBI investigation doesn’t go far. However, two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, aided by a mysterious informant nicknamed Deep Throat, published numerous revelations, particularly about the burglars’ ties to the presidency and the irregular funding of Richard Nixon’s campaign. The latter was nevertheless comfortably re-elected in November 1972.

The following year, the obstinacy of Judge John Sirica and the establishment of a Senate commission of inquiry increasingly tightened the noose around the president’s aides. A series of revelations of obstruction of justice and abuse of power lead to indictments. The American public became more interested in the case with the televised broadcast of the Senate hearings on Watergate. When the existence of a wiretapping system in the White House became public, a tug-of-war ensued between Nixon and investigators over the return of the tapes of the recordings. The president’s involvement is becoming clearer. When Congress began impeachment proceedings, aimed at impeaching the head of state, Nixon resolved to resign.

The suffix “-gate” has since entered popular culture, being attached to the name of any form of state affair or scandal of magnitude.

Context of the Watergate Scandal


Richard Nixon during the 1968 election campaign
Richard Nixon during the 1968 election campaign

The year 1972 is a presidential election year in the United States. In the Republican camp, Richard Nixon is running for a second term. Elected in 1968, he had failed in 1960 against John Kennedy after having been Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president for eight years. Nixon can take advantage of a foreign policy inspired by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger and carried out successfully: detente with the USSR (SALT agreements), preparation for “peace in honor” in Vietnam (concreted by the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973), and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with China during the President’s visit to Beijing in February 1972.

However, Nixon was a proponent of the strong method of negotiating with the Communists, and the cost in human lives due to the policy pursued in Southeast Asia, whether it was the continuation of hostilities in Vietnam, intensely bombed between April and October 1972, or the invasion of Cambodia, announced in 1970, caused unprecedented unrest among American youth. expressing themselves through demonstrations sometimes violently repressed, as during the fatal shooting at Kent State University.

Domestically, his administration’s policy is based on the slogan of “law and order“, implying strict and repressive justice, especially vis-à-vis leftist (such as the Weathermen) or African-American (such as the Black Panthers) protest movements. The Republican Party had suffered a crushing defeat in the 1964 election, but its then candidate, Barry Goldwater, refocused the party on more conservative values, which eventually became more entrenched in the electoral strategies of the Republican Party. In addition, the introduction of Civil Rights signed by President Johnson (Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965), improving the status of the African-American minority, diverted the traditionally Democratic electorate from the Deep South, favorable to segregation, which swung to the Republican side.

These elements play in favor of President Nixon, who moreover, in a personal capacity, has a deep contempt for the East Coast establishment represented by Harvard academics or the Kennedys. The Democratic elite is paying him back. Since his victory in the California Senate election in 1950, at the end of a virulent campaign against his opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas, the nickname “Tricky Dick” (“Dick the cunning” or “Dick the cheater”) sticks to his skin.

On the other hand, the Democratic camp is weakened by its internal quarrels. The presidency of Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) was marked by the Vietnam War; race riots in black ghettos; and the Great Society project, developing the welfare state (education, social security, poverty alleviation) at the cost of costly expenditure. In 1968, when Johnson withdrew from running again because of his unpopularity, four tendencies clashed in the Democratic primaries. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey received the support of the unions and the party apparatus; Robert Kennedy appeals to the black and Catholic minorities; Eugene McCarthy carries the demands of students and pacifists; and finally, George Wallace, a segregationist of the South, opposed to Civil Rights, ran as an independent candidate.

Robert Kennedy, the favorite party, was assassinated in June 1968, two months after the black leader Martin Luther King. It was Humphrey who was sworn in during the Chicago Democratic Convention in August 1968, amid clashes between police and anti-war rioters, whose “leaders” had been tried during the tumultuous trial of the Chicago Seven (March 1969 – February 1970). In the 1968 presidential election, Hubert Humphrey was defeated by Nixon by a narrow margin while George Wallace, the third man, won five Southern states. On the other hand, Congress is dominated by Democrats, who have held the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate since 1954.

In 1972, the Democratic candidate most promising and the most supported by the party apparatus at the beginning of the Democratic primary, Edmund Muskie, collapsed, in particular as a result of dirty tricks concocted by the president’s men, in particular the Canuck Letter scandal caused by a letter delivered to the press. a forgery that scuttles Muskie’s campaign. Another potential candidate, Ted Kennedy, lost any chance to run after the Chappaquiddick accident in 1969, following which he was accused of responsibility for the death of a collaborator. It was an unexpected candidate, George McGovern, who was sworn in at the Democratic Convention in July 1972 shortly after the attempted Watergate burglary.

He is liberal (in the American sense, that is to say left-wing), his popularity is palpable mainly in intellectual and student circles, his chances of winning are therefore reduced. His opponents caricature him as the “Three A’s candidate” for amnesty, abortion and acid. In addition, his campaign got off to a bad start: his vice-presidential candidate, Thomas Eagleton, had to give up when the press revealed that he had spent time in psychiatric hospitals.

Media and Information

John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, died a few weeks before the beginning of the case
John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, died a few weeks before the start of the case

In May 1972, John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, died. He held this position, reporting to the Department of Justice (equivalent to the Department of Justice) since 1924, and served under eight presidents. It was he who developed this government agency, focused its resources on the fight against communism, especially during the period of McCarthyism, then during the COINTELPRO program against dissidents, including civil rights activists, while he minimized the existence of the mafia, and generalized clandestine eavesdropping as a means of investigation or espionage.

This uncompromising fight against communism was common to Hoover and Nixon, who was, in the late 1940s, a figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and as such distinguished himself in the case of Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official. who, accused of spying for the Soviets, could only be convicted of perjury in 1950. In May 1969 (this will be revealed during the Watergate scandal), Nixon and Kissinger used the FBI to illegally investigate by eavesdropping on leaks in the press concerning the secret bombings on Cambodia that he authorized in February.

Since its creation, in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the context of the Cold War, the CIA has used its know-how in several “coups”, the most resounding of which are carried out in the 1950s, when Allen Dulles is the director (involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, from Lumumba to Congo in 1961, abortive attempts against Castro in Cuba…). In 1961, following the failure of the Bay of Pigs landings, planned under President Eisenhower, Dulles was removed from office by President John Kennedy.

His successor was more moderate, but with Richard Helms from 1966, we returned to a more assertive anti-communist motivation. With Nixon’s rise to power, the CIA intensified its surveillance program (reading mail, shadowing, wiretapping, etc.). thousands of U.S. citizens (Operation CHAOS), although all CIA intelligence activity on U.S. territory is prohibited. These activities will be revealed during the investigations in 1975-1976 of the Church Commission mandated by the Senate.

These activities, virtually unknown to the American public, barely came to light in the early 1970s, in the press, and during investigations, beginning in 1970, by the Senate Judicial Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. In June 1971, The New York Times, then The Washington Post, published excerpts from a secret report, the Pentagon Papers, given to him by Daniel Ellsberg, an expert from the RAND Corporation, a think tank working for the Department of Defense.

These documents shed light on governmental and military decision-making during the Vietnam War, informing for example of President Johnson’s desire to escalate the conflict while promising not to become more involved in it. A legal tug-of-war ensued between the Nixon administration, which wanted to ban the dissemination of confidential information, and the two newspapers, which finally won their case, after a decision of the Supreme Court, in the name of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of the press.


An almost hushed-up affair

The aborted burglary

Gordon Liddy (pictured in 1964), one of the leaders of the Watergate burglar team
Gordon Liddy (pictured in 1964), one of the leaders of the burglar team

The Watergate scandal began when, on the night of June 17, 1972, five “burglars” including three Cubans (Virgilio González, Eugenio Martínez, Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis and James McCord), spotted by a security guard, are arrested by the police in the Watergate building, at the headquarters of the Democratic Party. Washington being a federal district, this case is under the jurisdiction of the FBI. The arrested men were carrying listening equipment; They look more like secret agents than burglars. On address books found in their possession, there are documents implicating a certain Howard Hunt and White House telephone numbers. One of the burglars, James McCord, particularly attracts attention: he is a colonel reservist of the Air Force, a former FBI and CIA, and especially a member of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP), an organization responsible for financing Nixon’s re-election campaign.

On June 20, Larry O’Brien, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, announced at a press conference that legal action was being taken against the CRP for home invasion and civil rights violations. He claims that the burglars have links to senior White House officials. A federal grand jury is charged with hearing the case. The investigation reveals that the activities of one of the burglars are related to money laundering operations by a Cuban-Mexican subsidiary leading to the financing of the PRC. However, acting FBI Director Patrick Gray decided not to pursue this part of the investigation further.

John Mitchell, former Attorney General and Chairman of the PRC (resigned on June 30) and his assistant Jeb Magruder are questioned by investigators, as well as Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, member of the CRP, linked to the team of burglars. It turns out that both Liddy and Hunt previously worked for the White House during the Nixon administration. As for Mitchell, his wife Martha communicates to journalists the involvement of members of the presidency in illegal activities; however, his comments were blamed on mental illness, discredited by Nixon and dismissed (psychiatrists would later give the name “Martha Mitchell effect” to this legitimate syndrome of misdiagnosis of which Martha Mitchell was a victim).

On June 22, at a press conference, President Nixon evoked the affair for the first time by declaring: “The White House had no involvement whatever in this particular incident“. At the end of August, he reported that an internal investigation conducted by John Dean, the president’s legal adviser, had shown that no White House employee was involved in the attempted burglary, but this statement, like the previous one, was a false invention.

Although the Democratic Party tried to make it a campaign argument, the case was of little interest to public opinion during the months that followed, and only a few newspapers reported on it. In the presidential election of November 1972, Richard Nixon, who posed as a statesman above the fray and on the verge of concluding peace in Vietnam, defeated Democrat George McGovern in the second-most landslide electoral victory in the history of the United States, winning 47 million votes to 29. However, the Republicans did not win the legislative elections, and the Democrats still had a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Washington Post investigation

The Washington Post is one of the few newspapers to follow the progress of the burglary investigation. During the investigation, The New York Times followed suit. The editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, puts on this case two young full-time journalists: Bob Woodward, a former US Navy officer until 1970, and Carl Bernstein, who nevertheless already has twelve years of journalism in the print media behind him. Intrigued by many elements, they unravel a complicated skein whose threads lead to the White House through the Committee for the re-election of the president.

They use the telephone a lot, do not hesitate to contact hundreds of interlocutors to cross-check their information, following leads apparently not explored by the justice. Early in the case, Woodward received critical information from his FBI informant, nicknamed “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt. Taking extreme precautions to meet Woodward, he helps him decipher the roles of the protagonists and the stakes, sometimes in a sibylline way. Deep Throat indicates the elements to be explored, but guides journalists more than it guides them, for example on the trail of money, summarized by this formula: “Follow the money“. It was not until 2005, shortly before his death, that Mark Felt, No. 2 of the FBI at the time of the facts, will reveal to be this mysterious informant.

Police sources quickly informed them that the men arrested at Watergate came from Miami, were equipped to carry out a spying operation and had thousands of dollars in cash. The journalists are therefore not satisfied with the explanations of the White House, according to which this incident is “an attempted burglary of the third category”. The day after the arrest, Woodward discovered the links between the burglars, Hunt, the CIA and the Nixon administration: a phone call to the White House informed him that Hunt had worked for Charles Colson, special advisor to the president.

In the days that followed, Woodward and Bernstein learned that three of the men arrested had been in Washington three weeks earlier when prominent Democratic law firms were broken into, that McCord had applied for a university press card giving access to the Democratic convention, that Hunt had created 150 ghost election committees to funnel millions of dollars in secret contributions. and other disturbing facts.

Bob Woodward in 2007
Bob Woodward in 2007

While the investigation seems to be stalling in July, the New York Times publishes an article claiming that one of the burglars, Bernard Barker, phoned Gordon Liddy several times the day before the Watergate break-in. Bernstein is confirmed this information by one of his contacts at the Bell telephone company, who tells him that the call log has been requisitioned by the local Miami prosecutor, who is investigating whether the burglars have violated the laws of the state of Florida.

When he called the latter, he learned that more than $100,000 from a Mexican bank had passed through Barker’s bank account in Miami. The Times published this information as Bernstein traveled to Miami to further his investigation. The evidence he gathered let him know that one of the checks deposited in Barker’s account had been signed by one of Nixon’s campaign leaders in 1968. The Washington Post reports on these findings in its edition of August 1adding, after calling the issuer of the cheque, that it was given to Maurice Stans, former Secretary of Commerce, and CFO of the CRP.

Shortly after the indictment, on September 15, burglars, Hunt and Liddy, the Washington Post argued in an article: “Despite all the efforts of the administration and the Nixon campaign committee to pile up the lids on this pile of filth, this whole affair stinks”. Woodward and Bernstein try to find out more from various PRC employees, despite their reluctance to talk.

The two journalists broadened the angle of their research by considering that Watergate is only one clandestine operation among others. On September 29, they write that Mitchell, when he was attorney general, controlled a secret fund dedicated to financing operations against the Democrats. On October 10, they cite an FBI report, which found Watergate to be part of “a massive campaign of espionage and political sabotage directed by senior White House and PRC officials.” In addition, journalists indicate that the budget for these operations was controlled by Mitchell and his subordinates.

Six days later, the Washington Post went on to claim that Herb Kalmbach, Richard Nixon’s personal lawyer, had funded several espionage and sabotage operations against Democratic candidates. In addition, write the journalists, Donald Segretti, a young Californian lawyer who participated in these operations, confessed to investigators that he reported them to the assistants of Bob Haldeman, chief of staff of the White House. Bernstein learned that Segretti carried out actions between 1971 and 1972 consisting of infiltrating and disorganizing the Democratic camp by spreading false news and that he was behind the Canuck Letter that cost Edmund Muskie the Democratic nomination.

On October 25, it was Haldeman’s turn to be cited as a user of secret funds on behalf of the president to organize illegal activities. However, although this assertion was later confirmed, it was premature at that time, as no evidence in the ongoing investigation formally implicated Haldeman. The Washington Post is under an avalanche of fierce verbal attacks from Nixon’s supporters. White House spokesman Ron Ziegler called Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations “junk journalism,” and accused the newspaper of “attempted political assassination”.

Nevertheless, Woodward and Bernstein (nicknamed Woodstein), by dint of stubbornness, followed by other colleagues, manage to shed light on the case, before it is dealt with by the American justice, then by an independent Senate Commission of Inquiry. It is one of the most obvious cases in American history of the influence of the “fourth estate,” and a benchmark for investigative journalism. In 1973, Woodward and Bernstein received the Pulitzer Prize for their investigations into the Watergate affair. But for the time being, at the end of 1972, these revelations had little or no echo and did not prevent Nixon’s triumphant re-election in November.

However, the national press was much more critical of Nixon when, shortly after his election, leaks indicated that Nixon planned to radically reform the administration and functioning of Congress, which would result in a strengthening of executive power at the expense of the legislature. In December, while negotiations in Paris with the North Vietnamese stalled, the massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, described as a “Stone Age tactic”, also aroused strong disapproval.

Influence of the Washington Post

The expert historian of the Watergate affair, Stanley Kutler, estimates that out of more than 430 journalists present in Washington at that time, only fifteen worked exclusively on the Watergate scandal. An analysis conducted by Professor Liebovich of the University of Illinois points out that six months after the break-in in the Democratic offices, the Washington Post had published more than 200 articles on the Watergate scandal, against a hundred for the New York Times, one of its main rivals. Liebovich also notes that this case often makes the front page of the Post while other newspapers cover it very little. The lack of media coverage of Watergate by other newspapers can be explained as follows: at the time, the Post‘s articles were more often inquisitive in nature, which allowed the secret affairs of the presidential administration to be revealed.

The published articles show greater independence vis-à-vis political power: not afraid at that time of the reactions of political entities such as the Nixon administration, the Post enjoyed greater autonomy and freedom compared to its competitors. The New York Times, on the other hand, prefers to focus on news items and thus protect itself from the repercussions of an attack on an influential figure such as the president, who exerts significant pressure on the media, including the power to delay the renewal of television station licenses. Also, if less circulated newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times try to relay information about the emerging Watergate scandal, they do not have the same influence as the Washington Post and do not captivate the readership as much.

Marvin Kalb, a Washington correspondent for CBC News for thirty years, adds that the Post was the heart and soul of journalism for millions of American citizens at the time. The newspaper is thus considered a national treasure for these individuals attached to free and objective information.

Nixon’s influence

The Nixon administration reportedly threatened the journalists of the Washington Post, these attacks going so far as to target the personal lives of these journalists: indeed, some intimidation alluded to their sexual orientation. A year after President Nixon’s resignation, it was confirmed that he had ordered one of his employees to pass journalist Jack Anderson off as homosexual and that two employees in his administration had sought a way to imprison another journalist. Nixon, therefore, used intimidation techniques in order to control the press and thus maintain a positive media image. He also bugged several journalists and had their tax returns checked in order to destabilize them.

More than fifty journalists, including Marvin Kalb, a Washington correspondent for CBC News for 30 years, were on a blacklist that declared them enemies of the White House. The purpose of this list, according to political scientists, was for Nixon to use the federal government to ruin the credibility of the people on it and make their lives more difficult. These people were often, in addition to political opponents, virulent critics of President Nixon. This list confirms that the Nixon administration used the presidency for dishonest and political purposes. For example, the president could exert pressure on media that were unfavorable to him. It could thus delay the renewal of television station licenses in order to obtain their compliance and control the image of its administration.

Watergate’s Influence on Journalism

Fifteen journalists devoted themselves exclusively to the Watergate scandal between 1972 and 1974. Many newspapers began reporting on the case once the first evidence of the break-in in Democratic offices was detected by the US Congress. Several journalists say they regret not having written or alluded to the case earlier. After the scandal, we are witnessing a transformation of the media coverage of the White House, which is much more aggressive. The relationship between political actors and the media is evolving, and journalists are now less hesitant to embark on in-depth investigations, not wanting to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors during Watergate.

Thus, after Nixon’s resignation, the non-profit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, founded a year after Nixon’s resignation, federated 5,000 members who regularly received training in investigative techniques and used computer databases to work undercover, generating mistrust on the part of politicians towards the media. The Watergate affair would therefore have allowed the development of a more critical approach in investigative journalism, but would also have contributed to the degradation of relations between the media and politicians.

Justice and Congress get involved

The trial of the burglars

The trial of the seven accused is scheduled to begin on January 8, 1973. Meanwhile, in December, Hugh Sloan, treasurer of the Committee for the President’s Reelection, confirmed the link between the illegal contributions and the attempted Watergate burglary, while the Washington Post published an interview with a former White House secretary revealing the existence of what would later be called the “plumbers’ group” (their role being to “plug the leaks”). a unit in charge of clandestine operations on behalf of the presidency, and to which Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy belong.

The judge of the District of Columbia, John Sirica, reputed Republican and severe, presided over the trial of the five burglars, as well as that of their leaders, Hunt and Liddy. What the jury and the press don’t know is that they agreed, with Nixon’s advisers John Dean and Charles Colson, to plead guilty, in order to cut short a potentially explosive trial. In return, they receive the promise of financial compensation and amnesty.

Nevertheless, Hunt and McCord showed signs of nervousness, the former blaming Colson for not providing sufficient financial support, and the latter resenting the idea of going to prison when the real perpetrators were not worried. Hunt, Barker, Sturgis, González and Martínez pleaded guilty and were released on bail. The trial continues with Liddy and McCord, but they remain rigorously silent. On 30 January, the jury found them guilty and they were in turn released on bail pending a sentencing hearing scheduled for 23 March. Angered by the attitude of the defendants, Judge Sirica commented: “I am still not convinced that the relevant facts that could have been gathered have been submitted to the jury.

A week earlier, the ceasefire agreement in Vietnam was finally signed in Paris. Nixon was at the height of his popularity. But soon, a thunderclap will mark a turning point in the case, turning it into a national scandal. One of the defendants, James McCord, wrote a letter to Judge Sirica in which he claimed to have perjured himself in court because of pressure from the White House, and indicated that senior officials were involved.

Sirica made the letter public on the day of the hearing on March 23. The judge separates his case from that of the other defendants to whom he imposes very heavy (but not final) sentences: 35 years in prison for Hunt, 20 years for Liddy, 4 years for the others. It is clearly a matter of encouraging them to speak out in exchange for lighter sentences. “If you decide to speak freely, I will take this into account in setting the sentence that will ultimately be imposed on each of you,” he told them.

The Senate Committee of Inquiry

Sam Ervin, Chairman of the Senate Committee
Sam Ervin, Chairman of the Senate Committee

From mid-January 1973, on the proposal of Ted Kennedy, the Democratic majority of the Senate decided to create a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the abuses committed by the Republicans during the 1972 election campaign (a law regulating this financing had been adopted in 1971). The Senate Committee, headed by Sam Ervin, a Democratic Senator from North Carolina, was established on February 7 as Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, with Democrats Herman Talmadge (Georgia), Joseph Montoya (New Mexico), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), and Republicans Howard Baker (Tennessee), Edward Gurney (Florida), and Lowell Weicker (Connecticut). They are assisted by Councillors Sam Dash (Democrat) and Fred Thompson (Republican).

The Senate Committee of Inquiry may issue subpoenas, i.e. subpoenas, which may eventually lead to prosecution by a court in the event of perjury before the Board of Inquiry, or if any illegal act is revealed. It may also exercise a right of requisition to obtain files and documents. The first hearings begin on March 17, 1973.

Although he said he was ready to cooperate, Nixon was quick to oppose the Senate committee with “executive privilege” in the name of the separation of powers and the protection of national security. Clearly, he reserves the right to refuse permission to question any member of the White House. This conception of constitutional principles heralds a tug-of-war between the presidency and Congress. On March 12, Nixon states that he has no explanation for the use of this privilege.

Sam Ervin immediately retorted that he would not hesitate to call for the arrest for contempt of Congress of any member of the White House who refused to appear before the committee, and he added: “I maintain that this privilege cannot be invoked to cover up mischief.” The mainstream media agrees. At the press conference of March 15, for the first time, Nixon was bombarded with questions about Watergate, but he stuck to his positions.

At the same time, on February 28, the Senate heard FBI Director Patrick Gray, who since the death of Edgar Hoover in May 1972, has not been definitively confirmed in his position as Nixon wants. For this, its appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee (separate from the one investigating Watergate) is mandatory, and senators plan to act decisively on how the FBI conducted the Watergate investigation. At the first hearing, Gray admitted to having forwarded 82 minutes of investigation to John Dean, the president’s legal adviser. In addition, On February 6, Gray provided senators with documents that confirmed the Washington Post’s thesis of Herb Kalmbach’s remuneration for Donald Segretti’s political sabotage operations.

During the four-week hearing, Gray passed on other embarrassing information, such as the fact that Dean was present during interrogations of CRP members, or that he probably lied to the FBI by claiming that Hunt never had an office in the White House. Democratic senators are concerned about the independence of the FBI, and Democrat Robert Byrd goes so far as to declare, “The politicization of the FBI is tantamount to organizing an American Gestapo.” The Senate committee, therefore, wanted to question John Dean, but Nixon opposed it in the name of executive privilege. In response, senators refused to vote on Gray’s appointment until Dean appeared before them. Nixon then renounced Gray’s appointment.

On March 28, James McCord is heard behind closed doors by the Senate Watergate Committee. She obtained confirmation that Watergate was only one element of a vast political espionage operation directed by the White House. A few days later, Bob Haldeman was implicated. Republican leaders, like Barry Goldwater, George H. W. Bush or Gerald Ford, begin to publicly express their concerns.

Cascading revelations and resignations about the Watergate Scandal

The Senate committee concluded, during an investigation that lasted nearly a year and a half (March 1973-July 1974), that some of Richard Nixon’s relatives had been guilty of, among other things, obstruction of justice, false testimony, eavesdropping (the purpose of which was to spy on political opponents or to know the origin and content of any leaks) and embezzlement. The survey shows that this type of practice, called dirty tricks or mindfucking, is not isolated but organized into a system.

During the investigation, three successive testimonies mark major turning points in the scandal. The first was that of James McCord, the burglar and former CIA, who revealed the existence of a team of spies in the service of the White House. The second is that of John Dean, the president’s legal adviser, who revealed in June that the conspiracies had been hatched in the Oval Office. The third is that of Alexander Butterfield, a senior White House official, who revealed in July that a secret eavesdropping system could reveal more.

Officials confess

On April 14, John Dean and Jeb Magruder began speaking before the federal grand jury in the burglars’ trial. Their statements are compromising on John Mitchell (former chairman of the PRC), Bob Haldeman (Nixon’s chief of staff) and John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s interior affairs adviser). The noose is tightening and tension continues to rise at the White House, where information about the trial is coming back via Attorney General Richard Kleindienst.

Nixon hesitated about the strategy to adopt and who to sacrifice to prevent the situation from getting worse; he becomes more and more entangled in the contradictions of his lies. On 17 April, he finally agreed that his advisers could be heard by the Senate Committee on Watergate. Dean then sent a press release on his own: “I don’t want to become the scapegoat for Watergate,” he wrote. Behind the scenes, Nixon tried to get Dean to write a pseudo-report of the internal investigation that the president mentioned but that had never existed, which would have compromised his legal counsel more seriously.

Howard Hunt also begins to speak. He recounts that the first “team of plumbers” in the White House (led by Egil Krogh, a former assistant to Ehrlichman), burglarized, in September 1971, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The latter is then on trial in Los Angeles, accused by the government of theft and conspiracy in the Pentagon Papers affair. These elements were brought to the attention of Ellsberg’s defense on 26 April. Later, the FBI admitted that Ellsberg’s indictment could have been obtained through illegal wiretapping. The Los Angeles judge ruled that the violation of the defendant’s rights made it impossible to continue the trial, and all charges against Ellsberg were dropped on May 11. Investigators also determine that the first “plumber team” was, during the Chappaquiddick accident in 1969, immediately dispatched to investigate the setbacks of Ted Kennedy.

On April 27, acting FBI Director Patrick Gray resigned, after admitting that he had destroyed compromising documents from Howard Hunt’s White House vault, which had been handed over to him by John Dean shortly after the Watergate arrest. According to him, these documents included forged diplomatic cables fabricated by Special Adviser Charles Colson, intended to make believe that John Kennedy complicated in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm.

The close guard falls

Ehrlichman and Haldeman, shortly before their resignation in April 1973
Ehrlichman and Haldeman, shortly before their resignation in April 1973

On April 30, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned, at the request of the president. They were nicknamed together “the Berlin Wall”, because of their tendency to block around the president by removing collaborators or visitors. They were Nixon’s two chief advisers; Haldeman had been his collaborator since 1952 and likes to call himself “the President’s son of a bitch“.

On the same day, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst also resigned, because of his personal ties to some of the actors involved in the case, and was replaced by Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson. The same evening, in a speech on television, Nixon assures that all the light will be shed on the Watergate affair, and that the law will be amended to prevent any abuse in the financing of electoral campaigns. He praised Haldeman and Ehrlichman but did not say the same about John Dean, whose resignation he announced without the knowledge of the person concerned.

The next day, White House spokesman Ron Ziegler apologized to the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, acknowledging his “outbursts in comments” about them in the previous months. Despite these gestures of contrition, the president’s televised intervention did not have the desired effect. For the first time, voices are beginning to evoke the possibility of impeachment, the impeachment procedure of the president, who since January has lost 20 points in the polls.

In the days that followed, the revelations followed one another before the Senate Committee on Watergate. Richard Helms, former director of the CIA until February 1973, recounts how Haldeman and Ehrlichman lobbied the CIA in June 1972 for the FBI to stop the investigation into the attempted robbery, to which Helms was reluctant. Other CIA officials explain that Ehrlichman requested technical assistance from the CIA for some of the “plumbers’ team’s” hits.

Herb Kalmbach, Nixon’s lawyer, admits to destroying all traces of irregular campaign contributions amounting to $20 million. Hugh Sloan, the former treasurer of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, admits to having erased evidence of $2 million in cash contributions intended to fund clandestine operations. Meanwhile, in New York, John Mitchell and Maurice Stans, Nixon’s top fundraiser, were indicted before a federal jury, accused of making false statements in an investigation into the PRC’s financial relationship with Robert Vesco, a crooked businessman and fugitive in Costa Rica.

For his part, John Dean gave Judge John Sirica confidential documents, including a copy of the Huston Plan. This plan was conceived in 1970 by Tom Huston, a young conservative activist charged by Haldeman and Ehrlichman with leading a White House Security Coordination Committee. Huston proposed a plan to combat dissident movements using domestic espionage practices that were not burdened with judicial mandates. These methods include electronic surveillance, opening mail, break-ins, document theft, etc. Faced with the objections of the FBI, and in particular John Edgar Hoover, the plan was not officially adopted but nevertheless applied in practice. This cooperation of Dean with Justice is considered in the White House as treason.

The prosecution’s mechanisms are gaining momentum

Starting May 17, Senate Committee hearings on Watergate are held in public, and are broadcast live on television to tens of millions of U.S. homes as Watergate Hearings. Public opinion then began to become passionate about the many twists and turns that followed one another and which revealed an unknown aspect of the practices of the supreme institution considered until then with a certain reverence. The president of the commission Sam Ervin quickly became a popular figure by his cunning way of pushing witnesses to their limits, and thwarting the maneuvers of their lawyers.

On May 18, newly promoted U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, despite Nixon’s reluctance, appointed an independent special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. Archibald Cox, former No. 3 in the Department of Justice under Kennedy, accepted the position on May 18, 1973. His mission included investigating the Watergate affair and attempts to cover it up, all activities of the “plumbers’ team”, and funding the Committee for the President’s Re-election.

Nixon is desperately trying to improve his image through a communication campaign. On 22 May, he circulated a statement in which he attempted to justify the illegal activities that had been committed in his name, claiming that they had been committed without his knowledge, that they were to combat the climate of insurrection and against leaks threatening national security. Two days later, he presided over a gigantic ceremony in honor of prisoners of war who had returned from North Vietnam. He also wanted to defend himself by accusing the Democrats of having done worse when they were in power, but his new advisers were less receptive than their predecessors to this type of method.

John Dean charges the president

John Dean in May 1972
John Dean in May 1972

On June 3, the Washington Post reported that John Dean intended to testify under oath before the Ervin Commission. In addition to the members of the Nixon administration (Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson), he directly implicated the president. Indeed, in the following days, Dean told the cameras of the Watergate Hearings that several meetings had taken place between Nixon, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, to manage the cover-up of the Watergate affair. They discussed the sums to be paid to silence the arrested “plumbers”, and the possibility of promising them a presidential pardon after their conviction. In addition, Dean claims that the president wanted him to sign a letter of resignation in which he would have admitted his responsibility for these acts.

John Dean also transmits a copy of a blacklist of enemies, compiled by Charles Colson, special adviser to the president, who has already resigned, more discreetly, on March 10. This regularly updated informal list included the names of more than 200 American personalities and organizations considered political opponents to whom special treatment should be met. Although no concrete cases of persecution have been confirmed, this list has given rise to suspicions of improper use of tax services and telephone tapping for the purpose of retaliation.

Published by The New York Times on June 28, the list of enemies includes the names of politicians such as Senators Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, J. William Fulbright, William Proxmire, the twelve African-American members of the House of Representatives, former ministers Robert McNamara and Ramsey Clark, Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, Ted Sorensen, George Wallace, New York Mayor John Lindsay… There are also dozens of journalists, businessmen and major financial contributors to the Democratic Party, union leaders, civil rights activists (Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin), several intellectuals and academics (Noam Chomsky, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, McGeorge Bundy), celebrities from the entertainment world (Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand), and even an American football player (Joe Namath).

The author of the list, Charles Colson, is also accused by John Dean of having proposed the project of placing an incendiary bomb in the premises of the Brookings Institution, a think tank close to the Democrats named in the blacklist, to camouflage the theft of sensitive documents.

On June 13, the Washington Post revealed that the Senate committee was in possession of a memo dated 1971, sent by former White House employee Egil Krogh to John Ehrlichman, proving that the latter was the sponsor of the robbery of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.

Following John Dean’s confessions, the Senate committee requested the hearing of the president, and that White House documents be transmitted to him, which Nixon refused on July 6. In the absence of evidence of the latter’s direct involvement, senators had to be content, provisionally, with Dean’s word against that of the president.

White House recordings

On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, Director of the Federal Aviation Administration and former deputy to Bob Haldeman, confessed behind closed doors to senators, who pressed him with questions about the method of note-taking in the White House, that a sophisticated eavesdropping system made it possible to record and archive all conversations without the knowledge of Nixon’s interlocutors (Haldeman was one of the few who knew). The method was already practiced under previous administrations but on a much smaller scale. Nixon justified himself by saying that he wanted to bequeath important documentation on his presidency with in mind the trace he would leave in history.

This information makes it possible to consider the confirmation or denial of John Dean’s allegations, and therefore the involvement of the president and his collaborators in the Watergate affair, or even the disclosure of other secrets. Butterfield repeated his statement in front of the Watergate Hearings cameras three days later. The central issue is now the return of the magnetic tapes of these recordings to the investigators, which will be stubbornly opposed by the president, who does not react immediately since he is at that time hospitalized for pneumonia.

The showdown and the Saturday night massacre

Archibald Cox, Independent Special Prosecutor
Archibald Cox, Independent Special Prosecutor

In the days following Butterfield’s testimony, commission chairman Sam Ervin, independent special counsel Archibald Cox, and federal judge John Sirica took turns asking Nixon to give instructions for the recordings to be handed over to them. Nixon refused, again invoking “executive privilege.” He indicated that the bands were under his personal control and would remain there, and proclaimed that he was “accountable only to the nation and not to the courts.” Legal proceedings for subpoenas to hand over the tapes and appeals from the president’s lawyers have been multiplying in confusion for months. However, Nixon continued to plummet in the polls and relations with journalists became increasingly tense at press conferences.

In October, the Washington Court of Appeals finally ordered Nixon, on pain of prosecution, to hand over the tapes to Judge Sirica. It is up to the latter to determine which tapes can be covered by “executive privilege” and which must be handed over to prosecutor Archibald Cox, who has become Nixon’s bête noire. Comforted by his aides and lawyers that the disclosure of the contents of the tapes would be devastating, Nixon is still looking for a way to evade his obligations, claiming that international state secrets are involved in the conversations or that it would be detrimental to the presidential office. On October 19, he proposed that John C. Stennis, a Democratic senator who might have access to the recordings, wrote and handed over summaries, but Cox rejected this compromise.

The president, who at the same time had to manage the position of the United States in the Yom Kippur War, decided to respond by demonstrating his authority. He asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to impeach Cox. Richardson refused, as did his second-in-command, Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. They were both forced to resign on October 20, 1973, and it was the No. 3 of the Department of Justice, General Counsel Robert Bork, who dismissed Cox and interrupted the work of his team. This episode, known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” provoked deep outrage in American public opinion. Some commentators speak of “dictatorship” and “tyranny”, even “madness”. At the same time, the first parliamentary maneuver to impeach the president took place: 80 members of the House of Representatives tabled several resolutions to this effect.

Faced with this general disapproval, Nixon backed down. First, he said he was ready to send Sirica the recordings he had requested. He then announced the appointment of a new independent special prosecutor, assuring that he would benefit from the cooperation of the presidency. It will be Leon Jaworski, a well-known Texas lawyer close to former President Johnson. In the process, Nixon finally gave Sirica seven requested recordings.

The 18-minute hole

The recordings requested by Sirica correspond, according to previous testimony, to conversations that took place at important moments in the chronology of the case. However, the judge reported, on November 21, that, in one of the magnetic tapes handed over by the presidential administration, there was a hole of just over 18 and a half minutes. This part has apparently been erased. However, it is dated June 20, 1972, three days after the attempted Watergate robbery, and concerns a conversation between the president and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman.

The judge decided to appoint a panel of six experts to “study the authenticity and integrity of the tapes”. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, testified that this was a handling error. But the committee of experts concluded on January 10, 1974, to a deliberate erasure four or five times. According to John Dean, the tape contained evidence that Nixon was involved in covering up the robbery, adding that it is likely that the content of the deleted conversation was the same as on other recovered tapes. The tape is still stored in the hope that technological progress will make it possible to reconstruct the content.

Jaworski’s obstinacy

In February, the Senate Watergate Committee wrapped up public hearings, and is now working on its final report. The relay is taken by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. The first step towards impeachment of the president was indeed taken on October 30, 1973: the House gave the chairman of this committee, Democrat Peter Rodino, the mission to investigate the case for the trial to take place before the Senate, as required by the impeachment procedure. This provides for a division of roles between the two components of Congress. Since then, the Democratic camp has intensified its political and media offensive against Nixon. Thus, Ted Kennedy does not hesitate to publicly question the mental health of the president, and rumors about his alcoholism are growing.

Moreover, contradicting Nixon’s calculations, the new independent special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who, foresighted, had obtained to be impeached only with the agreement of Congress, proved to be as obstinate as his predecessor. He in turn claimed the tapes, 64 of them precisely. The president’s new chief of staff, Alexander Haig, persuaded Nixon not to destroy them, as this would be considered an admission of guilt. In a televised speech on February 3, Jaworski denounced Nixon’s attitude, which had told him that he would not hand over new tapes.

In the president’s former entourage, convictions and new indictments follow one another, and if the sentences are not heavier, it is because several defendants have negotiated to lighten their sentences in exchange for new information, which in turn has led to new indictments. At the end of January, Egil Krogh, former assistant to John Ehrlichman, was sentenced to 6 months in prison for his role in the robbery of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In February, Herb Kalmbach, Nixon’s former lawyer, was also sentenced to 6 months for two illegal campaign contribution cases, one of which saw him receive $100,000 from a diplomat in exchange for a prestigious embassy. In April, another assistant to the president, Dwight Chapin, who had recruited Donald Segretti, was in turn charged with perjury.

Most importantly, on March 1, John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson were prosecuted by the Washington grand jury for obstruction of justice, perjury, witness tampering, and destruction of evidence. However, the charges against his former aides, particularly those against his former chief of staff Haldeman, directly implicate Nixon. Unable to indict the president because it was the prerogative of Congress, Judge Sirica ostensibly handed over to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee elements compromising Nixon.

Transcription of tapes

Nixon in his televised speech on April 29, 1974
Nixon during his televised speech on April 29, 1974

In April, the Judiciary Committee finally issued an ultimatum to the president, threatening to prosecute him for contempt of Congress if he did not hand over the tapes demanded of him. Nixon then tried to transmit only written transcripts of 42 recordings of Watergate conversations. Some passages are absent or censored, supposedly because they do not relate to the case, or because they would be inaudible. This selective verbatim, bound in a 1,254-page book whose president promised would shed light on the whole affair, was made public on 30 April.

Many passages where we hear the president are very ambiguous, morally compromising, even revealing. The most damning excerpt is dated March 21, 1973, at the time of the trial of burglars before the Washington grand jury, and while Nixon had denied a few days earlier that Howard Hunt’s “plumbing team” had received illegal contributions from his campaign team. The conversation that the President (P) has with his legal counsel John Dean (D) is transcribed as follows:

D: It will cost money. It is dangerous. People around here are not pros at this sort of thing. This is the sort of thing Mafia people can do: washing money, getting clean money and things like that. We just don’t know about those things, because we are not criminals and not used to dealing in that business.

– P: That’s right.

– D : It is a tough thing to know how to do.

– P : Maybe it takes a gang to do that.

– D: That’s right. There is a real problem as to whether we could even do it. Plus there is a real problem in raising money… But there is no denying the fact that the White House, in Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dean are involved in some of the early money decisions.

– P: How much money do you need?

– D : I would say that these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years.

– P: We could get that… You could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. It is not easy but it could be done. But the question is who the hell would handle it? Any ideas on that?

– D: That’s right. Well, I think that is something that Mitchell ought to be charged with.

– P: I would think so too. »

Band of March 21, 1973

Although Nixon denies it, this conversation seems to indicate that he participated in an operation whose purpose was to give money to the accused burglars to keep quiet, which would constitute witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

According to polls, a very large majority of Americans do not believe in presidential explanations. The entire media and political class, including many Republicans, are expressing outrage. However, the transcript does not contain enough solid elements to consider legal action. Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino told Nixon that he had not responded to the subpoena and continued to demand the tapes. But scalded by the reactions aroused by the transcripts, Nixon again camped in his refusal to give up any tape.

The fall of the president

Other cases, other charges

Nixon continues to plead his innocence, pleaded to the end by his spokesman and communications advisor Ron Ziegler. On November 17, 1973, the president gave a famous speech, declaring, “I am not a crook”. In 1952, while appearing on the election ticket of the future President Eisenhower, Nixon had already had to defend himself in a televised speech against accusations of financial malfeasance and bribery. In 1973, the president was referring to the publication in the press shortly before of his tax slips, which revealed that he paid almost no income tax. This may have been legal given the game of tax deductions, but further tarnished his image. However, between the end of 1973 and the summer of 1974, several cases, related or not to Watergate, concerning Nixon himself or his entourage, painted a picture of widespread corruption through the media, and gave the presidency a devastating image.

Nixon with Rebozo and Hoover in the Oval Office
Nixon with Rebozo and Hoover in the Oval Office

On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew, former governor of Maryland, was forced to resign. A case of local corruption caught up with him; he is accused of taking bribes during his political career in the state. The Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, Gerald Ford, was chosen to replace him, and confirmed by Congress.

Since the spring of 1973, the press and congressional commissions of inquiry have also taken a close interest in the conditions for the acquisition of Nixon’s luxurious properties in San Clemente, California, and Key Biscayne, Florida. To obtain the loan needed for these purchases, the president went into debt to close friends, businessmen Charles “Bebe” Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp. There is also talk of the work Nixon had done at taxpayers’ expense on these properties, largely for security and communications systems. In early April 1974, the tax administration and a congressional committee completed their reviews of the president’s tax returns, and concluded that he owed nearly $470,000 to the IRS.

Other matters complicate the president’s situation. An investigation, opened in 1972, into an electoral contribution of $2 million by the dairy industry in exchange for a policy of supporting milk prices, is still not completed. Another contribution to the 1972 campaign was examined, that of the International Telephone and Telegraph ($400,000), in exchange for support from the Department of Justice on a case in which the company was subject to antitrust law. In the Robert Vesco case, for which John Mitchell and Maurice Stans have already been indicted, Nixon is increasingly implicated, because of the relationship of his brothers, Donald and Edward, with this financial contributor prosecuted for fraud. Several big companies are still singled out for their illegal contributions to the Committee for the re-election of the president: American Airlines, Braniff International, Gulf Oil, Goodyear, 3M, etc.

His friend Bebe Rebozo was summoned many times by various bodies investigating Watergate and the financing of the 1972 electoral campaign. Investigators are interested in the payment of $100,000 in cash to Rebozo, for Nixon’s re-election, by an associate of billionaire Howard Hughes. The financial relationship between Nixon and Hughes was long-standing, and he had already been blamed in 1960. This investigation will not be completed. Several of Nixon’s former aides later wrote that the origin of the Watergate burglary was Nixon’s fear that Democratic leader Larry O’Brien was in possession of compromising documents about his ties to Hughes.

Nevertheless, the reasons for spying on the Democratic Party were never clearly established, especially since Nixon’s election, largely assured (he would win 49 of the 50 states), seemed immune to all the low blows of the campaign and thus did not justify any espionage. According to Georges Ayache, a historian specializing in the United States, it was his defeat in the 1960 US presidential election that gave rise to a complex towards the Kennedys and paranoia that made him spy on both his political opponents and journalists.

Despite being the most popular member of the government in the media and the political class, Henry Kissinger, who added the office of the secretary of state to that of national security adviser, does not escape accusations. Since May 1974, he has been directly implicated for having ordered illegal telephone tapping (notably following leaks about the secret bombings in Cambodia in 1969), and also for the establishment of the “plumbers’ team”. He was threatened with perjury at his Senate confirmation hearing in 1973. On 11 June, during a diplomatic trip with the president to Austria, he categorically denied and threatened to resign. Shortly thereafter, the Senate passed a resolution guaranteeing its integrity.

On July 12, the Senate Watergate Committee finally released its investigative report. More than 2,000 pages describe Nixon’s responsibility for the Watergate robbery and subsequent obstruction of justice, the Huston Plan, the formation of the “plumber’s team,” the list of enemies, the irregular funding of the 1972 campaign, the links to Hughes and Rebozo, the dirty tricks of Segretti’s team. This summary and the damning report does not offer new revelations, but allows Commission Chairman Sam Ervin to castigate the “lust for power” that prompted Nixon’s team to resort to “evil means”.

The Supreme Court Verdict and Impeachment

Jaworski ended up asking the Supreme Court to rule on President Nixon’s legitimacy to oppose the return of the tapes. On July 24, 1974, although four out of nine judges owed their appointments to Nixon, it voted unanimously (with one abstention) in favor of returning the tapes. The Court, presided over by Warren Burger, held that “executive privilege” has merit, but cannot be an impediment to an investigation of criminal activity. Nixon was then completely and irreparably isolated politically. With its back to the wall and no further legal recourse, the White House had no choice but to hand over the tapes to Judge Sirica.

In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee completed its investigation. She has accumulated 7,000 pages of testimony in preparation for the eventual impeachment trial. The content confirming Nixon’s guilt gradually leaked to the press. The Judiciary Committee must then pass the resolutions impeaching the president by a two-thirds majority vote. It is composed of a strong minority of Republicans, but the latter, thinking of their re-election, have gradually dissociated themselves from Nixon. On July 27, 29, and 30, the Judiciary Committee passed three resolutions, upholding charges of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. It is now up to the House of Representatives to vote for impeachment by a simple majority and then to the Senate to judge the president. It will take a two-thirds majority vote of senators for him to be impeached.

The Smoking Gun Tape

Nixon decided to make public, on August 5, the full text of one of the most compromising tapes, the one containing a conversation with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman, on June 23, 1972, six days after the Watergate burglary. He is waiting to see the reactions to find out if he has a chance to stay in place by continuing the fight. But it will be the coup de grace. This gang is nicknamed “The Smoking Gun Tape“, literally the “smoking gun gang”, alluding to the glaring evidence of a smoking gun at the scene of a crime. It explicitly authorizes his aides to approach CIA Director Richard Helms to ask FBI Director Patrick Gray to bury the federal investigation into the burglary, allegedly on national security grounds.

According to the text of the transcript, Nixon sibyllinly told Haldeman to slip to the director of the CIA: “The problem is that it could reopen the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” Haldeman claimed in 1978 that this had infuriated Helms, as it was an allusion to the CIA’s role in the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

This recording is irrefutable evidence, not only that Nixon lied for two years, but also of his guilt in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, a reason amply justifying the impeachment proceedings. There is therefore little doubt that the Senate, which will have to judge him, will condemn him if the impeachment proceedings are completed. The main leaders of his own party, including Barry Goldwater, urged him to resign.


Nixon leaves the White House (photo taken from the presidential helicopter Army One)
Nixon leaves the White House (photo taken from the presidential helicopter Army One)

At the end of July, the beginning of August, the wildest rumors are circulating in Washington: the president has lost his mind, he is preparing a military coup, etc. Nixon keeps dithering, but he knows full well since the Supreme Court verdict that the only alternative is resignation or impeachment. The president tries to the end to act as if he were above the fray, dealing with the dialogue with the Soviets, the oil crisis, the growing problem of inflation, etc. As the revelations unfolded, more and more crowds showed up in front of the gates of the White House or during the president’s travels, to demand his departure. Unstated material considerations also come into play. If impeached, he will lose the pensions and various privileges granted to former presidents, and he will be exposed to prosecution without the possibility of pardon.

After fiercely defending himself, Nixon preferred to resign. He announced it in a televised speech on the evening of August 8. After a speech to White House staff and reporters, he left the White House live aboard Army One, the US Army’s presidential helicopter. Nixon is the only president in U.S. history to have resigned. He officially leaves office on August 9, 1974, one week after the impeachment proceedings were launched.

Gerald Ford announcing his decision to pardon Nixon (September 8, 1974)
Gerald Ford announcing his decision to pardon Nixon (September 8, 1974)

Vice President Gerald Ford, appointed by Nixon (and not elected), immediately succeeded him. His first official action, very controversial, was to pardon Richard Nixon, which had the effect of stopping all proceedings. As for the recordings that had sparked endless legal battles, President Ford gave control of them to Nixon, who was the only one authorized to give authorizations for their consultations.

The aftermath of the Watergate Scandal

Judicial follow-up

At the end of the burglars’ trial in which he pleaded guilty, Howard Hunt spent 33 months in detention. Bernard Barker and Frank Sturgis were released from prison after 13 months. Gordon Liddy was sentenced to 20 years but was amnestied 4 years later by President Jimmy Carter.

In November 1973, John Dean pleaded guilty before Judge Sirica to obstruction of justice. By testifying against Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, he was able to significantly reduce his sentence and spent only four months in prison. He later worked in the banking sector, writing several books, some of which blamed the Bush administration for the same shortcomings as those of the Nixon administration. In June 1974 Charles Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg case. He thus avoided further prosecution, and spent only 7 months in prison. Colson later became a major figure on the Christian right and the evangelical movement. In January 1975, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman were convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. They spent 18 months in prison.

In February 1975, John Mitchell was convicted of the same crimes. Sentenced to 30 months, he spent 19 months in prison before being released on medical grounds. His assistant at the PRC, Jeb Stuart Magruder, who pleaded guilty in August 1973, remained behind bars for 7 months. Former Attorney General Richard Kleindienst was sentenced to one month in prison for “refusing to answer” in the ITT case. Egil Krogh, Haldeman’s assistant, was sentenced to 6 months in prison. Nixon’s lawyer Herb Kalmbach was sentenced to 6 months in prison. Councillor Dwight Chapin at 10 months. The verdict for his sidekick Donald Segretti was 6 months. The CRP’s chief financial officer, Maurice Stans, was fined $5,000 for violations of election finance regulations and acquitted on the most serious charges. In all, more than 70 people have been prosecuted in connection with this scandal.

As for Nixon, if he was protected from prosecution thanks to Gerald Ford’s presidential pardon, he was nonetheless, as a lawyer, disbarred from the New York State Bar in 1976.

Commissions on Intelligence Agencies

The Watergate revelations have led to questions about the integrity of the administration and especially the government intelligence agencies. In December 1974, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh revealed part of the report entitled Family Jewels commissioned by the CIA director following the Central’s involvement in the scandal. Hersh reports that the CIA, although banned from action on U.S. soil, has waged major campaigns against dissidents and activists opposed to the Vietnam War. The entire report was made public in 2007.

This climate led to the creation, in 1975-1976, of the committees of inquiry in Congress, the Pike Commission (House of Representatives) and the Church Commission (Senate), in continuity with the Senate Committee on Watergate. The work of these commissions reveals certain clandestine and illegal activities, such as the Huston Plan, the misuse of tax services, the opening of mail, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, clandestine operations abroad, particularly in Chile, etc. Heard by the Church Commission, former CIA Director Richard Helms was given a two-year suspended prison sentence in 1977 for false statements about the Central Central’s support for the opposition against Salvador Allende, before the coup d’état in Chile of 1973. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was the direct successor to the Church Commission, submitted a report in 1977 on Project MK-Ultra, a CIA program on mind control.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford himself appointed a commission chaired by his Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the actions of the CIA, including its possible involvement in the assassination of John Kennedy and the assassination attempts of Fidel Castro. After the Rockefeller Commission report was delivered, Ford officially banned assassinations abroad by the CIA.

The mystery of the identity of “Deep Throat”

The identity of "Deep Throat", Mark Felt, former No. 2 of the FBI, was revealed in 2005
The identity of “Deep Throat”, Mark Felt, former No. 2 of the FBI, was revealed in 2005.

The identity of the informant nicknamed “Deep Throat” (a nickname given by Woodward in reference to the pornographic film of the same name that was very successful in 1972) is a subject that has caused a lot of ink to flow. During the affair, several notorious political figures, including Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, George H. W. Bush, Ron Ziegler, John Dean, and Pat Buchanan, were introduced as this secret informant. Some intelligence specialists have also raised the hypothesis of John Paisley, CIA liaison officer with the “plumbers”, who mysteriously disappeared in 1978.

The only people who know the identity of the whistleblower are the two journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and their editor at the time, Benjamin Bradlee. The identity of Deep Throat is revealed by the American magazine Vanity Fair on May 31, 2005. This is Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI under Richard Nixon. At the age of 91, he said he wanted to “free his conscience”. The Washington Post immediately confirmed the information. Bob Woodward says he has known Mark Felt since 1970, and that relations between the FBI and the White House had seriously deteriorated.

He also mentions his disapproval of the Nixon administration’s methods and his displeasure at not having been appointed head of the FBI upon Hoover’s death, which Felt confirms in his writings. Patrick Gray, director of the FBI when Mark Felt reported to the Washington Post, died a month later, after expressing his “huge surprise”. Nevertheless, as confirmed by a White House recording of a conversation on October 19, 1972, between Richard Nixon and Bob Haldeman, the latter suspects Mark Felt of being Deep Throat, but no retaliatory action has been taken against him for fear that he will reveal unspeakable information in the media. Faced with Gray informing him of these suspicions in 1973, Felt categorically denied it.


Historical consequences

Morality and politics

The Watergate scandal has become one of the most famous cases in the history of the United States and is irretrievably attached to the name of Nixon, who is thus often compared to other presidents of the United States whose mandates have been marked by scandals, such as Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant or Warren Harding. It permanently tarnished the image of the presidential office and increased Americans’ distrust of their leaders, especially since the Nixon administration claimed to be “law and order”.

The Watergate scandal itself actually exposed a whole series of practices of the Nixon administration, dubbed White House horrors. The mode of operation has thus become, over the course of the revelations, “the” great scandal. Thus, according to American historian Melvin Small, “the Nixon scandals revealed an attempt to subvert the entire American political system”. For other commentators of the American left, such as Noam Chomsky, the impeachment was pronounced against Nixon only because he had attacked as powerful as him and not for having used illegal methods widely used against other elements of society deemed too subversive for the established order.

Journalism and checks and balances

This affair breathed new life into investigative journalism, of which Woodward and Bernstein became symbols. It has also contributed significantly to the expression of cynicism in political commentary and practice. Americans’ distrust of their leaders has become widespread. According to the Louis-Harris polling firm, the confidence rate in the White House fell from 41% in 1966 to 13% in 1975, but such an erosion can be seen vis-à-vis other social or political institutions. Years later, American intellectuals and academics continue to wonder about the negative or positive consequences of the scandal.

For the sociologist Gérard Spitéri, the Watergate scandal is the “crowning glory of journalistic power” and the “founding moment of the post-war period” of Vietnam thought as a basic act of democracy. It is felt “as a way of salvation in the profession”, not only in the United States but also in France at a time when the circulation of French newspapers is declining.

At the same time, Le Canard enchaîné, then in a position of a “kind of monopoly on the revelation of business”, became known for the publication of Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas’ tax returns, and seven years later for the revelation of the Bokassa diamond affair. This monopoly, challenged in the 1980s, was gradually replaced by a pluralism of the press engaged in in-depth investigations, considered as progress by Spitéri, because in democracy according to him, freedom of opinion implies “the independent restitution of the facts reported by the informant”, in the philosophical logic of Kant, according to whom “there is no surer criterion for assessing the strength of a democracy than that of pluralism of the press”.

The scandal, and in particular the lessons of the “Saturday Night Massacre” episode and its consequences for public opinion, have de facto increased the importance of the role of the Independent Prosecutor. One aspect of this is the strengthening of the independence of the judiciary. But this evolution has sometimes been considered excessive, especially during the political instrumentalization of the office, with, for example, the investigation conducted by the prosecutor Kenneth Starr against Bill Clinton, during Monicagate.

Political changes

At first, the discrediting of the Republican camp benefits the Democrats electorally. The 1974 mid-term elections saw a new generation of elected Democrats (nicknamed “Watergate babies“) capture many seats in Congress. In 1976, it was an unexpected candidate, Jimmy Carter, governor of Georgia, who, because he embodied an image of renovation and integrity, won the Democratic primary, then the presidential election against Gerald Ford. The conservative current of the Republican Party is also taking advantage of the scandal to gain more influence within the party. This was particularly true during the episode of the “Halloween massacre” on November 4, 1975.

It is a reshuffle that sees the arrival in the Ford administration of less moderate personalities than their predecessors: Donald Rumsfeld at the Department of Defense, Dick Cheney as White House chief of staff, George H. W. Bush at the head of the CIA, Brent Scowcroft at the National Security Council. Nelson Rockefeller, incumbent vice president, former governor of New York and figurehead of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, renounced the Republican nomination for the 1976 presidential election. The conservative current finally brought one of its own, Ronald Reagan, to power in 1980.

Election financing has been in the sights of Justice throughout the case. The cost of election campaigns had risen steadily: $140 million in total expenditures in 1952, $300 million in 1968, $425 million in 1972. This increase is due to the increasing use of polls, public relations specialists, speechwriters, advertisers, radio and television airtime, and primary elections. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 aims to curb these abuses. It was supplemented by amendments in 1974, 1976 and 1979. As a result, financial contributions are capped, they must be declared, funding from public funds is introduced, and a control committee is set up to ensure compliance with these rules. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the continual increase in campaign costs.

As a result of the affair, Congress increased its power at the expense of the presidency. Thus, the War Powers Resolution adopted in 1973 limits the presidential initiative in a case of military conflict and requires it to obtain congressional authorization for an intervention of more than 60 days. Similarly, arms exports and foreign aid are more closely scrutinized by the legislative branch. To compensate for this imbalance, the president relies more on his media image and the personalization of his function.

However, the Congress has not become more effective, because of the multiplication of committees and subcommittees, which often duplicate or are not chaired by politicians competent on the subject. The post-Watergate period is characterized by a lasting decline of traditional parties in favor of pressure groups. American political life is balkanized, often reduced to the defense of special interests, and favored selfish behavior. Nevertheless, this situation gives rise to a new type of militancy, which fills the ideological vacuum of parties that have become catch-all and incoherent electoral machines.

Several commentators have argued that this scandal weakened not only the American presidency but American power in the years that followed. The fall of Saigon in 1975 would be an illustration of this. South Vietnam’s independence was guaranteed by the 1973 Treaty of Paris for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Gerald Ford did not order the U.S. military to intervene against North Vietnamese troops when they invaded the South. Nixon did not hesitate to order very destructive bombing during a Northern offensive in the spring of 1972, during the peace negotiations.

Other events between 1975 and 1980 underscored the strategic retreat of the United States on the international scene: Cuban interventions in Angola and the Horn of Africa, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua, and the invasion of Afghanistan. This paralysis is explained above all by the fear of a new Vietnam and the institutional upheavals that began in the 1960s. In any case, despite the very negative views on Nixon’s presidency, he managed to be somewhat rehabilitated in the 1980s, thanks in part to his international policy and that of his successors. He was considered a “sage” in this field, invited by the authorities of several countries (China, Russia, Arab countries), and advised new presidents, including Bill Clinton, shortly before his death in 1994, which resulted in a state funeral attended by all living American presidents.

Cultural heritage

Film and television

  • The film by Alan J. Pakula, All the President’s Men, based on the book of the same name published shortly before Nixon’s resignation, and released just two years after the scandal ended, tells the story of the journalists who exposed the scandal. The role of Bob Woodward is played by Robert Redford, and that of Carl Bernstein by Dustin Hoffman.
  • Robert Zemeckis’ film, Forrest Gump, makes a nod to this event, when Forrest Gump, from his bedroom window in Washington, surprises “lights” in the Watergate building in the middle of the night.
  • Oliver Stone’s biopic, Nixon, gives a large place to Watergate episodes seen from inside the White House, implicitly repeating the theories that the tapes exposed the president’s coarse language and contained references to secret CIA operations. Nixon is played by Anthony Hopkins.
  • The historical film Frost/Nixon: Ron Howard’s Moment of Truth describes the face-to-face between Richard Nixon and British animator David Frost, who conducts a series of interviews in 1977 with the 37th President of the United States, in which the latter finally admits the immoral character of his actions, but states that, Whatever the president does, it is legal.
  • Steven Spielberg’s 2017 Pentagon Papers film ends with the final scene of a night intrusion into the Watergate building.
  • The 2017 film directed by Peter Landesman, The Secret Man: Mark Felt, tells the story of the pressure exerted by the power on the FBI and focuses specifically on Mark Felt, played by Liam Neeson.
  • In 2022, Starz airs the miniseries Gaslit, centered on Martha Mitchell and her husband John N. Mitchell, Attorney General during Richard Nixon’s presidency.


  • In the French-language novel Un dieu dans la poitrine, written by Philippe Krhajac and published in 2019 by Gallimard, there is a chapter entitled “The Watergate”. The author refers to this political scandal to connect the short story of his character to the great history of humanity.

Gonzo journalism

A reporter, the “inventor” of gonzo Hunter S journalism. Thompson, who does not hide his contempt for Nixon and his men, sometimes described as mackerel, fascists or incompetent, gives an offbeat and no less passionate analysis of the Watergate hearings for Rolling Stone magazine. However, the Watergate affair did not correspond to her style of reporting, because “it was useless to look for history, she took care of herself, she unfolded over hours of parched testimony”. Thompson is therefore content to give his opinion, with his singular style:

“I must admit that I have a vague irrational sympathy for the bastard. Not the president, a broken little brute who would sacrifice us all to save his skin — if he still had the choice — but the kind of sympathy I could feel, at the time, for a fierce and arrogant defender whose long career came to an abrupt end on a Sunday afternoon, when a new kid broke both his knees during a blockade of the knobs. »

These articles were collected in the second volume of The Great Shark Hunt: The New Testament Gonzo (republished as Last Tango in Las Vegas).

The posterity of the suffix “gate”

This case was so significant that following this scandal, the American media became accustomed to using the suffix “-gate” (which means “portal” in English) to designate affairs of state, or other politico-financial scandals, for example, Irangate (arms sales to Iran to finance the Contras in Nicaragua), or Monicagate. This habit also reached France when a case of arms sales to Angola was named “Angolagate” (a term created by Le Monde in January 2001).

This semantic habit has spread in very heterogeneous sections, about cases having in common only the media coverage of the scandal. We can also mention Plamegate, Coingate, Crashgate, Nipplegate, Climategate, Foreclosuregate, Rubygate, Cablegate, Antennagate, Penelopegate, Fillongate or Tweetgate. In 2022, the case involving British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who organized parties in Downing Street in the midst of a lockdown related to the Covid-19 pandemic, violating rules enacted by his own government, is called Partygate.

Another lexical term from the Watergate affair was taken up in France by Le Canard Enchaîné, when DST agents tried, in 1973, to put microphones in the editorial staff of the satirical newspaper. This case has gone down in history as the Plumbers’ Case or Watergaffe.

References (sources)