The Watergate Scandal

The Historical and Political Context of Watergate

The late 1960s were a time of great political and social upheaval in the United States. President Johnson had been destroyed by the Vietnam War and had announced that he would not contest the 1968 election. A spirit of unrest pervaded the college campuses. Demands for black rights were growing and a huge anti-war movement had developed.

Richard Milhous Nixon (Republican) was elected president in 1968. Click here to read Nixon's Acceptance Speech at the Republican Party's Convention in 1968. Click here to read Nixon's first Inaugural Address, or listen to part of the speech.

Nixon was elected on a pledge of ending the war. During his term, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, opened up diplomatic relations with China (1971) and established "detente" with the Soviet Union. It has been argued that only a president with Nixon's well-established and hostile attitude to communism could have done these things.

In 1971, the Pentagon Papers were published. These secret Defense Department documents on American involvement in the Vietnam war were leaked to the New York Times by an official in the Defense Department, Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. Nixon challenged the publication of the documents in the Supreme Court and lost when the court ruled 6-3 in favour of publication.

Around this time, a White House Special Investigations Unit was established, known as the "Plumbers". This secret group investigated the private lives of Nixon's critics and political enemies. It burgled the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in an attempt to discover damaging information.

Nixon was reported to have a "hate list", containing the names of many Democrats, James Reston, Jack Anderson, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman.

Somewhere around 1971, voice-activated tape recorders were installed in the Oval Office in the White House.

As the 1972 election approached, the Democrats opted for a liberal candidate, Senator George McGovern, a factor that led to the landslide win by Nixon.

During the campaign, McGovern had been forced to drop his vice-presidential running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after newspapers published reports of his previous mental illness. McGovern had earlier said he was 1000% behind Eagleton. Eagleton was replaced by Sargent Shriver.

Nixon won 49 of the 50 states, McGovern winning only Massachusetts and Washington D.C.

Brief Timeline of Events


             November 1968: Richard Milhous Nixon, the 55-year-old former vice president who lost the presidency for the Republicans in 1960, reclaims it by defeating Hubert Humphrey in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.


             July 23, 1970: Nixon approves a plan for greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies. He has second thoughts a few days later and rescinds his approval.


             June 13, 1971: The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers -- the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post will begin publishing the papers later in the week.

             September 9, 1971: The White House "plumbers" unit - named for their orders to plug leaks in the administration - burglarizes a psychiatrist's office to find files on Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers.


             June 17, 1972: Five men, one of whom says he used to work for the CIA, are arrested at 2:30 a.m. trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and office complex.

             June 19, 1972: A GOP security aide is among the Watergate burglars, The Washington Post reports. Former attorney general John Mitchell, head of the Nixon reelection campaign, denies any link to the operation.

             August 1, 1972: A $25,000 cashier's check, apparently earmarked for the Nixon campaign, wound up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar, The Washington Post reports.

             September 29, 1972: John Mitchell, while serving as attorney general, controlled a secret Republican fund used to finance widespread intelligence-gathering operations against the Democrats, The Post reports.

             October 10, 1972: FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in stems from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon reelection effort, The Post reports.

             November 11, 1972: Nixon is reelected in one of the largest landslides in American political history, taking more than 60 percent of the vote and crushing the Democratic nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.


             January 30, 1973: Former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. are convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men plead guilty, but mysteries remain.

             April 30, 1973: Nixon's top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resign over the scandal. White House counsel John Dean is fired.

             May 18, 1973: The Senate Watergate committee begins its nationally televised hearings. Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson taps former solicitor general Archibald Cox as the Justice Department's special prosecutor for Watergate.

             June 3, 1973: John Dean has told Watergate investigators that he discussed the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon at least 35 times, The Post reports.

             June 13, 1973: Watergate prosecutors find a memo addressed to John Ehrlichman describing in detail the plans to burglarize the office of Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, The Post reports.

             July 13, 1973: Alexander Butterfield, former presidential appointments secretary, reveals in congressional testimony that since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his offices.

             July 18, 1973: Nixon reportedly orders the White House taping system disconnected.

             July 23, 1973: Nixon refuses to turn over the presidential tape recordings to the Senate Watergate committee or the special prosecutor.

             October 20, 1973: Saturday Night Massacre: Nixon fires Archibald Cox and abolishes the office of the special prosecutor. Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resign. Pressure for impeachment mounts in Congress.

             November 17, 1973: Nixon declares, "I'm not a crook," maintaining his innocence in the Watergate case.

             December 7, 1973: The White House can't explain an 18 1/2 -minute gap in one of the subpoenaed tapes. Chief of staff Alexander Haig says one theory is that "some sinister force" erased the segment.


             April 30, 1974: The White House releases more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes to the House Judiciary Committee, but the committee insists that the tapes themselves must be turned over.

             July 24, 1974: The Supreme Court rules unanimously that Nixon must turn over the tape recordings of 64 White House conversations, rejecting the president's claims of executive privilege.

             July 27, 1974: House Judiciary Committee passes the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice.

             August 8, 1974: Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. president to resign. Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumes the country's highest office. He will later pardon Nixon of all charges related to the Watergate case.


Watergate and American Political Values

Watergate provides useful material for analysing the operation of the President, Congress or Supreme Court. It gives some idea of the interplay between the 3 arms of the American political system and of the political values underpinning the constitutional framework.

             Congressional committees (Senate Watergate & House Judiciary) - The operation of these committees demonstrate a fundamental difference between the Australian and American political systems. US congressional committees have much more independence and power than parliamentary committees in Australia. The inquiries undertaken by the Senate Watergate Committee were crucial in securing Nixon's resignation. The recommendation by the Judiciary Committee to impeach the president was carried by the votes of both Democrat and Republican members.

             Supreme Court power over the Executive branch - The checks and balances built into the US system were demonstrated by the rulings of the Court that Nixon release the tapes of Oval Office conversations.

             Presidential executive power, and the White House office - Nixon claimed "executive privilege" for the White House tapes and other documents. His personal staff, particularly Haldeman and Erlichman, demonstrate the power that the White House office can exercise. Unlike Cabinet appointments, these positions are not subject to Senate confirmation.

             Separation of powers - No member of any of the 3 arms of the US government may belong to any of the other arms.

             Checks and balances - The Watergate scandal demonstrates the complex web of safeguards built into the American Constitution. On the one hand, the President is the Head of Government, but does not control the Legislature. Unlike a Westminster Prime Minister, the President cannot dissolve Congress. Whilst the President may nominate members of the Judicial arm, they require Senate approval. Similarly, the President serves a fixed 4-year term and may only be removed following an impeachment process that must begin in the House of Representatives. The President may only be removed from office by the Senate.

             Values of accountability and responsibility - the removal of Richard Nixon demonstrates an array of accountability processes. Whilst serving a fixed term of office, the President is accountable to the House of Representatives, the chamber that most directly reflects the most recent opinion of the nation. However, in keeping with the Federalist values of the Founding Fathers, it is only the Senate, where each state, regardless of population, is represented by two Senators, which may remove the President.