1972-1974: Watergate

Nixon gives his farewell speech
Nixon gives his farewell speech

Howard Zinn's history of the scandal which forced the resignation of President Nixon after he was caught spying on the Democratic party.

Submitted by Steven. on September 17, 2006

A subsequent Senate investigation revealed a cover-up of monumental proportions reaching the highest levels of government and big business. Nixon was scapegoated and resigned, but the system was left intact


The Survey Research Centre of the University of Michigan had been posing the question: “Is the government run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?” The answer in 1964 had been “yes” from 26 percent of those polled; by 1972 the answer was “yes” from 53 percent of those polled. An article in the American Political Science Review by Arthur H. Miller, reporting on the extensive polling done by the Survey Research Centre, said that the polls showed “widespread, basic discontent and political alienation.” he added (political scientists often took on the worries of the Establishment): “What is startling and somewhat alarming is the rapid degree of change in this basic attitude over a period of only six years.”

More voters than ever before refused to identify themselves as either Democrats or Republicans. Back in 1940, 20 percent of those polled called themselves “independents.” In 1974, 34 percent called themselves “independents.”

The courts, the juries, and even judges were not behaving as usual. Juries were acquitting radicals: Angela Davis, black and an acknowledged communist, was acquitted by an all-white jury on the West Coast. Black Panthers, whom the government had tried in every way to malign and destroy, were freed by juries in several trials. A judge in western Massachusetts threw out a case against a young activist, Sam Lovejoy, who had toppled a 50-foot tower erected by a utility company trying to set up a nuclear plant. In Washington, D.C., in August 1973, a Superior Court judge refused to sentence six men charged with unlawful entry who had stepped from a White House tour line to protest against the bombing of Cambodia.

Undoubtedly, much of this national mood of hostility to government and business came out of the Vietnam war, its 55,000 casualties, its moral shame, its exposure of government lies and atrocities. On top of this came the political disgrace of the Nixon administration in the scandals that came to be known by the one-word label “Watergate,” and which led to the historic resignation from the presidency—the first in American history—of Richard Nixon in August 1974.


It began during the presidential campaign in June of 1972, when five burglars, carrying wiretapping and photo equipment, were caught in the act of breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, in the Watergate apartment complex of Washington, D.C. One of the five, James McCord, Jr., worked for the Nixon campaign; he was “security” officer for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Another of the five had an address hook in which was listed the name of E. Howard Hunt, and hunt’s address was listed as the White House. He was assistant to Charles Colson, who was special counsel to President Nixon.

Both McCord and Hunt had worked for many years for the CIA. Hunt had been the CIA man in charge of the invasion of Cuba in 1961, and three of the Watergate burglars were veterans of the invasion. McCord, as CREEP security man, worked for the chief of CREEP, John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States.

Thus, due to an unforeseen arrest by police unaware of the high-level connections of the burglars, information was out to the public before anyone could stop it, linking the burglars to important officials in Nixon’s campaign committee, to the CIA, and to Nixon’s Attorney General. Mitchell denied any connection with the burglary, and Nixon, in a press conference five days after the event, said “the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident.”


What followed the next year, after a grand jury in September indicted the Watergate burglars—plus Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy—was that, one after another, lesser officials of the Nixon administration, fearing prosecution, began to talk. They gave information in judicial proceedings, to a Senate investigating committee, to the press. They implicated not only John Mitchell, but Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s highest White House aides, and finally Richard Nixon himself—in not only the Watergate burglaries, but a whole series of illegal actions against political opponents and anti-war activists. Nixon and his aides lied again and again as they tried to cover up their involvement. These facts came out in the various testimonies:

1. Attorney General John Mitchell controlled a secret fund of $350,000 to $700,000—to be used against the Democratic party— for forging letters, leaking false news items to the press, stealing campaign files.

2. Gulf Oil Corporation, ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph), American Airlines, and other huge American corporations had made illegal contributions, running into millions of dollars, to the Nixon campaign.

3. In September of 1971, shortly after the New York Times printed Daniel Ellsherg’s copies of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, the administration planned and carried out—Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy themselves doing it—the burglary of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, looking for Ellsberg’s records.

4. After the Watergate burglars were caught, Nixon secretly pledged to give them executive clemency if they were imprisoned, and suggested that up to a million dollars be given them to keep them. In fact, $450,000 was given to them, on Erlichman’s orders.

5. Nixon’s nominee for head of the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover had recently died), L. Patrick Gray, revealed that he had turned over the FBI records on its investigation of the Watergate burglary to Nixon’s legal assistant, John Dean, and that Attorney General Richard Kleindienst (Mitchell had just resigned, saying he wanted to pursue his private life) had ordered him not to discuss Watergate with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

6. Two former members of Nixon’s cabinet—John Mitchell and Maurice Stans—were charged with taking $250,000 from a financier named Robert Vesco in return for their help with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Vesco’s activities.

7. It turned out that certain material had disappeared from FBI files— material from a series of illegal wiretaps ordered by Henry Kissinger, placed on the telephones of four journalists and thirteen government officials—and was in the White House safe of Nixon’s adviser John Erlichman.

8. One of the Watergate burglars, Bernard Barker, told the Senate committee that he had also been involved in a plan to physically attack Daniel Ellsberg while Ellsberg spoke at an anti-war rally in Washington.

9. A deputy director of the CIA testified that Haldeman and Ehrlichman told him it was Nixon’s wish that the CIA tell the FBI not to pursue its investigation beyond the Watergate burglary.

10. Almost by accident, a witness told the Senate committee that President Nixon had tapes of all personal conversations and phone conversations at the White House. Nixon at first refused to turn over the tapes, and when he finally did, they had been tampered with: eighteen and a half minutes of one tape had been erased.

11. In the midst of all this, Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, was indicted in Maryland for receiving bribes from Maryland contractors in return for political favours, and resigned from the vice-presidency in October 1973. Nixon appointed Congressman Gerald Ford to take Agnew’s place.

12. Over $10 million in government money had been used by Nixon on his private homes in San Clemente and Key Biscayne on grounds of “security,” and he had illegally taken—with the aid of a bit of forgery—a $576,000 tax deduction for some of his papers.

13. It was disclosed that for over a year in 1969—1970 the U.S. had engaged in a secret, massive bombing of Cambodia, which it kept from the American public and even from Congress.


It was a swift and sudden fall. In the November 1972 presidential election, Nixon and Agnew had won 60 percent of the popular vote and carried every state except Massachusetts, defeating an anti-war candidate, Senator George McGovern. By June of 1973 a Gallup poll showed 67 percent of those polled thought Nixon was involved in the Watergate break-in or lied to cover up.

By the autumn of 1973 eight different resolutions had been introduced in the House of Representatives for the impeachment of President Nixon. The following year a House committee drew up a bill of impeachment to present it to a full House. Nixon’s advisers told him it would pass the House by the required majority and then the Senate would vote the necessary two-thirds majority to remove him from office. On August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned.

Six months before Nixon resigned, the business magazine Dun's Review reported a poll of three hundred corporation executives. Almost all had voted for Nixon in 1972, but now a majority said he should resign. “Right now, 90% of Wall Street would cheer if Nixon resigns,” said a vice-president of Merrill Lynch Government Securities. When he did, there was relief in all sectors of the Establishment.


Gerald Ford, taking Nixon’s office, said: “Our long national nightmare is over.” Newspapers, whether they had been for or against Nixon, liberal or conservative, celebrated the successful, peaceful culmination of the Watergate crisis. “The system is working,” said a long-time strong critic of the Vietnam war, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. The two journalists who had much to do with investigating and exposing Nixon, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, wrote that with Nixon’s departure, there might be “restoration.” All of this was in a mood of relief, of gratitude.

No respectable American newspaper said what was said by Claude Julien, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in September 1974. “The elimination of Mr. Richard Nixon leaves intact all the mechanisms and all the false values which permitted the Watergate scandal.” Julien noted that Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would remain at his post - in other words, that Nixon’s foreign policy would continue. “That is to say,” Julien wrote, “that Washington will continue to support General Pinochet in Chile, General Geisel in Brazil, General Stroessner in Paraguay, etc.”

Months after Julien wrote this, it was disclosed that top Democratic and Republican leaders in the house of Representatives had given secret assurance to Nixon that if he resigned they would not support criminal proceedings against him. One of them, the ranking Republican of the judiciary Committee, said: “We had all been shuddering about what two weeks of televised floor debates on impeachment would do, how it would tear the country apart and affect foreign policy.” The New York Times’s articles that reported on Wall Street’s hope for Nixon’s resignation quoted one Wall Street financier as saying that if Nixon resigned: "What we will have is the same play with different players.”

When Gerald Ford, a conservative Republican who had supported all of Nixon’s policies, was nominated for President, a liberal Senator from California, Alan Cranston, spoke for him on the floor, saying he had polled many people, Republicans and Democrats, and found “an almost startling consensus of conciliation that is developing around him.” When Nixon resigned and Ford became President, the New York Times said: “Out of the despair of Watergate has come an inspiring new demonstration of the uniqueness and strength of the American democracy.” A few days later the Times wrote happily that the “peaceful transfer of power” brought “a cleansing sense of relief to the American people.”

In the charges brought by the House Committee on Impeachment against Nixon, it seemed clear that the committee did not want to emphasise those elements in his behaviour which were found in other Presidents and which might be repeated in the future. It stayed clear of Nixon’s dealings with powerful corporations; it did not mention the bombing of Cambodia. It concentrated on things peculiar to Nixon, not on fundamental policies continuous among American Presidents, at home and abroad.

The word was out: get rid of Nixon, but keep the system. Theodore Sorensen, who had been an adviser to President Kennedy, wrote at the time of Watergate: “The underlying causes of the gross misconduct in our law-enforcement system now being revealed are largely personal, not institutional. Some structural changes are needed. All the rotten apples should be thrown out. But save the barrel.”

Indeed, the barrel was saved. Nixon's foreign policy remained. The government’s connections to corporate interests remained. Ford’s closest friends in Washington were corporate lobbyists.


Alexander Haig, who had been one of Nixon’s closest advisers, who had helped in “processing” the tapes before turning them over to the public, and who gave the public misinformation about the tapes, was appointed by President Ford to be head of the armed forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). One of Ford’s first acts was to pardon Nixon, thus saving him from possible criminal proceedings and allowing him to retire with a huge pension in California.

The Establishment had cleansed itself of members of the club who had broken the rules—but it took some pains not to treat them too harshly. Those few who received jail sentences got short terms, were sent to the most easygoing federal institutions available, and were given special privileges not given to ordinary prisoners. Richard Kleindienst pleaded guilty; he got a $100 fine and one month in jail, which was suspended.

That Nixon would go, but that the power of the President to do any- thing he wanted in the name of “national security” would stay—this was underscored by a Supreme Court decision in July 1974. The Court said Nixon had to turn over his White House tapes to the special Watergate prosecutor. But at the same time it affirmed “the confidentiality of Presidential communications,” which it could not uphold in Nixon’s case, but which remained as a general principle when the President made a “claim of need to protect military, diplomatic or sensitive national security secrets.”

The televised Senate Committee hearings on Watergate stopped suddenly before the subject of corporate connections was reached. It was typical of the selective coverage of important events by the television industry: bizarre shenanigans like the Watergate burglary were given full treatment, while instances of ongoing practice—the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the work of the FBI and CIA— were given the most fleeting attention. Dirty tricks against the Socialist Workers Party, the Black Panthers and other radical groups, had to be searched for in a few newspapers. The whole nation heard the details of the quick break-in at the Watergate apartment; there was never a similar television hearing on the long-term break-in in Vietnam.

This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States. We heartily recomment you buy A People's History of the United States now.
OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added