House Judiciary Subcommittee questioning President Gerald Ford on pardoning former President Richard Nixon, Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17, 1974. Library of Congress

Friday, June 17, marks the 50th anniversary of an important episode in recent U.S. political history. In the early morning hours of that date in 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in downtown Washington, D.C.

As a reporter at their arraignment the following Monday remarked, they “were not ordinary burglars.”

Indeed, there was little “ordinary” about them.

At the time of their arrests, they were dressed in suits and ties and carrying wiretapping equipment and over $2,000 in sequentially numbered $100 bills. The leader of the break-in team, James McCord, a former CIA officer, was a security official for the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), Richard Nixon’s campaign organization. The other four were Cuban exiles living in southern Florida who had participated in CIA-sponsored operations against Fidel Castro’s regime. Soon after, the FBI rounded up two other CRP employees, a former CIA operative and a former FBI agent, who were not present in the DNC site but had planned and directed the operation.

The escapade and the arraignment of the culprits made headlines for several days, but soon the event faded from public view. In part, this was because in the 1972 presidential election year, the Democratic Party was in disarray, too deeply divided over the Vietnam War and other issues to exploit a direct assault upon its national headquarters. More to the point, the attorneys of the accused managed to secure postponements of their trials until after the November 1972 presidential election.

Money from White House cash holdings was funneled to the defendants to pay their personal and legal expenses, thereby buying their silence about the involvement of CRP higher-ups and White House officials in the break-in and an array of “dirty tricks” against political opponents.


A primary target was Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who in early 1972 was considered a frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination and whom the CRP regarded as the most formidable potential challenger to Nixon’s reelection.

Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, left, and Sen. Charles Mathias, R-Md., discuss the ramifications of President Nixon’s firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox during their joint appearance on ABC’s “Issues and Answers” program from Washington on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1973. AP file photo

Two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did publish articles in late 1972 on potential illegalities by the CRP and the White House, but for most part, the allegations did not attract much attention except among Nixon’s die-hard critics.

Despite several political setbacks and some major economic challenges in his first term, starting in 1972 Nixon’s political fortunes were on the rise. He had achieved major diplomatic breakthroughs with China and the Soviet Union, which were widely and positively publicized back home. By June of that year, the last U.S. ground combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. And the Democrats had nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a staunch opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, whom Nixon’s chief political advisor Charles Colson had judged — correctly as it turned out — to be a weak challenger to the president.

As a result, in November, Nixon won reelection by a landslide. The president seemed ready to start a second term with a relatively clean slate.

In January 1973, his administration negotiated a diplomatic deal that ended direct U.S. involvement in the divisive Vietnam War. And by March, American prisoners of war held in Vietnam were returning home to great fanfare.

Although troubled by inflation and some persistent unemployment, the American economy appeared to be on the mend. In the words of Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, the DNC break-in of the previous June appeared to be little more than “a third-rate burglary.”


The Watergate “cover-up,” as it came to be known, seemed to be working, at least for a while.

Library of Congress

By early spring 1973, the cover-up started to unravel. The Watergate scandal would soon metastasize into perhaps the biggest and most disruptive — to date — in American political history. In the end, less than two years years into his second term, President Nixon was forced to resign office rather than face certain impeachment and conviction, and over 40 of his associates, including top officials in his administration, were prosecuted and convicted.

The Watergate story is complex, perhaps more convoluted than many today or even at the time realize. The defining events are too numerous to detail here, but there are a few dramatic turning points worth considering.

One occurred in early 1973, when the seven Watergate burglary defendants were finally tried and convicted in federal court in Washington, D.C. Frustrated by their unwillingness to reveal much about their antics, and suspicious that the break-in was more than just a fleeting escapade by some low-level rogue operators, the presiding judge John Sirica — who ironically was elevated to a senior judgeship by Nixon because his hardline “law and order” stance — imposed relatively harsh sentences on the convicted. Out of a job, and feeling abandoned by those who got him into legal hot water, James McCord sent a letter to Judge Sirica alleging that higher-ups had committed perjury in an effort to conceal White House and CRP involvement. This missive was a breakthrough, because it attracted sustained public attention that did not abate until Nixon left office.

As a result of this and other revelations, Nixon was soon forced to dismiss key aides, like his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, his domestic policy assistant John D. Ehrlichman, his chief political advisor Charles Colson, and White House counsel John Dean.

The dismissals might have stanched the political fallout, and the Nixon administration might have recovered if new and presumably uncompromised staffers could be recruited.


But the challenges to the administration only mounted.

Richard Nixon being interviewed in his New York City apartment by Look magazine on Sept. 27, 1963. Library of Congress

Shortly after the election, the U.S. Senate voted to form a Select Committee, which had authority, including subpoena power, to investigate the case. This is significant because although Nixon, a Republican, scored an overwhelming reelection victory, the opposition Democrats retained control of both houses of Congress and even had gained two seats in the Senate. That meant the Democratic majority could direct the scope and direction of the Senate investigation.

One newly elected senator was Joseph Biden of Delaware. The other was Maine 2nd CD representative William Hathaway, who defeated the venerable Margaret Chase Smith. His successor in the House of Representatives was William Cohen, who was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and who in the summer of 1974 would be one of several Republicans who supported articles of impeachment against Nixon.

Congressional Democrats were not about to let the administration and the reelection campaign get away with violating their national party headquarters or sabotaging their 1972 presidential election efforts. And a good number of Republicans were disgruntled as well. While the CRP accumulated a large trove of funds, almost none of it was invested in Republican down-ballot campaigns for Congress. Moreover, they were annoyed that the Watergate culprits had threatened to put their party, and not just Nixon, at risk.

House Banking Committee hearing on Watergate Incident on Oct. 12, 1972. Library of Congress

The Senate Watergate committee hearings were broadcast daily over national television in the spring of 1973 and featured dramatic testimony by former White House and reelection campaign figures, many of whom were facing federal criminal charges for various election-related misdeeds. One of the most dramatic occurred in June 1973, when John Dean, former White House counsel who was convinced that he had been set up to take the blame for White House involvement in the evolving scandal, testified that he had warned Nixon in March 1973 that the Watergate cover-up was falling apart and would become a “cancer … close to the presidency.”

While Dean’s testimony about Nixon’s involvement seemed damning, by the start of summer 1973, the Watergate case appeared to be at a standstill — it boiled down to the allegations of a cashiered young attorney who was facing disbarment and criminal charges against the word of the president of the United States. After all, until then, there was no direct evidence that Nixon had done anything illegal, or at least had engaged in any action that would warrant impeachment.


All that changed on July 16, 1973, when the Senate committee forced the testimony of Alexander Butterfield, who had worked on Haldeman’s staff in the first term. One of his White House responsibilities was to oversee the records that would document the Nixon presidency, likely in anticipation of their transfer to a future Nixon presidential library.

With considerable reluctance, Butterfield revealed that since February 1971, a secret audio system had been in place that recorded all of Nixon’s conversations in the Oval Office and several other locations in the White House complex. In other words, the recordings of conversations that took place in the cockpit of the American political system could answer central questions concerning the Watergate case, notably the extent and depth of the president’s involvement in illegal campaign actions and attempts to prevent their being revealed.

The discovery of the Nixon tapes set off a fierce legal and political struggle between the White House, which was determined to prevent access to the tapes, and a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who believed that access to select conversations was essential to his investigation.

Watergate indictments at U.S. District Court, March 1, 1974. Library of Congress

In response to Cox’s determination to subpoena certain portions of the tapes, in October 1973, Nixon ordered U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused to do this, and resigned his position, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. The “Saturday night massacre,” as it came to be known, set off a powerful backlash against the administration and provoked members of the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce articles of impeachment against Nixon.

During the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee held prolonged hearings, again widely publicized and nationally broadcast, and issued articles of impeachment to be sent to the full House for a vote. All the Democrats on the Committee, who were in the majority, and a substantial minority of Republicans voted to impeach. There were a few diehard defenders of the president who vowed that they would oppose this action until the president’s accusers could produce a “smoking gun,” that is, incontrovertible evident of presidential wrongdoing.

After the Committee vote, and a Supreme Court ruling that the White House had to turn over recordings to the House Committee, the White House did reveal just such evidence. It consisted of a recording of a meeting Nixon had on June 23, 1972, six days after the break-in, with his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. In that conversation, Haldeman explained that the FBI probe of the break-in was getting into “productive areas,” that is, areas that the administration did not want investigated, such as the laundering through Mexican banks of cash donations to the reelection campaign to pay the legal and personal expenses of the seven Watergate burglars, in exchange for their silence. Haldeman proposed that the White House ask the acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, a Nixon loyalist, to prevail upon the Central Intelligence Agency to assert that further investigation would jeopardize foreign intelligence operations.


Caricature of President Richard M. Nixon with folded hands, seated before a microphone in front of an American flag, showing the president making one of his talks to the American people attempting to explain the Watergate scandal. Library of Congress

Nixon agreed to Haldeman’s proposal and thereby was caught on tape conspiring to obstruct justice.

In the wake of this and other revelations, almost all support for Nixon in Congress collapsed. Before the House could vote on the impeachment articles, some Republican Congressional leaders met with Nixon, and told him bluntly that if a trial took place in the Senate, approximately 80 senators — 13 votes above the 67 required — would vote to convict. Faced with these odds, Nixon resigned from the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.

The Watergate scandal had repercussions long after Nixon’s departure from the White House. His successor, Gerald Ford, was generally well liked, but a month after he was sworn in, he inflicted lasting damage to his standing by issuing a highly controversial pardon of his predecessor.

The political fallout was evident in November, when the Democrats increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. Most of the newcomers were averse to further aid to a faltering U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam. As a result, that government collapsed in the face of a concerted offensive by its Viet Cong and North Vietnamese adversaries. Thus, the long-running and deeply divisive American involvement in Vietnam came to an ignominious end.

A somewhat ironic upshot of Nixon’s tenure in office was the creation of what may be the best documented presidency in U.S. history. The material includes not only the vast amount of paperwork — letters, memos, position papers, etc. — now housed in the Nixon Presidential Library in California. It also encompasses the unique record contained in the extensive tapes collection. Overall, the recordings have an estimated 3,700 hours of conversations that took place in the Oval Office, the president’s hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building, three telephones, the Cabinet Room and, for a brief period, the Aspen Lodge at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Because the overriding concern was to keep the system secret, it was set up so that it functioned automatically, with no one, not even Nixon, to turn the equipment on or off or even check the audio quality of the recordings. Hence, the sound quality of the recordings ranges from unintelligible to just fair. Despite this deficiency, the system acted as a kind of audio vacuum cleaner, taking in all conversations, important and trivial, that took place when Nixon was present. The net effect of listening to the tapes is like being a fly on the wall, enabling the listener to eavesdrop on the conversations of key figures who worked in the central institution of the American political system, at a crucial time in recent American history.

A resident of Lewiston, Chris Beam has conducted considerable research on the Nixon presidency. From 1978 to 1982, he worked on the National Archives staff that processed the Nixon tapes. Of the estimated 3,700 hours of conversation in the collection, he has listened to about 1,500 hours, mostly in the 1972-1973 period, when the Watergate scandal was unfolding.

In addition, he has taught U.S. history at local institutions since 1989, including courses on the Nixon presidency, and every year until his retirement in 2020 he has led a course on the Vietnam War, of which he is a veteran.

Information about the Nixon tapes, and enhanced digitized copies of the recordings, may be found at

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: