Government and Politics


What happened at Watergate?

Watergate is a complex of upscale apartment and office buildings in Washington, D.C. In July 1972 five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters there. Among these men was James McCord Jr. (1924–), the security coordinator of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). McCord was among those working to get President Richard Nixon (1913–1994), a Republican, elected to a second term in office.

All five men who were caught in the break-in were indicted on charges of burglary and wiretapping, as were CRP aide G. Gordon Liddy (1930–) and White House consultant E. Howard Hunt (1918-). Five of the men pleaded guilty to the charges. McCord and Liddy were tried and found guilty.

In February 1972—five months before the break-in at Watergate—President Nixon had traveled to China, becoming the first U.S. president to visit that country. In May he traveled to Moscow, where he signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1 treaty), the first such treaty between the United States and the U.S.S.R. When the election was held in November, Nixon won in a landslide victory over the Democratic candidate George McGovern (1922–1998).

But early in Nixon’s second term, which began in 1973, the Watergate affair became a full-blown political scandal when convicted burglar James McCord wrote a letter to District Court judge John Sirica (1904–1992), charging a massive cover-up in the Watergate break-in. A special Senate committee began televised investigations into the affair. Before it was all over, about 40 people, including high-level government officials, had been charged with crimes including burglary, wiretapping of citizens, violating campaign finance laws by accepting contributions in exchange for political favors, the use of government agencies to harm political opponents, and sabotage.

Among those prosecuted were John Dean (1938-), former White House counsel, and Attorney General John Mitchell (1913–1988). It was revealed that members of the Nixon administration had known about the Watergate burglary. It was also discovered that the president had taped conversations in the Oval Office. When Dean and Mitchell were convicted, public confidence in President Nixon plummeted. In July 1974 the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives was preparing articles of impeachment (including one that charged the president with obstruction of justice) against the president. The impeachment proceedings would not make it as far as the Senate: Nixon chose to resign on August 9, 1974. He was the first and so far only U.S. president to resign from office.

Shortly after taking office, Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford (1913-), pardoned Nixon. But Watergate remains a dark chapter in the nation’s history.

Former White House aide John Dean is sworn in by Senate Watergate Committee chairman Sam Ervin, June 25, 1973.

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