Watergate: the burglary that led to Nixon’s resignation

Saturday, June 17, 1972. At half past three in the morning, five men are arrested during a burglary. Their target is the national headquarters of the US Democratic Party. Location: the Watergate building in Washington, then and now a hotel, office and apartment complex. However, it is no ordinary burglary that will give this building eternal fame. The word Watergate becomes a synonym for political lies, deceit and deception: an affair that began with a burglary and ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 9, 1974.

What did Nixon know?

Only over the course of two years of political turbulence and revelations by American newspapers and magazines did it become apparent that this break-in had been orchestrated by the President’s Re-Election Committee. The Republican party wanted Nixon’s re-election at all costs in November 1972 and the committee organized numerous legal and illegal actions, such as planting listening devices on the night of the burglary. It has never been proven that President Nixon had prior knowledge of the burglary or that he ordered it. Nothing to worry about, you might say.

Tape recordings

But Nixon’s tape recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office over the course of July 1974 showed that Nixon had spoken to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman about the burglary on June 21, 1972, and again on June 23. And that wasn’t just a conversation about stupid people who got themselves arrested. On June 23, the men discussed using the CIA to prevent the FBI investigation into the burglary from revealing leads to the re-election committee. They probably spoke in similar terms on June 21, but the tape of that day contains an 18½ minute gap, probably erased by Nixon himself when he listened to the tape recordings during 1974.


“Obstruction of justice,” even many of his Republican supporters concluded. A reason to remove the President from office. Nixon long resisted publication of the June 23 smoking gun tape, but when the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in July 1974 that he must release this evidence, he kept the honor to himself. On August 8, he addressed the American people and on August 9, he left in a helicopter at noon. Back to California, the basis of his life and his political career. The biggest political scandal in American history was over. Vice President Ford succeeded him. Two years later he would be defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, someone of impeccable conduct

The journalists

The names of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, like those of Richard Nixon, will forever be linked to Watergate. ,They are the journalists who, together with their left-wing newspaper The Washington Post, overthrew the President., At least that was the view of ,right-wing, America in the years after Watergate. But Woodward and Bernstein had no political motives. Woodward was and is a convinced Republican and Bernstein had and has no political ties. They were journalists par excellence.

Woodward and Bernst ein (soon referred to as Woodstein by The Post editorial staff) followed the trail of the burglars almost immediately after the burglary on June 17, 1972. The revelations in those first months were spectacular: the burglars had been paid by the President’s re-election committee; there was large-scale political sabotage organized by the committee; attempts were made to block the investigation into the burglars and the money flows.

Exciting work?

The work they had to do for these revelations wasn’t all that exciting. They could spend days sifting through (legally obtained) bank statements, telephone conversation records and library lending registers. They called acquaintances of acquaintances of contacts, even old girlfriends, they visited people at their homes late at night and were shown the door. There was no way to shove a microphone in someone’s face: they had to be extremely careful because the Nixon administration was quite suspicious and everyone was afraid. They themselves were afraid of being overheard and once had a late-night conversation with their editor-in-chief in the front yard of his home in the freezing cold.


And then of course there was Deep Throat, their informant from ,the executive branch of the government,. Woodward met him in the middle of the night in an abandoned parking garage and changed taxis three times on the way there. This informant (who only identified himself as such in 2005 – it was Mark Felt, FBI second in command) did not provide direct information but confirmed or denied Woodward’s theories and suggestions. In the fall of 1972, this unclear communication led to a major blunder and Woodward and Bernstein were embarrassed with a false story about an admission by one of the re-election committee’s financial managers.

Peel onions

Yet they did not give up, with journalists from other renowned newspapers and magazines in their wake. They peeled back the layers of the big ,cover-up, one by one. They checked the stories of their informants with others and never published again if they were unsure. Their editors and bosses at The Post kept them on their toes. The Post won the Pulitzer Prize and Woodward and Bernstein’s early 1974 book became a bestseller. In the course of 1973, the American Congress took up the investigation itself. The outcome is known.


In 1976, the two journalists published their book ,The Final Days,, an exciting and in-depth account of the last months of the Nixon era. Carl Bernstein then followed other journalistic paths. He wrote books about his father, about Pope John II and about Hillary Clinton. Bob Woodward remained in investigative journalism and published numerous inside stories and books, such as on the members of the Supreme Court and the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. After the ,coming out, of Deep Throat, he also dedicated a book to Mark Felt.

The president

No other president has divided the people of the United States more than Richard Nixon, the man who was called to The Highest Office from January 20, 1969 to August 9, 1974. You were either for him or you were against him, there was no in between. Nixon was the interpreter of the feelings of ,the silent majority,, a term he coined himself. A man who thought he could make anything and ultimately fell due to pride, lack of perspective, the wrong friends and just plain bad luck.

Political ambitions

Nixon was the only boy from a poor background in California in the 1930s who went to college. He became a lawyer, joined the Navy in the early 1940s and after this not very active service he was elected to the House of Representatives for the Republican party in 1946. He quickly developed into a real ,communist, eater in the post-war Cold War climate. He had few scruples and made a habit of dealing with his real and imaginary enemies with all possible legal, illegal and accusatory methods. He owed his nickname ,Tricky Dick, to these early years – he would not lose his tricks. In 1950 he was elected to the Senate and from 1953 to 1961 he served as Vice President under Eisenhower. During the 1960 elections, he ran for president, but was defeated by John F. Kennedy by a narrow margin. When his attempt to become Governor of California failed in 1962, he seemed to have given up and sought refuge in the legal profession again. Yet he managed to be elected President in November 1968.

Source: US National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from Kennedy and Johnson and he was unable to keep his election promise to end it. The war and the social unrest about it haunted him, no matter how hard he tried to profile himself as a statesman and bringer of détente and peace with Russia, China and the Middle East. Hardly anyone remembers that he also worked on social improvement programs and the rights of blacks. The carefully cultivated conservative and Republican image is what remains of him. And of course Watergate


Personally, the writer does not believe that Nixon had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in. But otherwise he was ,guilty as hell,, as even his chief of staff Alexander Haig admitted to an aide during the last days of Nixon’s presidency. The tape recordings of the conversations in The Oval Office showed that Nixon knew about the involvement in the break-in of the President’s re-election committee at least as early as June 23, 1972, six days after the burglary, and that he did not know until March 1973 from his later disgraced employee John Dean heard what was going on. Nixon and his men did everything they could to portray the burglary as an isolated incident, the burglars were paid hush money and FBI investigations into Watergate and other ,incidents, were thwarted. Nixon’s feelings during the Watergate years were aptly summarized by his then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in his memoirs with this observation: ,A man alive in his own nightmare., It affected Nixon personally that his good intentions, in his view, were completely undermined by the ,liberal, press and politicians.


It later turned out that opinions about Nixon’s involvement and prior knowledge also differed among his former close associates. Ex-Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman claims in his memoirs (,The Ends of Power, 1976) that Nixon’s counsel Chuck Colson, who had the dubious honor of being Nixon’s dedicated ,dirty tricks, man, did ,something, at Nixon’s behest. had to do to corner the Democrats. Haldeman believes that Colson then organized the burglary on his own.

John Dean, in his memoirs (,Blind Ambition, 1977), posits that John Mitchell, the chairman of the re-election committee , ordered the break-in, possibly in consultation with Nixon. In a later book (,The Nixon Defense, from 2014), Dean carefully describes and analyzes all tape recordings about Watergate – a revealing account of how ,the President’s men, and the President, especially things like paying hush money and lying during FBI interrogations and Senate committees try to cover up.

Nixon’s morals

In one of David Frost’s famous interviews with Richard Nixon from 1977, Nixon clearly showed what he thought about presidential power. The conversation is about the President’s approval of intrusions by FBI or CIA employees for ,national security, reasons. Nixon also used this term to justify withholding his tape recordings of conversations about Watergate with his employees.,If the President approves it, it becomes legal,: Nixon’s moral summarized in one quote…

After Watergate

How did Nixon fare after he resigned? He returned to California and a long-standing inflammation in the veins of one of his legs almost killed him: doctors removed a 15 cm long blood clot. On his sickbed he received calls from Mao Tse-Tung and other world leaders. His successor President Ford granted him a pardon, sparing him a long and humiliating legal process. In 1977 he was interviewed for the BBC by David Frost, but even after much insistence from Frost, Nixon could not get an ,I’m sorry, out of his mouth. In the years that followed, Nixon worked on his rehabilitation. He traveled the world and published books. After the death of his wife Pat in 1993, he gave up and passed away in April 1994. He and Pat are buried in Nixon’s hometown in Yorba Linda, California. Henry Kissinger gave a moving farewell speech. He portrayed Nixon as the purified statesman. Will history remember him that way? Time will tell

The traitor?

A Saturday night in early October 1972, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post heads by taxi to an underground parking garage at 1401 Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn, Virginia, near Washington. He is on his guard and changes taxis three times. He walks the last part. In the garage waits the man who would become famous through Watergate as ,Deep Throat,, perhaps even more famous than the porn film of the same name from that time. The men talk at length that night. Deep Throat talks about FBI investigation into the ,dirty tricks campaign, set up by President Nixon’s re-election committee. He names John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman, two of Nixon’s closest associates and friends, as involved in financing that campaign. With Woodward the pennies fall one by one.

Source: Unknown, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Follow the money
According to legend, Deep Throat aka Mark Felt said ,follow the money, to Woodward that night. However, Woodward himself agrees that this is incorrect. (The phrase comes from the movie ,All the President’s Men.,) Ultimately, the trail to the money would lead to Nixon’s resignation. Was Deep Throat a traitor? And why did he become the informant who helped Woodward and Bernstein further?

FBI man through and through. Mark Felt was the second in command of the FBI, who, after the death in May 1972 of his legendary boss J. Edgar Hoover, had to deal with his successor L. Patrick Gray, a puppet of the Nixon administration. From the beginning of his presidency, Nixon’s men made a habit of trying to bend the FBI to their will. The dominant Hoover could resist this, but Gray could not: he was later found to have even destroyed Watergate documents and had to resign in April 1973. Felt felt it was his duty to protect the FBI against the shady practices of Nixon et al., which is why he helped Bob Woodward get information. Woodward guaranteed him lifelong anonymity and the few people who knew who Deep Throat was kept their word.


Woodward and Felt had met by chance during a visit to the White House in the late 1960s. They met regularly and Felt sometimes helped Woodward with his journalistic work. When the Watergate affair broke out, Felt maneuvered increasingly cautiously, especially after Woodward and Bernstein made a major slip in their reporting at the end of October 1972. After Felt’s retirement in June 1973, he faded into the background. Every now and then stories surfaced in the press that he was Deep Throat, but he managed to evade all accusations, even when he was almost exposed by a lawyer during interrogation in another case. He did not consider himself a traitor and it is fair to say that even without him the bottom stone about Watergate would have been uncovered.

Nixon and his associates soon suspected Felt of being Woordward’s informant, but they could never prove it (and in fact Nixon himself couldn’t believe it either). Bob Haldeman in particular suspected that Felt was a ,leaker, because he was frustrated that he had not become Hoover’s successor (a theory for which evidence was surfaced in 2012 by investigative journalist Max Holland in his book ,Leak,).

Before the judge

In 1980, Felt and other (ex-)FBI officers were taken to court for allegedly violating the rights of members of an anarchist terrorist group with the obscure name The Weathermen in the early 1970s. Former President Nixon was called as a witness to testify that he had ordered illegal wiretapping, in which he, in typical fashion, absolved Felt of responsibility, because ,what would otherwise be unlawful or illegal becomes legal, if the president approves it. .. Felt was sentenced to a small fine: the man to whose fall he had contributed had pleaded before him. Felt was later pardoned by President Reagan. Nixon suspected that Felt was the informant Deep Throat, but he never knew for sure. But even if he had known, he would have argued for Felt: he was a man of principles.

And after that?

By the second half of the 1970s, Woodward had lost contact with Felt. At the beginning of this century he went looking for him, because he too had never had an answer to the question of why Felt had done what he had done. He spoke several times with the demented Felt, but he remembered little of the turbulent years of Watergate. In 2005, Felt ,came out, and shortly afterwards Woodward published his book ,The Secret Man,, which had been in his mind for twenty years. Now that Felt himself had come clean, he and Bernstein could confirm that Felt had been Deep Throat.
Mark Felt died in December 2008 at the age of 95. His name will be forgotten, but his nickname never.

The legacy of Watergate

Nixon’s resignation in 1974 is seen by many people as a victory for the Democrats over the Republicans and as an expression of the left-wing zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet there are also historians who believe that the hard struggle between both parties in those years had started much earlier, namely in the 1950s with the ,communist hunt,. Nixon personified the fight between what many Americans consider the left-wing Democratic elite and ordinary citizens who vote for Republicans. Nixon had a good sense of how to play to these people and his Presidency was the starting point of a political polarization that has dominated American politics for more than forty years, see the conflicts between former President Obama and the Republicans and before that between Bill Clinton and the Republicans . With the arrival of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, this polarization is entering a new, harder phase. Trump also seems to have set himself the goal of isolating and vilifying ,the press, … we cannot see into the future, but we do know what happened to Nixon …

Watergate was just an expression of this polarization, in which a President tried to retain power by any means necessary. Watergate has long been history, but the theme of political struggle and paralysis of decision-making is still current: that is the true legacy of Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair.

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