Watergate affair

Watergate affair, in U.S. history, series of scandals involving the administration of President Richard M. Nixon; more specifically, the burglarizing of the Democratic party national headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C.

The Watergate Break-in

On June 17, 1972, police apprehended five men attempting to break into and wiretap Democratic party offices. With two other accomplices they were tried and convicted in Jan., 1973. All seven men were either directly or indirectly employees of President Nixon's reelection committee, and many persons, including the trial judge, John J. Sirica, suspected a conspiracy involving higher-echelon government officials. In March, James McCord, one of the convicted burglars, wrote a letter to Sirica charging a massive coverup of the burglary. His letter, along with the reporting (from 1972) in the Washington Post on the break-in and the involvement of the reelection committee and the Nixon administration, transformed the affair into a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude.

The Investigations

When a special Senate committee investigating corrupt campaign practices, headed by Senator Sam Ervin, began nationally televised hearings into the Watergate affair, former White House counsel John Dean testified that the burglary was approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of chief White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H. R. (Bob) Haldeman; he further accused President Nixon of approving the coverup.

Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed (May, 1973) a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to investigate the entire affair; Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of citizens by the administration, and corporate contributions to the Republican party in return for political favors. In July, 1973, it was revealed that presidential conversations in the White House had been tape recorded since 1971; Cox sued Nixon to obtain the tapes, and Nixon responded by ordering Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned instead, and his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and was himself fired. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally fired Cox (Oct. 20, 1973) in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Nixon's action led to calls from the press, from government officials, and from private citizens for his impeachment, and the House of Representatives empowered its Judiciary Committee to initiate an impeachment investigation. Meanwhile, in response to a public outcry against the dismissal of Cox, President Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and released to Judge Sirica the tapes of the Watergate conversations subpoenaed by Cox. Jaworski subsequently obtained indictments and convictions against several high-ranking administration officials; one of the grand juries investigating the Watergate affair named Nixon as an unindicted coconspirator and turned its evidence over to the Judiciary Committee.

Responding to public pressure, in Apr., 1974, Nixon gave the Judiciary Committee edited transcripts of his taped conversations relating to Watergate; however, Nixon's actions failed to halt a steady erosion of confidence in his administration, and by the middle of 1974 polls indicated that a majority of the American people believed that the President was implicated in the Watergate coverup. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that ordered Nixon to turn over to special prosecutor Jaworski additional subpoenaed tapes relating to the coverup. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee completed its investigation and adopted (July 27–30) three articles of impeachment against President Nixon; the first article, which cited the Watergate break-in, charged President Nixon with obstruction of justice.

Nixon's Resignation and the Aftermath

On Aug. 5, Nixon made public the transcripts of three recorded conversations that were among those to be given to Jaworski. At the same time he admitted that he had been aware of the Watergate coverup shortly after the break-in occurred and that he had tried to halt the Federal Bureau of Investigation's inquiry into the break-in. Several days later (Aug. 9) Nixon resigned and was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford.

President Ford issued a pardon to Nixon for any and all crimes that he might have committed while President. However, Nixon's chief associates, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell, were among those convicted (Jan. 1, 1975) for their role in the affair. In addition to the governmental upheaval that resulted from the Watergate affair, the scandal provoked widespread loss of confidence in public officials and tended to foster a general suspicion of government agencies.


See L. Chester et al., Watergate: The Full Inside Study (1973); M. Myerson, Watergate: Crime in the Suites (1973); C. Bernstein and B. Woodward, All the President's Men (1974); P. B. Kurland, Watergate and the Constitution (1978); L. H. Larve, Political Discourse: A Case Study of the Watergate Affair (1988); S. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate (1992); F. Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon (1994); B. Woodward, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat (2005); J. W. Dean, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (2014).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Watergate: Selected full-text books and articles

The Watergate Crisis By Michael A. Genovese Greenwood Press, 1999
Watergate and Afterward: The Legacy of Richard M. Nixon By Leon Friedman; William F. Levantrosser Greenwood Press, 1992
Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History By Rodger Streitmatter Westview Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Watergate Forces the President to His Knees"
Presidential Secrecy and Deception: Beyond the Power to Persuade By John M. Orman Greenwood Press, 1980
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "The Secret Presidency Out of Control: Richard Nixon"
Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers By Karl E. Campbell University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Librarian's tip: Chap. Ten "Truth and Honor." Sam Ervin chaired the Watergate Committee.
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