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Date: 2023
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,212 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1240L

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Watergate, also known as the Watergate scandal or the Watergate affair, began in June of 1972, when burglars broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The break-in was later linked to the reelection campaign as well as to certain staff of President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994).

Over the next months, evidence of the president's involvement in both the burglary and the subsequent cover-up of the crime increased as several of his aides testified in court. Two years after the incident, conclusive evidence was obtained after President Nixon was ordered to turn in recordings of conversations that took place in his office. Facing almost certain impeachment, he resigned in August. The following month, his successor, President Gerald Ford (1913–2006), granted him full pardon.

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Main Ideas

  • The Watergate affair began in June 1972 when burglars broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., to install wiretaps and photograph documents in connection with the reelection campaign of President Richard Nixon.
  • Over the next months, the investigations showed increasing evidence that the president was involved in the burglary and the subsequent cover-up of the crime. Some of his aides testified in court, revealing that the president secretly recorded the conversations in his office.
  • In 1974, President Nixon turned in the recordings, which gave clear evidence of his involvement in the Watergate break-in. He resigned in disgrace in August but received full pardon from President Gerald Ford the following month.

Watergate Break-ins

In 1972, U.S. soldiers were fighting a war in Vietnam that had deeply divided the nation, and President Nixon, a Republican, was running for reelection.

During the early morning of June 17, five burglars broke into the DNC headquarters located in one of the buildings at the Watergate complex. A security guard named Frank Willis (1948–2000) became suspicious when he noticed tape over some door locks. He called the police, and all five burglars were caught and arrested.

The ensuing investigation showed that the burglars carried wiretaps, which they planned to install on the office telephones, and cameras, with which they hoped to photograph documents. They were also found to have thousands of dollars in their pockets and copies of the telephone number of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP).

"Deep Throat"

The White House quickly denied involvement in the break-in. In a speech in August, President Nixon swore that his staff had nothing to do with the incident. But many people were not convinced. Among them were Bob Woodward (1943–present) and Carl Bernstein (1944–present), who worked as reporters at the The Washington Post.

The two started their own investigation, which included obtaining crucial information from an anonymous whistleblower they called "Deep Throat." Over the next months, Woodward and Bernstein found that the burglars were linked to the CRP as well as to certain aides of President Nixon. Their reports had little impact on the presidential election, however, and President Nixon won convincingly.

Watergate Committee

By the end of January 1973, seven men had been charged in relation to the Watergate break-in. Five pleaded guilty to avoid trial, while the other two were declared guilty of conspiracy, wiretapping, and burglary. The following month, the U.S. Senate formed a special committee to investigate the break-in and any attempts to cover up criminal activity. Officially called the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the body was better known as the Watergate Committee.

In March, one of the burglars claimed that a larger conspiracy was behind the break-in and that more senior officials associated with the administration had ordered a cover-up of the crime. Televised hearings began in May, with Archibald Cox (1912–2004) as the special prosecutor in the case.

Testifying before a grand jury, some aides of President Nixon revealed that he had secretly recorded the conversations and telephone calls in his office. When asked to surrender the tape recordings, the president refused. This prompted Cox to obtain a subpoena requiring President Nixon to turn in the tapes.

"Saturday Night Massacre"

In response, the president ordered the firing of Cox. Attorney General Elliot Richardson (1920–1999), who had appointed Cox, refused to carry out the order. In protest, he and his deputy resigned. Acting as attorney general, Solicitor General Robert Bork (1927–2012), did as President Nixon ordered and fired Cox. These events took place on October 20, 1973, which became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." Cox was later reinstated by order of the U.S. District Court.

That same year, William Mark Felt Sr. (1913–2008) resigned from his post as associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, following accusations that he was leaking information to The New York Times. More than thirty years later, he would admit to being the whistleblower Deep Throat.

United States v. Nixon

The battle for the so-called Nixon tapes continued over the next months, with both Cox and the president filing special petitions to have the issue decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. President Nixon claimed he had executive privilege, that is, the right to withhold information from other government branches under certain circumstances. Cox argued that the need for evidence in the present trial was more important that the president's executive privilege.

By early 1974, several former aides of President Nixon had been charged in relation to the Watergate incident. Impeachment proceedings against the president were initiated in the U.S. Congress in May, citing obstruction of justice, abuse of power, criminal cover-up, and violations of the Constitution. In July, the Supreme Court gave a unanimous decision in the case of United States v. Nixon, ordering the president to surrender the tapes to the special prosecutor.

Nixon's Resignation

On August 5, President Nixon finally surrendered the tapes, which gave the courts clear evidence of his involvement in the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up. Facing almost certain impeachment by the U.S. Congress, the president resigned on August 8. He left the White House in disgrace the next day, becoming the first U.S. president to resign from office. Vice President Ford was sworn in on the same day.


One month later, on September 8, President Ford granted his predecessor full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he committed or may have committed while he was in office. Amid a public and media outcry, the new president reasoned that it was better to end the national nightmare because prolonging it would further divide the nation.

The Watergate scandal led to a widespread loss of confidence in the presidency, public officials, and government agencies among the American public. In later years, the word "gate" evolved into a suffix that, combined with a noun or name, suggests the existence of a political or government scandal, especially one that involves a cover-up.

The U.S. Constitution states that the president, vice president, and all civil officials can be impeached for treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanor. Although there is no exact definition of high crimes and misdemeanor, it is often taken to mean serious misconduct or abuse of public trust.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • Which part of the Watergate scandal was worse: the break-in or the cover-up? Please explain.
  • What role did the media play in the investigation of the Watergate scandal?
  • Do you think it is justified that President Nixon received a full pardon for the crimes he committed in Watergate? Why or why not?

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|XYBNAJ876052591