Watergate was more than a break-in at Democratic national headquarters. It reflected a larger struggle over US foreign policy between an increasingly powerful executive branch and a resurgent legislative branch. The precursor to this struggle was US involvement in the war in Indochina.
The Watergate crisis grew directly out of this war. As was usual with President Richard Nixon’s public crises, the press played a major role in the beginnings of Watergate. In June 1971 the New York Times began publishing a series of articles that chronicled American involvement in the Vietnam War. The documents, which had been leaked to the Times by former Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg who had become disillusioned with the war, were basically a historical account of American participation in the conflict. They dealt with mishandling of the war by the previous Democratic administration and were first thought by Nixon to be embarrassing only to his political opponents. However, Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger convinced the president that to allow the leakage of such classified information without retaliation on his part would be harmful to ongoing secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Soviet Union. The United States might be viewed by these countries as being unable to keep a secret.
The Nixon Justice Department sought and obtained an injunction against the New York Times and other papers that were running the series of articles. A US district judge in New York granted a temporary injunction against the newspapers and, for the first time in the history of the country, the press was ordered by the government to stop publication of a story. The conflict between freedom of the press and national security during wartime was such a momentous issue that the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited basis. The high court ruled in a 6–3 decision that the government had not met the heavy burden of proof that continued publication of these Pentagon Papers would cause a direct and immediate threat to national security.
It was after the Supreme Court ruling that Nixon made the politically fatal decision to order the creation of a White House investigative unit that would search for and stop further damaging leaks to the press by government employees. This unit, later known as the Plumbers because its purpose was to stop leaks, eventually broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in California in search of material that might reveal whether Ellsberg had more information that could be used to discredit the government and influence foreign policy (Ambrose 1989).
To this day, it is not clear whether Nixon knew beforehand of the break-in at the psychiatrist’s office, but he later admitted that his concern about damaging leaks to the press had created a climate in which such operations grew (Frost 1978). He also said that he would not have stopped the operation if he had known about it because he believed it was important in protecting national security during wartime.
Although the Plumbers unit soon disbanded, intelligence-gathering operations continued to be conducted from the White House. One such operation was the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC during June 1972, where five burglars were arrested by the police. The incident eventually led to the exposure of White House complicity in the break-in and Nixon’s own involvement in the cover-up (Aitken 1993). The early reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post was an important factor in keeping the Watergate story alive when other media outlets viewed it as what it initially appeared to be: a nonsensical attempted third-rate burglary.
The US Senate conducted an inquiry in 1973 into the Watergate break-in and alleged improprieties during Nixon’s re-election campaign the previous year. Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield testified before the Senate committee that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations between himself and others at the White House and other offices he used as president. After a year-long legal battle, the US Supreme Court ruled without dissent that the president had to turn over to the special prosecutor investigating Watergate the audio-tapes of discussions he had had with aides concerning Watergate. The reason for this decision was that the audiotapes were needed as evidence in the criminal trials of Nixon’s aides who had been accused of the Watergate break-in. Ironically, the smokinggun tape that led to Nixon’s resignation was caused by his attempt at implicating an agency that he bypassed with the creation of his own intelligence-gathering operations. This was the June 23, 1972 tape in which Nixon told his chief of staff Bob Haldeman (1978) to tell the CIA leadership to tell acting FBI director Patrick Gray to stop the investigation that was tracing the money supplied to the Watergate burglars because it might expose CIA assets in Mexico. In reality, it would have revealed that the money had been supplied by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. There was no national security reason to order the investigation to be halted, as Nixon later maintained in his defense. The real reason was the political one of protecting the names of political donors whose money had been laundered through a bank in Mexico.
The significance of the Watergate story today is related to the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of US government, particularly during times of war. To what extent can secrets in wartime be maintained in a democratic society? That question has to be resolved ultimately, with the help of an independent press, by the third branch of government, the judicial branch.
- Aitken, J. (1993). Nixon: A life. Washington, DC: Regnery.
- Ambrose, S. E. (1989). Nixon: The triumph of a politician, 1962–1972. New York: Simon and Schuster. Frost, D. (1978). “I gave them a sword”: Behind the scenes of the Nixon interviews. New York: Ballantine.
- Haldeman, H. R. (1978). The ends of power. New York: Dell.
- Nixon, R. N. (1978). RN: The memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.