Politicians appear to generate bad news all the time at the moment. Whether it be due to over-aggressive campaigning, allegations of corruption, or broken promises, public opinion of them never seems to be very high. But this is not a modern phenomenon. One of history’s most infamous political scandals occurred in 1974, resulting in the resignation in August that year of American President Richard Nixon (above). it would become known as the Watergate scandal.
The term Watergate has since come to encompass the collection of illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon presidential administration team. Often referred to as ‘dirty trick’ campaigns, these activities included bugging the offices of political opponent, the harassment of activist groups and political figures, and using the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to do so.
The scandal was known as Watergate because, in June 1972, a break-in occurred within the Watergate office complex. Five burglars entered the Democratic National Committee offices, but were discovered by 24-year-old night watchman Frank Wills. They were arrested by police, and subsequently it was revealed that they were employed by Nixon. However, in August of 1972, President Nixon told reporters, “No one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.”
The arrest of the Watergate burglars was just the beginning of a long chain of events in which it became increasingly clear President Nixon was deeply involved in an extensive cover-up of the break-in and other White House secretly sanctioned illegal activities. The earliest of these underhand activities is believed to have occurred in 1970, when The New York Times revealed a secret bombing campaign against neutral Cambodia in Southeast Asia was being conducted as part of the American war effort in Vietnam. Following the revelations, Nixon ordered wiretaps of reporters and government employees in order to discover the source of the news leaks.
By 1971, Nixon was so worried about the number of leaks from the White House that were undermining his position that he established a “Plumbers” unit in the White House with the sole purpose of gathering political intelligence on perceived enemies and preventing further news leaks.
In July 1973, evidence mounted against the President’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The investigation revealed that President Nixon had a secret tape-recording system in his offices to record conversations between his colleagues.
After a year-long battle, the US Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to release the tapes to government investigators. These audio recordings revealed that the president had attempted to cover up all of the dirty tricks activities that had been taking place, and left him facing impeachment.
Concluding one of history’s biggest scandals, and having entered Watergate into the political and cultural Lexicon, Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency of the USA in shame on August 9th, 1974.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.