OTD in History… June 17, 1972, Five men break into DNC at Watergate launching a crisis and the fall of President Nixon
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history… June 17, 1973, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. At 2:30 a.m. on that day, the country and the fate of Richard Nixon would forever change. The burglars were members of the White House covert unit the plumbers, former CIA agent James McCord led the four burglars on their mission. From the start, the White House began their cover-up initially calling it a “third-rate burglary.” The burglary and then its elaborate cover-up by the Nixon’s White House would plunge the country into a Constitutional crisis and be the “beginning of the end” for Nixon.
The Watergate break-in had its originals in the publication of Pentagon Papers. Michael Genovese in his book The Watergate Crisis noted, Special Assistant to the President “Charles Colson has called the events surrounding the Pentagon Papers issue “the beginning of the end.” (Genovese, 15) The Pentagon Papers were a 47-volume history of the Vietnam conflict covering the last four administrations. Disgruntled Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who opposed the Vietnam War, stole the “top-secret” documents and then distributed the papers to the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The Nixon administration opposed their publication and sought to stop their publication, the issue quickly moved up to the Supreme Court.
A year earlier on July 17, 1971, days after the New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers story, Nixon met in the Oval Office with Chief-of-Staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed the need to discredit Ellsberg, who Kissinger deemed a “threat to national security.” They decided the White House needed to take matters into their hands, and started would be the plumbers, a covert intelligence gathering operation. They chose David Young, a former NSC associate, and Egil “Bud” Krogh, Domestic Council staff lawyer. Young and Krough would recruit CIA & FBI agents E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate masterminds.
A year later, in the early hours of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard uncovered a piece tape on the lock of a door, he removed it, but when he returned and found the tape a second time, he called the police. Wills told ABC News in 1973 about the tape, “The tape, at first, didn’t seem to be anything unusual… At that time, I became a little suspicious.” McCord placed the tape on the lock in the basement and eighth and sixth floors. The remaining men, who took part in the break-in were Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis. As part of Operation Gemstone, the Plumbers were gathering “intelligence” on “Nixon opponents.” The five were supposed to bug the DNC offices and take photographs of sensitive and key documents. Two weeks earlier, bugs were installed but did not work, and that night they were replacing them.
Two plain-clothes D.C. Metro police officers John Barrett and Paul Leeper showed up. The Police discovered the five men on the sixth floor of the building in the DNC offices. Had the police officers been in uniform and arrive in a police car, the situation might have been different. Lookout Alfred Baldwin might have noticed and alerted the burglars earlier allowing for their escape. Instead, he waited too long and radioed Liddy too late. The police discovered them after one had hit their arm against a glass partition making a noise.
The burglars were wearing suits and ties. Officer Leeper recounted to ABC News, “McCord said to me twice, ‘Are you the police?’ And I thought, ‘Why is he asking such a silly question? Of course, we’re the police.’ I don’t think I’ve ever locked up another burglar that was dressed in a suit and tie and was in middle age.” According to Genovese They “were wearing rubber gloves, carrying walkie-talkies, electronic eavesdropping equipment, cameras and other tools.” Officer Barrett also indicated they had “bugging devices … tear gas pens, many, many rolls of film … locksmith tools … thousands of dollars in hundred dollar bills consecutively ordered.” None of the burglars gave the police their real names or ages when they were arrested, they had been using aliases to rent their two Watergate hotel rooms. Standing guard at the Howard Johnson Hotel across from the Watergate were Hunt and Liddy. The police arrested them as well.
There were connections to the White House. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein determined the connections to the President, and that McCord was the security director for the Committee to Reelect the President CREEP. The FBI’s investigation determined Hunt had a closer connection to the White House. Their 1974 report found, “On June 17, 1972 [the date of the break-in], Hunt’s probable involvement in the Watergate incident came to the WFO’s [Washington Field Office] attention because of his country club bill found in the Watergate Hotel and because of information contained in [the address book of Bernard] Barker [another of the burglars]. WFO, about 6:00–7:00 pm, June 17, 1972, contacted [Alexander] Butterfield of the White House and learned that Hunt had previously worked as a consultant at the White House. Butterfield was told Hunt may be involved in the DNCH [Democratic National Committee Headquarters] burglary. On June 18, 1972, Butterfield recontacted WFO and advised that Hunt had worked for Charles Colson, Special Counsel to the President.” The White House denied the connections, but the suspects had White House documents.
Preeminent Watergate historian Stanley I. Kutler in his book The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon argued that Nixon was “at the center of Watergate,” and “The wars of Watergate are rooted in the lifelong personality of Richard Nixon. Kutler noted the break-in “clearly was a political operation,” with Attorney General John Mitchell working on a cover-up just “several hours after the news of the burglars’ arrest broke.” Kutler viewed the break-in and subsequent cover-up, as “its planning, its flawed execution, even its motives-ultimately must be seen as part of a behavior pattern characterizing the president and his aides that stretched back to the beginning of the Nixon Administration.” (Kutler, 208, 216, 209)
On Jan. 15, 1973, Barker, Sturgis, Gonzale, Martinez and pleaded guilty to conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping charges and served over a year in prison, while Hunt served 33 months. Liddy and McCord took their chances with a trial both were convicted on Jan. 30, 1973, Liddy served 52 months in prison, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter “commuted his sentence.” McCord served the least time, four months. Federal Judge John J. Sirica shortened his sentence after he claimed there was a “cover-up” that involved senior White House officials.
Many historians see Watergate as the nation’s worse political scandal while clearly placing the blame on Nixon for the downfall of his presidency. Kutler concludes, The Watergate scandal “consumed and convulsed the nation and tested the constitutional and political system as it had not been tested since the Civil War.” (Kutler, 616) London Times Washington Bureau Chief Fred Emery in his book Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon called Watergate “a self-destruct tragedy for Richard Nixon.” Emery determines that Watergate “was a pattern of malfeasance by him and his men that led to the damning — and bipartisan — vote in Congress.” (Emery, xii)
Historian Joan Hoff in her revisionist history, Nixon Reconsidered, viewed Nixon’s presidency as “more than Watergate,” and “Watergate more than Nixon.” Hoff believes the scandal was a product of the times, concluding, “Watergate was a disaster waiting to happen, given the decline in political ethics and practices during the Cold War.” (Hoff, 341) While historian Allan Lichtman notes Watergate “was a widespread conspiracy. Several dozen people went to jail, including other very high officials of the [Nixon] campaign and of the Nixon administration. So a lot of people who should have known much better got sucked into this terrible scandal and it is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions because in many ways Richard Nixon did a lot for the country.”
Three days later, on June 20, Nixon was speaking with Colson in the Oval Office and both agreed, “This is going to be forgotten.” In the short time, the break-in was forgotten, Nixon won reelection with a landslide. The investigative reporting by Washington Post reports, Woodward and Bernstein, whose story would be recounted in their book and then the movie “All The President’s Men” would soon unravel the massive cover-up leading back to the Nixon White House.
The Watergate scandal would consume the nation, and Nixon’s presidency taking down most of the administration’s high ranking officials and sending them to prison. After the revelation of Nixon’s elaborate taping system, and fight over handing over the tapes, the president would lose support from his party. Just over two years later, Nixon facing sure impeachment chose instead, to become the first president to resign from the office. Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford declared upon taking office, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, and in time, Nixon’s image rehabilitated but the stain of Watergate remained on the nation and Nixon.
SOURCES & READ MORE
Emery, Fred. Watergate: The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon. London: Pimlico, 1995.
Genovese, Michael A. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Hoff, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. New York: BasicBooks, 1998.
Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Norton, 1992.
Kutler, Stanley I. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. London: Touchstone, 1999.
Small, Melvin. A Companion to Richard M. Nixon. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.