Hinge of History: Nixon Resigns

Nixon Waves Goodbye

Image courtesy of Richard Nixon Library

Hinge of History: Nixon Resigns
| published August 8, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Although it is difficult to view the 1970s as anything but a singular era of events and images—Vietnam, Watergate, oil shortages, inflation, disco, recreational drugs, and a whole tableau which seemed a natural extension of the revolutions that were the Sixties—there was in fact a key turning point which altered the trajectory of that colorful decade.

The August 9, 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon was the hinge upon which the decade changed course, and which forever altered American politics and the cultural language. Nixon read a brief televised statement the night before (August 8) which concluded with his stated intention to resign the presidency at noon the next day. And the next morning, while millions watched the event on television worldwide, Nixon delivered a rambling speech in front of nearly all the White House staff while his family stood nearby. His chat was mostly extemporaneous, at times maudlin and emotional, at other times displaying hints of his characteristic bitterness, at times nostalgic. Then, he turned and left the room, walking with his wife Patricia, and alongside Vice-President Gerald Ford and Ford’s wife Betty. Outside he climbed up the steps into a Marine helicopter, turned to wave, and extended both arms into the air with his trademark “double V,” arms aloft with both hands forming victory gestures with his fingers.

Moments later the helicopter would depart, taking Nixon to a waiting Boeing 707. About 90 minutes later, Gerald R. Ford would be sworn in as the new President by Chief Justice Warren Burger. The transition became arguably the greatest test of American democracy since the Civil War.

Watergate had been a slow-moving storm, much like the Vietnam War. In fact, some historians have pointed out that the two storms were interconnected—one the inevitable outgrowth of the other. Watergate likely would not have happened had it not been for the deeply divided feelings that Americans had toward a costly and violent war in Southeast Asia.

Nixon saw what Vietnam had done to unravel the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he was determined not to let that same fate overwhelm his administration. Believing that leaks, loose talk, and disloyalty had undermined Johnson’s ability to maintain a cohesive end-game policy toward the war, and certain that the joint chiefs and the top Pentagon brass has no aptitude for managing foreign policy, Nixon sought to alter the process. In typical Nixon style, he enclosed his foreign policy decision-making into a tight circle consisting of only his most trusted aides, including Henry Kissinger—then a rising star among the foreign policy elite, and Nixon’s closest advisor on international affairs. Nixon deliberately cut out of the loop the State Department, most of the intelligence community, and much of the military brass.

Meanwhile, he and Kissinger worked tirelessly and mostly behind-the-scenes to develop an end-run around the problem of Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger developed a foreign policy template by which détente with the Soviets and the Chinese would supersede the narrow concerns of the Vietnam War, but Nixon and Kissinger forged much of this process through secret pipelines and back channel negotiation—freezing out the top U.S. military men.

When the Pentagon pushed back, the seeds of Watergate were sown. In a little known fracas called the Moorer-Radford Affair, an eager-beaver Navy Yeoman, Charles Radford, was caught stealing and photocopying top secret foreign policy documents—many of the pages lifted straight from the desks and briefcases of Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and others. Radford had been systematically feeding the material directly to a small cadre of admirals and generals, including Adm. Rembrandt Robinson and Rear Adm. Robert O. Welander—chief liaisons between the chiefs and Kissinger’s staff at the National Security Council. Because some key passages and thoughts from a few of the most sensitive documents about U.S. relations to Pakistan (and, by extension, China) had appeared in newspaper columns by writer Jack Anderson, almost verbatim, the White House knew it had a problem. A small sting operation was set-up, and soon Radford was found to be the thief. Radford immediately rolled over and named the names of the high-ranking officers who had engineered the scheme.

Nixon was livid, and sent a former cop and private investigator, Tony Ulascewitz, and a trusted aide, John Erhlichman, to investigate. Later, Erlichman and Robert Haldeman would recommend to the President that he clean house at the Pentagon. But instead of pressing for court martials for the Pentagon brass involved, which included at that time Admiral Thomas Moorer, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Nixon gave those admirals and generals what amounted to a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But the president told them—in essence—that he now “owned them.” Further, Nixon and his staff were worried about the implications of a housecleaning at the Pentagon on the very eve of his world travels to break ground on détente and arms limitation talks. Nixon reasoned that if it appeared to the Soviets or the Chinese that U.S. policy was deeply divided even among its top officials, his negotiations would go nowhere.

Nixon preferred that the matter go away, and saw also that by not sending the admirals packing for early retirements, he would gain their permanent loyalty—albeit by way of the veiled possibility of demotion, prosecution or court martial. But, from that point forward, Nixon was even more distrustful of the wider mechanisms of Washington.

The Moorer-Radford affair was the seed. But later, in the summer of 1971, a former MIT researcher and military historian by the name of Daniel Ellsberg began making Xerox photocopies of a massive, secret report which he had helped prepare a few years earlier. The report, which became more popularly known as The Pentagon Papers, was a comprehensive study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam commissioned in 1967 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara when LBJ was president. That report was more than 3000 pages long, with thousands of additional pages of notes, appendices, and references. Ellsberg, who was an early supporter of the war in Vietnam, had become disillusioned, and began taking his photocopies to Neil Sheehan at the New York Times. Sheehan in turn took the material immediately to his editors and the Time’s attorneys for review. On June 13, 1971, the Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers, which set in motion the biggest freedom-of-the-press court case in U.S. history. (The White House challenged the Times’ right to publish the material, but eventually the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The New York Times (along with a similar case involving The Washington Post).

Again, Nixon was furious. His anger spilled over into a collective, colonial rage among his closest advisors and lieutenants, and upon the advice of counsel Charles Colson, and under the auspices of former Attorney General John Mitchell—who had just become chairman of Nixon’s re-election campaign—a special unit was established using outside contractors paid for by the White House to plug leaks, establish informational security, and discredit Nixon’s most vociferous political adversaries. They became known as the Plumbers, and their mission was dubbed Operation Gemstone. A young attorney who once worked for Erlichman, Egil “Bud” Krough, was chosen to supervise the investigation of the leaks.

Thus, Nixon had deliberately or inadvertently set in motion forces which would not only spin out of control—and into the realm of skullduggery and illegality—but which would also be his eventual undoing. Operatives working loosely for the White House expanded their mission to include a wide range of activities—break-ins, unauthorized surveillance, political disruptions, secret investigations—many of which would not come fully into public view for years. Eventually, led by team leaders Gordon Liddy and James McCord, their path would take them to the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters, at that time housed in the upscale Watergate, a hotel, apartment and office complex near the Kennedy Center in Washington.

On the night of June 17, 1972, a security guard making his rounds late at night through the Watergate’s lower level parking garage discovered a door with a taped lock. He called the metro police, whereupon several plainclothes detectives showed up, made a search of the building, and discovered that five men dressed in suits had broken into the DNC’s office suite. Of the five men arrested that night, four were Cuban-Americans and one was McCord, a former CIA operative with extensive electronics training. The burglars were caught with electronic bugging equipment, envelopes with sequential $100 bills, state-of-the-art walkie-talkies, and address books and notebooks—one of which contained names and phone numbers at the White House, including the names of Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt.

Early the next morning the Washington Post’s city editor, Harry Rosenfeld, assigned the story to young reporter Bob Woodward. A few days later, Woodward was joined by veteran Post reporter Carl Bernstein, and the greatest political detective story of the 20th century was set in motion.

For the reporters at the Post, the story evolved slowly, even painfully. The burglars weren’t talking, and neither were the others who were eventually arrested, among them Gordon Liddy. Though the reporters had suspicions that the caper was somehow connected to the White House or to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, the trail seemed to stop with Hunt, who was then working as a sort of independent contractor for the White House. Woodward and Bernstein trudged on, working with scant information and sketchy leads, even as very few other newspapers were picking up the story. Though the campaign of Democratic candidate George McGovern attempted to make Watergate a campaign issue, the strange incident did not gain traction in the press. Suspecting that there was more to the conspiracy than a mere break-in by zealots, Judge John Sirica convicted the five burglars and imposed harsh sentences meant to compel the men to talk. They did not. Woodward and Bernstein were left with a story which appeared to be dead-in-the-water.

But eventually Woodward was able to find a source to guide the reporters’ investigation. That source became known as Deep Throat (decades later identified as FBI agent Mark Felt). Deep Throat provided guidance for Woodward on a story which turned out to be much larger than the break-in at the Watergate. Among the bits of advice offered to Woodward by Deep Throat was the imperative to "follow the money." And in fact, when Woodward and Bernstein tracked cash and check transactions back and forth--from Miami to Mexico, from New York to Washington--they eventually came across a marginal trail of cashier's checks which seemed to move from campaign fundraisers to unknown recipients.  One such donation-collector was Kenneth Dahlberg, a Minnesota businessman and volunteer fundraiser, and one of his checks found its way, improbably, into the hands of one of the Watergate burglars.  When the story hit the newspapers the next day, several Federal agencies were compelled to begin criminal investigations, including the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office). 

In February of 1973 a Congressional investigation took shape. Under the chairmanship of Senator Sam Irvin (D-SC), the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was formed, and among its tasks was the investigation of other forms of campaign finance violation committed by the Nixon re-election campaign, and along with those, the break-in at Watergate. Scores of witnesses were called, thousands of hours of testimony was given, and dozens of names of Nixon operatives became synonymous with the Watergate affair: Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Jeb Magruder, Robert Mardian, Charles Colson, Hugh Sloan, Bud Krogh, Fred LaRue, and a young White House counsel named John Dean.

The televised hearings drew wildly high ratings. In March, Dean became the first major witness to call into question the veracity of the White House position. Dean testified that the two closest associates of the President—Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman—were directly and indirectly involved in a cover-up of evidence that might lead back to the break-in at the Watergate. Meanwhile, it was becoming obvious to those investigating that the actual Watergate break-in was merely a small component of a much larger pattern of abuses by many of the men working around Nixon. Still, despite Dean’s riveting testimony, there were scant few direct leads which could tie White House insiders to the skullduggery and illegal activities hinted at by Dean and others.

Then, in mid-summer, the most explosive revelation arrived. On July 16, Alexander Butterfield, a White House aid and security assistant, confirmed to Congress what had previously been only rumors: that many offices inside the White House were in fact equipped with recording systems designed to capture the conversation of those in the room. Butterfield testified that among those rooms wired for audio recording were the Oval Office, the President’s West Wing office, the Lincoln Sitting Room, and several other locations. Furthermore, Butterfield told Congress, the taping system was voice-activated—designed to begin recording the moment someone began the conversation. The revelation of the taping system was a bombshell. Immediately, Congress sought to gain access to the recordings. If the tapes showed that some of Nixon’s men had lied to Congress, then charges of perjury would be brought against those who had testified falsely. Furthermore, the tapes might also indicate whether the President and his top advisors had been involved in a cover-up, as Dean had suggested.

The taping system would turn out to be Nixon’s undoing. But contrary to the mythology of Watergate, Nixon did not install the taping system. The first tape recorders were installed during the last year of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The recording systems were later expanded and upgraded by subsequent presidents, including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. During Johnson’s years, the taping system was upgraded even more, and began to include key phone lines and additional spaces. Over time newer machines were installed to replace obsolete devices, and wires and microphones were replaced with newer, state-of-the-art mics. During the early months of the Nixon administration, brand new Uher and Sony reel-fed tape recorders were installed, and older microphones were replaced with tiny, compact lavalier mics. By early 1972, as many as eight different rooms had been wired. But even at that time very few White House staffers—and almost none of the visitors to the rooms—were aware that their conversations were being routinely recorded.

Congressional access to the tapes, which Butterfield indicated could number into the thousands, became the next phase of the Watergate affair. Congress and the courts wanted to have access to the tapes in order to determine if Nixon had been ordering his lieutenants to interfere with the investigations or whether there had been destruction of evidence.

Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox asked for direct access to some of the tapes. Nixon refused. Cox then asked Judge Sirica to intervene, and after Sirica sent subpoenas for eight specific tapes, the White House continued to stonewall. The White House engineered “the Stennis Compromise,” whereby U.S. Senator John Stennis and his staff would—acting separately—listen to the eight tapes in question, then write up his own detailed summary of their contents. Both Cox and Sirica refused to accept this arrangement. That weekend, angry that Cox would not compromise, Nixon demanded that Attorney General Elliott Richardson immediately fire Cox. Richardson refused, and instead resigned on the spot. Within the hour, Richardson’s second-in-command, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned when the White House asked him to summarily dismiss Cox. Nixon then called Robert Bork, then Solicitor General and next in the line of succession at the Justice Department. Bork acquiesced to Nixon’s demands and fired Cox. The chain of events became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski, a tough, no-nonsense former prosecutor. Other, parallel investigations had by this time begun, and much of the business of Congress was now inextricably linked to Watergate hearings and inquiries.

By this time, Washington was in crisis, and the body politic was deeply divided. What had started out as a strange little episode—a caper, as some had called it—had now escalated into a war of wills between The White House, Congress and the courts. The press was now fully caught up in the rapidly-evolving story, and the evening TV newscasts were often filled with news of Watergate. Pressure on Nixon to release the tapes had grown so strong in Congress that even Republicans were calling for the President to cooperate: if Nixon were innocent, as he had claimed to the American people, then the tapes would at least bring an end to accusations that he was involved. But Nixon had his reasons for wanting the tapes to remain cloistered.

But even then, Nixon failed to outflank Congress and the courts. He eventually ran out of legal options, and produced instead a massive set of transcripts—1200 plus pages which filled dozens of three-ring binders. The transcripts were heavily edited, and shorn of foul language, religious slurs, and racial epithets, the kind of talk apparently routine among Nixon’s inner circle of Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, Dean and Colson. (See “40 Years Ago: A Very Popular Paperback Book”; Thursday Review; June 18, 2014).

Nixon had hoped that the release of the edited transcripts would satisfy those who sought to remove him from office. Nixon’s gambit did not pay-off, and Congressional and Judicial pressure increased. The transcripts were rushed into print by paperback publishers working with The Washington Post and the New York Times, and for a brief moment that year they became best sellers, topping almost all other book sales combined. Nixon’s version of the transcripts elicited outrage from all quarters.

The U.S. House of Representatives convened impeachment hearings, and created a subcommittee to examine charges against Nixon. Ultimately the “smoking gun” came down to a few passages on a few key tapes. When Nixon infamously ordered Haldeman to call the FBI and “turn-off” the investigation—he had unequivocally obstructed justice. When Nixon told Dean that “we could get a million dollars” in cash to insure the silence of the Watergate burglars, the President was demonstrably engaged in a cover-up of a felony crime. Eventually, the U.S. House agreed upon four articles of impeachment, recommending impeachment to the U.S. Senate. Faced with the disillusion of even his staunchest GOP allies in Congress, including losing the support of Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, Nixon has few options. Unable and unwilling to face the prospect of impeachment and a trial in the Senate, Nixon chose to resign—reasoning that as a private citizen he could fight to keep the tapes private for years.

Late the night of August 8, he met briefly with Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig. Haig presented the president with a draft of a short resignation letter, which Nixon reluctantly signed. The next day, Nixon delivered his emotional farewell to his staff in the White House, and a short time later Ford was sworn in as the new president.

Despite the tide of divisiveness, bitterness, and anger which had consumed the country, there was relief on August 9 when Nixon walked to that waiting helicopter and Ford took the Oath of Office. Ford declared that “our long national nightmare is over.” The nation embraced Ford as someone who could usher it out of scandal and rancor and into a new era. But when the honest-broker and straight-shooter Ford later pardoned Nixon—an act which he genuinely believed would finally bring an end to the national obsession with Watergate—Ford himself was drawn into the nightmare in his own way: at least half the country felt that Ford had acted wrongly in extending Nixon a pardon while so many of Nixon’s own associates sat in prison cells.

Though there were other factors at work—including severe economic crises—Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976 was largely the result of his pardon of Nixon two years earlier. Carter ran on a campaign platform which included little more than a promise to remain forthright and honest with the American people. Ford, who was well-liked by the majority of Americans, nevertheless became arguably the last victim of Watergate, and one of the last to face political punishment.

After his departure from power Nixon remained an active elder statesman. Until his death in April 1994, during the Bill Clinton years, he had served as an occasional advisor to every U.S. president when questions of foreign policy came up. Nixon also spent much of his post-Presidency time writing, and working to rehabilitate his legacy.

By the time of Nixon’s resignation, reporters Woodward and Bernstein had become highly celebrated investigative journalists, and the press in general was at that moment in time riding the crest of its highest wave of engagement with the political processes of the country. Though many have simplified the long, arduous Watergate affair as having proven that the American system of government and democracy worked—and that the checks and balances envisioned by the Founding Fathers served the wider purpose—one cannot say that the business of courts, subpoenas, prosecutors, and Congress would have been possible without the effective work done by persistent journalists and their editors.

Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall also portended an age in which no president can escape the long shadow of Watergate. Further, in a strange twist in the political lexicon, no Washington scandal has truly reached its maturity until the suffix “gate” has been attached to it—either in seriousness or in jest.

Watergate also made history. Nixon became the only U.S. President to resign from his office. And Gerald Ford became the only American chief executive to ascend to the Presidency without first being elected—either as vice-President, or as President.

Related Thursday Review articles:

40 Years Ago: A Very Popular Paperback Book; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 18, 2014.

Deep Background, Deep Demolition; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 16, 2014.

The Best Newspaper Movie Ever Made?; Thursday Review; (from our Archives) January 19, 2014.