Watergate was the biggest political scandal in U.S. history
President Nixon proclaimed, "I'm not a crook" on TV
Nixon became the first American president to resign from office
It would go down as the biggest political scandal in U.S. history. A “third-rate burglary” and coverup that went all the way to the White House. The Watergate crisis, the vote to impeach former President Richard Nixon and his subsequent resignation would test the bonds of the Constitution and shake Americans to the core.
We searched TIME magazine’s vault from the ’70s to relive the tumultuous times as they unfolded — events that would define a nation.
It started with a burglary attempt at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate building. Five men wearing business suits and surgical gloves were caught by a security guard and arrested by police. The question became: who were these men and who orchestrated the break-in?
TIME’s article “Politics: The Bugs at the Watergate” from July 3, 1972, read:
The White House, through Presidential Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, at first tried to dismiss the incident as a “third-rate burglary attempt.” That it was considerably more serious became clear when the five arrested men were identified. One was in the pay of [former Attorney General John] Mitchell’s committee; several had past links to the CIA. Beyond that, shadowy trails reached close enough to the White House, as one Republican admitted privately, to shake the G.O.P. with fears that another ITT scandal — or worse — was in the making.
Despite the growing scandal, Nixon was at the top of his political game and reelected for a second term in a landslide victory five months later. TIME magazine named Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the President’s assistant for national security affairs, “Men of the Year” for 1972.
But as more evidence began to emerge, it appeared that Nixon was involved in an elaborate coverup and an attempt to keep the accused men quiet with hush money.
TIME’s article “The Hearings: Dean’s Case Against the President” from July 9, 1973, described the damning testimony from fired White House legal counsel John Dean:
Now the grave charges against the President had passed a point of no return. Carried with chilling reality into millions of American homes and spread massively on the official record of a solemn Senate inquiry, the torrential testimony of John W. Dean III fell short of proof in a court of law. But the impact was devastating. As President, Richard Nixon was grievously, if not mortally wounded…
Dean related, “I told the President that there was no money to pay these individuals [the seven Watergate defendants] to meet their demands. He asked me how much it would cost. I told him that I could only estimate, that it might be as high as a million dollars or more. He told me that that was no problem and he also looked over at [White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman and repeated the statement…”
In a dramatic turn of events, it was revealed that conversations the President had in the White House, including talks about Watergate, had been secretly recorded. But Nixon refused to hand over the tapes.
In TIME’s article “The White House: The Battle for Nixon’s Tapes” from July 30, 1973, Americans were ready for the truth:
As the Watergate scandal grows more incredible almost weekly, it now seems probable that an ironic twist of fate could prove decisive in determining how the President’s involvement is finally perceived. The controversy that arose from the secret bugging of Democratic Party headquarters might possibly be resolved through the secret bugging of the White House, ordered by the President himself.
‘Saturday Night Massacre’
In an act of desperation, Nixon shocked the nation in what would be called the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Under growing pressure to hand over the tapes, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox. The attorney general refused and resigned. Nixon then demanded that the deputy attorney general fire Cox. When he refused, Nixon fired him, although a letter from the President said he resigned. Then Nixon turned to the acting attorney general, who did indeed fire Cox.
TIME’s article “The Crisis: Seven Tumultuous Days” from November 5, 1973, chronicled the public’s outrage:
The week was propelled through its course by public protest against the President unprecedented in its intensity and breadth. Individual Americans demanded Richard Nixon’s resignation or impeachment in 275,000 telegrams that overloaded Western Union circuits in Washington. Much of the legal profession, most of organized labor and many key religious leaders joined the assault. Nearly two dozen resolutions to at least begin impeachment proceedings were introduced in the House of Representatives. At the shocked White House, even the President’s loyal chief of staff, Alexander Haig, termed the conflagration “a fire storm.”
Vote to Impeach
For the second time in U.S. history, it became increasingly clear that Congress and the American people were ready to impeach the President.
TIME’s article “The Fateful Vote to Impeach” from August 5, 1974, describes the historic roll-call vote:
After four garrulous days, the talking stopped. The room was silent, and so, in a sense, was a watching nation. One by one, the strained and solemn faces of the 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee were focused on by the television cameras. One by one, their names were called. One by one, they cast the most momentous vote of their political lives, or of any representative of the American people in a century.
Mr. Railsback. Aye. Mr. Fish. Aye. Mr. Hogan. Aye. Mr. Butler. Aye. Mr. Cohen. Aye. Mr. Froehlich. Aye.
Thus six Republican Congressmen joined all 21 Democrats to recommend that the House of Representatives impeach Richard M. Nixon and seek his removal from the presidency through a Senate trial. And thus the Judiciary Committee climaxed seven months of agonizing inquiry into the conduct of Richard Nixon as President by approving an article of impeachment that charges he violated both his oath to protect the Constitution and his duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.
Crippled by his own wrongdoing, Nixon had defied the public trust and engaged in one of the worst political conspiracies in U.S. history.
In a subdued yet dramatic TV address, Nixon announced his resignation from the Oval Office on August 8, 1974, to avoid an impeachment trial. He became the first president in American history to resign.
In TIME’s article “The Resignation: Exit Nixon” from August 19, 1974, the magazine reported Nixon delivered his 16-minute speech with “remarkable restraint” and with “no attacks on his old enemies, no visible bitterness”:
His face perspiring, his eyes red-rimmed, Nixon scarcely looked at his audience most of the time, his eyes focused down and to the side. In one stunningly incongruous and belated insight, considering that it came from a man who was brought down by his own congenital suspicion and mistrust, Nixon told his colleagues: “Always remember others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them — and then you destroy yourself.”