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The Watergate Scandal

The Watergate Scandal

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Understand the process of uncovering President Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal

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what's covered
Under pressure from the antiwar movement and an economic recession, President Nixon sought a decisive victory in the 1972 presidential election. At the same time, the Democrats continued to grapple with the fallout from their contentious 1968 convention. Nixon won an overwhelming victory in 1972, but his mandate was short-lived as evidence emerged that he and his administration had acted illegally.

This tutorial examines the causes and consequences of the Watergate scandal in six parts:

  1. The Election of 1972
  2. The Watergate Break-In
  3. The Cover-Up
  4. The Investigation
  5. The Downfall of a President
  6. Resignation and Reverberations

1. The Election of 1972

The events that led to the Watergate scandal occurred during Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972.

As the incumbent, Nixon easily won the Republican nomination. His Democratic challenger was George McGovern, who emerged from another contentious primary process that revealed changes in the liberal Democratic coalition.

did you know
Following the 1968 convention in Chicago, the Democrats changed the process for selecting delegates to the convention. According to the new rules, delegates were selected based on candidates’ performance in state primary elections. The rules had been changed to empower primary voters and reduce the influence of party leaders.

The new Democratic primary system resulted in a contentious but increasingly inclusive environment that enabled a number of presidential candidates, including Shirley Chisholm (a) to participate. In November of 1968, Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. Four years later, in January of 1972, she announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. During the convention, Chisholm received 156 votes on the first ballot, but the nomination ultimately went to George McGovern (b), who was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.

Many Democrats, particularly white working-class voters, did not support McGovern. They saw his opposition to the Vietnam War as unpatriotic. Some voters also disapproved of his alleged support for a woman’s right to an abortion and claims that he wanted to decriminalize drug use.

As the incumbent, President Nixon enjoyed an advantage. He built on this advantage during the campaign by describing McGovern as a radical leftist. In November of 1972, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide: he won every state except Massachusetts.

In the 1972 election, Richard Nixon received 520 electoral votes, compared to George McGovern’s 17.  Libertarian candidate John Hospers received one electoral vote from Virginia.

2. The Watergate Break-in

Richard Nixon’s victory came as the result of the biggest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936. However, Americans soon discovered that he and members of his administration had engaged in unethical and illegal behavior. Their misdeeds were, in part, the result of Nixon’s obsession with secrecy, and his belief that liberals and radicals wanted to undermine his administration.

In 1971, following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon and his advisors set up an investigations unit known informally as the “plumbers”. The purpose of this unit was to spy on Nixon’s political opponents, and to stop leaks from reaching the press.

terms to know
Pentagon Papers
Government documents leaked to the New York Times that revealed the true nature of the conflict in Vietnam.
Investigative unit set up by the White House to spy on and sabotage President Nixon’s opponents, and to prevent leaks to the press.


While collecting information that could be used to damage the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the “plumbers” stole his patient file from the office of his psychiatrist.

During the 1972 presidential campaign, several of Nixon’s “plumbers” worked for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), which was headed by Nixon’s former Attorney General John Mitchell. Their job was to to play “dirty tricks” on Democratic political opponents.

did you know
Nixon’s campaign referred to the Committee by the acronym “CRP”. However, as news of its illegal and unethical activities spread, Nixon's critics — and his campaign — gave it a more infamous moniker: CREEP.


During the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, CREEP operatives leaked a letter written by presidential hopeful Edmund Muskie to the press. In it, he insulted French-Canadians, one of the state’s largest ethnic groups. The letter was later discovered to be a forgery.

CREEP’s most notorious operation was the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. On the evening of June 17, 1972, the police arrested five men inside DNC headquarters. According to a plan originally proposed by “plumber” G. Gordon Liddy, the men were there to wiretap DNC telephones.

The FBI discovered that E. Howard Hunt’s name was in the address books of two of the men the police arrested. Hunt was a former CIA officer — and a “plumber". In the weeks that followed, the FBI uncovered more connections between the burglars and CREEP, including thousands of dollars that the Committee had paid to cover the burglars’ expenses.

The Watergate hotel and office complex, located on the Potomac River next to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was the scene of the 1972 burglary and attempted wiretapping that eventually ended the presidency of Richard Nixon.

3. The Cover-Up

President Nixon was notified of the Watergate break-in by H. R. Haldeman, his Chief of Staff, during the morning of June 23, 1972. We know this because Nixon made tape recordings of conversations in his office. Following is an excerpt from that conversation:

The Watergate Tapes

Haldeman: “Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the, in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [L. Patrick] Gray [acting head of the FBI] doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have, their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources--the banker himself….

...the way to handle this now is for us to have [Vernon] Walters [of the CIA] call Pat Gray and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this...this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.’...

President Nixon: “Um huh.”

During the conversation with Haldeman, it appears that Nixon had little knowledge of the actual break-in. It is also clear that Haldeman did not want to implicate Nixon in the actual break-in. What would ultimately get Nixon in trouble, however, was authorizing the cover-up by ordering the CIA to prevent the FBI from looking into the matter further.

President Nixon: “...I’m not going to get involved…

Haldeman: “No, sir. We don’t want you to.”

President Nixon: “You call them in.”

President Nixon: “Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.”

Haldeman: “O.K. We’ll do it.”

Additional Resource

Visit the Nixon Library to hear audio of the Nixon Whitehouse tapes.


(You won't be tested on this.)

Having the CIA tell the FBI to stop its investigation of the break-in was both an illegal use of the CIA and an obstruction of justice. Furthermore, on August 30, 1972, President Nixon announced to the American people that John Dean, his White House counsel, had completed his own investigation into the Watergate break-in and found no evidence that the White House was involved. Despite attempts by George McGovern’s campaign to publicize the break-in, Nixon won the November election in a landslide.

4. The Investigation

Nixon’s attempt to cover up his administration’s role in the Watergate break-in unraveled shortly after it began for three key reasons.

1. A free, investigative press

Following the Watergate break-in, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received information from several anonymous sources, including one known to them only as “Deep Throat”. This information revealed that the White House was implicated in the break-in.

term to know
Deep Throat
The anonymous source who supplied reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information about White House involvement in the Watergate break-in.
did you know
In 2005, Deep Throat was revealed to be Mark Felt, then the FBI’s associate director.

As the White House misled investigators and the American public, Woodward and Bernstein continued to dig and publish their findings. The rest of the press corps focused on the election, the Vietnam War, and other events.

2. The federal court system

As Nixon won the 1972 election, most Americans were not concerned by reports of what had happened at the Watergate. However, the federal court system, specifically district judge John Sirica, investigated the break-in and the other activities of the “plumbers” and CREEP.

Based on evidence collected by the FBI, Sirica convicted five of the Watergate burglars along with G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in January of 1973. In his ruling, Sirica indicated that he was not convinced that everyone involved in the break-in had been discovered. He promised harsh sentences unless someone came forward to identify the additional participants.

In March, one of the burglars, James W. McCord, Jr., who feared a harsh sentence, admitted that he had committed perjury during the trial. He also identified people in the Nixon administration who had been involved in the break-in. Jeb Magruder, a deputy director of CREEP, admitted lying under oath, and indicated that White House counsel John Dean and former Attorney General John Mitchell (the director of CREEP) were involved in the break-in and the cover-up.

Dean confessed, and on April 30th, Nixon fired him and requested the resignation of his aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, who had been implicated by McCord's and Magruder's statements to the court. To defuse criticism and avoid suspicion that he was participating in a cover-up, Nixon also announced the resignation of the current attorney general, Richard Kleindienst. He appointed Elliott Richardson to replace him.

In May of 1973, Richardson appointed Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair.

3. Congress

Cox became special prosecutor as Congress’s role in the Watergate investigation grew. Throughout the late spring and summer of 1973, many Americans watched as the major t.v. networks took turns broadcasting the hearings of the select Senate Watergate Committee. One by one, former members of the administration admitted, or denied, their role in the Watergate scandal before a national audience.

The Congressional investigation might have ended if not for the testimony of Alexander Butterfield, a low-ranking member of the administration. During his statement, Butterfield mentioned that a voice-activated recording system had been installed in the Oval Office. This meant that the President’s private conversations, including the discussion between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972, had been taped.

5. The Downfall of a President

The Senate committee and Special Prosecutor Cox subpoenaed the tapes of the President’s Oval Office conversations. Nixon refused to turn them over, citing executive privilege.

term to know
executive privilege
The right of the U.S. President to refuse subpoenas requiring him to disclose private communications on the grounds that doing so would impede the functioning of the executive branch.

When Nixon offered to provide summaries of taped conversations instead, Cox refused. What followed was a chain of events known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” (October 20, 1973):

  • Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned.
  • When Nixon confronted Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus with the same order, Ruckelshaus resigned.
  • Control of the Justice Department then passed to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who complied with Nixon’s order and fired Cox.

In December of 1973, the House Judiciary Committee began an investigation into whether there was enough evidence of wrongdoing to impeach the President. House hearings revealed additional evidence of wiretapping, break-ins, and other illegal activities by the administration. In the spring of 1974, the House subpoenaed the White House tapes.

In April of 1974, Nixon responded to the subpoena by telling the American people that he was releasing 1,300 pages of edited transcripts of his taped conversations. “As far as what the President personally knew and did with regard to Watergate and the cover-up is concerned, these materials...will tell it all,” he said.

In April 1974, President Richard Nixon prepares to address the nation to clarify his position on releasing the White House tapes.

The transcripts showed Nixon to be dishonest, cruel, and coarse (the phrase “expletive deleted” occurred frequently). They also revealed nothing about Nixon’s knowledge of the break-in, but since the transcripts had been edited, this did little to allay suspicions.

In early July of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee moved to impeach President Nixon. Before the full House voted on the Committee's recommendation, however, the Supreme Court ordered the President to release the tapes of his conversations, not just transcripts or summaries. Among the tapes released was Nixon’s June 23, 1972 conversation with Haldeman, in which he was told about the Watergate break-in and stated his intention to obstruct investigation. That tape came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape: it proved the case against the President.

6. Resignation and Reverberations

Warned by other Republicans that he would be impeached and removed from office, Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974. It took effect the next day.

Richard Nixon’s letter of resignation, August 9, 1974.

“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision”, Nixon said as he announced his resignation. “I would only say that if some of my judgments were wrong — and some were wrong — they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.”

think about it
Compare Nixon’s statement with his conversation with Haldeman mentioned earlier in the tutorial. Why do you think many Americans were skeptical of Nixon’s claim that his judgments were made in “the best interest of the Nation”?

big idea
Like the Pentagon Papers, which changed opinions regarding the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal led many citizens to question whether the government could be trusted. The scandal had a profound impact, as the actions of the executive branch tested the abilities of the courts and Congress to hold it accountable. Nixon’s behavior during the scandal reinforced the perception of politicians as devious, arrogant, and selfish. This perception contributed to a growing pessimism about government and the people who citizens elect to represent them.

Although President Nixon won the 1972 election in a landslide, his concern for secrecy and misuse of executive power led to his downfall. The investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up were a significant test of America’s institutions, including the press, the courts, and Congress. As investigations uncovered evidence and the administration dug in its heels, the wrongdoing of Nixon and his advisers became clear. 25 of the President’s aides were indicted for criminal activity, and Nixon became the first President to resign from office. Although American institutions exposed and dealt with the scandal, the stain of Watergate would prove difficult to erase.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: 1972 Electoral Map, PD,, Nixon resignation letter, PD,, Transcript of Recorded Meeting Between Nixon and Haldeman in Oval Office Jun 23, 1972, Richard M. Nixon Library, Ret from, Nixon- Address to the Nation on Presidential Tape Recordings, Apr 29, 1974, Ret from Miller Center,, Nixon- Address to Nation Announcing Decision to Resign the Office of President, Aug 8, 1974, Ret from the Miller Center,, Openstax tutorial 30.4 Some sections edited

Terms to Know
Pentagon Papers

government documents leaked to the New York Times that revealed the true nature of the conflict in Vietnam.

executive privilege

the right of the U.S. president to refuse subpoenas requiring him to disclose private communications on the grounds that it interfered with the functioning of the executive branch.


investigative unit set up by the White House to spy on and sabotage President Nixon’s opponents and prevent leaks to the press.

People to Know
Archibald Cox

special prosecutor appointed in 1973 to investigate the Watergate affair and who subpoenaed the Nixon tapes.

Bob Woodward

Washington Post reporter who, along with Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued an investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up and who was aided by information from several anonymous sources including “Deep Throat.”

Carl Bernstein

Washington Post reporter who, along with Bob Woodward, doggedly pursued an investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up and who was aided by information from several anonymous sources including “Deep Throat.”

Daniel Ellsberg

U.S. military analyst who released a 7,000-page Pentagon study of American decision-making in Vietnam to the New York Times and other media outlets in 1971.

E. Howard Hunt

former CIA operative and organizer in the White House’s investigations unit, known as the “plumbers,” who was arrested and convicted following the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building in Washington D.C.

G. Gordon Liddy

former FBI agent and organizer in the White House’s investigations unit, known as the “plumbers,” who was arrested and convicted following the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building in Washington D.C.

George McGovern

left-leaning, antiwar politician who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president against Richard Nixon in the election of 1972.

H. R. Haldeman

President Nixon’s Chief of Staff who informed the president of the Watergate break-in and helped organize the conspiracy to cover up the White House’s involvement.

John Dean

White House Counsel for President Nixon from 1970-1973 who pleaded guilty for his role in the White House cover-up of the Watergate break-in and eventually became a witness for the prosecution.

John Mitchell

President Nixon’s former Attorney General who directed the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) during the 1972 presidential campaign and was eventually convicted and sent to prison as part of the Watergate cover-up.

John Sirica

U.S. District Court judge who led the trial of the “plumbers” and other members of CREEP who were implicated in the Watergate break-in and White House cover-up.

Richard Nixon

Cold Warrior and conservative republican politician who won the tumultuous presidential election of 1968 by appealing to a “silent majority” of Americans who looked unfavorably upon the social upheaval of the 1960s and by promising an honorable exit from Vietnam.

Shirley Chisholm

the first African-American woman elected to Congress (in 1968) and the first black woman to seek the presidential nomination from a major political party (in the election of 1972).

“Deep Throat”

the anonymous source who supplied reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with information about White House involvement in the Watergate break-in, and in 2005 was revealed to be Mark Felt, the FBI’s associate director in the early 1970s.