OTD in History… June 17, 1972, Five men break into DNC at Watergate launching a crisis and the fall of President Nixon

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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.

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OTD in History… June 13, 1971, the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

HISTORY, NEWS & POLITICS

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OTD in History… June 13, 1971, the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history… June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the stolen 47-volume government documents known as the Pentagon Papers, which outlined the United States government ’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War, covering the Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. Disgruntled Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who opposed the Vietnam War, stole the “top-secret” documents. Ellsberg distributed the papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post and then 12 other newspapers. The papers published in the New York Times sparked a debate over freedom of the press, and whether the public has a right to know went to the Supreme Court, which ruled a decisive decision in the presses’ favor. With another president in power, Donald Trump who like Richard Nixon then, who often criticizes and the “undermines” the press, this ruling remains relevant.

The 7000 page, Pentagon Papers were officially entitled, The History of the U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam, and included “communiques, recommendations, and decisions” regarding Vietnam, from the three administrations. Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned the papers in 1967 an official history of the policy, and they were written by multiple authors, including Ellsberg.

After hearing a speech against the war by Randy Kehler in 1969, Ellsberg decided to sneak out volumes from his office at the RAND Corporation. Each night he stole out “portions” and copied them. In 1970, Ellsberg tried to get Nixon Administration officials and lawmakers to acknowledge them but failed. He then turned to the press, specifically the New York Times. In his 2002 memoir “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg explained the reasoning, “Only The Times might publish the entire study, and it had the prestige to carry it through.” Ellsberg had a contact there as well, Neil Sheehan.

The New York Times foreign editors’ team and Vietnam reporters set up shop in the New York Hilton, storing the documents and taking turns checking the text to the references. The paper’s law firm, Lord Day & Lord discovered what they were doing, they threatened to out them to the Justice Department and refused to represent them. On Sunday, June 13, Sheehan’s introduction was published in the middle of the front page of the paper entitled, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement.”

Sheehan described the Pentagon Papers as “A massive study of how the United States went to war in Indochina, conducted by the Pentagon three years ago, demonstrates that four administrations progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non‐Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort — to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.”

On June 14, the paper published an article on the documents. All branches of government opposed their publication because they were considered “classified” and if the public had a right to know about them and read them. President Nixon particularly opposed their publication and sent Attorney General John N. Mitchell to ask the Times to cease publishing, threatening that

“Further publication of information of this character will cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.” The Times continued and the administration “sued” them. The government won at first, with a federal judge ordering a temporary restraining order.

The Washington Post jumped in but had to use the Times as a source. The restraining order prompted Ellsberg to “reach out” to The Post. Ellsberg used one of his many intermediaries to contact former colleague and Post National editor, Ben H. Bagdikian, who picked up a copy of the papers in Boston and brought them back by plane. Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Post recounted; “With The Times silenced by the federal court in New York, we decided almost immediately that we would publish a story the next morning, Friday, June 18.” After The Post published their first articles, Bradlee was contacted by then Assistant Attorney General William H. Rehnquist, who asked them like the Times to cease publication, but Bradlee refused. Meanwhile, Ellsberg continued leaking the Pentagon Papers to other newspapers.

The New York Times and the Washington Post took the issue up to the Supreme Court and on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in favor of the press. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote in the Opinion, “In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.” The Times and Post could continue publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Nixon decided to resort to his own subversive method to stop leaks in his administration, the “Plumbers.” These same men were involved in the Watergate burglary in June 1972 at George McGovern’s Democratic National Committee headquarters, that plunged the nation into a crisis and led to Nixon’s resignation. Trump too, is facing an unprecedented number of leaks to the press in his administration as of yet he has not resorted to Nixon’s unsuccessful solution, but still his administration is mired in scandal over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

READ MORE

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking, 2002.

Rudenstine, David. Day the Presses Stopped — a History of the Pentagon Papers Case. 1998.

Sheehan, Neil/ K. E. W. B. F. S. H. G. J. L. F. R. W. The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. Two Rivers Distribution, 2017.

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.