Thirty years ago, “Watergate” developed into the worst political scandal in US history, culminating in the first forced resignation of a president and the convictions of over 30 Nixon administration officials and campaign staff. The Watergate scandal forced the ruling class to accept the passage of a whole host of democratic reforms limiting the executive branch’s powers. Watergate shed light on the shadowy world of agents and spies who work behind the scenes in Washington – the same unelected power structure whose powers Bush wants to expand again today.
The Watergate scandal that engulfed America between 1972 and 1974 rocked US capitalism, exposing the corrupt intrigues of the Nixon administration and its spy agencies, discrediting not only the presidency but the entire political system to this day.
“Watergate” became synonymous with political burglary, bribery, extortion, phone-tapping, conspiracy, cover-ups, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, tax fraud, illegal use of government agencies, and illegal campaign contributions – in short, the abuse of power.
Watergate also exposed the superpower’s military abuses abroad, including CIA-sponsored coups and assassinations, the secret invasion of Cambodia, incursions into Laos, and above all, the war in Vietnam.
Watergate gave the political establishment a nasty jolt with long-term repercussions. The ruling class’s fear that the presidency was out of control led them to turn against Nixon and shift the balance of power from the executive branch to Congress.
Nixon, having won the presidency in 1968 while pledging to get the US out of Vietnam, now resorted to shady methods of silencing his detractors. On June 17, 1972 five burglars botched a break-in into the Democratic Party’s National Committee offices in the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.
Caught red-handed carrying wiretapping and photo equipment, it soon transpired that the burglars were linked to Nixon, who denied any knowledge of the crime. One of the five, James McCord, worked for the Nixon campaign as “security” officer for the top-secret Committee to Re-Elect the President (suitably known as CREEP) and had worked for John Mitchell, chief of CREEP and the then Attorney General. Two of the five had worked for the CIA, and three were veterans of the 1961 invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
$114,000 was found in the possession of Bernard Barker, one of the burglars who was caught breaking into the Democrats’ national office. The White House attempted to use the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation of the origins of this money.
However, the media revealed the source of the money, which contributed to unraveling the cover-up. $89,000 had been channeled through Mexico to disguise its origins, and $25,000 came from Nixon fund-raiser Kenneth Dahlberg.
These revelations set in motion the official investigations that finally ensnared Nixon. But it would take the creeping revelations over two years, the skilled investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the “smoking gun” tapes to finally nail Nixon.
This damning evidence flatly contradicted the claim Nixon had made five days after the burglary that “the White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident.”
In September 1973, a grand jury indicted the Watergate burglars. But these sacrificial lambs were paid $450,000 to maintain their silence. Before the trial, Nixon had secretly promised them executive clemency if they were imprisoned. In November 1973, Nixon urged the nation to put Watergate behind it and unconvincingly declared: “I am not a crook.”
Fearing prosecution, lesser officials of the Nixon administration began to squeal. Soon Nixon’s top White House aides and even Nixon himself were implicated in not only the Watergate burglary and its subsequent cover-up, but also a whole succession of illegal deeds against political opponents and anti-Vietnam war activists.
Various testimonies exposed the corruption and stench at the top of the political establishment. Attorney General John Mitchell controlled a secret fund of $350,000 to $700,000 to be used for “dirty tricks” against the Democratic Party, such as forging letters and leaking false news items to the press. Giant corporations, including American Airlines, had made illegal donations running into millions of dollars to the Nixon campaign.
It was disclosed that between 1969 and 1971 Nixon and his aides misused campaign donations and unlawfully used the FBI, CIA, and the IRS against their political opponents. This included authorizing without court approval the wiretapping of government officials and journalists to uncover the source of leaked news about the bombing of Cambodia. Nixon had set up the Special Investigations Unit, nicknamed the “plumbers,” in 1971 to track down administration leaks to the press.
Save the System
The Watergate scandal came to light at a time when the US ruling class faced its biggest challenges since the 1930’s. The US military, with all its technological and economic superiority, was being defeated by a peasant revolution in Vietnam. The Black Revolt and the anti-Vietnam war movement were shaking US society. At the same time, the economy was suffering a major slump for the first time in decades, with a wave of wildcat strikes sweeping the nation.
As these problems mounted, the ruling class became increasingly divided over whether it was worth continuing the war in Vietnam and over how to handle the mass unrest and protests at home. Under the pressure of mass movements from below, the ruling elite at the top of society, normally united, began to fracture and crack as they looked for someone to blame. These splits at the top of society opened the lid on Washington’s secret power structure, showing people how the government really worked.
Nixon’s presidency continued and deepened a post-World War II trend of increasing secrecy, deception, and evasion of congressional controls in the conduct of military and covert operations abroad by the executive, and the use of executive agencies to monitor political opponents and interfere in the electoral process.
Nixon, accustomed to spying on activists and radicals, now used these very same tactics on his political opponents within the political establishment itself. This contributed to sections of the ruling elite – and their politicians and media – turning decisively against him.
Responding to increasing concerns about a president out of control, the violation of democratic rights, the mounting mistrust of government, and in order to head off the growing anger against the war in Vietnam, the ruling class moved to remove Nixon and curtail the powers of the presidency by reasserting the authority of Congress.
Bowing to the inevitable and to avoid impeachment and more damaging revelations, Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974 – the only president ever to do so. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, however, got off scot-free to continue pursuing US imperialism’s interests abroad.
The ruling class got rid of Nixon in order to save the system. As one adviser put it: “All the rotten apples should be thrown out. But save the barrel.”
Nixon’s resignation, and the reforms that followed, were designed to encourage the view that the American system of institutional checks and balances had been vindicated and that “no one is above the law.” The reality, however, is less convincing.
Immediately after Nixon stepped down and handed the presidency over to Vice President Gerald Ford, Ford pardoned Nixon and – with the backing of Republicans and Democrats – exempted him from any criminal proceedings. After pardoning Nixon, Ford declared: “Our long national nightmare is over. The system works.”
But for millions of ordinary people, Watergate made clear how America’s government really worked. The FBI, CIA and the entire secret police apparatus were exposed as an unelected power structure run by thugs and assassins who had nothing but disdain for people’s democratic rights. Watergate revealed the rottenness and corruption of the shadowy political system that big business used to buy political influence.
Feeling this pressure, Congress was forced to reign in the powers of the FBI and CIA. Various reforms were also introduced redress the erosion of congressional powers, including the decentralization of authority, campaign finance and budgetary controls, and consultation with Congress on the use of troops abroad.
Reactivating Surveillance Powers
Although the ruling class was forced to accept the passage of numerous democratic reforms, they’ve been trying to chip away at them ever since. The war on crime, the war on drugs, and especially the war on terror have all been used to undermine the reforms of the 1970’s and strengthen the state’s repressive powers.
Ultimately, the post-Watergate reforms proved transitory and reversible, particularly after 9/11. Bush has vastly increased his powers by exploiting public fears of terrorism. In the name of national security, Bush is riding roughshod over Congress and, moreover, trampling on the democratic rights of working class people.
The clampdown on democratic rights has more to do with the economic crisis and the social and political upheavals awaiting US capitalism than the threats of terrorism. The ruling class fears being held account by angry workers determined to throw out not just some rotten apples but also the entire moldy barrel.