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U.S.: President Nixon's Watergate Legacy Remembered 25 Years Later

  • Julie Moffett



"Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office where so many decisions have been made that shape the history of this nation. Each time I have done so to discuss with you some matters that I believe affected the national interest ..."

Washington, 6 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-five years ago, an extraordinary event occurred in U.S. politics: the first-ever resignation of a president amid allegations of abuse of power, bribery and a cover-up.

The president was Richard Nixon, the 38th man to hold the country's highest political office. He served one full presidential term of four years and less than half of another before he resigned in disgrace on August 8, 1974. The scandal that led to his demise became known as "Watergate," after the exclusive Washington hotel where the events that led to Nixon's fall began.

"I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body. But as President I must put the interests of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad."

In the past 25 years, Nixon's presidency has often been characterized by historians as one of contrasts -- notable for its foreign policy triumphs but ultimately disgraced by Nixon's abuse of power.

Nixon took office in 1969, a turbulent time in which the United States was coping with its five-year-old war in Vietnam. He ended the war in early 1973, but by then, more than 55,000 American soldiers had died. Although Nixon did not start the war, in the minds of many Americans, he would always be connected with it. Once U.S. troops withdrew, North Vietnamese forces defeated South Vietnam and unified the country under Communist rule.

Frustrated by the experience in Vietnam, some historians say Nixon worked harder to achieve diplomatic successes elsewhere. He did succeed, in some cases dramatically. The most notable of his achievements are the diplomatic initiatives he made toward communist China and the Soviet Union.

In the spring of 1972, Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit communist China, a trip that helped to reorder the global balance of power. He told an audience at a Beijing banquet that China and the U.S. had no reason to be enemies:

"Neither of us seeks the territory of the other. Neither of us seeks domination over the other. Neither of us seeks to stretch out our hands and rule the world. Chairman Mao has written that 'So many deeds cry out to be done, and always urgently. The world rolls on, time passes. Ten thousand years are too long, seize the day, seize the hour. This is the hour for our two peoples to rise to the heights of greatness, which can build a new and a better world. ' "

Just a few months later, Nixon visited the Soviet Union, where he and General-Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed landmark agreements on nuclear weapons control. He also made a televised appeal to the Soviet people:

"History tells us that great nations have often been dragged into war without intending it, by conflicts between smaller nations. As great powers, we can and should use our influence to prevent this from happening. Our goal should be to discourage aggression in other parts of the world, and particularly among smaller nations that look to us for leadership and example."

Nixon also had several domestic policy triumphs during his tenure, such as the policy of "New Federalism." New Federalism took money from the federal government and gave it to the 50 states for more effective local programs and initiatives. Nixon also championed women's rights and created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources.

But according to historians, Nixon was insecure about his successes and worried about his re-election chances. Nixon, a member of the Republican Party, was also distrustful of the press and concerned about the activities of rival Democratic Party candidates, who were campaigning against him in the run-up to the 1972 election.

To investigate his political opposition and learn what campaign strategies they were using, Nixon secretly created what amounted to a domestic spy ring made up of loyal cabinet members, high-ranking officials and others.

A small group of the "spies" was caught during a burglary at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. Investigators quickly realized the men were not ordinary burglars. They were equipped with sophisticated radio equipment and electronic eavesdropping devices.

Fearful that the Watergate break-in would lead back to him, Nixon is said to have ordered a top-level cover-up and the destruction of any evidence that might link him to the crime. However, two young reporters from the Washington Post newspaper -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- eventually unraveled the cover-up.

Woodward and Bernstein spent nearly two years interviewing sources and painstakingly piecing together information about exactly what had happened prior to and after the Watergate break-in. Eventually, Nixon's closest aides began giving public confessions, revealing their roles in both the break-in and the cover-up. Nixon himself continued to deny any involvement.

In the end, it was a series of tape recordings Nixon had made in the White House that gave clear evidence of his role in the affair. As Congress began impeachment hearings against Nixon, he resigned.

"To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow [Aug. 9, 1974]."

The disclosure of Nixon's activities and the subsequent cover-up resulted in the indictments of some 40 top government officials, in addition to Nixon's own resignation. Nixon never had to face criminal charges. Gerald Ford, his vice-president who became president after Nixons resignation, pardoned him. Ford said he pardoned Nixon in an effort to heal the wounds of the nation.

During a recent forum to mark the 25th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, Woodward -- now a senior news executive at the Washington Post -- said he believes Nixon's involvement would have been eventually uncovered by someone else if he and Bernstein hadn't done it first.

Woodward said he believes Nixon was too willing to use the power of government to settle scores and get even with his enemies. Woodward said Nixon's "talk and his attempts to order subversion of various departments was bound to come out."

After his resignation in 1974, Nixon worked hard to restore his reputation as a statesman, advising a number of sitting presidents on foreign policy. His memoirs, scholarly writings and public speaking engagements almost exclusively stressed his domestic and international triumphs.

Nearly all U.S. television stations broadcast Nixons funeral in 1994 live. Many leaders and dignitaries from around the world attended, including President Bill Clinton and the four surviving former U.S. presidents.

Still, most historians say it is clear that Nixon will be remembered largely as an infamous political figure, as the first U.S. president to be forced from office for an abuse of power.

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