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The Historical and Political Context of Watergate

The late 1960s were a time of great political and social upheaval in the United States.

President Johnson had been destroyed by the Vietnam War and had announced that he would not contest the 1968 election. A spirit of unrest pervaded the college campuses. Demands for black rights were growing and a huge anti-war movement had developed.

Richard Milhous Nixon (Republican) was elected president in 1968. Click here to read Nixon’s Acceptance Speech at the Republican Party’s Convention in 1968. Click here to read Nixon’s first Inaugural Address, or listen to part of the speech.

Nixon was elected on a pledge of ending the war. During his term, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, opened up diplomatic relations with China (1971) and established "detente" with the Soviet Union. It has been argued that only a president with Nixon’s well-established and hostile attitude to communism could have done these things.

In 1971, the Pentagon Papers were published. These secret Defense Department documents on American involvement in the Vietnam war were leaked to the New York Times by an official in the Defense Department, Dr. Daniel Ellsberg. Nixon challenged the publication of the documents in the Supreme Court and lost when the court ruled 6-3 in favour of publication.

Around this time, a White House Special Investigations Unit was established, known as the “Plumbers”. This secret group investigated the private lives of Nixon’s critics and political enemies. It burgled the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to discover damaging information.

Nixon was reported to have a “hate list”, containing the names of many Democrats, James Reston, Jack Anderson, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman.

Somewhere around 1971, voice-activated tape recorders were installed in the Oval Office in the White House.

As the 1972 election approached, the Democrats opted for a liberal candidate, Senator George McGovern, a factor that led to the landslide win by Nixon.

During the campaign, McGovern was forced to drop his vice-presidential running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after newspapers published reports of his previous mental illness. McGovern had earlier said he was 1000% behind Eagleton.

Eagleton was replaced by Sargent Shriver.

Nixon won 49 of the 50 states, McGovern winning only Massachusetts and Washington D.C.

Nixon was sworn in for his second term on January 20, 1973. Within weeks, Watergate engulfed him.

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