Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13710

The most influential scandal in the 20th century took place at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Its repercussions shaped not only the 1970s but changed the office of the presidency entirely.


Government, Social Studies, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Do you know what the Pentagon Papers were?

Pentagon Papers cover

Image by Drümmkopf, via flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

This was an official Pentagon report leaked to the public in 1971 by government employee Daniel Ellsberg. It revealed that the United States was significantly more involved in Vietnam than the American people had been led to believe.

The report examined all five of the presidents who served during the Vietnam conflict; however, Richard Nixon was the current president when the Pentagon Papers were published. He viewed this leak as detrimental to American foreign policy.

As a result, Nixon set up a group of people called The Plumbers who, among other things, would be paid by the White House to dig up dirt on opponents like Ellsberg and try to control the flow of information through blackmail.

  • How far was Nixon's administration willing to go in the name of control?

The Plumbers

Just like a plumber is hired to fix leaks in pipes, these Plumbers were meant to fix the leaks of information deemed secret by the Nixon administration.

To understand how this group operated under the administration's command, listen to a taped conversation between the president and his assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman.

Pay attention to how much knowledge Richard Nixon had of the group's covert operations beforehand as you watch President Nixon and John Ehrlichman Discuss Recent Activities of the Plumbers, September 8, 1971 from Richard Nixon Presidential Library:

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  • Does it sound like Nixon was in complete control of this group?

The actions of the Plumbers, while controlled by the administration, were only told to Nixon afterward in order to get him up to speed. This does not mean Nixon did not play any role in their actions, but his direction would come in the form of comments.

Watch Nixon's Enemies List, from American Experience | PBS, to see how Nixon started the Plumbers and where its members went after the group was disbanded:

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After trying to steal incriminating information on the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the group was disbanded.

President Nixon would surely look like a corrupt politician if the actions of the Plumbers got out. So its members, who were still useful to the administration, were simply moved to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP).


Richard Nixon was vice president in the 1950s and an ambitious young man. However, he failed to win the presidential election of 1960 and had to wait another eight years before having any chance of victory.

1952 campaign brochure

Image by the Republican National Committee, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Because Nixon had lost before, he formed this committee to help ensure his re-election. After finally getting what he wanted -- the presidency -- he did not want any Democrat to even come close to beating him.

Watch a portion of the video below to see how the tactics used by the Plumbers in 1971 were used by CREEP in the name of election victory. Pay particular attention to the role of Jeb Magruder.

Nixon's men organize intelligence operation for his re-election campaign: Part 2 from ABC News:

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With such a young and ambitious staff, Richard Nixon created an environment of extreme loyalty. He gave these young men the opportunity and positions they likely would have had to wait a decade or more to get.

As a result, these people were willing to do anything if they thought the president had ordered it.

Jeb Magruder was the deputy of the Committee to Re-Elect and was trying to control the negative information the Democratic Party had on Richard Nixon, so that the Nixon campaign wouldn't have any surprises.

Watch another primary resource video to hear why the chief operative in Nixon's Plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy, did not support this operation.

G. Gordon Liddy Recalls the Motives for the Watergate Break-In and His Doubts About It from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library:

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Although this operation had not been approved or provided a budget, Magruder and other top-level officials were confident that knowing what information the Democratic Party had on Nixon would enable them to more effectively go after its nominee, George McGovern.

In June of 1972, just a year after the Pentagon Papers were on the cover of TIME magazine, a team of people paid by the White House broke into the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Many of them were captured while others, like G. Gordon Liddy, evaded suspicion for a few days.

This break-in occurred on June 17th. On June 23, Nixon had a conversation about it with his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman.

As you listen to a portion of that conversation below, decide if you think Richard Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it happened or was told about it after the fact.

[NOTE: Nixon uses a slightly profane slur to describe Liddy in the clip below. As a primary source, however, it is important to hear the president in his own words.]

President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman discuss the Watergate investigation, June 23, 1972 from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library:

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The general consensus of historians is that Richard Nixon had no idea about this specific operation; however, once he was told about it, he became committed to covering it up.

If the administration's involvement in this illegal act had surfaced during the 1972 re-election process, Nixon would almost certainly have suffered in the polls.


Over the next two years, the puzzle behind the Watergate break-in was slowly pieced together. Journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein focused on this story when the rest of the nation wanted to move on.

Woodward in 2016 and Bernstein in 2007

Image by Jay Godwin, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.   Image by Larry D. Moore, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.


During this time, these two journalists tracked the flow of money because the participants had to be paid. They were able to trace a few of those checks all the way to the Nixon administration.

In 2017, Bob Woodward discussed how long this process took in What I learned investigating Nixon, and why it matters now | Bob Woodward | TEDxMidAtlantic from TEDx Talks:

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It took 26 months for the country to slowly realize and come to grips with the fact that their president was at least responsible for covering up this covert operation.

On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from the presidency fearing his almost certain impeachment and removal from office.

Watch a portion of President Nixon Resigns: Watergate Scandal | Archives | TODAY:

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Continue on to the Got It? section to explore how, although the Watergate scandal was not directly the fault of the president, he created an environment that made crossing the line almost inevitable.

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