President Nixon Resigns 1974

Richard Nixon and Tricia Nixon Leaving Washington

On August 8, 1974, President Nixon became the first president in US history to resign. Nixon resigned as the House of Representatives was poised to vote on the articles of impeachment against him.


In June 1972, a burglary was discovered at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. The break-in was investigated by two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein. These reporters sensed that more was involved than a simple burglary, and soon uncovered a White House connection. The White House denied any connection, claiming that John Dean, Counsel to the President, had carried out an in-house investigation and found no evidence of White House involvement. President Nixon stated in August, "What really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur; what really hurts is if you try to cover it up."

In January of 1973, the five burglars and White House aides E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who had been connected with the break-in, went on trial before Judge John Sirica. Sirica was not willing to accept their guilty pleas and threatened the severest possible sentences. Finally, James McCord cracked and agreed to tell all. In a letter read to the court, McCord stated that others had been involved and that he and the other defendants had been paid to plead guilty and perjure themselves at the trial.

On April 30th, 1973, President Nixon announced the resignation of his two closest aides, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Chief Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman. During the summer of 1973, the nation sat riveted as it watched the televised hearing chaired by Senator Sam Erwin of North Carolina. John Dean's testimony began the momentum that eventually resulted in Nixon's resignation. In the course of his testimony, Dean stated that Nixon had been heavily involved in the coverup from the very beginning. It seemed to come down to a question of credibility, with Nixon making one claim and Dean stating the opposite until the Senate staff discovered the existence of extensive, damning tapes of White House conversations.

Meanwhile, President Nixon had appointed Elliot Richardson to be Attorney General. Richardson, in turn, appointed Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox as Special Prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair. When Cox subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon refused to disclose them, claiming executive privilege. The Courts overruled this claim, and Cox continued to demand the release of the tapes. On Saturday, October 20th, Nixon ordered the firing of Cox. Elliot Richardson and his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, refused to carry out the order and resigned, so it was left to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire them.

The reaction to what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" was overwhelming. Sixteen different bills of impeachment were sponsored in the house. Finally, Nixon agreed to obey Judge Sirica's order to turn over the tapes, and he appointed Leon Jaworski, an attorney from Texas, as the new special prosecutor.

On April 24th, 1967, Jaworski demanded additional tapes from Nixon. Nixon refused. Jaworski petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that Nixon release the tapes. The court ruled unanimously in favor of Jaworski on July 24th.

The House Judiciary Committee then drew up three articles of impeachment, which stated that Nixon had obstructed justice, abused his authority improperly by using a federal agency to harass citizens, and impeded the committee's effort to investigate the cover-up.

The new tapes produced the "smoking gun" that led many Nixon supporters to desert him. Conversations with Haldeman on June 23rd, 1972, a few days after the break-in, showed clearly that Nixon knew that the burglars were tied to the White House.

On August 8th, President Nixon resigned from the presidency, the first American president to do so.