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Ryan Reft, Historian of Modern America, Manuscript Division
Connie L. Cartledge, Senior Archives Specialist, Manuscript Division
Created: May 21, 2019
Last Updated: March 18, 2021
The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress preserves, arranges, and makes available for research the personal papers and organizational records of historical significance that have been acquired by the Library. The content of this guide is not intended to be comprehensive, but provides an overview of selected manuscript materials to help researchers navigate collections in the Manuscript Division relating to the Watergate Affair and related topics such as impeachment, executive privilege, wiretapping, and the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
“The Watergate Affair has been called the greatest political scandal of the twentieth century, the standard against which all subsequent scandals have been judged,” writes historian Geraldo Cadava. “It caused many to lose faith in government, led to campaign finance reform … and drove Americans to demand greater transparency in politics, which led to broad transformations that reshaped the cultural and political landscape for decades to come.”1
Though some historians have questioned just how much transparency improved and government corruption declined after the scandal, much of Cadava’s point remains true, a testament to Watergate’s enormous influence. Looking back almost fifty years, Nixon’s tenure has proven more broadly influential than initially thought and in ways that might have been unexpected even for him. Watergate undoubtedly looms large in such evaluations, but Nixon’s political accomplishments, skills, and to some extent, his gruff persona all factored into a broader and longer lasting influence. The scandal cascades across the papers in the Manuscript Division; detaching it from Nixon’s larger legacy remains a difficult, if not impossible task. An overview, however, placing the scandal in larger context is provided below so as to aid researchers in their study of Watergate, the Nixon Administration, and the political milieu of the 1970s.
Well before the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, as the twentieth anniversary of Watergate approached, interest in Nixon’s administration sprung anew. In 1990, the PBS series American Experience released its documentary “Nixon”; five years later Oliver Stone premiered his feature film, of the same name with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Twenty first century observers have witnessed numerous films and documentaries about the 37th president as well. From the farcical satire of Dick (1999) to the intensity of Frost/Nixon (first as a play in 2006 and then as a film in 2008 film), feature films have continued to remark upon the late president, as recently in the 2016 with the release of the dramedy Elvis and Nixon. Documentaries continue to tackle his legacy as well notably Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words (2014), and Our Nixon (2013).
Even when not a character, Nixon serves as an almost existential force in numerous movies. For example, his ashen presence filters into The Post (2017), a film about the Washington Post’s struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers. In both the film adaptation of the Watchmen (2009) and the television series (2019), Nixon exists as a dystopian influence on an alternative reality America.
The classic film All the President’s Men, has come to define celluloid journalism and was credited as the main influence on the 2016 Oscar winner Spotlight. Watergate’s shadow, for better and worse, reshaped how Americans thought about and consumed journalism while also reframing portrayals of journalists. The book upon which the movie was based “transformed [nonfiction] book publishing into a red-hot part of media,” former editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, Michael Korda told the New Yorker in 2018.2
Though they had written a groundbreaking work in the field, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had critics. “The heroized investigative reporters, Bernstein and Woodward, established a new low watermark for using unnamed sources,” historian Ruth P. Morgan argues in a 1996 article. For Morgan, the Washington Post reporters’ methods transformed a generation of journalists into “unlicensed detectives” focusing on the more salacious aspects of politicians’ lives while utilizing “’leaked’ information rather than … legitimate research into the substantive concerns of policy.” Morgan reserved her praise for books like J. Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976).3
The film also flipped the new journalism ethos practiced by Tom Wolfe, Guy Talese, and others in which the writer obscured his or her role in the narrative. Instead, the movie focused intensely on Woodward and Bernstein, a practice that continued decades afterward. As a result, some historians argue that journalists now think of their profession with greater regard and importance, ever seeking “the broadest possible autonomy with the least accountability under the First Amendment.” The consequence has been a public that views the media more dimly than ever argues historian Joan Hoff.4
At Nixon’s April 1993 funeral, President Bill Clinton asked the public to stop “judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career.” On the break-in’s 40th anniversary historian Joan Hoff echoed Clinton’s sentiments, reminding New York Times readers that it “is worth remembering Nixon's achievements as well as his failures.”5
During the 1990s, writers engaged Nixon anew. In 1990, Stanley I. Kutler published what some consider the most definitive account of the scandal: The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. A year later, journalist Tom Wicker and Hoff each followed with One of Us: Nixon the American Dream (1991) and Nixon Reconsidered (1994). Wicker and Hoff offered new assessments of Nixon’s presidency that foregrounded his domestic policy achievements over the traditional narrative that the president’s acumen in international relations would be his most lasting contribution to U.S. history, a pattern that arguably persisted into the twenty-first century.
Nixon’s own dismissiveness regarding domestic policy reinforced such views. “I’ve always thought that the country could run itself domestically without a president … You need a president for foreign policy,” Nixon once told journalist Theodore White. In moments, Nixon could be baldly Machiavellian such as at a 1970 White House meeting with leading environmentalists during which he lectured attendees on political leverage. "All politics is a fad. Your fad is going right now. Get what you can, and here's what I can get you."6
Nixon's own final words in office also helped to emphasize his foreign policy accomplishments. On the eve of his resignation, in his final speech before the American people on August 7, 1974, Nixon eschewed references to any achievements domestically and instead focused mostly on his accomplishments in international relations. In Asia, he had opened diplomatic relations with communist China, and though he had extended the Vietnam War, he had also ended it. U.S.-Middle East relations had been arguably improved. His policy of détente had accomplished arms reductions agreements with the Soviet Union. “He said nothing about the conditions in the United States, except to allude to the ‘turbulent history of this era,” notes historian Jill Lapore.7
As evidenced, by the 1990s, many sought to reevaluate Nixon’s foreign policy accomplishments. “In the final analysis, Nixon’s diplomatic legacy is weaker than he and many others have maintained,” Hoff wrote in 1996. According to Hoff, Nixon resolved Vietnam with neither peace nor honor and lacked “a systematic Third World policy … except to use certain countries as pawns in the geopolitical and ideological battle with the USSR.” Détente with the USSR failed to carry the day in subsequent administrations and the “Nixon Doctrine” resulted in “unprecedented arms sales by the United States” while U.S. deployment of troops abroad continued. Nixon spent his first term focusing on Vietnam, China, and the USSR, leaving the Middle East for his second four years, during which Nixon remained largely distracted by Watergate.8
Others added that even if one views Nixon’s Vietnam policy as ultimately a success, the controversy over Watergate prevented the United States from coming to a “national consensus” on just what the nation’s role in the world should be after unsuccessful excursions into Indochina.9 For Hoff, none of this robs Nixon of his foreign policy talents, which she and others acknowledge, but rather emphasizes the difficulties of cementing or consolidating diplomatic triumphs past one’s own administration.10
Whatever priority Nixon placed on his domestic policy, his administration did have several domestic accomplishments. When asked about these achievements in 1983, Nixon included “desegregation of Southern schools, environmental initiatives like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the pursuit of international cooperation in space, as well as his declarations of war on cancer, illegal drugs and hunger.” One could add Nixon’s establishment of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Energy Policy, the latter focusing on oil policy, and advocating for the Clean Air Act of 1970.11
Former Nixon aide and Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and one of Nixon's lead advisors on environmental issues, John C. Whitaker credited the administration on these same issues adding that politically Nixon proved more liberal than Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan, or George H. W. Bush but more conservative than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and even Bill Clinton, planting Nixon “squarely in the middle of the political spectrum of modern presidents.” In addition Whitaker added that Nixon “increased spending for the poor, aged, and handicapped, nearly doubled the Johnson [Native American] budget, started a special program with a $60 million budget to encourage minority businesses, increased college student loans, put $100 million in research for his ‘war on cancer,’ doubled the budget for environmental clean-up and new park land acquisition, and proposed $1.5 billion to help school districts meet problems related to court ordered desegregation.”12
Nixon’s desegregation accomplishments remain a point of historical debate. His efforts in opposing busing played a key role in earning the votes of middle and working class white Americans particularly across the growing Sunbelt. Indeed, Nixon presaged and oversaw a suburban realignment of the nation’s politics which established a consensus “postliberal” order based on defending middle class entitlements and neighborhoods combined “with the futuristic ethos of color blind moderation and full-throttled capitalism,” an approach emulated by Republican and Democratic politicians alike among them Bill Clinton.13
When it came to desegregation and its implementation, “Nixon’s record was a mixture of principle and politics, progress and paralysis, success and failure,” writes Lawrence J. McAndrews. “In the end, he was neither simply the cowardly architect of a racially insensitive ‘Southern strategy’ which condoned segregation, nor the courageous conductor of a politely risky ‘no-so-Southern strategy’ which condemned it.” Still, despite efforts by historians and former officials to highlight Nixon's domestic policy accomplishments, for many, foreign policy remains his primary contribution. "[H]is interests and arguably his greatest achievements lay in foreign affairs," Meir Rinde noted in a 2017 article evaluating Nixon's environmental legacy. "his administration's domestic initiatives though substantial, are only dimly remembered."14
While Nixon’s efforts to court white voters have been well documented, his efforts with the nation’s communities of color have been a source of more recent scholarship. Though not always the case, by 1972, Black voters found the president wanting. Nixon won nearly a third of the African American electorate in 1960, however, Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, due to his opposition to civil right legislation, had alienated Black voters. The Arizona senator could only lay claim to six percent of the Black vote. By 1968, this improved marginally, but Nixon could muster only 10 percent. “During his first term in office,” argues historian Leah Wright-Rigueur, “Nixon vacillated between support for racial equality and outright hostility toward civil rights.” While he did net 13 percent in 1972, his own political ambivalence as well as the race-neutral approach he deployed in which colorblind rhetoric replaced more overt racial language won over few African American voters who “saw such overtures as implicitly racist or exclusionary in tone,” adds Wright-Rigueur.15
Yet, Nixon’s support among non-whites varied, in part, due to his outreach to such communities. For example, he spent much of his first term shoring up support from Hispanic Americans. Nixon made political appointments, established financial programs aimed at providing aid to Hispanic entrepreneurs and promoted “Brown capitalism” while also forming “cabinet level committees” which functioned to connect leaders in the capital to Hispanics across the United States. Combined, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson only made nine appointments of Hispanics to significant policy positions such as secretary, under secretary, or assistant secretary. Nixon made 55 such appointments perhaps best exemplified by his selection of Romana Acosta Banuelos as Treasurer of the United States in the fall of 1971.
In foreign policy, Republican Hispanics cheered his “strident anti-communism” such as his administration’s role in ousting Chile’s Salvador Allende, the U.S.’s continued embargo of Cuba, and Operation Condor which lent aid to South American nations promoting neoliberal economics against left leaning opponents in the region. Such efforts paid dividends as he won a third of the Hispanic vote in 1972. “He established a new normal,” argues Cadava, “and developed a national strategy that future Republicans sought to replicate.” Ronald Reagan emulated this example in 1980 when he won nearly forty percent of Latino voters.16
Native Americans also saw in Nixon an opportunity to protect their interests. “Nixon showed sympathy for Native Americans, whom he considered a ‘safe’ minority to help,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted in 2003. “Because the Indian movement was just getting under way during the late 1960s, Native Americans proved responsive to presidential gestures.” In the wake of what some Native American leaders viewed as less advantageous policies under Jimmy Carter, prominent voices such as LaDonna Harris (Comanche) openly stated many of her allies in the movement believed “that the Nixon Administration was much more accessible.”17
At the same time, Watergate unhurriedly seeped into the political landscape. Initially, the media moved slowly in covering the scandal. Nixon appeared at four press conferences between the Democratic National Committee Headquarters break-in on June 17, 1972, and the election on November 7. He fielded only three questions about Watergate from journalists. Despite handing out federal indictments to the five Watergate burglars as well as E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy less than two months before the election, the media persisted in considering “the subject of marginal importance,” observes historian Keith W. Olson. Network news covered Watergate with more frequency during the 1972 presidential campaign than did the nation’s newspapers. Though among print media, the Washington Post proved the exception. "Although there had been occasional incremental stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine, the Post had been mostly alone on Watergate for months," then Metro desk editor and later executive editor of the newspaper, Leonard Downie remembered in his 2020 memoir. "Between June 17 and December 31, 1972, the Post published two hundred Watergate stories - most of them on the front page." Double that of their closest competitor the New York Times. Still, pressure mounted on the newspaper. In moments even publisher Kay Graham had doubts. "I sometimes privately thought .... if this is such a hell of a story, where is everybody else?"18
Instead, the scandal manifested well after the 1972 election. Nixon romped to a landslide victory but the Republican Party did not. Though the GOP gained a dozen seats in the House, it lost two Senate seats and both houses of Congress remained under Democratic control. “After you take the President’s personal landslide,” then RNC chair Bob Dole noted, “there wasn’t any landslide at all.” Though Nixon tallied an impressive electoral-college victory, his Gallup Poll approval ratings ranked between 11 and 19 points below the five presidents who preceded him. When it finally did explode in the national news during the first few months of 1973, Watergate savaged his popularity; the public’s support of Nixon dropped from a post- election high of 68 percent approval to 24 percent in July/August of 1974.19
Once the media finally latched on to the story of intrigue and scandal, it did so aggressively. Coverage became all-encompassing in both print and television media as well as in entertainment. In fact, Watergate references worked their way into children’s television. In an episode of “Sesame Street” Cookie Monster stood accused of thievery after having allegedly absconded with cookies. “[A]n offense, after whispered consultation with his lawyer, he happened not to recollect at this point in time. Then he started eating the microphone,” recounts historian Rick Perlstein. Even just a few years later, international observers expressed equal parts fatigue and concern regarding the American drama. "Never mind the stars and stripes/Let's print the Watergate Tapes," the Clash's Joe Strummer sang on "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." from the band's 1977 debut album.20
If the media and Congress chose to saunter rather than sprint in exposing Watergate, the nation’s federal court system, specifically the United States District of Columbia district court and court of appeals acted early and played a major role in events. At the time some observers expressed criticism over District Court Judge John J. Sirica’s actions in Watergate -- lawyer Joseph L. Rauh charged the judge with denying “the Watergate Seven” a fair trial -- in retrospect, many historians believe Sirica performed well as did his peers on the District Court such as Gerhard Gesell, Carl McGowan, June Greene, Aubrey Robinson and John Garrett Penn. “It was during this period that the District Court … became the focal point for some of the great tests of American constitutionalism,” observes historian Jeffrey Brandon Morris.21
Though perhaps overshadowed during this period by the lower District Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also played a significant role in Watergate. Judges J. Skelly Wright, Harold Leventhal, David Bazelon, and Spottswood Robinson III, among several others, presided over Watergate related cases that ultimately shaped federal law. The decisions handed down by the District of Columbia Circuit answered important questions regarding executive privilege, separation of powers, and administrative law more broadly. A tragedy for the nation, Watergate and Nixon’s general tenure from 1969 to 1974 proved an enduring period of precedent for the federal courts regarding important constitutional issues.
In the end, one cannot limit Watergate to Nixon nor Nixon to Watergate. His accomplishments and failures in governance, whether in domestic or foreign policy, were perhaps not shaped by the scandal but affected by it. It cannot be confined to the period of June 1972 to August 1974, its roots stretch well before the former and its branches extended well beyond the latter. The Manuscript Division’s collections remain one of the top repositories in the nation to investigate, explore, and evaluate dozens of political, cultural, and legal issues that Watergate influenced. From the nation’s judges to its reporters to its elected Congressional members and their staffs to Nixon’s advisors, researchers will find both questions and answers about Watergate, Richard Nixon, and the 1970s in their papers. Even today, we still have not fully ascertained the impact and long-term importance of Watergate on the culture and politics of the United States.
The guide is arranged into five categories: Administration Officials, Journalists, Justices and Judges, Members of Congress and Staff, and Additional Collections. Each entry includes links to catalog records for an individual collection. On each catalog record, find more information about the collection. Many of these collections have a finding aid linked from the record. The finding aid provides a description of the content and arrangement of the collection. Information about Searching Finding Aids is available on the Search Tips page of this guide.
A few collections in this guide list access restrictions. Many of them, however, are available for research and include restrictions for only a small part of the collection. Collections not available online are accessible in the Manuscript Reading Room.