Don't Know Much

TODAY IN HISTORY: The Watergate Break-in

It was the duct tape that changed history.

On June 17, 1976, private security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds of the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. when he noticed some duct tape on a door lock. He removed the piece of tape. When he returned a little later, he found the duct tape had been replaced in an obvious attempt to keep the door from locking. Willis called the D.C. police and five men were arrested in the “third-rate burglary” that led to the downfall of Richard M. Nixon in the crisis called “Watergate.”Don't Know Much About Hstory

Break-ins and buggings. Plumbers and perjury. Secret tapes, “smoking guns,” and slush funds.

We know now that Watergate wasn’t what Nixon press secretary Ron Zeigler called it, “a third-rate burglary.” This nationally televised soap opera of corruption, conspiracy, and criminality only began to unravel with this botched break-in at the Watergate office complex where the Democratic National Committee had its offices. That ludicrous larceny was only a tiny strand in the web of domestic spying, criminal acts, illegal campaign funds, enemies lists, and obstruction of justice that emerged from the darkness as “Watergate.” But it ended up with Richard Nixon resigning from the presidency in disgrace and only a few steps ahead of the long arm of the law.

The five men arrested –Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugene Martinez, and Frank Sturgis — were indicted on a variety of charges related to the break-in. Also indicted were  E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. All seven men were were connected, directly or indirectly, to the Nixon campaign organization, the Committee to Reelect the President. When the full extent of those connections was finally uncovered, it led to the investigations that ultimately revealed the secret Oval Office taping system that President Nixon had installed. When those tapes became public, and the extent of the crimes committed was revealed, Nixon faced impeachment charges and resigned the Presidency on August 9, 1974.

Frank Wills left his job as a security guard at the Watergate. Despite some rounds on the talk show circuit and playing himself in the film version of All the President’s Men, he never profited from his role in the fall of the Nixon Administration. He returned to his native South Carolina to care for his sick mother. Wills died in poverty in September 2003 from a brain tumor.

A complete timeline of the Watergate story is available from the Washington Post, whose reporters Carl Woodward and Bob Bernstein, were largely credited with exposing the Watergate scandal.

You can also read more about Watergate and the Nixon years in Don’t Know Much About History.

The Latest From My Blog

Don’t Know Much About® Mr. Madison

March 16 anniversary of the birth of America’s fourth President, James Madison, also known as “The Father of the Constitution.”

Read More

Don’t Know Much About® Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was born on March 15, 1767.

Read More