Watergate & the Saturday Night Massacre

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Watergate was a tabloid-like time in American history that involved President Richard Nixon. The Saturday Night Massacre was a key event in this real-life drama. Learn about both in this lesson and take a brief quiz at the end.

June 1972: Watergate

On the night of June 17, 1972, while the nation slept, burglars broke into the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. and ransacked the headquarters of the Democratic Party. But the burglars were caught after a security guard noticed something awry and alerted the police. Investigators began to explore the crime scene and look for suspects.

The Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.
watergate complex

Police identified the burglars as Nixon aides who were working for his re-election campaign. Let's pause a minute and note that this campaign was called the Committee to Re-Elect the President and was actually nicknamed 'CREEP.' That already puts the President in a negative light, wouldn't you say?

Like many criminal suspects do, Nixon maintained he had no relation to the crime and didn't even know about the break-in. Trying to convince both investigators and the American people of his innocence, Nixon even appointed a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to take over and lead the case.

The Saturday Night Massacre

As the investigation continued, more and more evidence came to light illustrating Nixon's involvement. Keep in mind that the person leading the charge was appointed by Nixon himself. Archibald Cox and his team interviewed many Nixon associates, including some of his top aides. The aides mentioned there were tape recordings of Nixon in the Oval Office. The president taped everything, the aides said, and perhaps on them there was incriminating evidence against Nixon.

Archibald Cox, Special Prosecutor appointed by Nixon
Archibald Cox

Cox subpoenaed the tapes, but Nixon refused to turn them over. After some back and forth between Nixon and the prosecutor, some were released, but parts of the recordings were missing. It was speculated these missing pieces included critical evidence against Nixon.

On October 20, 1973, after more than a year of Watergate, Nixon had had enough. He ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, two of his cabinet members, to fire Cox (whom he had appointed in the first place).

But both men refused the order and resigned out of protest. This is the event that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. After Richardson stepped down, the Acting Attorney General, Robert Bork, hesitantly executed the order and told Cox to pack his things and leave. Immediately after the White House announced these sudden personnel changes, Nixon ordered the FBI to seal off Cox's offices to prevent any further investigation.

William Ruckelshaus, Elliot Richardson, and Robert Bork
Ruckelshaus, Richardson, and Bork

Results: An Examination

The American public was punched in the stomach. They had suspected for more than a year that Nixon was involved in Watergate. But now, the events of October 20, 1973 clearly supported their gut feeling. People began protesting immediately. A new prosecutor was appointed and continued to pressure the president to release the remaining tapes. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. vs. Nixon that the tapes must be released.

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