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The Saturday Night Massacre at 50

What actually happened in one of the most disruptive episodes of the supposed Watergate scandal?

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Credit: Ollie Atkins

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” a heroic but doomed attempt by President Richard M. Nixon to halt the runaway tyranny of the deep state, the judiciary, and the corporate media before it could usurp fully the government of the people of the United States of America. The episode, like the Watergate scandal as a whole, has been entirely distorted in American memory, with Nixon miscast in the very role of his opponents: a man gone mad with power, an aspiring despot with no regard for the Constitution. It was, in most tellings, the moment that doomed the Nixon presidency—after sixteen months of Americans not caring that five men had been caught snooping at the DNC headquarters, and just eleven months since the American people sent Nixon back to the White House in the most resounding electoral victory in the country’s history.

The saga began in June 1971, when the New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers,” a trove of classified documents detailing American policy and actions in the ongoing Vietnam War. The documents had been leaked by a radical activist named Daniel Ellsberg, who as a senior staffer at both the Department of Defense and the RAND Corporation had been admitted to the inner circles of trust of the American military establishment, in an effort to undermine U.S. interests abroad and political stability at home.


The Pentagon Papers, covering 1945–1968, had virtually nothing to do with the Nixon administration, and, in fact, they reflected the grave misdeeds of the president’s opponents. But Nixon had cut his teeth in Washington two decades earlier on the House Un-American Activities Committee, exposing Alger Hiss and other dangerous enemies of America embedded deep within the government and the highest levels of media. This was exactly the kind of subversion from within that he and his colleagues had feared then and hoped to stop. America could not function in the 20th century with Ellsbergs stalking the shadowy halls of a military-industrial complex at war with itself any more than it could survive the construction of a globe-spanning super-state with Alger Hiss as its architect.

A week after the publication, aides within the White House stood up a Special Investigations Unit meant to get a handle on such leaks from the executive branch. John Ehrlichman tapped Egil “Bud” Krogh to lead the project, a family friend who had worked for him prior to joining the administration. Krogh was wet behind the ears, a 31-year-old lawyer from Chicago with a reputation for decency. Political journalist Theodore White later joked that “to put Egil Krogh in charge of a secret police operation was equivalent to making Frank Merriwell chief executive of a KGB squad." Krogh hired G. Gordon Liddy, a decorated veteran of the FBI, to help run the unit’s operations. E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA officer and prolific pulp novelist, had been hired elsewhere in the White House but was quickly moved to the “Plumbers” (a not especially clever self-reference that has stuck for half a century). The ranks were largely filled out from Hunt’s circles at the CIA, especially those who had worked on his notoriously unsuccessful operations in Cuba. 

The first major effort the Plumbers undertook was a burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, during which they hoped to turn up damaging information about the leaker’s mental health. When that failed to produce a smoking gun, they planned, but were not allowed, to execute a second burglary at the psychiatrist’s home. The scheme was worse than fruitless: These men’s missteps allowed Ellsberg to escape justice for his crimes, as the burglary and other misconduct became public during trial. He did not receive a single conviction, nor did he serve a single day of the 115-year prison sentence the charges warranted.

Their incompetence became clear early on, so the Plumbers were largely shunted off to tinker with campaign schemes, rather than ostensibly more sensitive White House business, as the president entered reelection season. In May 1972, they planted two listening devices at the headquarters of the Democratic National Convention at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. What value they thought they would obtain from these bugs has never been clear, but they were apparently worth enough that a second break-in was warranted a month later to fix one of the devices.

It is this last Plumbers break-in, on June 17, 1972, that has gone down in history. Five men with varying degrees of connection to the CIA and the Nixon campaign were arrested with lockpicks, huge amounts of cash, and other cartoon burglary equipment. Hunt’s name was found in two of the men’s address books, along with the White House phone number. The scene was so colossally moronic that it almost seemed as if the burglars were trying to get caught.


In the following days, senior White House staff began to learn of the involvement of both campaign and administration personnel. Top aides, along with the president himself, discussed how to handle these revelations with minimal damage to the conduct of government and the position of the administration.

The crisis presented an opportunity for certain entrenched powers in Washington who had wanted Nixon out of office since the day the American people put him there. Perhaps the most important of these was Katharine Meyer Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. Graham had inherited the paper from her father, the first president of the World Bank whose family had long held sway in finance on multiple continents. Graham had no problem with Republicans per se, but she had always resented Nixon as an unpolished novus homo in the salons of Georgetown society—a resentment the president repaid in force. Envoys between the White House and the Post reported that Graham herself was going to use her control of the Post to turn the break-in embarrassment into a scandal that could derail Nixon’s presidency. In a particularly candid moment, Graham told columnist Stewart Alsop, “I hate him and I’m going to do everything I can to beat him.”

The press vendetta—embodied most forcefully in Graham and her Post, but extending well beyond them—was compounded by those of factions in government. Mark Felt, the number 2 at the FBI, fed information to Graham’s reporter Bob Woodward (until recently a naval intelligence officer) in hopes that he could unseat the bureau’s director and take the position for himself. Democrats and hostile Republicans in Congress began investigations in hopes of overturning the ’72 landslide indirectly by impeachment. Judges and bureaucrats seized on the opportunity to claim an advantage over the people’s elected president. John Dean, the slippery White House Counsel, turned in exchange for a slap on the wrist over his own involvement in the scandal. 

Those last two developments converged on the fateful night of Saturday, October 20, 1973. In April, Nixon had been forced to fire Dean and to accept the resignations of Ehrlichman, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst over their proximity to the Watergate debacle. To succeed Kleindienst, Nixon appointed Elliott Richardson, a sort of utility player in the administration. Richardson was a liberal Republican who nonetheless had proven himself exceptionally valuable, serving as undersecretary of State; as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare; and as secretary of Defense before the move to the Justice Department.

Among Richardson’s first major responsibilities at Justice was to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate affair. The new attorney general likely thought he was transcending political concerns when he tapped Archibald Cox, a former Kennedy lackey whose father and grandfather both had been powerful Manhattan lawyers. But it very quickly became clear that Cox’s animosity toward the Nixon administration rivaled Katharine Graham’s. As part of his effort to turn the aftermath of the Watergate break-in into a political crisis for the president, Cox convinced Judge John J. Sirica to subpoena the White House for eight tapes of Oval Office conversations to which John Dean had testified.

The White House argued that the president’s conversations in the Oval Office were protected by executive privilege, and that they could not be pried into by a meddling prosecutor. To virtually anyone whose common sense had not been supplanted by a Harvard Law degree, this might have seemed obvious. Yet Cox would not relent.

The administration conceived a compromise. White House staff would produce transcripts of the eight tapes in question. The tapes themselves would then be turned over in full to Senator John Stennis, a widely respected Mississippi Democrat who had been elected to the upper chamber in 1947, the same year Nixon arrived in the House of Representatives. Stennis would then confirm the accuracy and completeness of the summaries to Cox and other investigators, while softening turns of phrase that might embarrass the administration. The terms of the proposal suggest that Nixon’s principal concern was not the content of the tapes so much as the fallout of his foul language in private becoming a matter of public record. Attorney General Richardson agreed that the White House proposal was a sound one.

Archibald Cox was not so magnanimous. He knew that the Stennis compromise would deny him Nixon’s scalp. Within hours, he had rejected the president’s proposal. This left Nixon with no choice but to remove the special prosecutor. He had encouraged the creation of the office, but he knew from the moment Richardson made his pick that it might end this way. Years later, he would recall in his memoirs, “If Richardson searched specifically for the man whom I least trusted, he could hardly have done better.”

Richardson had agreed at the outset not to fire Cox except in case of actual misconduct. The refusal for political reasons of a sensible compromise offered by the president of the United States plainly crossed that threshold; but, asked to carry out his duty, the attorney general balked. He resigned rather than remove the rogue prosecutor, as did his second-in-command, William Ruckelshaus. This left Solicitor General Robert Bork as acting attorney general, with the unenviable task of terminating Cox. 

It is easy in these latter days to dismiss America’s domestic enemies as weak or evil men (or both). But Elliott Richardson was no Merrick Garland. At Utah Beach on D-Day, Richardson—then a 23-year-old lieutenant—ran alone across an active minefield to save the life of an injured officer; he returned home in 1945 with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He was, however, a scion of old Puritan stock whose worst inherited tendencies were aroused by the horror of the war in Europe. He was a liberal who believed sincerely, even naively, in procedure and form. He also operated on a moral code that could not survive contact with depraved enemies. Upon his death on the last day of the millennium, he was eulogized by the Associated Press as “a prince of the Eastern Establishment.”

Depraved enemies abounded in Washington by 1973, and Elliott Richardson’s naive stand gave them an opportunity. Kay Graham’s Washington Post recognized that this episode could turn public opinion decisively against the president, if the right spin was applied. (That the bowtied Cox counted St. Paul’s and Harvard in his background no doubt contributed to the revulsion that drove her coverage.) Other left-wing journalists like Walter Cronkite, who held an unearned place of honor as “the most trusted man in America,” added the exodus from Justice to their arsenal of anti-Nixon propaganda, and they pursued this line with particular vigor. Within days, resolutions for impeachment had been introduced in the House of Representatives. Within months, Nixon had left office in disgrace.

But the consequences of the Saturday Night Massacre extended beyond even the destruction of one of the most beloved presidents in American history. A decade later, when Bork was presented as the obvious candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court, he was pilloried for carrying out his duty until the nomination died in the Senate. Gerhard Gessell, a partisan lawyer appointed to the bench by Lyndon Johnson, ruled that it had been illegal for the president—to whom the Constitution grants sole authority over the executive branch—to fire his subordinates when they refused to obey orders. This was a legal invention that began to invade American practice long before October 1973, but the Saturday Night Massacre and its aftermath carved the message in stone: the president in practice cannot and will not be allowed to exercise the powers granted to him by the Constitution.

Of course, this is only true when the president happens to be a conservative populist. It runs directly counter to the prevailing narrative of an “imperial presidency” popularized by the left wing in the years before Nixon’s election, but it is a fact plain enough for those with eyes to see. The crimes of the governing powers these last few years dwarf anything encountered by Nixon half a century ago; so too do the abuses of the media and the jealousy of the courts—not to mention the lawyers. Will the circle be unbroken?