The Watergate affair was the most controversial political scandal to ever come out of the Oval Office and, along with Vietnam, marked a turning point in Americans’ distrust of the government. On June 17, 1972 five men were arrested as they tried to break into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex. It was later discovered they had initially entered the DNC offices on May 28th and wiretapped two of the phones. However, the listening devices needed to be repaired, which led to the second burglary. The men were connected to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP, but mockingly referred to as CREEP), which directly tied President Richard Nixon to the scandal.
To make matters worse for the White House, noted columnist Jack Anderson in a February 1972 article revealed a memo from a lobbyist to ITT Vice President Bill Merriam, which appeared to draw a connection between ITT’s contribution to the 1972 Republican National Convention and the favorable settlement of a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit. This led to a separate Senate investigation and the threat of criminal charges.
Over the next two years, the FBI and several newspapers, most notably The Washington Post, conducted extensive investigations in which several unsavory “dirty tricks” came to light, including bribery, bugging the offices of political opponents and people deemed to be “suspicious,” and harassment of activist groups and political figures using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS. Although Nixon had originally denied any involvement in the break-in, it became clear that he directed the cover-up. He eventually resigned on August 9, 1974.
Robert S. Strauss in 1972 worked as the Treasurer of the Democratic Party and interacted with many of the major players in the Watergate scandal, including Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and Chairman of the Democratic Party Larry O’Brien. He offers first-hand insight to the events leading up to Watergate, namely, ITT and the suspicious financial contributions to the Republican Party. (He later served as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1991-1992 under President George H.W. Bush.) He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning October 2002.
Winston Lord served as Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor (1970-73) under Kissinger and later as Ambassador to China from 1985-89. At the time of the break-in, he had access to the inner workings of the administration. Because of that, he was one of the staffers whose phone was tapped. In his interview, he talks about Kissinger’s leadership during the Watergate scandal and the work environment at the NSC.
You can read Lord’s account of Nixon’s historic trip to China as well as more on Strauss’ tenure in Russia.
ITT and the Republican Convention: “I’ve got a serious problem. I’d like your advice on what to do about it.”
Robert S. Strauss, Chairman of the Democratic Party, 1972-1979
STRAUSS: I had an interesting experience with Watergate. I guess I had the rarest view of anyone I know. While I was Treasurer of the Democratic Party, Larry O’Brien was Chairman, and there was a fellow named Bob Schmidt, who was with ITT Corporation — he represented them down here, and his assignment was to cover the Democratic Party. He called me one day — we were friends, casual friends — he was a younger man and a nice man — and he said, “Bob, I really need to see you.” I said, “Fine.” He came over and said, “I’ve got a serious problem. I’d like your advice on what to do about it. I trust you and you’re honest.”
I said, “Well, I hope so.” He said, “There’s a story being worked by a reporter of the St. Louis Post Dispatch,” I think it was then, “and she has a story she is working on that says that the Republicans took a $400,000 contribution from ITT and for that they got an agreement from the White House that they would let a big acquisition that ITT was trying to make go through instead of the Justice Department blocking it on antitrust grounds.”…
And he said, “Now that this story’s coming out, they’re claiming that it was a contribution for the Republican convention to help pay for it and that was why we gave them $400,000.”
I said, “Well, is there any truth in the allegations that there was some kind of quid pro quo?”
He said, “I’d rather not answer that question, Bob.”
I said, “I’m not going to withdraw it, but I’m going to remember what your answer was.” I said, “I guess the only thought I have is if you’re smart you would make an equal contribution to the Democrats” — me being Treasurer of the Democratic Party“ — and earmark it for the Democrats’ convention expenses to help them. Then you would have some evidence that bolstered that story of yours a good deal.”
He said, “Damn, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. That’s an expensive way out,” he said, “but a good way out.”
I said, “Now, let me tell you, I don’t think we’d take it. We don’t have anything going for us much, and I’m not sure at all that Chairman O’Brien, who has the final say on this, would want to take it or not, because this story could grow into something and we have so little going for us right now.” Keep in mind this was Nixon’s re-election campaign [in 1972] and we really were not in the race.
Q: And McGovern was the candidate who was seen as a loser.
STRAUSS: That’s right, so we had nothing going for us, and I said, “I think Larry may say that we’d pass up this contribution, because, with your permission, I’m going to tell him precisely what our conversation was.”
He said, “I understand that.” So we were over in the Watergate building, as a matter of fact, where we had our offices, and O’Brien (pictured) and I went downstairs to a club the Democratic Party had and had lunch. I called him for lunch. He had an engagement.
I said, “Break your engagement because I really need to talk to you about something,” and at lunch I told him this story of my conversation with the ITT representative. I said, “I have an opinion on whether we ought to take it or not, but I’ll wait till I hear yours.”
He said, “Can you pay for this convention? Can you raise enough money to pay for the damn thing if we turn down money like this?”
I said, “Yes. We can use it, and we can spend some money we couldn’t otherwise, but we can pay for the convention and can have a good convention. I’m raising enough money to see us through if we’re careful.”
He said, “Then I think we probably ought to turn it down because” – he said the same thing I did – “we have nothing else going. This could be a big story.”
I said, “That’s my thought. I fully agree. I don’t want to take it.”
He said, “Let’s turn it down. Tell him to go to hell.”
I said, “I will. I’m supposed to meet Bob Schmidt and the Vice President of ITT,” whose name I ought to remember but I don’t right now. I said, “I’ve got a date to meet him at six o’clock in the Madison Hotel Bar, and Schmidt’s going to give me his answer, and I’m going to give him mine, and he’s got this vice president with him.”
I went in the Madison Bar, and as I was getting seated, Schmidt said, “You’ve got no deal. So-and-So here” – I can’t think of his name now – “says he went to the old man” – who is the guy who was chairman of ITT – “and he turned him down cold. I took it straight to [ITT President Harold] Geneen.” He added that Geneen said, “I’m not going to let anybody shake me down for $400,000.”
When Bob Schmidt, who was a very good guy and very embarrassed, told me this, I replied to him, or his Vice President, “That’s good, because I’m sorry I didn’t get to tell you to go to hell before you told me you were turning it down, because I had lunch with O’Brien and he said we didn’t want the money.” I said, “I just have one comment to make, then we can finish our drinks.”
This fellow with Schmidt said, “What’s your comment?”
I said, “I don’t know where this is going to end, but I have a hunch that’s going to be the most expensive $400,000 ITT ever saved if they could have spent it.”
“Both of us suspected there was skulduggery going on”
That was the first break in that story. This reporter out there was working on this story and they couldn’t shut her up, and that was the beginning of the Watergate story. I’ve thought about it many times.
Later I was in Texas one weekend and O’Brien called me and said, “Bob, we’ve had a break-in at our offices, and they have found that one of these burglars had in his notebook the White House switchboard number written down, with no name but he had an extension number. And I think there may be something to this.”
I said, “Well, it’s awful strange he had that number.” Both of us suspected there was skullduggery going on anyway, and he said, “I’m going to go ahead and blast them right now.” And again he said, “You know, we just don’t get any chance to get any real publicity.”
So O’Brien jumped on the story. I did say to him, I’ll never forget, “Larry, keep my name out of this damn story, because I think it’s probably a wild goose chase. I think we ought to blast it, but I’d just as [rather], since you’re going to do it, leave me out of it.” He laughed and we laughed.
So he kicked the hell out of the Republicans with that story, and everybody was enraged that he made a suggestion that the Republican National Committee or, even worse, people representing the White House could be involved in a burglary.
Well, you know what happened. They were deeply involved and it eventually brought down a President….The ITT matter went on to become a major, major event. It led to the Watergate break-in, it led to a lot of other things, and it was a turning point and, I think, was basically responsible for Jimmy Carter much later being elected President. He ran on “I’ll give you a government as good as the American people themselves,” obviously talking about Watergate. I guess that’s a pretty roughly told story of how that all happened….
“I think Richard Nixon could have made a first-rate President”
Q: At this point what was your feeling about Nixon and his crew around him?
STRAUSS: I thought they were a bad lot, I really did. The interesting thing is in my case I developed a more favorable impression of Richard Nixon after his disgrace than I had before.…He and I agreed on China and several other issues that there wasn’t much support for.
When I came out to support George H.W. Bush when he was President with China policy early in the game publicly, where few people were, Republicans or Democrats, Richard Nixon called and congratulated me on that and said, “You know, I think you and I are the only two people who have spoken up on this issue. I want to thank you.”…
He invited me for dinner, and we had several nice dinners together at his request, although I must say that I don’t think any better of him nor do I think any worse of him, but I had a better relationship with him than most people, and I appreciated several things about him.
I think Richard Nixon could have made a first-rate President. He understood the Presidency. He was right on some very big issues, he was right, and he was ahead of his time on those issues. They were progressive issues. His was not an arch-conservative administration. And he just blew it. It was that paranoia that got him.
Q: It’s interesting because I’ve talked to many people in the Foreign Service who dealt with Richard Nixon when he was Vice President and President and they came away from that with a great deal of respect for the man.
STRAUSS: I would think so. But you have to remember one thing about Richard Nixon: He was uncomfortable around people. He was an uncomfortable man, and he was uncomfortable around people. One or two friends was about all he was comfortable with, and his wife. I’m not even sure how comfortable he was with her. With his two daughters he was very comfortable….
Q: What was the feeling at this time from your perspective towards Henry Kissinger?
STRAUSS: I liked Henry. Henry and I were friends, and he used to kid me because I spoke before the Democratic Convention in I guess it was ‘72 and I took on Kissinger and one or two others and tied them all up with Nixon. But I liked Henry then and he me, I think, and I like him now.
You talk about people in politics. Do you realize how long it’s been since Henry Kissinger was in office, and he has more power, I think, today because of his position and his posture before the American people and the world maybe than he did when he was Secretary of State. It’s an amazing performance he’s turned in.
“There was the stupidity of the cover-up”
Winston Lord, National Security Council, 1969-1977; Ambassador to China, 1977-1989
LORD: It was a process of incremental awareness, just as it was for more or less every American. That was true for Kissinger as well as for myself. He didn’t know anything about the Watergate affair. He really didn’t know. For all of us it was a process of becoming incrementally aware of what had happened and of the seriousness of it. It wasn’t even a blip on my radar screen while I was at the NSC. I don’t believe that Kissinger was aware of its significance before 1973.
Of course, this all began during the 1972 Presidential elections campaign. The stupidity of it is well known, not to mention the fact that by the time the burglary of the office of the National Democratic Committee occurred, it was clear that President Nixon was going to win reelection by a landslide in any case. So it wasn’t necessary.
Then, of course, there was the stupidity of the cover-up. However, none of us knew anything about all of this up to and through the elections of 1972. I think that there was a minor newspaper article in The Washington Post about a burglary in the office of the National Democratic Committee on the day following the break-in. However, nobody that I knew drew any conclusions from that. So this was not anything that one even considered at the time. I left the NSC staff in May 1973.
I certainly didn’t leave because of the burglary at Watergate. I wasn’t aware that that was going to be a serious problem, even then. I left the NSC staff because I was exhausted. Four years of dealing with Henry Kissinger were exhilarating and terrific, but they were also exhausting, because of the long hours, the pressures, his style of work, and so on. I wanted to see more of my children, who were then quite young. I wanted to see them before they grew up. I wanted to get out and recharge my intellectual batteries…
“We began to get the feeling that we were inexorably headed for a terrible ending”
I always thought that I would be coming back into government service and I also suspected that I would be coming back with Kissinger a few months later. However, as I left government service in May 1973, I was not really aware of the Watergate affair.
I came back to government service in September 1973. I can’t vouch for Kissinger’s views. I suppose by then that he was beginning to see that this incident and its fallout were beginning to become a problem. However, I only became aware of this gradually. As of the fall of 1973 we didn’t think that it was going to become all that serious, as Kissinger was appointed Secretary of State.
Shortly afterwards, and certainly in the course of 1974, it began to become obvious that the situation involved in the Watergate affair was serious, although I don’t have the exact timeline here. The point I’m making is that there was no one day when we realized that we were facing a crisis, as events happened, and some of them were more dramatic than others.
There was [Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander] Butterfield revealing the taping system in President Nixon’s office. There were revelations about [White House Council] John Dean, and then the episodes when [White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob”] Haldeman and [Counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John] Ehrlichman of the White House staff were fired. The Congressional hearings progressed. The potential seriousness of the matter became increasingly clear. We began to get the feeling that we were inexorably headed for a terrible ending. I can’t place this feeling in terms of any one day. It was just a series of events which made the situation more and more serious…
So Kissinger emerged as the one person sort of holding things together. He was controversial even then, of course. The issue of wiretapping came up, as well as other things which people didn’t like about him. However, some people forget that he was generally considered the most admired man in America. He appeared on magazine covers as “Superman.”
He was the one person that people thought that they could trust or who had stature, in addition to the fact that he was untainted by the Watergate affair itself, except for the peripheral dimension of wiretapping. Kissinger was also the one American official respected abroad. So I think that was one of his more heroic accomplishments, holding our foreign policy together despite the weakness of the executive branch….
“I had access to just about every conceivable secret in the field of foreign policy that we had”
There was a series of leaks on sensitive matters, early in the Nixon administration, in 1969 and then in 1970. One particular leak which triggered a strong reaction from President Nixon and his colleagues, including Kissinger, was the revelation in The New York Times, by a journalist called Bill Beecher, of the secret bombing in Cambodia of Vietnamese communist enclaves. These Vietnamese communist troops were coming across the border into South Vietnam, attacking our troops, and then going back to sanctuaries in Cambodia. I didn’t know about the bombing until I became Kissinger’s Special Assistant in February 1970. [Read more about how one FSO resigned in protest over the bombing of Cambodia.]
I felt that the bombing was legitimate, in the sense that these Vietnamese communist troops were violating Cambodian soil and penetrating into South Vietnam. Our bombing was confined to Vietnamese concentrations near the border. They were designed to lessen our casualties. We talked about this and the effect it might have on the level of American casualties. However, the issue was that it was secret from the American people and almost all of Congress, and that we were bombing targets in another country, even if it was justified…
A key point about the Nixon/Kissinger strong reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers. I fully shared their view that this was unpardonable. Whatever one’s views, you don’t leak a huge amount of classified material. Moreover, all the study and embarrassing revelations were about the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. So Nixon and Kissinger were defending not against personal embarrassments for their Administration but the general principle of conducting government for future presidents.
In addition, this was in June 1971, a few weeks after we had made our major, secret proposal to North Vietnam to try and end the war, and a few weeks before Kissinger’s secret trip to China. Obviously the domestic uproar over the Pentagon Papers did not give Hanoi an incentive to respond positively, though this was not the decisive factor….
I believe that sometime in the spring of 1970 wiretaps were put on the phones of about a dozen people, including several of us on the NSC staff and a couple of journalists. I don’t have a complete list of the people whose phones were being wiretapped. There were about a dozen.
Now, why were we picked? Because these were national security leaks, involving Vietnam and Cambodia, and there may have been other aspects. Nixon and Kissinger felt that these leaks could really undermine our foreign policy. We had secret negotiations under way with North Vietnam; we had secret negotiations on the opening to China, and secret dealings to a certain extent with the Soviets.
If all of these matters were leaked to the public, it would inhibit our efforts to conduct relations with those countries. It would also tell the Chinese and the others that we couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets, and this would complicate everything….
The reason that some other members of the NSC staff and I were chosen to have their phones tapped was that some of the information which had leaked had been so tightly held that only a few people knew about it. Therefore, the phones of those who might be suspected of having the ability to learn about the information which leaked were tapped.
In my case I had access to just about every conceivable secret in the field of foreign policy that we had. I was Kissinger’s right-hand man and was in the middle of many secret negotiations on various fronts. I was one of the few people who could have been suspected of leaking this material. In addition, Secretary Kissinger’s staff was suspected by Nixon and his people of being liberal Democrats from, God forbid, the State Department and academia, and were considered to be rather suspicious. In fact, we were quite moderate and liberal, compared to the people on the domestic side of the Nixon White House….
Of course, Kissinger justified the wiretaps on the ground that he was truly concerned about leaks. He thought that leaks were outrageous in principle, were also hurting our foreign policy, and were jeopardizing ongoing negotiations with the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and others. Secondly, Kissinger couldn’t say to Nixon: “How dare you suspect my staff? Just wiretap other people. Don’t tap my people.”
In fairness, we were the ones who had the information, and he couldn’t be selective about the persons whose phones should be tapped. He already felt sensitive because President Nixon felt that Kissinger’s staff was overly liberal anyway. Furthermore, Kissinger would argue that he had been assured that it was legal to engage in wiretapping, which it was, however uncomfortable one might feel about tapping someone with whom you were working every day. So that was his defense.
I didn’t know anything about the wiretapping, but I will say this: Even though I didn’t know anything about it, I had suspicions, which I didn’t really believe, that might be going on. I had a couple of reasons for this. My phone had some funny clicks on it at times….
“We had been through an awful lot together”
I didn’t know anything about the tap on my phone until May 1973. I was just about to leave government service for the reasons that I’ve just mentioned. I was exhausted, and things looked good in the foreign policy field, and particularly in my areas of specialization.
One day in May 1973, Kissinger called me up to his office. This was unrelated to my departure, since Kissinger knew that I was leaving government service anyway. He said, “I want to let you know something. There’s going to be an article in The New York Times, which reveals the fact that several members of the NSC staff, including yourself, have had their phones tapped.”
I would like to think that I gave the right response, though I think that it was probably a little bit on the soft side. We had been through an awful lot together. I knew the entire context and was outraged myself at the leaks. I felt that wiretapping was terrible in principle, but the leaks could hurt our foreign policy. I also knew that Kissinger had a staff that was considered liberal and that it was under suspicion from the White House.
With all of his stature, there were still people who didn’t like Kissinger, and he was somewhat vulnerable in the White House. I also knew that I was one of the few who knew all of the secrets which had been leaked. So for all of these reasons, I’m sure my response was restrained, to be sure. I didn’t embrace Henry Kissinger, as it were, and say, “Thank you very much for having my phone tapped.” I certainly didn’t.
I didn’t suggest that I approved of what had been done. However, I have to be honest. I was not outraged and didn’t express outrage. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I didn’t make this meeting difficult for Kissinger. I said something to the effect that this didn’t seem to be a very effective way of stopping leaks, as a practical matter. I said that I wasn’t going to hold this against him, or something like that. It certainly wasn’t overly unfriendly, and I wasn’t tough with him, for all of the reasons that I’ve mentioned.