Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices has never been conclusively established.
— Wikipedia, The Watergate Scandal.
I was thinking about this long-mysterious motive after reading Thomas Mallon’s subtle, well-imagined historical novel Watergate, which speculates (among other things) that the purpose of the illegal spy operation in June 1972 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency was to find evidence of a Fidel Castro/Cuban connection to the Democratic party. This is one of several common explanations for the spy operation.
Another one, suggested by Bob Haldeman and tentatively endorsed by Jeb Magruder, is that Nixon wanted to find evidence that the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes was secretly funding the Democrats. Others have suggested that Nixon wanted dirt on Ted Kennedy, and a recent book called Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron tries to build a case for a Mafia connection. Still others have guessed that the whole botched operation was a trap by Nixon’s opponents, intended to embarrass the President (if this was the case, the trap was an amazing success).
I don’t think that any of the above answers are very good, and I have a better one to suggest. The motive for the Watergate break-in is something primal, dreadfully familiar, awkwardly obvious. The answer is there in plain sight — and it’s also certainly there in the memoirs written by the principal Watergate criminals, particularly Blind Ambition by John Dean, An American Life: One Man’s Road to Watergate by Jeb Magruder, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy and Born Again by Chuck Colson, all of which I’ve carefully read and reread to help me reach the conclusion I’m about to explain.
I’m pretty sure my answer is the correct one, and I think you will agree with me once I explain it. I’m not going to ask you to suspend your disbelief, because my explanation involves no shrill conspiracy theories or far-fetched assumptions. Instead, I will ask you to open your mind to an answer so familiar and self-apparent that it barely seems like an answer at all (but it is an answer, and it’s the only answer that matters, because it’s the one that’s true.)
The story begins on June 13, 1971, almost exactly a year before the break-in at the Watergate. On this day, the first excerpt of the Pentagon Papers was published in the New York Times. This was a shocking leak of confidential and politically explosive Defense Department documents about the Vietnam War. The private documents were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg as a brave act of protest against the badly managed and badly conceived war (Ellsberg remains politically active today, and has recently spoken out in support of a more recent military whistleblower, Bradley Manning.)
Though the information within the Pentagon Papers turned out to be more destructive to past Presidents (especially John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) than to Richard Nixon, the loss of control that the leak revealed was tremendously embarrassing for the Nixon White House. The President was caught blindsided on a matter of national security. The fact that such a confidential set of documents could be leaked by an antiwar activist suggested that similar activists or secret networks might be infiltrating every department of the Nixon administration.
Thus, Nixon and his staffers John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Chuck Colson began putting together a defense plan. They created a secret office within the White House, nicknamed the “Plumbers”, including two gung-ho right-wing espionage “experts” named E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Hunt and Liddy were instructed to get the dirt on Daniel Ellsberg, and when they discovered that he regularly saw a psychiatrist they carried out a strange plan to break into the psychiatrist’s office and read through his medical files, hoping to find information with which to embarrass Daniel Ellsberg.
The fact that Hunt and Liddy thought this was a good idea is hard to understand. The fact that senior White House staffers close to President Nixon thought it was a good idea is absolutely dumbfounding. It was clearly illegal. The stakes were enormous, and the possible reward seemed infinitesimally small. What good would it do to embarrass Ellsberg? How would that help Nixon?
And yet the operation got okayed by Nixon’s top men, and was carried out. A close study of the six White House memoirs listed above reveals many surprising and clarifying facts about many aspects of the Watergate affair, but these books all come up empty when it comes to explaining the 1971 decision to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Reading these sections from these memoirs together gives an impression that a vacuum of good judgement suddenly descended over the Nixon White House immediately after the leak of the Pentagon Papers.
The Nixon White House had made bad decisions before, but never so senselessly and recklessly, and never with collaborators as brazen as E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. It seems clear that the mania that would result in the 1972 Watergate break-in was born in full force in the summer of 1971, a year before.
When we ask about the purpose of the Watergate break-in, we should begin by asking about the purpose of the first break-in by the same cast of characters that would eventually get caught at the Watergate. It makes no sense to discuss the motive of the Watergate break-in as if this were an isolated act, when in fact the only legal difference between the Ellsberg psychiatrist break-in and the Watergate break-in was that the burglars didn’t get caught at the Ellsberg break-in.
The Ellsberg break-in was a remarkably impulsive and vindictive act, an act that defies logic (again, what could they possibly gain by finding out details of Ellsberg’s personal problems?). The broad rationale for the Plumbers’ activities, as described in many of the memoirs mentioned above, seemed to be that since Nixon’s enemies were breaking the law and getting away with it (by leaking secure documents, with the complicity of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Federal courts), Nixon’s team would need to also break the law in order to keep pace with their enemies. The senselessness of the White House decision to go ahead with the Ellsberg break-in provides an important context when we look for a rational motive for the Watergate break-in. Clearly, where the White House Plumbers were concerned, the bar for coherence was not set very high. It seems plausible that no practical motive for the break-in ever actually existed, once we realize that the Plumbers had a history of conducting operations without a practical motive.
There did appear to be, however, a strong psychological motive behind the activities of the hapless Plumbers. As the Vietnam War continued to descend into chaos and massive death counts, the Nixon administration felt weak and isolated. In the mania that festered in this environment, the White House staff became convinced that their enemies had better espionage capabilities than they themselves had. The publication of the Pentagon Papers, as described in nearly all the memoirs above, became a critical catalyst for White House paranoia. Nixon and his staff felt a need to quickly develop a private espionage capability, because they were sure they were surrounded by enemies.
It was this paranoid atmosphere that made the two slippery, shadowy operatives E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy suddenly attractive to Nixon’s top staff in 1971 and 1972. It wasn’t information that the White House wanted. What they wanted was Hunt and Liddy. The White House needed to have some strong spies on its own team. There’s not much evidence that John Mitchell or Bob Haldeman or Chuck Colson (or Richard Nixon himself, if he knew about the break-ins) really cared what the spies did with their time. It was just important that the spies were on Mitchell and Haldeman and Colson’s own team.
This psychological explanation seems to me the only one that explains the Watergate break-in. Political or logical explanations are always unconvincing, because they all assume that the White House considered the risk of conducting an illegal spy operation problematic. The reverse was true. The break-in didn’t occur despite the fact that it was illegal — it occurred because it was illegal. The Watergate break-in, like the Ellsberg operation before it, was a practice drill. Mitchell and Haldeman and Colson (and Nixon) wanted to know that someone on their team had the cojones and the technical skills to pull off an illegal domestic spying operation. That was the real motive — and the only motive — for Watergate.
If there had been any desired information, Haldeman (the top guy on the Nixon staff pyramid) would have known about it, and would have been happy to have sold more books by revealing it in one of the several books he’d eventually write. The greatest evidence that there was no important information to be gained by spying on the Democrats was that Democratic candidate George McGovern was barely threatening Nixon at all in the upcoming November 1972 elections. The polls showed a nearly historic advantage for Nixon at the time of the break-in, because Nixon was still very popular with voters at this time. The awkward truth is this: if an accidental Bell Telephone party line had suddenly given Bob Haldeman access to the Democratic National Committee’s private telephone calls, Haldeman probably wouldn’t have cared enough to have listened for long. The break-in was a war game, an exercise.
What’s the lesson we can all learn from the bizarre mistakes that led to the Watergate scandal? Mainly, that a military mindset can act as psychological poison. A government that finds itself in a troubled position in time of war may also find itself in a manic state of unreality in which things that don’t make sense begin to make sense. This is a pretty scary truth, and it probably explains many moments in history, far beyond the relatively modest historical scope of the Watergate affair.
This psychological explanation for the Nixon downfall is markedly a systematic rather than an individual one. It’s common to paint the Watergate scandal as a manifestation of Richard Nixon’s personal character flaws. Like the explanations for the break-in above, this wider explanation is not very insightful, and misses a bigger point. If we blame the mistakes of Watergate on the character flaws of Richard Nixon, we fail to see that it’s our own entire society that is more deeply at fault.
The Watergate scandal was caused by the mania that surrounded the Vietnam War. It was the Vietnam War coming home to roost.
Perhaps Mitchell and Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Colson and Nixon might have actually meant well, or might have at least meant to meant well. They should not be blamed for the scandal. If we blame them, we fail to realize that the conditions that created the scandal are still with us today.
And the moral of the story is …
Fast-forward nearly thirty years. It’s Sunday, September 16, 2001. The George W. Bush White House is in turmoil, stunned and shocked and deeply saddened by the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five days before. The Bush administration feels weak and helpless. They have been caught blindsided. They have badly miscalculated how to carry out their national security responsibilities. Various ideas are beginning to emerge within the Bush administration about what they should do next.
It’s on this day that Vice President Dick Cheney says something strange on a Sunday news show, Meet The Press, in describing the administration’s planned approach for intelligence gathering: “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
What Dick Cheney means, it’s generally understood at the time, is that the Bush administration is about to change its policies regarding torture of suspected terrorists in order to obtain information. Other key Bush staffers and senior military officials will begin making similar public statements about the possibility of torturing political prisoners in order to combat Al Qaeda. Months before Bush’s CIA would begin torturing prisoners, the Bush administration would begin talking about torturing prisoners. It almost seemed as if talking about it were more vital to national security than doing it.
At this point, on September 16, 2001, there are no Al Qaeda prisoners to torture. 9/11 just happened. The CIA has barely even begun to process the massive amount of information they already have about Al Qaeda, and all this information will take them months or years to digest. So why are they talking about torturing prisoners to get information?
There is always a psychological motive, even when there is not a rational one. We need to practice. A capability must be developed, because we feel weak and threatened. A manic state of unreality can occur, in which things that don’t make sense will start to make sense.