Watergate – Chapter 1
The History Channel (2016)
While this six-part series is rich in intriguing detail, people need to be aware it ignores extensive evidence Russ Baker compiled for his 2009 book Family of Secrets. In the later, Baker concluded Nixon was the victim, not the perpetrator, of Watergate. In other words, Watergate (like the JFK assassination) was a coup to remove a democratically elected president from power. *
Chapter 1 starts with background about Nixon’s initial escalation of the Vietnam War, via secret (and illegal) bombings of Laos and Cambodia.
It also plays excerpts of the infamous White House tapes** revealing Nixon was extremely paranoid, particularly of the CIA. With good reason. As Baker reveals in “Chapter 10 Downing Nixon” in Family of Secrets, Nixon had been at war with the CIA ever since his 1969 inauguration. This was mainly due to his demand that they provide him classified records of their role in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 and the CIA overthrow of the elected government of the Dominican Republic in 1954. (The History Channel documentary “Watergate” reveals none of this.)
Nixon feared (with good reason) he could become a CIA target like Kennedy and strongly suspected the CIA had infiltrated both his White House staff and re-election committee. Baker provides extensive evidence Nixon’s legal counsel John Dean,*** deputy assistant to the president Alexander Butterfield and deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President Jeb Magruder all helped end the Nixon presidency by orchestrating both the Watergate scandal and the coverup that ensued.
The best part of Chapter 1 is when the History Channel pays excerpts of the Nixon tapes where he expresses his belief the CIA orchestrated the Watergate break-in*** and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman asserts the FBI also believes the CIA is behind the burglary. However the filmmakers neglect to link these statements to orders Nixon later gives for the CIA (given their responsibility for the operation) to instruct the FBI to shut down their investigation. Without this context, this documentary makes it look like Nixon is guilty of obstruction of justice.
Although this episode notes that this was the second time (CIA) “plumbers” had broken into the Democratic headquarters, it passes over the distinct difference between the two events. With the first (a May 28, 1972 clandestine operation to bug the telephones), the “burglars” left no trace of their illegal entry. With the second (three weeks later), the intruders pried the door open with a crowbar, smashed windows and vandalized the office. It’s Baker’s belief they did so to make sure to generate a burglary report, which would bring the incident to court and ultimately to public view.
The film also conveniently overlooks the point Baker makes in his book: once left-wing peace candidate George McGovern became the Democratic front runner, Nixon faced an easy victory (he went on to win all but one state) and there was no rationale for his re-election committee to organize a break-in to Democratic headquarters.
This sanitized Watergate series also neglects to mention Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s**** historic links to the CIA through his work in Naval Intelligence.
*Baker cites three books (each relying on very different facts and sources) that support this assertion: Jim Hougan’s 1984 Secret Agenda, the 1991 Silent Coup by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin and James Rosen’s 2008 The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.
**Baker indicates that Cold War hawks in the CIA were angry about Nixon’s efforts to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China. Ironically towards the end of his presidency, Nixon was fighting with the same special interests (independent oil barons) as JFK over the same issue (the oil depletion allowance). In 1973, Nixon’s Justice Department was investigating close friends and associates of George Bush Senior (who Baker suspects of helping to orchestrate the Watergate scandal) for antitrust violations.
***According to Baker, Nixon recognized the name of some of the so-called “burglars” owing to their involvement in the CIA-orchestrated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
****The Woodward-Bernstein series on the Watergate break-ins was essential in mobilizing public pressure for both a grand jury and a congressional investigation.
The series can be viewed free on Kanopy