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Richard Nixon speaking on the telephone in the Oval Office

6 shocking controversies involving President Nixon

The 37th President was embroiled in plenty of controversies. Learn more about some of the most famous and not-so-famous Nixon scandals.

Image: Tricky Dick

Tricky Dick is a four-part series that explores Richard Nixon’s life and times; tracking his rise, fall, incredible comeback and political downfall. The show starts Thursday, 25th July on Sky HISTORY.

Richard Nixon is a name that is synonymous with scandal. The 37th President of the United States, he is one of the most controversial individuals in American political history.

President from 1969 to 1974, Nixon achieved significant victories in foreign policy and domestic affairs. But his legacy was overshadowed by scandals and controversies that dogged him until his resignation in 1974. The only US President to resign, he became a memorable figure for a lot of the wrong reasons.

Read on for a few of his famous and not-so-famous scandals.

1. Watergate

The Watergate scandal is perhaps the most infamous of Nixon's controversies. It started with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington DC on 17th June 1972. The burglars were connected to Nixon’s re-election campaign and Nixon’s administration was found to be involved. The investigation discovered that there had been efforts to cover up illicit activities and sabotage political opponents – all to make sure the president got re-elected.

When journalists, including Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, dug a little deeper, along with a Senate committee, they found evidence of illegal activities. Reaching the highest level of government, this suspect behaviour affected the public’s trust in them and there were calls for Nixon to be impeached.

2. The Nixon Tapes

Linked to the Watergate scandal, The Nixon Tapes helped to seal the President’s fate. A series of audio recordings made in The White House were found, with Nixon the instigator. He had installed a secret recording system that taped conversations and phone calls in both the Oval Office and elsewhere within the building.

When the existence of the tapes became public knowledge, they clearly revealed crucial evidence about Nixon’s knowledge and involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

Initially refusing to release the tapes, Nixon declared he had executive privilege and wasn’t obliged to share any of the content. This led to a legal battle that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling against Nixon.

President Nixon was ordered to give the tapes to the special prosecutor who was investigating the scandal. They provided definitive proof that Nixon was trying to obstruct justice and manipulate investigations. To avoid being impeached, he resigned his presidency on 8th August 1974.

3. Operation Menu

Another controversy during Nixon’s presidency involved a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, named Operation Menu.

Covert raids were carried out in March 1969 on suspected Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases. Hidden from the American public and Congress, they happened without any official approval or oversight. The goal was to disrupt the North Vietnamese’s activities, as they were using areas of Cambodia as a safe place for supplies.

Nixon and his administration believed that the bombings were necessary for national security and the success of the Vietnam War. They justified the secretive nature of the operation and kept it from Congress, despite it being contentious.

When the truth came to light in 1973, Nixon’s actions were seen as a significant abuse of presidential power. It strengthened the public’s belief that he was a president who was willing to ignore the law.

4. The Pentagon Papers

This scandal wasn’t actually initiated by Nixon, but it highlights his controversial response to the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. A classified report, it details the US government's political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

When the papers were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon’s administration tried to block publication stating that it would threaten national security. The methods used were underhand, including breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and trying to find information to use against him.

5. ITT Scandal

The International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) scandal involved allegations that the Nixon administration had intervened in a lawsuit against ITT. This was in exchange for a $400,000 contribution to the Republican National Convention.

It began in 1971 when ITT was embroiled in a legal battle over trying to buy several large companies. The Justice Department then filed a suit to block the merger.

It was suggested that Nixon's administration pressured the Justice Department to settle the case on the side of ITT. This was because the company pledged to help finance the Republican National Convention. This scandal once again highlighted concerns about money in politics and the potential for corruption.

6. Nixon’s visit to China 

Another of Nixon’s controversies was his visit to China. This was particularly shocking given his vociferous criticism of the Communist state. Find out more in our ‘On This Day’ articles, recapping the day he announced his visit and the day he arrived in China.