Today’s post comes from Emma Rothberg, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. August 8 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.
Early on the morning of June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The aftermath brought the first resignation of a sitting President, a pardon, and a national uproar.
The story of Watergate and the Nixon administration’s involvement has become synonymous with government scandal. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we take a moment to reflect on that period in our history.
Section 4 of Article II of the United States Constitution states, “The President, Vice President, and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Until 1974, Congress had only once attempted to impeach the President—Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the President be impeached. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon decided to resign.
On the night of August 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation to the American people live via television and radio. To an anxious public, President Nixon explained, “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first.” He then announced, “I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
The next day, on August 9, 1974, President Nixon sent his resignation letter to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger.
The story of Nixon’s resignation may have ended there, but on September 8, 1974, newly sworn-in President R. Gerald Ford opened a new chapter when he issued a highly controversial Proclamation Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon.
In the proclamation, President Ford cited the “tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks”—Nixon’s resignation—“could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States.”
Ford wholeheartedly believed that a trial would only bring more division as well as “exposing to further punishment and degradation of a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
Nixon’s letter of resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon are among the holdings of the National Archives. They are on display in the in the East Rotunda Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from August 8 to 11, 2014.