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Nixon Tapes: The “Smoking Gun” Tape, 1972

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


After reports of the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building in Washington, DC, a growing investigation into the incident began to encircle President Richard Nixon and his reelection campaign. Beginning that August and continuing for almost two years, Nixon denied any White House connection with the burglary. Multiple investigations sought to learn “What did the president know and when did he know it?” After reports of a recording system inside the Oval Office became public, Nixon was eventually forced to hand over all tapes of the recordings. A particular recording from June 23, 1972, became known as the “Smoking Gun” tape. This conversation between the president and his advisor H.R. Haldeman revealed that the president began actively participating in a cover-up of his campaign’s illegal activities less than a week after the Watergate burglary. Nixon was accused of obstruction of justice by the use of hush money and because he instructed various government officials to order other departments to thwart the investigation. Nixon never faced a formal impeachment or other legal proceedings because he resigned from the presidency and was pardoned by his vice president and successor, Gerald Ford.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who are the speakers in this source?
  2. Why is this source known as “the Smoking Gun” tape?

Vocabulary Text
trace(v): to find or discover by investigation HALDEMAN: Okay—that’s fine. Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the—in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have, their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources . . . the banker himself. . . .
HALDEMAN: That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this . . . this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development,
PRESIDENT: Um huh. . . .
PRESIDENT: Well, I mean, ah, there’s no way . . . I’m just thinking if they don’t cooperate, what do they say? They they, they were approached by the Cubans. That’s what Dahlberg has to say, the Texans too. Is that the idea?
HALDEMAN: Well, if they will. But then we’re relying on more and more people all the time. That’s the problem. And ah, they’ll stop if we could, if we take this other step.
PRESIDENT: All right. Fine.
HALDEMAN: And, and they seem to feel the thing to do is get them to stop?
PRESIDENT: Right, fine. . . .
PRESIDENT: You call them in. Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.
HALDEMAN: O.K. We’ll do it. . .
PRESIDENT: When you get in these people when you . . . get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details . . . don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. To what was President Nixon’s advisor H.R. Haldeman referring when he mentioned “ the Democratic break-in thing ”?
  2. What was Haldeman worried that the FBI had been able to find?
  3. What did Haldeman want Mr. Walters to say to FBI director Pat Gray? What was the president’s response to this plan?
  4. How could the president discussing ways the Watergate burglars could avoid cooperating with the authorities be seen as obstruction of justice?
  5. What is being exposed about President Nixon when he stated “ don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement? ”

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain the effect the Watergate scandal had on the American people’s view of the presidency.
  2. Do you think President Nixon would have been removed from office if he had been impeached? Explain your reasoning.

“Smoking Gun” (video)

“Smoking Gun” (transcript)