The early 1970s have been a turbulent time for American politics. The events that led to the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974 were extensively depicted in films and television programs. The HBO limited series White House Plumbers, which premiered in 2023, is based on a real-life secret organization that worked for Nixon’s government in the years before Watergate. What actually took place during those years? Let’s investigate.
You can watch the official trailer for HBO’s White House Plumbers here on Youtube.
The true story of the White House Plumbers behind the HBO series
The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret investigation of American involvement in the Vietnam War, were the catalyst for the formation of the White House Plumbers. This event took place in June 1971, when The New York Times ran a bombshell piece about them on its front page. The Department of Defense ordered the study, formally known as the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” in 1967. It was carried out by a group of historians and analysts under the direction of a representative from the Defense Department named Daniel Ellsberg.
The Pentagon Papers exposed a long-standing pattern of deceit and misinformation by the American administration over its activities and goals in Vietnam. The report revealed that American government officials had long known the war couldn’t be won but kept escalating it. The government’s covert expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos without the knowledge or consent of Congress was also made public.
The Pentagon Papers were made public by The New York Times, which generated a significant uproar and a legal dispute between the government and the press over press freedom and the public’s right to know what the government was up to. The disclosure of the papers caused the Nixon administration great embarrassment and added to the public’s growing disenchantment with the war. One week after the Pentagon Papers were leaked, President Nixon established the White House Plumbers organization for this reason.
The first illegal act committed by the White House Plumbers was the break-in at the Lewis J. Fielding, a psychiatrist who treated Daniel Ellsberg, office. They did this in an effort to gather evidence against Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The Plumbers thought Ellsberg was a part of a larger plot to bring down Nixon and his government. Ellsberg was accused of theft, conspiracy, and espionage for his part in the Pentagon Papers leak. However, the government’s actions after the unlawful acts of the White House Plumbers were exposed ultimately led to the case against Ellsberg being dismissed.
The Watergate scandal began on June 17, 1972, when the White House Plumbers were involved in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building. Between 1971 and 1972, the White House Plumbers continued their covert operations against Nixon’s political rivals. Five guys were deployed to the DNC to wiretap phones and take documents during the Watergate break-in. The men were detained, and the scandal sparked an investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two journalists from The Washington Post, which revealed evidence connecting the break-in to Nixon’s campaign and the White House.
After extensive investigation, it was discovered that the Nixon administration had engaged in a wide range of illegal activities, including paying witnesses to testify against them, using government agencies to spy on political rivals, and setting up slush funds to finance political campaigns. American citizens first learned about the White House Plumbers over the course of this probe. A New York Times article about the “Plumbers” that was written on June 22, 1973, can be found here.
Nixon eventually resigned in 1974 as a result of the Watergate incident after being accused of obstructing justice, abusing his position of power, and disobeying Congress. Of course, the White House Plumbers were disregarded as a representation of government corruption.
Why did they get the nickname “White House Plumbers”?
On Wikipedia, the name’s genesis is well-explained: A member of the group named David Young was asked, “What do you do at the White House?” by his grandmother in 1971 after he had returned home from planning at the Special Investigative Unit. I’m assisting the president in stopping some leaks, he retorted. “Oh, you’re a plumber!” she said.
Following his grandmother’s advice, David Young hung a sign outside their office that read “The Plumbers.” The sign was removed soon after because the gang wanted to keep its actions a secret, but the name stuck.