The "Saturday Night Massacre"

October 20, 1973: Nixon fires Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox in what becomes known as "The Saturday Night Massacre." The attorney general resigns and Congress files 21 resolutions calling for Nixon's impeachment.


Narrator: The events that followed became known as "The Saturday Night Massacre."

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President's action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon's instructions. Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

Man: --six FBI agents present, impeding our operations right now--

Chancellor: All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

More than 50,000 telegrams poured in on Capitol Hill today, so many, Western Union was swamped. Most of them demanded impeaching Mr. Nixon.

Representative Morris Udall, (D), Arizona: These come from Republicans and businessmen and people, most of whom begin their statement by saying, "I've supported the President, I've never believed in impeachment, but he's now gone too far and we want the Congress to take strong action."

Representative Margaret Heckler, (R) Massachusetts: In my three district offices in the one Republican area, my phone calls were 100 to one in favor of pursuing the path of impeachment, which was rather shocking to me.

Leonard Garment, Counsel to the President: I was terribly surprised, which says something about that very weird thing that happens when you're in the middle of a cocoon of a crisis within a protected environment and you have a great desire for things to happen as you want them to happen.

Narrator: On Tuesday, Nixon learned that 21 resolutions calling for his impeachment had been introduced on Capitol Hill. Stunned by the ferocity of the public reaction, Nixon retreated. He appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski and agreed to release the nine subpoenaed tapes. 

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  • NEH