Aside from his involvement with the 1973 Watergate prosecution, Cox held several influential government posts during his life, including solicitor general under President John F. Kennedy ’40.
Cox joined the HLS faculty as a visiting lecturer in 1945 and a year later became one of the youngest professors to receive tenure, at age 34.
During his teaching career at Harvard, he served as Royall professor of law, the oldest endowed chair at HLS, Williston professor of law and Loeb University professor. An expert in torts, administrative law and constitutional law, Cox retired in 1984.
“Archibald Cox was a man of unwavering principle and one of the great law professors of his time,” University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote in a statement.
“His reputation for integrity and fairness led to his playing a pivotal role in one of the most turbulent episodes in the nation’s political history. His many colleagues, students, friends, and admirers in the Harvard community join in mourning his loss and remembering his extraordinary life,” Summers wrote.
In May 1973, Cox was appointed by Elliot L. Richardson ’41, a former student of Cox’s and Nixon’s attorney general, to lead the Justice Department’s investigation into charges that the Republican party had orchestrated a break-in at Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Five men, one of whom had ties to Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President and the Republican National Committee, were arrested on June 17, 1972 during a burglary attempt at the hotel.
Over the next two years, investigations by Congress and the media, most notably the Washington Post, exposed the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up the burglary and sabotage the Democrats’ presidential campaign.
As the special prosecutor, Cox pressured Nixon to turn over newly discovered audiotapes of secretly recorded presidential conversations in the Oval Office.
Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege and the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
Cox persisted. He issued a subpoena for several of the tapes, which ultimately proved that the Nixon White House had been involved in a conspiracy to conceal its role in authorizing the Watergate break-in.
A federal appeals court ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. Instead of appealing to the Supreme Court, Nixon proposed that Sen. John C. Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, screen the tapes to determine if the content was relevant to Cox’s investigation.
But Cox would not compromise, despite the “political war-like atmosphere,” said Ames Professor of Law Philip B. Heymann.
Heymann, who worked under Cox for the prosecution, said Washington was heavily divided about whether Nixon was guilty of any wrongdoing.
“There was a sense that what we were doing was extremely dangerous to the Nixon administration,” Heymann told The Crimson last week.