In an exhaustive new book, journalist and researcher Ken Hughes makes the case not only that Richard Nixon, as a presidential candidate, committed treason by interfering in peace negotiations in Vietnam, but also that he sought to use the circumstances to enhance his election chances on the eve of the 1968 presidential campaign.
In "Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate," Mr. Hughes recounts that Nixon ally Anna Chennault was suspected of having interceded with South Vietnamese leaders to keep them from attending the late 1968 Paris peace talks, with or without Nixon's knowledge and approval. When President Lyndon Johnson confronted Nixon with the report, Nixon flatly denied having anything to do with any such sabotage.
But Johnson had the FBI put a tap on the South Vietnamese embassy that caught Chennault telling Ambassador Bui Diem that her "boss" wanted the nation's leaders "to hold on, we're gonna win" — implying they would get a better deal under a victorious Nixon.
Indeed, on the weekend before the U.S. election, South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu did pull out of the talks. Nixon deadpanned: "In view of early reports this morning, prospects for peace are not as bright as they were even a few days ago."
Nixon then had a close aide, Bob Finch, tell two wire-service reporters— Bill Boyarsky of AP and Dan Rapoport of UPI — aboard his campaign plane: "We had the impression that all the diplomatic ducks were in a row" for the talks. It was an old Nixon gambit — getting out an allegation of collusion without his name on it.
The next morning on NBC's "Meet the Press," reporter Herb Kaplow told Nixon: "Some of your close aides have been trying to spread the word that that President Johnson timed the Vietnam bombing pause (preceding the Paris talks) to help Vice President Humphrey in Tuesday's election. Do you agree with them?"
Nixon was ready: "No, I don't make that charge." Then he was off, giving further exposure to the allegation by denying he was making it, at great length: "I must say that many of my aides and many of the people supporting my candidacy around the country seem to share that view. They share it, I suppose, because the pause came so late in the campaign. But President Johnson has been very candid with me throughout these discussions, and I do not make such a charge."
Nixon thus declared he had clean hands both on the notion of scuttling the peace talks and of accusing LBJ of playing politics with the election. The GOP nominee, in a kicker reminiscent of the Old Nixon, added: "Let me make one thing clear. I don't suggest this as a grandstand stunt."
By now, LBJ was peeved at Humphrey for striking his own course on Vietnam, but also angry at Nixon. Johnson turned over to Humphrey the classified intelligence about the Chennault affair to discredit Nixon, but Humphrey declined to reveal it. LBJ aide Joe Califano wrote, "Johnson was furious, thinking it was 'the dumbest thing in the world not to do.'"
But finally LBJ threw in with his vice president, too late. In the end, neither the Chennault affair nor Johnson's bombing halt prevented Nixon's election, as Humphrey's late surge fell just short.
An irony in the whole saga was that, as Clark Clifford, one of Johnson's closest confidants, wrote in his memoir, almost until the election LBJ was ambivalent about whether he really wanted Humphrey to be elected. "What mattered to President Johnson at that moment was not who would succeed him, but what his (own) place in history would be," Clifford wrote.
In writing 26 years later about 1968 in "The Year the Dream Died," I contacted Anna Chennault at her apartment in Georgetown, and she was still cagey: "The only people who knew about the whole operation were Nixon, (campaign manager) John Mitchell and (Sen.) John Tower, and they're all dead. But they knew what I was doing. Anyone who knows about these things knows I was getting orders. ... I couldn't do anything without instructions. ... I was constantly in touch with Mitchell and Nixon."
One can only ponder that had Humphrey followed LBJ's advice and made public the classified intelligence supporting the charge of treason against Nixon, there might never have been Watergate.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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