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The ’68 election collusion: Nixon’s successful sabotage of Vietnam peace talks

Nixon's successful sabotage of Vietnam peace talks
Courtesy of The Nixon Library and Museum
Richard Nixon told a war-weary U.S. public that he had a secret plan to end the war. There was no such plan.

Three questions:

1. Did Donald Trump collude with Russia during the election campaign and,

2. if so, how bad is that, and,

3. if so, how unprecedented?

The answer to question 1 is not settled, but it doesn’t look good. We have Donald Trump Jr.’s reaction of “I love it” when offered a meeting with Russians to help undermine the Hillary Clinton campaign. We have the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered to influence the election in favor Trump. But we don’t yet have much of a smoking gun moment in which Trump Sr. is clearly participating in collusion to work with Russia to influence the election. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, we await your findings, assuming the current incumbent can’t find a way to get rid of you.

Question 2, the how bad would it be question: Just me talking, if it happened it’s very, very bad. Inexcusable. Unforgivable. Despicable. Impeachable.

Now on Question 3, how unprecedented, before yesterday I might have said utterly unprecedented. Then I read this long Politico piece by John Farrell, adapted from Farrell’s recent and highly regarded biography “Richard Nixon, The Life,” which I hope to read in its entirety when I stop scribbling so much.

Basically, in the late days of the 1968 campaign that Nixon ended up narrowly winning over Minnesota’s own Hubert Humphrey, Nixon actively participated in a pressure campaign to keep the government of South Vietnam from agreeing to measures that President Lyndon Johnson was pursuing to end the Vietnam War. And it very likely made a difference. And the war continued for seven more years, costing an unimaginable toll in human life and other forms of destruction and resulting in the complete defeat of the United States and its South Vietnamese ally.

In the fall of 1968, LBJ had halted U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, was pushing the leaders of both North and South Vietnam for a deal that would end the war, or at least the large U.S. role in it. He was pressing South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to make the concessions necessary to end the war (or, as Thieu feared, to end it long enough for the United States to remove its enormous military presence and leave him to face the North Vietnamese by himself). But relying as heavily as he did on U.S. military support, Thieu was not in a good position to reject LBJ’s entreaties.

Nixon, through the intermediary Anna Chennault, sent the secret message to Thieu that he should reject LBJ’s pressure, that he, Nixon, would soon be president, and would offer South Vietnam a much better deal.

The motives on both sides were heavily political. LBJ’s vice president, Humphrey, had come from behind to make the presidential race close. It’s easy to assume that LBJ believed the announcement of a breakthrough to end the war and bring the U.S. troops home would be a big boost for the Democratic ticket. LBJ was a brilliant (and unscrupulous) political tactician, and the political facts should be borne in mind in judging (but not exucusing) what Nixon did. (Today, by the way, is the 43rd anniversary of Nixon's resignation.)

Nixon, for the opposite political reasons, hoped the war would continue until Election Day, undermining Humphrey through his connection to Johnson’s war. Nixon told a war-weary U.S. public that he had a secret plan to end the war. There was no such plan. Nixon, in fact, kept the war going all the way through his first term.

But in the last days before the election, as Farrell’s biography makes clear and as described in the Politico piece mentioned above, Nixon sent word through intermediaries that Chennault should tell the South Vietnamese not to cooperate with LBJ’s effort to wind down the war, but that he would provide South Vietnam with more support to continue the war, as he in fact did.

It’s impossible to say that Nixon won because LBJ and Humphrey couldn’t deliver clear progress toward ending the war. But it’s easy to believe. The election was very close. Humphrey was surging. The war was unpopular and increasingly more so and Humphrey was struggling to portray himself as the guy who would bring the troops home.

It’s also possible to see things from Nixon’s viewpoint. LBJ’s push to produce progress toward peace was intended to help Humphrey. Nixon surely wouldn’t welcome or legitimize that motive.

Before long it became known in the United States that Chennault had been active in encouraging Thieu to resist making concessions, to hang on and wait for Nixon to give him more support. Some of Nixon’s aides were implicated. But for years, Nixon claimed that anything along those lines occurred without his knowledge or participation.

Turns out, that was a lie. Farrell walks us through the growing evidence, much of which didn’t come out until years later, long after Nixon had fallen from the presidency for different reasons. Suspicions grew and festered for decades that Nixon was aware of and participating in the Chennault plan, and Farrell, in his reseach for the biography, says he found the final “smoking gun.”

Here are a few outtakes from the Politico piece, drawn from the Farrell book:

(H.R.) Haldeman, 42, was Nixon’s campaign chief of staff, a devoted political adjutant since the 1950s. In late October 1968, the two men connected on what came to be known as "the Chennault Affair." Nixon gave Haldeman his orders: Find ways to sabotage Johnson’s plans to stage productive peace talks, so that a frustrated American electorate would turn to the Republicans as their only hope to end the war.

The gambit worked, and the Chennault Affair, named for Anna Chennault, the Republican doyenne and fundraiser who became Nixon’s back channel to the South Vietnamese government, lingered as a diplomatic and political whodunit for decades afterward.

***

It wasn’t until after 2007, when the Nixon Presidential Library finally opened Haldeman’s notes to the public, that I stumbled upon a smoking gun in the course of conducting research for my biography of Nixon: four pages of notes his brush-cut aide had scrawled late on an October evening in 1968. "!Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN [South Viet Nam]," Haldeman wrote, as Nixon barked orders into the phone. They were out to "monkey wrench" Johnson’s election eve initiative, Nixon said. And it worked. ...

Documenting this cynical maneuver is important for history’s sake, but the fact that it took nearly 50 years for Nixon’s secret to emerge also offers vital lessons for today. It shows how hard it is to find definitive proof of collaboration with a foreign power when officials are determined to hide the truth. It illustrates why a president might hesitate to call out such malfeasance by a candidate from the opposing political party. And it demonstrates the lengths an ambitious politician will go in the pursuit of power — even at the expense of his own country’s interests.

***

Kremlin leaders had never much liked the red-baiting, anti-communist Nixon. To keep him from the Oval Office, and help Humphrey become president, they were meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign — pressing their clients in North Vietnam to agree to a ceasefire and hold constructive talks to end the war. 

***

The Nixon campaign’s sabotage of Johnson’s peace process was successful. Nine days later, Thieu’s decision to boycott the talks headlined The New York Times and other U.S. newspapers, reminding American voters of their long-harbored mistrust of the wheeler-dealer LBJ and his “credibility gap” on Vietnam. Humphrey’s momentum faded.

***

In the end, the Chennault episode shut a window that, with the help of the Soviet Union, Johnson and his aides thought they had opened. A moment of genuine hope, and a chance — however slight — to settle this ugly war was stolen.

Here’s the link one more time to the full Farrell piece in Politico. I found it riveting and thought-provoking. And, although I’ve seen some coverage of this matter before, it left my mind reeling.

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Comments (19)

Does the Motive Matter?

President Johnson had a likely political motive for wanting to end the war (or, more accurately, US involvement in the war) quickly. While important decisions like that should be above politics, the bottom line is that an LBJ success would have saved the lives of over 21,000 American service-members, billions of dollars from the US Treasury, and some of the credibility of the US as a moral force.

One Other Thing

I recommend Mr. Farrell's Nixon biography. The peace talk sabotage part is eye-opening, but I was most interested in the description of his time as Vice President. I never knew much about his (fraught) relationship with President Eisenhower; in fact, I never knew much about the inner workings of the Eisenhower presidency at all.

The description of the political culture of the 50s puts a new spin on that decade, too.

Tricky Dick

…had already provided other reasons to mistrust him, as had Johnson, with his pledge in 1964 not to send American boys to die in southeast Asia, only to turn around and send many thousands to do just that. 1968 was the only presidential election (so far) in which I did not support a mainstream candidate, and instead donated a minuscule contribution to the campaign of one Eugene McCarthy, a local boy, I believe… When November arrived, of course, we'd already seen the horrors of not only Vietnam, but the Democratic convention in Chicago, which might have been enough to keep many a Democrat home from the polls, or at least from voting for Hubert Humphrey. My ballot was quite a bit more a vote against Nixon than it was a vote for Humphrey.

I don't know if Humphrey would have managed to open a relationship with China as Nixon did, but in most other ways, both domestically and in foreign affairs, it's hard for me to look back to the next several years after that 1968 election from the vantage point of today and think that Humphrey would have been worse than Nixon. For what very little it's worth, this ordinary citizen never believed that Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war any more than he now believes that the Current Occupant's inaugural crowd was the largest ever seen in this country.

I'm inclined to support RB Holbrook on this. I'm not at all sure Johnson's motives are the crucial issue. Of course they were political, as were Nixon's, as were McCarthy's, as were those everybody else involved in the campaign. In the end we undermined our credibility as international leader, and in the process killed many thousands of Americans and Vietnamese, while pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into a money pit we wouldn't see again until Afghanistan.

Yup, The "Peace" Candidate

LBJ in 1964.

The motives matter

because they give us an idea of what the person would do in similar situations in the future.

Nixon in China

"I don't know if Humphrey would have managed to open a relationship with China as Nixon did . . ." Maybe not. It's often said that "only" Nixon could have gone to China. There was a domestic political reason for that: If a Humphrey or Kennedy had tried to open sensible relations with China, Nixon and his allies--including Mme. Chennault and the rest of the old-time China Lobby--would have screamed about treason and appeasement of the Red Menace. Nixon was able to keep the red baiters quiet (except for a few fringe voices, like the far-right pastor who used to deliver a message on KSTP-TV in the early morning back in the early 70s).

A hypothetical liberal President may have been too spooked by the "soft on Communism" label that he would not have even tried.

fair and balanced....

"We have the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered to influence the election in favor Trump. But we don’t yet have much of a smoking gun moment in which Trump Sr. is clearly participating in collusion to work with Russia to influence the election." E.B.

In Mr. Black's never ending attempt to be the Sean Hannity of left wing print journalism, he needs to be reminded that the standard and definition of "collusion" should be applied equally to all campaigns.

The lack of interest in Russian and Russian surrogate activity in the Hilary campaign and the Clinton foundation demands equal investigation. I am sure Mr. Black will demand equal investigation of the Clinton campaign with the goal of getting to the bottom of all Russian involvement. The phrase "in favor of Trump" is arrogant without equal investigation.

Fianl Score

DJT: 306

HRC: 232

Moving on...

Fair and balanced all right, just like Fox News!

"The lack of interest in Russian and Russian surrogate activity in the Hilary campaign and the Clinton foundation demands equal investigation." Perhaps I'm in a bubble, but what evidence is there of activity between the Clinton campaign/foundation and the Russian government?

"The standard and definition of "collusion" should be applied equally to all campaigns"--Agreed, and I would assert that it is. How is it not being applied equally? (Also, only one of these two is the current President of the United States. I would say that takes precedence for investigation even if there was some evidence having to do with the Clinton campaign)

You seem to be accepting the premise that there at least was Russian involvement in terms of attempting to influence our election, but you go on to say that any assertion that it was in Trump's favor is 'arrogant without equal investigation'. I don't understand your line of reasoning here. I am unaware of any evidence that there was any coordination between Clinton and any Russian state actors, so why would there be a need for equal investigation? Investigations aren't something that are doled out equally along party lines, they occur in response to suspected crime. I think it's pretty obvious that the Russian government preferred Trump, and I don't think that's as much due to arrogance as it is just paying the slightest amount of attention over the past year.

The center moves farther to the right

Only in the fevered mind of those on the far, far right would Eric Black qualify as the "Sean Hannity of left wing print journalism." My guess is that he'd like to have Hannity's income, but journalism—the real kind—typically pays modestly, at best. Also unlike Mr. Hannity, Mr. Black seems to place some value on facts, logical reasoning and coherent argument. It's a fair indication of the narrowness of Mr. Gotzman's sources of information that he characterizes MinnPost as "left wing journalism." This suggests to me that he has never actually seen or read any truly left-wing journalism. If he had, he'd realize just how far off-base that claim is.

The modern-day "conservative" movement is, in fact, an increasingly radical far-right, neofascist kind of theocratic ideology, not entirely coherent, but united in its dislike of minorities, sensuality, democracy, government, taxes, environmental concerns, and tolerance, whether in religious, ethnic or intellectual forms. When someone is that far out at the extreme end of the political spectrum, virtually any individual or organization is likely to seem far to the left.

Nixon's exit

One small correction--today is the anniversary of the August 8 televised evening speech in which Nixon announced he would resign, effective (noon?) the next day. August 9 he got on the helicopter and left.

Interesting subject, today's topic . . . interesting indeed.

I read somewhere else about today being the 43rd anniversary of Nixon's resignation. I do believe the past offers lessons that we, as a society, can learn from today. True, the possible collusion of Donald Trump, Jr. with Russia in an effort to sway the election toward Trump, Sr., etc., etc., and so forth and so on, pales in comparison with the Vietnam War and its bloody continuance for another seven years, still . . . it deserves full investigation and I am sincerely hoping that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will get to the bottom of the whole affair and expose the truth - the whole, unmitigated truth as to whether or not there was collusion and how deeply it did affect the election. As to being fair and balanced, fine, if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had anything incriminating in her emails or her dealings with Russia, then let that come out as well, but as she did not become President of the United States, then I can't see why it should stand out as important as possible collusion by the single most powerful man in America, our own current Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, Sr. Did he win the election fair and square or not? I believe we Americans deserve to know - unless we have become a society that simply doesn't care to know that truth. Can it be that Trump supporters will continue to support President Trump no matter what? Wonder if President Nixon had any supporters like that 43 years ago?

I read a passage written by a well-known television evangelist, whom I admire and respect very much, but will decline to give his name, although he speaks the truth and does preach the Word of God earnestly, but he stated that "gone are the days of decorum, when courtesy, honor and propriety took precedence over personal desires" and that "Honor always has a place - a place that should be preserved", and I want to bear that in mind in writing here, because it does state in the scriptures that one should pray for leaders, be they state leaders or national leaders, and I DO believe that, especially as I am a Christian and want to follow the Lord's direction, however; I was remembering some old-time prophets of the Bible, and Elijah comes to mind. He didn't mince words with dealing with King Ahab, a wicked king who did not honor God nor his Word. Now, I am NOT trying to call our current POTUS wicked by any stretch of the imagination, but I cannot see how he stands for Christian values either.

I read an interesting article by David Brooks entitled "Getting Trump Out of My Brain" on The Opinion Pages in the New York Times, and he wrote the following: "For a time, we lived off the moral capital of the past. But the election of Trump shows just how desiccated the mainline code has become. A nation guided by that ethic would not have elected a guy who is a daily affront to it, a guy who nakedly loves money, who boasts, who objectifies women, who is incapable of hypocrisy because he acknowledges no standard of propriety other than that which he feels like doing at any given moment."

At this moment, I cannot disagree with the author. Hopefully, something, somewhere, somehow will happen to change my mind, one way or another.

By the way, interesting enough, one of my dearest friends, a born-again Christian and a former Pastor of the small church I attend, also voted for Richard Nixon.

The main difference between Nixon and Trump

was that Nixon was competent.

Trump, Reagan and Trump

This story is old news - there may not have been a "smoking gun" until the 2007 release of Haldeman's notes, but informed journalists and historians have understood the outlines of the Nixon treason* for years.

Nixon was likely not alone in treason in the operation of his presidential campaign: the evidence suggests that the Reagan campaign chair, BIll Casey, had meetings in Spain with Iranian clerics to delay the release of U.S. hostages until after the 1980 election. Some have even alleged that the Reagan election team revealed the U.S. plan to mount a 2nd rescue mission, effectively scuttling that effort.

http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/15/world/new-reports-say-1980-reagan-camp...

* "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. " (Article 3, Section 3, U.S. Constitution.)

It seems as if...

It is the GOP in recent history who engage in what was defined in to his commentary section as "treason !" An always to gain advantage in the election for Potus. The death Nixon brought to gain office is despicable. The pardon by Ford is equally so. And the list goes on.

Reagan/Bush October Surprise and Hitchens

Anyone interested in Nixon's conspiracy should definitely read Christopher Hitchens's: "The Trial of Henry Kissinger", or watch the movie. Hitchens did a phenomenal job of documenting and describing not only effort to prolong the war in Viet Nam, but other collusion's as well.

I'm surprised that Reagan's October Surprise deal with the Iranians isn't being mentioned. While the investigation at the time failed to find conclusive evidence that the Reagan team made a deal with the Iranians to hang on to the Hostages until after the election, the deal has since been confirmed by a number of Iranian sources. Here are a couple links:

https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2017/jul/24/declassified-cia-memo...

http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/66474:robert-parry--part-...

Russia?

An excellent article.- Some of us have been aware of Nixon's duplicitous deadly gamesmanship during the American War in Vietnam... except for the dragging in of the Soviets with regard to the election.

There is nothing in the piece itself to substantiate this allegation. The mention comes across as a cheap shot at current events and diminishes the strength of the article.

Actually when you think about it

Nixon, Reagan, Bush W. and Trump. You could say you have a pattern. Nixon and Viet Nam, followed by Ford who was never elected. Reagan and the October Surprise. W. was appointed by the Supreme court, we know Gore actually won that election. And now we have Trump and the Russians. Of the last seven Republican Presidents, only one; Bush Sr. was actually elected free and clear.

It is beyond all logic ....

and maybe that is my problem that any modern day Republican for the most part is ever elected. We are a sad nation. It is not just Trump and his wholesale distruction of what many worked decades to bring to the nation is being ripped asunder without a plurality. But ensconsed by a cowardly electoral college that was derelict in its duty. I site today's report on the whining Jason Lewis upset with citizens attempts to bring him to town meetings as an example of some "elected" officials ignoring their constituencies. And there in lies the problem.