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

In the 1968 campaign that Nixon ended up narrowly winning over Minnesota’s own Hubert Humphrey, Nixon actively pressured South Vietnam in “the Chennault Affair.”

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

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?

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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.

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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. …

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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.