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Did LBJ want Nixon to beat Humphrey?

Hubert H. Humphrey 1968 presidential campaign poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert H. Humphrey 1968 presidential campaign poster
Hubert H. Humphrey was the leading Minnesota political figure of his era, from the 1940s to the 1960s, during which decades he served as Minneapolis mayor, Minnesota’s U.S. senator, vice president of the United States and, in 1968, the first Minnesotan ever to be a major party presidential nominee.

That presidential campaign turned into a dramatic snakebit tale featuring the tragedy of the Vietnam War, the tortured, abusive relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Humphrey, and the winner of that 1968 election, Richard Nixon, who during that campaign engaged in actions that some have called treason, in order to defeat Humphrey.

Specifically, Nixon used back-channel communications with the leaders of South Vietnam to discourage them from participating in peace talks that LBJ hoped would end the war. Through his secret envoy, Anna Chennault (and in violation of various laws and norms), Nixon discouraged South Vietnam from making that deal.

A last-minute announcement by the South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that he would not attend the Paris peace talks reversed Humphrey’s late momentum in the polls, and Nixon beat Humphrey by less than 1 percent of the popular vote (although the electoral vote margin was larger).

At a recent University of Minnesota-Humphrey School event, the featured speaker — Stuart Eizenstat, a veteran of both the Humphrey 1968 campaign and the subsequent Carter-Mondale administration — suggested that Humphrey knew of Nixon’s illicit interference in Vietnam during the 1968 campaign, but didn’t make it public because he was too Minnesota nice to do so.

I covered the Eizenstat event, and wrote about the “too nice” explanation, with some skepticism.

In the following days, I asked former Vice President Walter Mondale whether he could corroborate the “too nice” anecdote. Mondale, a Humphrey protégé and, in 1968 a rising star in the U.S. Senate, said no, he couldn’t corroborate that “too nice” bit, and added that it made no sense to him. There was nothing Minnesotan nor “nice” about allowing Nixon to profit politically from interfering with U.S. efforts to end the Vietnam war.

Mondale even reached out to some of the other surviving veterans of the ’68 campaign to ask what caused Humphrey to hold back. But he didn’t come up with a clear final answer.

Meanwhile, I heard from historian Arnold Offner, author of an excellent new Humphrey biography (“Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country,” published by Yale University Press) that tells this tale of the last days of the 1968 campaign in eye-watering detail, with footnoted sources for every fact. In an email to me, Offner specifically rejected the “too nice” explanation and offered his own take. My main goal in returning to the topic so soon is to provide some of Offner’s very interesting findings.

For one, as to the question of why Humphrey didn’t make public in the last days of the campaign what he knew of Nixon’s back-channel interference with efforts to end the Vietnam war, Offner calls attention to a lie that LBJ told Humphrey.

Johnson did tell Humphrey what Nixon was doing, but added that he had “no hard proof” of Nixon’s illicit backchannel efforts to prevent progress toward peace. In reality, LBJ had transcripts of FBI phone taps proving it.

But, Offner suggested to me, Humphrey understood LBJ’s “no hard proof” statement to mean that LBJ wouldn’t make the tapes or transcripts available to Humphrey, and that if Humphrey went public with the charge, he would not be able to prove the allegation.

Offner also makes a larger argument that the LBJ-HHH relationship had been an ugly, confusing mess ever since Humphrey agreed to be LBJ’s running mate for the 1964 election. When LBJ was in the process of looking for a running mate, he told his intimates that it was important to “have his pecker in my pocket.”

Humphrey, who had been a highly respected senator and who deeply wanted to be president, believed the vice presidency was his best route to that goal.

President Lyndon Johnson, right, meeting with candidate Richard Nixon at the White House, July 26, 1968.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
President Lyndon Johnson, right, meeting with candidate Richard Nixon at the White House, July 26, 1968.
LBJ demanded total loyalty from HHH, while giving little in return. He frequently berated Humphrey for any small or imagined offense. (The details of Johnson’s pecker-pocketing mistreatment are excruciating.)

Humphrey did write a memo to LBJ early in their term, which seems to be full of wisdom about how to avoid a quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ ignored the advice and cut Humphrey out of future meetings on Vietnam policy.

Humphrey’s response was to double down on loyalty to LBJ, to the point of accepting humiliation, confiding in one memo to a colleague: “From now on out there are no Humphrey rooms, there is no Humphrey staff, there is no Humphrey program, and there are no Humphrey ideas. From now on, there simply isn’t any Humphrey.”

And, whatever private doubts he may have harbored about the U.S. escalation in Vietnam, Humphrey publicly supported administration policy so thoroughly that it’s hard find any further evidence, after that early memo, that he harbored doubts.

Offner relays one hideous incident in which LBJ commanded Humphrey to recite aloud for him his recent speech in favor of the Johnson’s Vietnam policy, then walked into the bathroom to defecate and, while sitting on the toilet, hollered through the open door: “Keep talking Hubert, I’m listening.”

It’s hard to know how deep into his heart Humphrey’s conversion from dove to hawk went. Offner quotes some Humphrey remarks, after this period, in which he suggested by staying within the Johnson circle, his pro-war views were constantly reinforced. In my conversation with Mondale, he said with evident regret that Humphrey would have had a different view, and the freedom to express it, if he had stayed in the Senate.

Of course, LBJ then shocked the country by deciding not to seek re-election in 1968. But he still had sufficient leverage over Humphrey that HHH, running for the Democratic nomination to replace Johnson, publicly supported LBJ’s increasingly unpopular Vietnam policy even as he was challenged by two anti-war Democrats, New York Sen. Robert Kennedy and Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Humphrey refused to debate them about the war. Kennedy, of course, was killed before the convention in Chicago.

I’m not sure I ever heard about this before, but Offner writes that LBJ was secretly scheming with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to invite him to make a surprise address to the Chicago convention, and harbored hopes that such an appearance might actually stampede the convention to re-nominate him for another term. Nothing like that happened, but if LBJ really believed it might, it could explain his motivations for doing so much to undermine Humphrey’s candidacy.

There was also an effort by Humphrey and others to get a moderate Vietnam peace plank into the Democratic platform, which might have helped Humphrey begin to separate himself from the unpopular war. But that, too, was vetoed by LBJ.

Of course, peace protests and violent suppression of those protests by Chicago police outside the nominating convention got Humphrey’s candidacy off to a terrible start, and he trailed in the polls all year, generally by double digits. The above developments led Offner to believe that LBJ may have actually been hoping that Nixon would beat Humphrey, and Humphrey wondered the same. Writes Offner:

Humphrey left the Democratic convention trailing Nixon in polls by 16 or more points and subject to Johnson’s continued harassment. The vice president admitted to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin: “I don’t even know who Johnson would prefer as the next president, Nixon or me.” Similarly, Defense Secretary Clark Clifford wondered on more than one occasion whether, in his heart of hearts, Lyndon Johnson really wants Humphrey to win.”

(As I mentioned, Offner footnotes every factual assertion and quote. Dobrynin and Clifford both said what is suggested above in their own memoirs.)

Why would Democrat LBJ prefer Republican Nixon over Democrat Humphrey? I asked Offner.

His answer had several layers, including the psychological. LBJ was brilliant and successful but knew he was not well liked by the country. Nor was Nixon. Humphrey was among the most likable figures in Washington. LBJ seethed at the thought of being replaced by someone whom the country so clearly liked better than himself. Whether that is true or false, LBJ did very little to help Humphrey win, and a lot to make it more likely that Humphrey would lose, including insisting that Humphrey toe his unpopular line on Vietnam.

Nixon also cultivated LBJ. As Offner relates, Nixon sent the Rev. Billy Graham as an emissary to LBJ with a written message, which Graham read to Johnson point by point, including a promise to do nothing after the election to embarrass LBJ, to make sure LBJ got “a major share of the credit” for the end of the Vietnam war, whenever that came about.

But the climax of this dark tale comes late in the campaign. LBJ had been working to arrange peace talks, in Paris, among the warring parties in Vietnam, and announced shortly before the election that he would suspend U.S. bombing of North Vietnam to improve the chances of success in those talks. As the situation in Vietnam seemed more promising, Humphrey began to rise in the polls, cutting Nixon’s lead to single digits and improving fast.

Hubert H. Humphrey 1968 presidential campaign button
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert H. Humphrey 1968 presidential campaign button
Nixon wanted to scuttle the momentum toward peace, for obvious political reasons, but any such interference could be considered treasonous.

Anna Chennault, a Republican activist (and widow of a famous U.S. Air Force hero) was working to prevent the Paris talks from succeeding, and (at Nixon’s bidding) told South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu not to go to the Paris Peace Talks but to wait until Nixon was in the White House and he would secure a better deal for Thieu. In the key final days of the 1968 campaign, Thieu’s announcement that he would not go to Paris interrupted Humphrey’s late surge.

But the FBI was illicitly taping Nixon’s calls with Chennault, and LBJ had tapes and transcripts of the calls. No one can prove this, but if LBJ had made these tapes and transcripts public, it might – and many believed would – have tipped the election to Humphrey. Instead, as I mentioned above, LBJ told Humphrey that he had no hard proof of Nixon’s activities.

I mentioned above that Nixon’s activity to interfere with the efforts of the U.S. president to end a war in which U.S. troops were getting killed might be “treason.” I say it might be, but Mondale didn’t use that word and urged me to be careful about such a serious charge. So I have.

But I’ll close with this, from the Offner book but footnoted to a biography of Madame Chennault. In the last days of the campaign, after Thieu, taking the advice of Chennault, had announced that he would not go to the Paris peace talks, the FBI intercepted a message from Chennault to South Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington Bui Diem. Chennault said that “her boss” (Offner believes this referred to Nixon’s running-mate, Spiro Agnew) had just called her to tell her to tell Thieu to “hold on. We’re gonna win.”

Johnson didn’t call Nixon to complain, nor Humphrey to put him in the picture. But he did call Sen. Everett Dirksen, the leader of the Senate Republican caucus, and told him about the intercept. And Johnson told Dirksen that it would “shock America” to learn that Nixon’s agent was colluding against the president’s efforts to wind down a war in which U.S. troops were dying.

“This is treason,” LBJ told Dirksen, to which Dirksen, the Republican leader, replied: “I know.”

Comments (41)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/07/2018 - 09:43 am.

    Just some observation – I hope I read the article correctly…

    Mr. Black is “basically” calling it treason for Nixon to collude with a foreign government. Mondale was not willing to go that far in using the “t” word.

    However – no editorial comment is given once again on the FBI colluding with the LBJ administration to spy on the Nixon campaign? Over a year ago, I believe Mr. Black thought it was outrages that Trump made a similar allegation.

    Also – I get the idea that HHH seems to be an extremely weak individual in his representation in this article.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2018 - 11:30 am.

      Unfortunately you did NOT read this correctly. The FBI was NOT eavesdropping on the Nixon campaign, they were monitoring a foreign agent, Anna Chennault. Nixon’s calls to Chennault were picked much the same way various Trump connections to Russian agents were picked up during the course of surveillance of Russian agents or suspected agents.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/07/2018 - 11:48 am.

      First, I suggest you look up the definition of “treason” in the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Art. III, sect. 3, para. 1. Telling a hostile power not to reach a peace agreement with the United States now certainly qualifies, despite Mondale’s reticence.

      Second, the only adjectives that can do justice to the idea that the allegations about spying on the Trump campaign should be referenced in this article would lead to moderation deleting this comment.

    • Submitted by james herzog on 12/07/2018 - 01:16 pm.

      The reasons this never came to light was LBJ knew it was illegal to wiretap the ambassadors phone and the Nixon campaign, and once Humphrey was told by LBJ about all this HHH decided not to expose it because 1) he thought he was going to win anyways and 2) he did not want to throw the country into convulsions, which it was already in the midst of. Humphrey comes off looking noble, and Nixon — truly deplorable.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2018 - 02:11 pm.

        Again, they weren’t spying on Nixon’s campaign. It is NOT illegal to spy on foreign diplomats or ambassadors, everyone does it all the time. We even spy on “friendly” diplomats and ambassadors. It might have been somewhat embarrassing to admit we’d been spying on an ally but that embarrassment would have likely prevented the Nixon presidency. Letting candidates gain office via treason is far more damaging than revealing something everyone already knows.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/07/2018 - 02:44 pm.

          “It is NOT illegal to spy on foreign diplomats or ambassadors, everyone does it all the time.”

          Technically, it is illegal, but everyone does do it. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says that the “premises of [a diplomatic] mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.” Communications are “protected,” but except for correspondence, there is nothing that says explicitly that surveillance is allowed or forbidden.

          North Vietnam was not a recognized state in 1968, so the Convention may not have applied. Also, the argument could be made that spying on a diplomatic mission in a foreign country is not a violation of a member state’s obligations.

          Thank you for providing me with my Friday afternoon time-waster.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/07/2018 - 05:21 pm.

            So we might say that it’s a violation of international law, but not

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 08:56 am.

              Same thing, in this case. See Article VI, section 2 of the Constitution.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/10/2018 - 07:29 pm.

                True, but different enforcement mechanisms:
                “ARTICLE VI
                2. This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
                …..But– do “the judges in every state” include the Supremes?

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/11/2018 - 09:06 am.

                  Since treaties are a part of the “supreme law of the land,” I would say they are bound by them even if they are not judges of any state.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/08/2018 - 12:43 pm.

            I’m looking at the convention you provide and I see nearly a million loopholes that are exploited on a regular basis. I don’t see for instance any prohibition against eavesdropping outside of the embassy, or surveillance of the embassy itself, or diplomats outside the embassy. Basically all governments get to decide who and what needs to be surveilled in their own national security interests, and no treaty can nullify that right. If they want, in the US, they can get a “finding” to support what their doing, which essentially makes it “legal”, we were intercepting Japanese telegrams for instance prior to Pearl Harbor.

            I think all we can say about the “legality” of spying is… it depends.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 09:23 am.

              The ambiguity, coupled with the “everyone does it” defense, means any illegality is overlooked by the international community.

        • Submitted by james herzog on 12/07/2018 - 03:37 pm.

          Once LBJ learned of the Chennault communication he ordered that the Nixon campaign to be placed under FBI surveillance

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/08/2018 - 12:31 pm.

            Mr. Herzog, do you have a source for this claim? Furthermore, since this surveillance revealed treasonous activity (which is a crime) monitoring the criminals would seem to fall well within the purview of legitimate law enforcement domestically. And since this activity clearly had national security implications it would also be a legitimate target for intelligence agencies.

            Not to compare with the Trump, but this is something that Trump supporters may be about to discover. Trump and his campaign became a legitimate source of investigation if and when their contacts were discovered. It would have been negligent to ignore those communications.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2018 - 10:56 am.

    Thanks for the additional work, this DOES explain Humphrey’s decisions regarding this matter.

    However, it also undermines the character that everyone seems to want to celebrate all the time. The truth is if Humphrey had been the man of character we celebrate, he would have resigned rather than become a pro-war mouthpiece for LBJ. Humphrey failed what may have been the most important moral test of his life. LBJ’s campaign of dishonest may well rival that of our current president and it certainly got many many more people killed and injured. What kind of person deliberately joins a campaign like that?

    This is yet another example of a Democrat who sought to accommodate dishonest and toxic rivals thinking that moving closer to THEM, would put them closer to electoral victory. Humphrey decided that putting his pecker in LBJ’s pocket would get him into the oval office some day. Then he lost anyways. We have to ask whether or not a man who would make such a decision was really worthy of the office? And we have to note that this is the same calculation centrists Democrats are STILL making to this day.

    In the end the real lesson here may be that the 68 election marked the first time that neither major Party was capable of providing a truly competent candidate for American voters. This is pattern that would repeat itself over the decades finally producing the Trump presidency.

    • Submitted by Greg Smith on 12/07/2018 - 11:47 am.

      I would not characterize Nixon as incompetent,a far from it. He was very skilled. As they say, only Nixon can go to China.

      Now, if you wish to talk ethics, morality, etc. Well…..

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2018 - 02:13 pm.

        Point taken, but we could have competent presidents who do not create criminal regimes, it’s not THAT much to ask.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/07/2018 - 05:22 pm.

        Trump can also go to China.
        The difference is that Nixon came back with his pants and shirt.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/09/2018 - 08:39 am.

        What you’re all missing is that this is a mental health issue. What LBJ, Nixon and Trump share is malignant narcism; not in the DSM yet, but an extreme form of narcissistic personality disorder that is in the manual. In short, these presidents were and are the Devil incarnate. It is extremely hard to treat and the best thing one can do is to avoid such folks like the plague, certainly never elect them POTUS, the problem here being that is often a choice between this or that common narcissist. A group of mental health experts recently wrote a book about Trump being a malignant narcissist in spite of their own “Goldwater Rule” against public discussion of political candidate mental health. If we could bring all such people down from positions of authority, the world might turn into something vastly more pleasant than it is today.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2018 - 10:06 am.

          I’m not sure we’re missing the effects of narcissism malignant or otherwise here, I know I’m not. The problem is that there’s no way to make a diagnosis of any kind whether it’s in the DSM or not, a legitimate campaign issue. Nor does our Constitution allow us to enact inherently discriminatory laws that would bar someone with an alleged DSM diagnosis from running for office.

          I don’t think the problem is that everyone failed to recognize Trump’s pathology, the problem is too many people voted for him despite his obvious pathology. And we have to step back and acknowledge the fact that a substantial number of trump voters actually share his pathology, the were voting for one of their own. One of the reasons Republican “values” suck so much is that they actually believe in Trump’s morality or at the very least will vote for him despite it.

          I think the difference between Trump and the other presidents we’re talking about here is that Trump is the first one to publicly display his pathology rather than hide it. LBJ and Nixon knew how to mimic decency and compassion in public… Trump doesn’t, he tries once and while, but he can’t quite pull it off. The fact that Trump got elected can be really spooky until you remember he’s the most unpopular president since Nixon.

          • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 06:55 am.

            Yup, but for the last half century or so, the Constitution has provided a means to remove all of our sick presidents without an election or an impeachment: the fourth section of the the 25th Amendment would work just fine for any human beings dangerous to our continued existence as a democratic republic or in general; whether it is Pence and the cabinet or a group of mental health experts created and charged by Congress to make the determination, with a 2/3 majority vote of both houses, the sick president is out provided enough narcissists don’t lower the votes below 2/3.

            The reason we don’t use what we’ve got is for the fear of these extremely malignant narcissists rising up and bringing down the republic, e.g., Hitler had his brown shirts and Trump has his version in our prolonged Kristallnacht with domestic terrorists killing and maiming the targets their hate is focused on through the rhetoric.

            Johnson and Nixon were realists in the end, and gave in against the constitutional power wielded by the people exerting their constitutional rights through protest and through their congressional delegations in preparing to remove the latter president. If Trump just quit now, perhaps he’d finally MAGA, but we have to do something about him now, constitutionally of course.

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/10/2018 - 09:19 am.

              I can’t disagree with anything your saying, but I don’t think we can use psychobabble to remove a president, even Trump. If we remove presidents, via impeachment or 25th Amendment, that removal needs to based on behavior and conduct, not a personality assessment. Narcissism isn’t the only disorder in the DSM, almost any president could be assigned some diagnosis or another.

              I think the value in discussing narcissism at this point is in realizing that for decades liberals and centrist Democrats have been denying it’s existence. They’ve been pretending that they’re just trying to compromise with adversaries that have a different point of view, by doing so they’ve legitimized pathology. How else does Trump end up being a legitimate presidential candidate? The problem is when you compromise with narcissists you’re collaborating with their toxic agenda, and that never ends well.

              Listen: I’ll give you another Malignant Narcissist: Ayn Rand. The fact is that malignant narcissism is core feature of the libertarian mentality, this is why ironically Libertarians have no coherent concept of liberty beyond: “your not the boss of me”. American Libertarianism is literally based on the dystopian psuedo-philosophy of a malignant narcissist. So do we reach across the Isle and work with Rand Paul? Do we campaign against Rand Paul as if he’s just another guy from a different Party?

              The problem is that American liberals and centrist let these toxic narcissists assume the mantel of our moral leadership, the guys with the durable “values” and “principles”. If nothing the new awareness of their narcissistic personalities might put an end to THAT foray into magical thinking and delusion.

              • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 01:44 pm.

                Good points, but I think you are wrong about the removals necessarily being a bad thing as we have yet to see a Congress impeach and convict a sitting president; no one needs both more than Donald Trump, but the 25th just fits the situation better. Libertarians and folks like Ayn Rand and her fandom don’t need such panels, just some time out at their alma mater: Screw University, where they first learned to screw folks over for their own short comings.

                I do happen to believe malignant narcism can be treated with isolation, meditation, and other therapy, but that remains something for patients and the folks they seek for help to consider. We should offer it to Trump and company in prison along with less challenging folks.

                • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2018 - 08:27 am.

                  Oh God I’m not saying removals are a bad thing… I’m all for removing guys like Trump and Nixon, and I’m even willing to consider removing guys like Clinton and Johnson. I’m just saying we should remove people for what they actually do or don’t do, not our judgments about what kinds of people they are. A malignant narcissist is going to do bad things, so we remove them for the bad things they do, not for simply being a malignant narcissist.

                  As a guy who worked in psych for over a decade I’m just telling you… you don’t want to hand this off to psychologists and psychiatrists.

                  • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/11/2018 - 07:10 pm.

                    I simply believe it is a disqualifying condition whether you believe a well accepted mental illness diagnosis as extreme as Trump’s case is psychobabble or not; parties should exclude such sick candidates from endorsement, but I will always hold that this is/was the time to use Sec. 4 of the 25th.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/07/2018 - 01:33 pm.

    “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.“

    Lord Acton’s line applies to some presidents more than others, largely because some presidents have stronger authoritarian tendencies than others. A master of the legislative process, Johnson was often impatient with it while president, and was unenthusiastic about sharing power. The Current Occupant has no legislative talent or experience, but plenty of authoritarian tendencies. Frankly, the parallels – which I’d not thought of previously – are thought-provoking.

    If Johnson did tilt the election – whether through action or inaction – toward Nixon, especially given his apparent knowledge of Nixon’s under-the-radar activities, it’s pretty much unconscionable on both party and national levels, though it’s an unsettling illustration of the self-inflicted peril of a sycophant. Some of the Current Occupant’s associates who have played that role will soon be taking a figurative bullet for him. Sad.

  4. Submitted by Richard Lentz on 12/07/2018 - 02:12 pm.

    I have always viewed LBJ with ambivalence, a flawed man and a decent man who did much harm and much good. Protecting a nation from convulsions? Protecting his war? Allowing Nixon the opportunity to win? Whatever the reason for his actions or inactions, I cannot see a way that leaves a vestige of positivity. Alas. The greatest harm is to our institutions, to the informal structure —the myths and beliefs – that make our democracy work, that give the words of the constitution it’s substance, that guide interpretation and implementation of that remarkable document.

  5. Submitted by Richard Adair on 12/07/2018 - 02:18 pm.

    We’ll see what Robert Caro has to say about all this. In the first 4 volumes of his 5 volume biography of LBJ he is very complimentary toward Humphrey, even devoting an entire chapter to him, “The Orator of the Dawn”. He paints Humphrey as strong and principled, and seen by LBJ as a major roadblock to his presidential ambitions because he (LBJ) could never get the Democratic nomination as long as Hubert was the leader of the northern liberals. His strategy of emasculating Humphrey by making him Vice President and then humbling him in public was similar to what LBJ had experienced as JFK’s vice president. So bad blood between the two went back decades.

    Caro’s 5th and final volume (not yet published) will deal primarily with Vietnam according the the author and will be presented as a tragedy after Johnson’s many domestic accomplishments. I would be surprised if he doesn’t present the events Eric Black describes and the entire 1968 election as another tragedy.

    Caro’s work is by far the most fascinating history writing I’ve ever read (and I’m kind of an addict).

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/07/2018 - 09:22 pm.

      I agree about Caro’s work on Johnson.

      What interests me is whether LBJ might have tapped Nixon’s phone lines to Anna Chenault. Anyone who’s read a biography of J. Edgar Hoover knows that the FBI routinely wiretapped phones without warrant or judicial authorization for many years, a practice which was encouraged, if not started by FDR and continued through the Johnson Presidency and into the Nixon Presidency. That’s how the FBI knew so much about JFK’s affairs with Judith Exner and other women. But that didn’t change anything until the Supreme Court decided a case in 1971 which held that a warrant and probable cause was still required for such ‘gray area” wiretapping. That decision didn’t have much, if any, impact until the post-Watergate investigations of Frank Church and Otis Pike brought about the 1978 FISA law we have today.

      FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover left behind a huge trove of documents which included supposedly “confidential” documents that Hoover kept deparate from the other FBI documents. FBI/Hoover scholar Athan Theoharis has documented many of these but also noted that an undetermined number of documents which Hoover kept ‘ultra-confidential” were destroyed by Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy. But some of these records have survived. A biography of J.Edgar Hoover by Curtis Gentry I consult from time to time notes that there was a memo to J.Edgar Hoover about an FBI intercept of a Chenault communication that implicated Nixon’s VP Agnew but which was not directly intercepted. Hoover’s comment on this memo is quoted as the communication would put the FBI is “a most untenable and embarrassing position.”

      • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/08/2018 - 12:14 pm.

        According to Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, writing in the book that accompanies the PBS history of the Vietnam War, LBJ’s intelligence stemmed from NSA monitoring of cable traffic between the RVN Embassy in Washington and Saigon in which Ambassador Bui Diem apparently mentioned Anna Chhennault by name. In addition, further intelligence was gleaned from eavesdropping in President Nguyen Van Thieu’s office in Saigon, bugged by the CIA. These forms of espionage were routine and did not arise from any particular interest in the 1968 presidential campaigns. The FBI had a tap on Ambassador Bui Diem’s direct line in the Embassy. From this, most likely, it was known that Madam Chennault had been instructed to use pay ‘phones when contacting Bui Diem, Spiro Agnew or John Mitchell (the latter being her only links to the campaign) and not her own private line. It was assumed that her ‘phone was tapped as part of the unlawful COINTELPRO already mentioned by others commenting. There does not appear to have been any FBI surveillance of the Nixon campaign as such but the FBI did monitor visitors to the South Vietnamese Embassy. Evidence that directly linked Nixon (and H. R. Haldeman) to Anna Chhenault’s actions emerged only in 2007 when Haldeman’s notes of a late night telephone conversation with Nixon on October 22, 1968 came to light.

        Everett Dirksen was encouraged to inform Nixon that the White House believed that some individuals in the “old China crowd” were meddling in the effort to kick-start the Vietnamese peace talks in Paris and that Spiro Agnew was thought to be “the boss.”. Nixon reportedly telephoned President Johnson the following morning to deny that he had any knowledge or involvement. According to the transcript, he stated, “…I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly, about this and any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude–certainly have no credibility as far as I am concerned.” ( pg 350, Ward & Burns)

        HHH undoubtedly understood that he would have had to deal with the same lies had he dared, without sufficient proof, to expose Nixon’s attempts to undermine U.S. foreign policy. Minnesota Nice had nothing to with his decision to keep his campaign “clean”. That said, it was typically decent of him to alert his inner circle that his campaign was in trouble.

  6. Submitted by Rosemary Schaffer on 12/08/2018 - 01:05 pm.

    My parents were Life-long Democrats, starting with the Farmer Party, they both felt LBJ was a old Southern Slave State ‘a—-e’ and the worse person for an American President. But, Nixon, they believed, was worse then LBJ. They both went to their graves saying it and this just tells me, all these years later, how right they were. When I visited their Resting place, after trump got elected, I apologized to them for America electing someone far worse then either LBJ or Nixon.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/10/2018 - 10:51 am.

    Not to change the subject, but the bigger issue and problem here may be the subsequent cover-up that Democrats engaged in after the election.

    Clearly Nixon’s treason was well known within elite Democratic circles and was kept under wraps for decades. And let’s not forget that Kissinger played a prominent role is affair as well… the same Kissinger Hillary Clinton claimed as an inspiration during her primary and presidential campaigns.

    While the immediate concern at the time for Humphrey may have been a lack of evidence, that excuse does not explain Democratic silence on the matte over the following decades, decades in which Kissinger was celebrated for statescraft rather than exposed for his crimes. I think we’re still left with an over-all conclusion that common elitism hanging above both Parties ultimately governed their decision to keep this (and other criminal actions) under wraps.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 12:55 pm.

      How widely was this known? It’s my understanding that the definitive proof came out only in 2007.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/10/2018 - 01:28 pm.

        The proof was always there waiting for historians; patronizing pre-Watergate politicians decided not to use it, to illiterate things. 😉

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2018 - 01:49 pm.

          I’m not a historian, but I had heard rumors to this effect for some time. I thought the smoking, or to stay au courant, the smocking, gun wasn’t unearthed until 2007.

          • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/12/2018 - 05:52 pm.

            The Halderman notes of October 22, 1968 appear to be the only piece of documentary evidence firmly to expose and confirm Richard Nixon’s role in the Chennault Affair. They were made available in the Nixon Presidential Library in 2007, but the historical importance of these heavily abbreviated scriblings, on about four pages of yellow pad, was not immediately spotted by historians or biographers. John Farrell who published a biography of Nixon in early 2017 was likely the first to notice them and to understand them. The Halderman document is not a declassified government document as it pre-dates Halderman’s appointment as Nixon’s chief of staff. Perhaps that is the only reason we have it!

            I agree that the absence of legal proof linking Nixon to unlawful, possibly criminal conduct is the key issue here. It is also important to remember that historians and elite politicians who have wondered about these things for the past half century didn’t have access to Johnson’s presidential tapes until about 2013. The transcripts of LBJ’s conversations with Dirksen and Nixon on the following day, come from the White House tapes.

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2018 - 10:03 am.

              There was writing and discussion about this years before 2007. There must have been some other source of revelation.

              • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/14/2018 - 08:00 am.

                There was much speculation in Washington D.C. about dirty tricks–I worked there for a couple of months over the summer–but other events, the fallout from the Tet Offensive, anti-war demonstrations, the spectre of returning body bags, LBJ’s refusal to increase troops to the satisfaction of the hawks in the Pentagon, the DRV’s (North Vietnam’s)agreement to engage in peace talks, and RVN (South Vietnam’s) reluctance to do so dominated political news agenda. The main sources of revelation were leaks, so far as I know, and from multiple agencies and the State Department. There was nothing especially secret about the Chennault-driven, anti-communist lobbying going on in Saigon; the speculation to come my way at the time revolved around how much John Mitchell, who headed Nixon’s campaign organization, and Nixon himself knew about it, or conspired.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/11/2018 - 08:35 am.

        Well, all of the guys Eric is interviewing for this story knew about it at the time. Chrisopher Hitchen’s documented this in his 2001 book: “The Trial of Henrey Kissinger”. Hitchen’s had actually been writing about it for years before he put in the book. Hitchen’s couldn’t have been the only guy in the world who knew about it.

        • Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/14/2018 - 08:33 am.

          I’m not reading Eric in quite the same way; it isn’t altogether clear to me that Walter Mondale or the biographer he cites extensively had first hand knowledge in real time, i.e. 1968. But you (and Hitchens) are right to credit Henry Kissinger with some knowledge of what was happening in the 1968 campaign. At a minimum, Kissinger went to Paris and passed advice to Nixon about the shaky beginnings and uncertain future of the peace talks in Paris. Kissinger also had a hand in the decision to widen and expand the war shortly after Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. The B-52 bombing raids in Cambodia had to be secret partly because Nixon was still presenting himself publicly as the only peace candidate in the 1968 elections.

          More generally, let me say, as a non-historian, that I think there is a difference between reading and learning from history backwards (or retrospectively) and the process of actively re-interpreting history on the basis of newly discovered evidence or facts (including late in life personal testimonies of the kind that Stuart Eizenstat has offered). Diverse academics, journalists, retired diplomats and politicians have commented, assessed and contributed their interpretations and re-interpretations to this still somewhat murky historical episode.

  8. Submitted by Laura Summers on 12/14/2018 - 09:08 am.

    Can we pivot to Eric’s questions about HHH’s possible evolution from dove to hawk? …whether his personal analysis of the dangers of remaining in Vietnam dating from his 1965 (?) memo to LBJ continued to underlay his outlook in 1968? Assuming this might be the case, and discounting to some extent HHH’s well-known public defense of LBJ’s policies, I think we should be looking for public or private evidence of any sense of growing urgency on his part about ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam and bringing the troops home.

    I’m curious about this, and would have asked Stuart Eizenstat about this had I had the opportunity, because of countervailing evolutions among young Democrats. By 1966, the Minnesota Federation of YDFL Clubs consisting of both county and college based organizations was increasingly open and united in its opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In early 1967, a small group of YDFL activists, acting on their own unofficial initiative, picketed the front gate of the Vice President’s home in Waverly. Hubert came out to speak with them and after that, they departed peacefully. A reporter who knew his way to my dorm in St. Paul asked me in my capacity as YDFL state Chairwoman to explain what was going on. I didn’t know and could only say that the action was not official and not surprising either. I reminded him that young Democrats were hugely concerned about the human costs of the war and about the drafting and the lottery, the social pain, more than the strategic cost-benefit analyses talked about in Washington. To this day, I have no idea who participated in this discussion about the war with HHH although I heard that Hubert’s eyes welled-up as they sometimes did when he was feeling emotional and that the protestors themselves departed feeling perplexed and confused. If anyone reading these lines participated in that discussion with HHH, please, can you advise us about what you had hoped to achieve or find out, what you said to Hubert and what he said in response?

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