November 13, 2000
Who Should Concede?
The Secret History of Modern U.S. Politics
By Robert Parry
Op-ed columns in major American newspapers are calling for Vice President Al Gore to accept defeat and concede, even though he seems to have won the nationwide popular vote by about 200,000 and was the apparent choice of a plurality of Florida voters though some miscast their votes.
“Do the Right Thing, Mr. Gore,” read the headline of an article by former Sen. Bob Dole on The Washington Post’s opinion page on Nov. 11.
“It was a close election, but it’s over,” wrote Dole about the Nov. 7 presidential vote. “I urge Al Gore to put his country’s agenda ahead of his agenda; to put the people’s interests before his personal interests.”
Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, cited the examples of Richard Nixon conceding defeat in 1960 and Gerald Ford conceding in 1976. Dole described Ford as rebuffing calls from aides who felt “a few changed votes in a couple of key states” would have elected Ford.
But the Ford example was not parallel to the present situation. What Dole left out of the article was that Jimmy Carter defeated Ford by 1.7 million votes nationwide. Even if Ford could have reversed enough votes in a few states to get the Electoral College, he would have won by defying the popular will.
The same was true of Nixon, though the national news media seems clueless about the real history.
On Nov. 10, The New York Times highlighted on its op-ed page the supposed example of Nixon’s gracious acceptance of defeat in 1960, despite questions of voting irregularities by John F. Kennedy's campaign in Illinois and Texas.
“Whatever else he was, Nixon was a patriot,” wrote author Richard Reeves. “He understood what recounts and lawsuits and depositions carried out over months – even years – would do to the nation.”
Though the stories of Nixon’s graceful exit have taken on the color of history from constant retelling, they do not comport with the facts either.
Indeed, contrary to the image of Republicans meekly accepting the 1960 results, the GOP sought recounts in 11 states and mounted aggressive legal challenges in some. The Eisenhower administration even launched criminal investigations, though without much result.
Yet, beyond Nixon’s Electoral College loss, he too was the loser in the popular vote which Kennedy won by about 118,000 ballots.
While these cherished tales of political statesmanship by Nixon and Ford may seem innocuous enough, they are feeding today’s resentment by Republicans who are demanding that Al Gore step aside and let Texas Gov. George W. Bush win.
The thinking goes that it’s the Democrats’ turn to do “what’s right for the country.”
Beyond the faulty history of graceful exits and the GOP grudges that the myths have nurtured, the major news media is missing an even larger and more important reality.
For the past four decades, the Republicans have built a record of dirty tricks and October Surprises in presidential contests. And typically, it is the Democrats who stay silent after learning of the schemes – to avert constitutional crises and avoid public disillusionment with the political process.
Nixon appears to have been the modern-day father of the October Surprise strategy, the manipulation of some major event in the campaign’s waning days to stampede voters in one direction or another.
In 1960, then-Vice President Nixon saw communist Cuba as both a threat to his election and a possible boon. He hoped that the CIA could overthrow – or assassinate – Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the weeks before the election.
“The agency called the scheme Operation Pluto, after the Roman god of the dead,” wrote Anthony Summers in his new biography of Nixon, The Arrogance of Power. “To Nixon, Pluto was a potential stepping-stone to the goal that motivated him more than the overthrow of any Caribbean dictator, the presidency.
"Thomas McCoy, a CIA man offered an assignment on the project, was told there was ‘substantial pressure coming from the White House to get the thing settled by October of 1960, so that this would not be an issue that Nixon had to deal with in the presidential campaign’.”
Nixon also recognized how Castro’s ouster could boost his campaign. “He told his press aide, Herb Klein, that the toppling of Castro would be ‘a real trump card',” Summers wrote. He quoted Klein as saying that Nixon “wanted it to occur in October, before the election.”
Because of problems in execution, the CIA plot failed. Castro remained in power and Kennedy eked out a narrow victory.
This concept of a well-timed international event did not leave Nixon’s thinking, however. In 1968, Nixon again secured the Republican nomination and again found himself locked in a close race, this time with Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
The Vietnam War was raging and was creating deep divisions within the Democratic Party. In October 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was maneuvering to achieve the framework for a peace settlement with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong through negotiations in Paris.
At the time, 500,000 American soldiers were in the war zone, and civil strife was tearing the United States apart. Nixon feared that a pre-election peace agreement could catapult Humphrey to victory.
According to now overwhelming evidence, the Nixon campaign dispatched Anna Chenault, an anti-communist Chinese leader, to carry messages to the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen van Thieu. The messages advised Thieu that a Nixon presidency would give him a more favorable result.
Journalist Seymour Hersh described the initiative sketchily in his biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. Hersh reported that U.S. intelligence “agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President Thieu in Saigon. … The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress.”
In her own autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
Reporter Daniel Schorr added fresh details in The Washington Post’s Outlook section [May 28, 1995]. Schorr cited decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that “many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm.” On Oct. 27, he wrote, “The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. … I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage.”
On Nov. 2, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks, destroying Johnson’s last hope for a settlement. Though Johnson and his top advisers knew of Nixon’s gambit, they kept Nixon’s secret.
Summers’s new book provides the fullest examination of the Nixon-Thieu gambit, including the debate within Democratic circles about what to do with the evidence.
Both Johnson and Humphrey believed the information – if released to the public – could assure Nixon’s defeat.
“In the end, though, Johnson’s advisers decided it was too late and too potentially damaging to U.S. interests to uncover what had been going on,” Summers wrote. “If Nixon should emerge as the victor, what would the Chennault outrage do to his viability as an incoming president? And what effect would it have on American opinion about the war?”
Summers quotes Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
A late Humphrey surge fell short. Nixon won the election.
The direct U.S. role in the war continued for more than four years with American casualties standing at 20,763 dead and 111,230 wounded during that period. The toll among the people of Indochina was far higher. Johnson and Humphrey went into retirement keeping silent about Nixon’s treachery.
Yet, Nixon is now hailed on The New York Times’ op-ed page as a “patriot” who put his country ahead of his political career. The Chennault gambit became another chapter of "lost history."