The Significance of Nixon's 'Treason'
You might have thought that when audiotapes were released of President Lyndon Johnson accusing Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign of “treason” for sabotaging Vietnam peace talks – as 500,000 U.S. troops sat in a war zone – the major U.S. news media would be all over it, providing insight and context.
If you thought that, of course, you would be wrong.
Instead the story last week out of Johnson’s presidential library received only cursory attention in the big newspapers and TV outlets, mostly references to a brief Associated Press wire story that treated the disclosure more as a curiosity than a clue to a dark historical mystery.
The U.S. news media’s blasé reaction may be almost as revealing as the tapes themselves in that it reflects an institutionalized disinterest – even hostility – to sharing with the American people some ugly realities about their democracy when national security intersects with politics.
In effect, the 1968 case in which Nixon’s operatives undermined President Johnson’s desperate bid to end the Vietnam War – and thus helped ensure Nixon’s electoral victory over Vice President Hubert Humphrey – may have been the original “October Surprise.”
A dozen years later, some of the veterans of Nixon’s 1968 campaign were linked to a similar operation by the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign to interfere with President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 Americans held hostage in Iran, another Democratic failure that paved the way to a Republican victory.
Regarding both cases, the Washington press corps mostly has looked the other way. Weaving through both historical mysteries is a common thread of the Washington Establishment’s professed fear that revealing too much about how the Republicans won those pivotal elections would harm the country.
Speaking to that point in 1968 was a pillar of the Establishment, then-Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. He joined with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in urging President Johnson not to go public with his evidence of Republican treachery.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said in a Nov. 4, 1968, conference call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
Clifford’s remark came in the context of Johnson learning that Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis was working on a story about how Nixon’s entourage had undermined the peace talks by sending its own messages to South Vietnamese officials.
Instead of helping Davis confirm his information, Clifford and Rusk argued that the Johnson administration should make no comment, advice that Johnson accepted. He maintained his public silence on what he regarded as the Nixon campaign’s “treason,” going into retirement privately embittered about the Republican sabotage.
A Dramatic Tale
The newly released audiotapes offer a dramatic story of an embattled President angered over intelligence intercepts revealing that emissaries from Nixon’s campaign, including right-wing China Lobby figure Anna Chennault, were carrying messages to the South Vietnamese government urging them to boycott planned peace talks in Paris.
The Republican message was that South Vietnamese leaders could expect a better deal from Nixon than from the Democrats. According to the evidence, President Nguyen van Thieu accepted these private assurances and backed away from a commitment to attend the peace talks.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican political maneuver. However, his frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon operatives and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 – just three days before the election – Johnson telephones Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, lays out some of the evidence, and asks Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information.
“I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
Dirksen responded, “I know.”
Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence.
“We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”
Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”
“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. …
“You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”
The next day, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson and professed his innocence.
“I didn’t say with your knowledge,” Johnson responded. “I hope it wasn’t.”
“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary Rusk wanted.
“I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do. We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon said. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. … The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”
However, the South Vietnamese boycott continued.
On Nov. 4, Johnson told Rusk and Clifford that Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis was working on a story about the Republican sabotage. Both Rusk and Clifford opposed going public with the sensitive information in Johnson’s possession, which was derived partly from electronic intercepts.
The next day, with Johnson still unable to cite any clear progress toward ending the war, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.
In the aftermath of the election, Johnson continued to confront Nixon with the evidence of Republican treachery, trying to get him to pressure the South Vietnamese leaders to reverse themselves and join the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 8, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.
“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey. They [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.
“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.
“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. … That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. … I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”
Faced with Johnson’s implied threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, the die was cast. Johnson was unable to achieve the breakthrough he had hoped for before leaving office.
The U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years at a horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Vietnam. Before the conflict was finally brought to an end, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded.
The war divided the United States, turning parents against their own children. The bitterness over the war also led to more abuses by President Nixon, who routinely cited national security to justify a massive political spying operation against his enemies.
Ironically, Nixon cited Johnson’s eavesdropping on the Republican messages to the South Vietnamese as justification for his own Watergate spying on the Democratic National Committee in spring 1972.
After the Watergate operation blew up on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five White House burglars inside the DNC offices, Nixon immediately took charge of the cover-up: issuing orders, brainstorming P.R. strategies and trying to blackmail Democrats with threats of embarrassing disclosures.
One of Nixon's recurring threats was to reveal that President Johnson had ordered the bugging of the Nixon campaign in 1968. According to his own White House tapes, Nixon referred back to the Vietnam peace talk gambit, claiming that he was told by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had ordered the bugging of a Nixon campaign plane to ascertain who was undermining the Paris talks.
On July 1, 1972, White House aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon's musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged Chennault's telephones in 1968. Nixon pounced on Colson's remark.
"Oh," Nixon responded, "in '68, they bugged our phones too."
Colson: "And that this was ordered by Johnson."
Nixon: "That's right"
Colson: "And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you'd have the ..."
Nixon: "Yes. For example, why didn't we bug McGovern, because after all he's affecting the peace negotiations?"
Nixon: "That would be exactly the same thing."
A Nixon Leak
Nixon's complaint about Johnson bugging "our phones" in 1968 became a refrain as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Nixon wanted to use that information to pressure Johnson and Humphrey into twisting Democratic arms so the Watergate investigations would be stopped.
On Jan. 8, 1973, Nixon urged Haldeman to plant a story about the 1968 bugging in the Washington Star.
"You don't really have to have hard evidence, Bob," Nixon told Haldeman. "You're not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now."
Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973, which contains his book's only deletion for national security.
"I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone," Haldeman wrote, "and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. ... A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material -- national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done. ...
“DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson. ... As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault]."
Ten days later, on Jan. 22, 1973, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman apparently shelved the 1968 bugging ruse as a non-starter. After 18 more months of writhing and wriggling about Watergate, Nixon was forced by the courts to relinquish a few tapes containing damning evidence against him. He resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.
On Jan. 27, 1973, about a year-and-a-half before his resignation, President Nixon agreed to Vietnam peace terms in Paris. The agreement was along the lines of what President Johnson had negotiated more than four years earlier. The U.S. military withdrew from South Vietnam but continued supplying Theiu's forces.
However, Thieu's army proved incapable of standing on its own. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong were victorious, defeating the remnants of Thieu's army and capturing Saigon.
Just days earlier, Thieu resigned and fled into exile. He died on Sept. 29, 2001, in Boston, Massachusetts.
[For more on how the Paris peace-talk-sabotage story emerged gradually though the work of investigative reporters – and the parallel to the 1980 October Surprise case – see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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