Did Kent State Have to Happen?
Forty years ago, the United States took a very ugly turn as President Richard Nixon escalated the war in Indochina by invading Cambodia, prompting angry college protests, including a confrontation at Kent State which ended with National Guardsmen killing four students on May 4, 1970.
With Nixon denouncing protesters as "bums," the President's “silent majority” was pitted against an increasingly radicalized anti-war movement. Parents turned against their own children, and “hardhats” spat on “hippies.” Fissures opened in U.S. society that have never entirely closed.
However, those troubled times also marked the Republican discovery of a winning political strategy: exploit wedge issues. Along with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which manipulated racial tensions to draw white Southerners into the GOP, the bitter divisions around the Vietnam War opened the way toward a broader “culture war,” which attracted many working-class Americans.
Today, looking at the consequences from the resulting Republican political dominance over much of the past four decades – weakened labor unions, rampant deregulation, a shrinking American middle class, a swelling national debt, endless foreign wars, crimped civil liberties, and a deeply polarized electorate – the question must be: did it all have to happen?
And the answer is no. Though little known to the American people – and almost never discussed by mainstream journalists or popular historians – it’s now clear that the Vietnam War was on the verge of ending a year and a half before the Kent State killings.
President Lyndon Johnson, who had decided not to seek reelection so he could concentrate on ending the war, was much closer to his goal than has been generally understood. In the closing weeks of 1968, Paris peace talks were expected to finalize an agreement with North Vietnam that would lead to a U.S. military pullout.
Johnson’s optimism about this settlement can be heard in now-public audiotapes of his conversations with other top U.S. politicians. But in the final days of the 1968 campaign, Johnson became aware of an unexpected roadblock – secret contacts between Nixon campaign operative Anna Chennault and South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu, promising him a better deal if he derailed LBJ’s peace talks.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican political maneuver. His frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon’s campaign and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 – just three days before the election – Johnson telephones Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Johnson 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 peace in Paris had contributed to a lull in the battlefield 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 of State Dean 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 of the talks continued and Johnson edged toward publicly exposing Nixon’s “treason.”
‘Good for the Country’
On Nov. 4, Johnson informed Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark 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 LBJ’s sensitive evidence.
Clifford reasoned that the disclosure still might not stop Nixon from defeating Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and thus could lead to Nixon as President having little legitimacy in the eyes of many Americans.
“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 conference call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
So, Johnson stayed silent, unwilling to inform the public that Nixon had put himself in a better position to win the White House by sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks. With LBJ unable to cite any clear progress toward ending the war, a significant number of Americans voted for Nixon because they viewed him as "the peace candidate."
In the end, 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, 1968, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and even described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of himself in the third person in describing the GOP message to the South Vietnamese.
“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 [the South Vietnamese] have 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, there’s no evidence that Nixon pressed Thieu to accept LBJ’s peace deal. In any event, Johnson failed to achieve his hoped-for breakthrough.
Then, instead of finishing up the peace talks and bringing the war to a swift conclusion along the lines of Johnson’s plan, Nixon escalated the war. He authorized secret aerial bombings of Cambodia and in 1970 sent U.S. troops into Cambodian border areas.
The invasion, in turn, touched off widespread anti-war student protests across the country, including the fateful confrontation at Kent State in Ohio.
As the anti-war disruptions spread, Americans moved into polarized and hostile camps. The images of slaughter from Vietnam provoked more resistance, such as a momentous 1971 decision by former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers secret history of the Vietnam War.
That, in turn, led to more abuses by an increasingly paranoid Nixon, who cited national security to justify a massive political spying operation against his enemies. That pattern of behavior led Republican operatives to plant bugs on phones of the Democratic National Committee at Washington’s Watergate building in 1972.
Then, after the Watergate operation was exposed on June 17, 1972, with the arrest of five White House burglars inside DNC offices, Nixon began citing Johnson’s eavesdropping on the Republican messages to the South Vietnamese as justification for his own activities.
As Nixon took charge of the Watergate cover-up – issuing orders, brainstorming P.R. strategies and trying to blackmail Democrats with threats of embarrassing disclosures – one of Nixon's ploys was to reveal that Johnson had ordered the bugging of the Nixon campaign in 1968.
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, according to Nixon's own White House tapes.
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 in 1972. Nixon wanted to use the 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 after Haldeman’s entry in his diaries, Johnson died of a heart attack , on Jan. 22, 1973.
That same month, the Nixon administration finally signed a Vietnam peace agreement in Paris that was much like the one Johnson had tried to negotiate four years earlier.
In the meantime, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 U.S. wounded. The war also had spread into Cambodia with other horrendous consequences.
Despite Nixon’s efforts to back the Democrats down over the Watergate scandal, this was one time when most key Democrats held firm, pressing ahead with effective investigations and pushing impeachment resolutions to the House floor. Finally, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.
However, Nixon’s Vietnam “treason” remained a secret for almost another decade, leading Nixon and his associates from the 1968 escapade to believe they had gotten away with effectively stealing a U.S. presidential election.
Many of the same cast of characters, including Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and even Nixon himself, have been linked to still-murky allegations of another act of political sabotage in 1980, that Republican operatives went behind President Jimmy Carter’s back to frustrate his negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
Carter’s failed negotiations set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s resounding victory. When Iran released the hostages at the moment of Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the new President was immediately hailed as a strong leader who frightened U.S. adversaries.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the first significant evidence of Nixon’s Vietnam “treason” surfaced in Seymour Hersh’s critical biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. But the story of the peace-talk gambit never got much attention from mainstream journalists or historians.
Over the following two decades, in drips and drabs, additional evidence spilled out. However, it was not until Johnson’s audiotapes were released in December 2008 that it became clear how dramatic the behind-the-scenes political battle had been.
Still, if you expected the New York Times or CBS News to devote any significant attention to the audiotapes, you would have been disappointed. Johnson’s tapes drew only cursory treatment from the big newspapers and TV outlets, mostly references to a brief Associated Press wire story that handled the disclosure more as a curiosity than a clue to a dark historical mystery.
The only full-scale account of the LBJ tapes was at Consortiumnews.com. But our reporting on how Johnson was aware of Nixon’s treachery in real time – and agreed to keep quiet out of some benighted sense of what was “good for the country” – quickly disappeared into the American historical memory hole.
Still, the painful truth is that much of the Indochina carnage that occurred between 1968 and 1973 and its spillover into the United States, such as the killings at Kent State, might never have happened if Johnson had let the American people in on Nixon’s secret machinations.
Keeping quiet had turned out not to be very "good for the country."
[For more on how the Paris peace-talk 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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