Thursday, January 05, 2017

“I’m Reading Their Hand”: LBJ, Nixon, and the Week Before the 1968 Election

Several friends recently passed along to me an article from The New York Times that appeared on New Year’s Eve, one sharing a bit of news regarding Richard Nixon’s actions during the final days prior to the 1968 presidential election when he won a narrow victory versus Hubert Humphrey. They did so both because they know about my ongoing “Nixon studies” and because there’s a small poker reference in the article, too.

The article is titled “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery” and was written by John A. Farrell who is currently at work on a Nixon bio coming out later this year. The story being told in the article is not new at all, although Farrell does pass along some relatively unknown evidence regarding Nixon’s role in possibly preventing a peace settlement from occurring in Vietnam just prior to the election. (The evidence isn’t new, although it hadn’t gotten a lot of attention before.)

To give a little context, by mid-October 1968 outgoing president Lyndon B. Johnson was hopeful to find some way to end the war before leaving office. After months of negotiations, Johnson had a breakthrough of sorts when the North Vietnamese finally agreed to enter into talks with the South Vietnamese in Paris if the U.S. called a bombing halt. Such talks hardly meant peace would be imminent, but they represented an significant first step toward such an eventuality.

What’s been known for quite some time now (thanks primarily to some FBI-supplied evidence) is that high-level members of Nixon’s campaign team were communicating with South Vietnamese leader Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu at the time, urging Thieu not to enter any peace talks just yet while promising a better negotiating position once Nixon took office. Such a move is rightly regarded with suspicion, obviously motivated primarily by the fact that an announcement of peace in Vietnam on the eve of the election would serve as a last-minute boost to Humphrey in what had become a tight race to the finish.

In The Making of the President 1968, Theodore H. White recounts the day-by-day developments leading up to Election Day, telling how with just one week to go (on October 29) “the promised end of the war in Vietnam was beginning to leak from every news source around the world.” Two days later, on Thursday, October 31, Johnson announced the cessation of bombing “in the belief that this action can lead to progress toward peaceful settlement of the Vietnamese war” (as LBJ said).

The promising news remained atop the headlines for about a day before doubts began to creep back in to cloud the picture regarding peace in southeast Asia, and by Saturday The New York Times was reporting that the word from Saigon was that the South Vietnamese couldn’t participate in any talks. The way White reports it (sharing what was known at the time), it appeared President Thieu had agreed to the talks without having secured the support of his cabinet or the national assembly, and that once they objected the deal had been dashed.

White then introduces the mysterious Anna Chennault into the story, the Chinese-born widow of a WWII hero who became involved in politics and chaired a number of Nixon’s citizen committees during the ’68 campaign. Chennault had numerous connections throughout Asia, and (says White) had learned about the secret negotiations in October. Using her contacts (including some within the South Vietnamese government), “she had begun early, by cable and telephone, to mobilize their resistance to the agreement -- apparently implying, as she went, that she spoke for the Nixon campaign.”

LBJ found out about Chennault’s chicanery, and that weekend accused the Republicans of sabotaging the peace effort, including having a somewhat tense phone conversation with Nixon on Sunday regarding the matter. (You can hear that phone call, with a transcription, over on YouTube.)

All of this tumult during the final week before the election certainly had some effect on the outcome, but it’s hard to say how much.

The situation recalls the one surrounding the final days before the 2016 election. I’m referring of course to FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress saying the bureau would be investigating more of Hillary Clinton emails, a letter Comey delivered just 11 days before the election, then his announcement two days before Election Day that Clinton would face no charges regarding the messages -- a dubious two-step that also likely had some, hard-to-measure effect on a certain number of voters near the end.

As noted above, it has been known for a good while that members of Nixon’s team -- among them campaign director John Mitchell and vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew -- were talking with Chennault, which would explain how she could represent herself to the South Vietnamese as speaking for Nixon.

A few books have delved more deeply into the Nixon-Chennault connection, with William Bundy’s A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (1998), Jeffrey Kimball’s Nixon’s Vietnam War (1998), and Anthony Summers’s The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (2000) among the more earnest efforts. More recently Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2015) looks even more closely at the story.

As with Watergate, the extent of Nixon’s particular involvement here has long invited much speculation and debate. Was Nixon directly involved with Chennault’s suggestions to the South Vietnamese that they not enter peace talks and wait for a Nixon administration to move forward? Or was this (as with the Watergate break-in and some elements of the cover-up) an example of some of his subordinates freelancing with a kind of vague endorsement from the top man? The new NYT piece sheds some additional light on the situation.

As Farrell shares, notes taken by Nixon advisor H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (later RN’s White House Chief of Staff and key Watergate figure) recount an October 22 telephone conversation in which Nixon advised him to tell others to do what they could to thwart LBJ’s efforts to negotiate the beginning of peace talks. “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” Haldeman scribbled, a fairly direct-sounding directive from Tricky Dick. “Any other way to monkey wrench it?” added Haldeman, referring to Nixon’s ostensible desire to come up with futher means to scuttle the talks.

Such notes strongly suggest that despite Nixon’s later claims to the contrary, he was not only aware of what was going on behind the scenes with regard to those representing him while pressuring Thieu not to enter talks just yet, he was encouraging that effort. The NY Times piece concludes with a reference to another phone call between LBJ and Everett Dirksen, the Republican senator from Illinois who had served as Senate Minority Leader for nearly a decade -- one that can also be heard over on YouTube, if you’re curious.

That call came on Saturday, November 2 (a day before the call to Nixon), and finds LBJ speaking directly about the apparent sabotage. LBJ declares “this is treason,” complaining outwardly that “they’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.”

Indeed, for Nixon -- then technically a private citizen -- to have anything at all to do with the country’s talks with a foreign power like this was obviously out of bounds, a violation of the Logan Act, a federal law forbidding unauthorized citizens from negotiating with other governments. (A few weeks ago I was alluding to another, much less outrageous example of this same sort of violation prior to my recent trip to Prague, one involving Frank Zappa’s dialogue with Václav Havel.)

Johnson encourages Dirksen to talk to his party colleagues, telling them how they “oughta keep the Mrs. Chennaults and all the rest of them from running around here” while threatening to go public with the information that the Nixon team was obstructing negotiations that would hopefully lead to an end for the war.

“I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important,” says Johnson. (The mind wanders toward a certain president-elect’s strange communications regarding a certain foreign power.)

Also tucked into that conversation is a poker metaphor, used by Johnson to refer to the fact that he is privy to what all sides have been up to, including what Chennault has been doing on behalf of Nixon.

“Now I’m reading their hand, Everett,” says Johnson, adding “I don’t want to get this into the campaign.” (The NYT piece shares that quote, too, near the end.)

Those conversations are fascinating to listen to, especially the one between Nixon and Johnson, both of whom were accomplished poker players. Understanding the larger context, it is clear both knew full well what the other “player” had in his hand, with both also obviously walking a fine line trying not to give too much away to each other.

Photo: Richard Nixon Foundation.

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