In listening to newly released audiotapes of President Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. news media has stumbled upon one of those unmentionable chapters of recent American history, Richard Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris peace talks in 1968.
The story is so little known that even when the Associated Press article noted Johnson expressing private fury over what he deemed “treason,” there was little context provided and no citations of the substantial body of evidence supporting Johnson’s suspicions.
The AP article, which appeared in newspapers across the country, said Johnson – in a recorded phone call just released by his presidential library – “stridently suggested that associates of Richard Nixon were attempting to keep South Vietnam away from the [negotiating] table until after the 1968 election.”
In that phone call with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, Johnson said: “This is treason.”
Johnson added, "If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the (peace) conference table, that's going to be his responsibility."
However, the AP article added on its own: “The Democratic President never accused the Republican who would succeed him of treason.”
To further soften any condemnation of Nixon, the story recounted another recorded phone call in November 1968 in which Nixon sought to allay Johnson’s suspicions by telling the President, "We've got to get them to Paris, or we can't have a peace."
In line with how the mainstream U.S. press corps has treated this controversy for decades, the AP article ignores the substantial body of evidence that Nixon and his presidential campaign did sabotage the peace talks, out of concern that a last-minute agreement would hurt Nixon and help his rival, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
According to that evidence, the Nixon campaign countered Johnson’s peace initiative by dispatching Anna Chennault, an anti-communist Chinese leader, to carry messages to the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen van Thieu. Chennault’s messages advised Thieu that a Nixon presidency would give him a more favorable result than he would get from Johnson.
Journalist Seymour Hersh described the initiative sketchily in his 1983 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.”
In 1995, reporter Daniel Schorr uncovered more evidence, decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington. According to that information:
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 Vietcong 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 it secret from the public.
Anthony Summers’s 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power, provided the fullest account of the Chennault initiative, 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 quoted Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
As it turned out – even without disclosure of Nixon’s apparent treachery – a late surge brought Humphrey to the edge of victory. Nixon hung on to win by only about 500,000 votes, or less than one percent of ballots cast. Johnson and Humphrey went into retirement keeping their silence.
The direct U.S. role in the Vietnam War would continue for more than four years during which American casualty lists swelled by an additional 20,763 dead and 111,230 wounded. Meanwhile, the bitterness over the war deeply divided the country, in many cases turning children against their parents.
The newly released audiotapes – and Johnson’s complaints of “treason” – reflect the extraordinary high stakes of a Vietnam peace settlement in 1968. But even 40 years later, the mainstream U.S. press corps can’t quite bring itself to let the American people in on the full horror of this story.
So, the AP insists the reference to “treason” must apply to others, not Nixon. And Nixon’s assurances to Johnson – that nothing nefarious was afoot – must be taken at face value, whatever the contrary evidence.
The mainstream media’s dismissive treatment of Nixon’s peace-talk ploy also set the standard for how other Republican national security scandals would be handled over the past several decades.
For instance, evidence of an apparent sequel – when the Reagan-Bush campaign plotted to undermine President Jimmy Carter’s hostage talks with Iran in 1980 – also was swept under the rug, supposedly for the good of the country. Similar fuzzy treatment greeted the Iran-Contra Affair, the Iraqgate scandal and contra-cocaine trafficking. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
While the U.S. press corps has shown itself capable of handling certain types of scandals (from Nixon’s Watergate political abuses to Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes), it has consistently fallen down on the job of addressing abuses that involve the intersection of national security and politics.
It’s as if the American people aren’t supposed to be given meaningful information about how those kinds of scandals occur. Perhaps the Washington Establishment fears that too much knowledge about such travesties of democracy would prove a dangerous thing.
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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This story was published on December 5, 2008.