ONE TREASON WINS THE WHITE HOUSE
Treason is the highest crime an American can commit against his country. And that’s what one president accused his successor of committing.
Richard Nixon’s secret sabotaging of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Paris peace talks—much more than Watergate or his longtime ties to the Mafia—should stand as our thirty-seventh president’s greatest sin. There are no better words than “despicable” and “sordid” and “treason” (used by LBJ in this context) to describe Nixon’s betrayal of his country for his own political gain. In a newly released Johnson phone call to Senator Everett Dirksen, just before the November 1968 election, the Senate GOP leader readily agreed with the president’s treason conclusion about Nixon, and pledged to call his party’s presidential candidate on the carpet on it.
Johnson himself—a number of times earlier, and later—scolded Nixon, who repeatedly denied knowing anything about the meddling with the Paris negotiations and pledged to do nothing to hurt President Johnson’s efforts to end the war. (When the phone was hung up after at least one of these lies, Nixon and his cohorts reportedly burst into loud and sustained laughter.)1
The newest LBJ Library tapes tell the dramatic story of how Johnson blew his stack and nearly the whistle on Nixon’s treachery: On November 2, 1968, three days before the election, Johnson let Dirksen peek at Johnson’s self-described “hole cards” in his unbeatable poker hand in a high-stakes showdown against Nixon.2
Alluding to NSA intercepts, FBI wiretaps and CIA bugs, Johnson says on the tape that he knows—because South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu’s offices are bugged—that China Lobby stalwart Anna Chennault went to Thieu on Nixon’s behalf and told Thieu he should hold out on the peace talks until after the election. “They oughtn’t be doing this,” Johnson tells Dirksen. “This is treason.” Dirksen agrees.
Johnson says he doesn’t want to go public with the information, but he wants Nixon to know that he is aware of what Nixon’s doing and to whom he and his emissaries have been talking. “They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war!” Johnson tells Dirksen on the tape. “It’s a damn bad mistake. 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.” Dirksen vows on the tape to get in touch with Nixon and call him off.
* * *
Later, as president in mid-1971, Nixon got word—apparently from his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman—that President Johnson’s Vietnam files were being housed at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. These files included not only the decision behind LBJ’s pre-election bombing halt (which Nixon erroneously thought was timed to help Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey), but also evidence of Nixon’s interference with the Paris peace talks. “You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff,” Haldeman excitedly asserted about the bombing halt material.3 (Haldeman thought that perhaps Johnson could be blackmailed into supporting Nixon’s Vietnam policies.) Nixon biographer Anthony Summers noted that Nixon had another reason for wanting to get the Vietnam files. “[Nixon] had actively worked to sabotage the 1968 peace talks, and the record in question might actually prove more damaging to him than to President Johnson.”4
So President Richard Nixon endorsed a wild scheme, shockingly wild: the firebombing of, and theft of files from, the Brookings Institution in Washington. The documents were well worth the risk, he figured, if they held evidence of his deliberate subversion. He also thought they might offer proof that his own 1968 campaign plane was bugged; it wasn’t. Without specifically mentioning his Brookings break-in demand in his 1975 memoirs, Nixon did admit he had told his staff he wanted the Vietnam files he believed were in Brookings’ possession delivered to him, “even if it meant having to get it surreptitiously.”5
The Brookings plan was bizarre. “Masterminded” by G. Gordon Liddy of later Watergate infamy, it would have featured an old fire truck repainted with the markings of the District of Columbia’s Fire Department. Operated by a group of pro-Nixon Cubans from Miami, disguised as a fire crew, the fake fire engine would make its way to Brookings. While ostensibly there to battle their own Molotov cocktail–caused blaze, the break-in experts from Miami would enter the building, crack open the vaults, make off with the Vietnam files, and then quickly ditch the slow-moving fire engine—after transferring the files and themselves to a nearby waiting van.
In his autobiography, Liddy surmised that a successful Brookings caper might have prompted some guessing games about the identities of the miscreants “in the liberal press,” but that “because nothing could be proved, the matter would lapse into the unsolved-mystery category.”6
John Dean, President Nixon’s White House lawyer, had a far more sensible take on the contemplated firebombing. Dean claims he was able to shut down the operation (the “joint” had already been “cased”—in Dean’s words—by Nixon agents, who were turned away by an alert security guard). Dean convinced presidential aide John Ehrlichman that if anyone died in the blast, it would be a capital crime that might be traced back to the White House. Ehrlichman later acknowledged calling off the plan—and confirmed that Nixon knew of it in advance.7
Just think: Had Dean not prevailed with Ehrlichman, had this break-in actually occurred, had it involved a death, and had it been botched as badly as Watergate, then murder and domestic terrorism might well have been added to Nixon’s list of impeachable offenses.
In addition, just ordering the Brookings break-in “would be an impeachable offense,” according to Terry Lenzner, who was a top official on the Senate Watergate committee. “It is the President ordering a felony to obtain information.”8
And don’t forget treason—had DC police recovered the 1968 campaign files from the phony firemen or fake DC fire engine.
What would have been found? Piles of evidence of Nixon’s treachery, including this “smoking gun” intercept of a back-door message from Nixon to Thieu: “Hold on. We’re gonna win.” The message was plain, according to Nixon’s go-between Anna Chennault: “Stay away from the peace talks.”9
In 1968, Vietnam was the No. 1 issue in the campaign. Nixon was generally viewed as the dovish candidate because he promised to implement a secret plan to “end the war and win the peace.” Humphrey was viewed as a candidate who would continue President Lyndon Johnson’s unpopular hawkish war policies.
LBJ had dropped out of the presidential race to devote the remainder of his tenure to peace in Vietnam. He’d hoped, since quitting, to bring the fighting to an end through three-way (Hanoi, Saigon and Washington) peace talks in Paris. Nixon feared that if Johnson succeeded, Humphrey would win the November election. It was the kind of “October Surprise” the paranoid GOP nominee feared most.
Shortly before voters went to the polls, to ensure that Hanoi would attend the Paris talks, President Johnson announced a halt in the U.S. bombing of the North. Nixon learned of this important development through Henry Kissinger—an informal LBJ advisor to the peace talks. In Nixonland
, Rick Perlstein observes, “The Johnson team trusted [Kissinger] implicitly. They shouldn’t have. Kissinger was a double agent feeding the intelligence to Nixon that let him scotch the peace deal before the election.”10
Johnson’s bombing halt announcement, just days before the election, briefly gave Humphrey a slight lead in public-opinion polls—though he would go on to lose to Nixon by about 500,000 votes.
All during the 1968 campaign, working through a separate secret agent—one even more secret than Kissinger—Nixon had been telling South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu to boycott any LBJ-sponsored talks and hold out for a better deal under a Nixon presidency. Thieu obliged, wrecking the talks and any chance for peace during the final months of Johnson’s presidency.
Nixon’s back channel in his contacts with Thieu was Anna Chennault, aka the Dragon Lady. The gorgeous forty-three-year-old widow of World War II U.S. “Flying Tigers” hero General Claire Chennault had moved from Taiwan to the United States in 1960. Anna was co-chairman of Women for Nixon-Agnew.
At Nixon’s request, Chennault established contacts with the South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington, Bui Diem. In July 1968, Chennault introduced the ambassador to the GOP presidential hopeful at a hush-hush meeting at Nixon’s New York apartment. According to Chennault, Nixon told Bui Diem he could “rest assured” that, if elected, “I will have a meeting with [Thieu] and find a solution to winning the war.” He added that Chennault was to be “the only contact between myself and your government.”11
Anna Chennault also had some dealings, face-to-face and on the telephone, with Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell. Unless he was speaking on a secure phone line, however, Mitchell kept most of his thoughts to himself. He strongly suspected that government agents were monitoring the Dragon Lady’s activities.
Mitchell’s suspicions were spot-on. And a furious Johnson didn’t hesitate to let Mitchell’s boss himself know what he knew about Nixon’s underhanded antipeace maneuverings.
On a number of occasions, President Johnson talked directly to Nixon about the sabotage. In one conversation, after filling Nixon in on his campaign’s dealings with Thieu, LBJ added, “I’m not trying to trick you.” It was a not-so-subtle dig at Nixon for his well-deserved nickname: Tricky Dick. Of course, Nixon denied knowing anything about the sabotage. And he reassured the president he would do nothing to undercut the peace process.
Even after the election, Johnson kept pressing the issue with Nixon:LBJ:
These people [the South Vietnamese] are proceeding on the assumption that folks close to you tell them to do nothing ’til January the 20th.Nixon:
I know who they’re talking about too. Is it John Tower?LBJ:
Well, he’s one of several. Miss Chennault is very much in there.Nixon:
Well, she’s very close to John Tower.
In this discussion, Nixon not only threw loyal Texas Republican senator John Tower under the bus, but he also stressed the words “very close.” What Nixon was apparently alluding to was a not-so-secret affair Senator Tower was having with the fabled Dragon Lady.
The supposed lovers were both right-wingers and heavy partiers on the Washington cocktail circuit. Tower had replaced Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. The two men were bitter enemies. So Nixon probably had that in mind when he ratted out Tower to LBJ.
A former Tower associate says the senator, long after his second failed marriage, freely admitted having a long-term liaison with Chennault. Tower was very fond of Anna, and, the source added, after they broke up, Tower claimed Chennault went on to “a torrid fling” with Thomas McIntyre, a left-wing Democratic Senator from New Hampshire and a “heavy foreign policy hitter.”
Perhaps Chennault became soured on Republicans after Nixon quickly proceeded to betray her and the South Vietnamese government. Her “boss,” as she referred to Nixon in her clandestine communications, was soon publicly voicing the LBJ line on Vietnam. Chennault and Thieu rightly concluded they had been duped by the soon-to-be thirty-seventh president of the United States.
In a 2002 interview with the Shanghai Star
, a bitter Mrs. Chennault declared: “To end the war was my only demand. But after [Nixon] became president, he decided to continue the war. Politicians are never honest.”12
In the phone call in which he falsely fingered John Tower as a possible traitor, Nixon promised Johnson he would contact Ambassador Bui Diem and urge South Vietnam to take part in the Paris negotiations. He didn’t say exactly how he would do this, but Nixon pretended to know little about the ambassador, even asking LBJ at one point, “Does he speak English?” After all, Nixon had conferred with Bui Diem—who spoke perfect English—just months before.
So, no wonder when President Nixon heard that LBJ’s files on Nixon’s 1968 “treason” might be at Brookings—he repeatedly insisted that the liberal think tank be raided.
At a Nixon meeting with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and chief of staff Bob Haldeman, Kissinger observed: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the files.”Haldeman:
The bombing halt is in the same file, or in some of the same hands.Nixon:
Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you don’t have it?Kissinger:
We have nothing here, Mr. President.Nixon:
Damn it! I asked for that [unintelligible]. Get in there and get those files!13
In a later conversation with Haldeman, Nixon asked: “Did they get the Brookings Institute (sic) raided last night? No? Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute’s safe cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that it makes somebody else responsible.”14
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Freshly declassified documents make it evident that Nixon had unsuccessfully tried even earlier to find out what the CIA’s files contained about possible connections among LBJ’s bombing halt, the Paris peace negotiations, and the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign. At first, he approached CIA director Richard Helms through NSC Advisor Henry Kissinger.
In response, on March 19, 1970, Helms sent Kissinger a three-page “secret” document outlining some of the intelligence data the agency collected in Vietnam in October and November of 1968. Several sections of the document are still classified, but Helms told Kissinger that, because of the sensitivity of the Paris peace talks, President Johnson had put a “freeze” on the distribution of such intelligence during that time period, allowing only a small number of people to see it.
“The President personally had to approve every reader of this material … No one at the agency saw it except myself and even I read the documents down at the White House,” the CIA chief declared.
Helms’s memo to Kissinger continues: “In compliance with President Johnson’s explicit instructions, all of the field intelligence on matters germane to the subject of your request was shortstopped by my office. The only dissemination of this data, he added, was “sent on an EYES ONLY basis to Secretary [of State Dean] Rusk and Mr. [Walt] Rostow. For this reason, we cannot give you a list of [SEVERAL WORDS CENSORED] during October of 1968 because there were none until the ‘freeze’ ended on 1 November.” In other words: No, you can’t have those particular CIA records.
Nixon didn’t give up hounding the agency for the files. On October 21, 1971, White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman sent a “secret/sensitive” memo to John Ehrlichman, the White House go-to guy on CIA matters.
An exasperated Haldeman asks Ehrlichman to try his hand at persuading Helms to fork over the documents: “I tried once before to get the information from the CIA through Henry Kissinger’s office. Director Helms claims that this information is not available in their files because it was forwarded directly to the White House. I can’t help but believe that the CIA would keep a copy of all intelligence reports even if they were only ‘bootleg’ copies.”
Ehrlichman wasted no time in getting on Helms’s case. On the same day, in a “secret/sensitive” memo to Helms, the White House aide cited the CIA boss’s earlier refusal to provide the requested material to Kissinger. And then Ehrlichman bluntly stated: “It has been requested that these documents be obtained despite prior restrictions on their distribution. Would you please forward copies of the requested documents?”
The Helms, Haldeman and Ehrlichman memos were declassified in December 2010. There is no indication that Helms ever shared with Nixon or any of his aides any of the Vietnam intelligence data from October of 1968 that the president was so eager to obtain.
Why didn’t President Johnson blow the whistle on Nixon’s sabotaging of the Paris peace talks? He explained his thinking in a newly released phone chat with Senator George Smathers of Florida—a good friend of Nixon’s: “I didn’t expose it because I just couldn’t use those sources [CIA, NSA and FBI] and I didn’t want to make it impossible for [Nixon] to govern.”15
LBJ had also been listening to the good advice of aide Clark Clifford, who counseled: “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.”
“It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests,” according to investigative reporter Robert Parry.16
On the other hand, LBJ did not listen to a young White House aide named Richard Holbrooke, who went on to become a top State Department official. Holbrooke later charged that Nixon and his co-conspirators “massively, directly and covertly interfered in a major diplomatic negotiation … probably one of the most important negotiations in American diplomatic history.”17
President Johnson’s attitude toward a top political adversary and toward his country could possibly rank as one of the noblest gestures in modern American political history. He’d caught a political opponent undermining sensitive negotiations that might have ended the fighting in Indochina and brought 500,000 U.S. troops home immediately.
As president, Richard Nixon went on to order the dropping of more bombs than any other commander-in-chief. He even secretly bombed neutral Cambodia for more than four years. Nixon double-crossed Thieu time and time again—and eventually even issued a thinly veiled threat on the South Vietnamese president’s life.
Some 20,000 American troops died during Nixon’s White House years, and the Vietnam War was still going on, when—faced with impeachment and conviction for a wide range of corrupt and illegal domestic conspiracies and cover-ups—the president was forced from office in disgrace in 1974. When Saigon fell to communist troops in 1975, the United States lost its first war. Yet Richard Nixon’s gravestone reads: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
Copyright © 2012 by Don Fulsom
DON FULSOM is a longtime White House reporter and former United Press International Washington bureau chief who has covered presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. He is an adjunct professor at American University in Washington D.C., where he teaches “Watergate: A Constitutional Crisis.”