A new biography of Richard Nixon by journalist John Farrell (Richard Nixon: The Life) is the best book ever written on the former president’s life with one glaring exception: Farrell resuscitates the old claim that during the final stretch of the 1968 campaign Nixon deliberately sabotaged President Lyndon B. Johnson’s effort to end the Vietnam war and bring home the 549,000 U.S. soldiers.
In a tenacious piece of reporting, Farrell uncovered notes written on Oct. 22, 1968, by Nixon adviser H.R. Haldeman during a call with the Republican candidate. Furious over warnings from another aide that Johnson’s advisers were orchestrating an election-eve bombing halt in Vietnam to help Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey win the election, Nixon unleashed a series of commands.
“Keep Anna Chennault working on South Vietnam,” Nixon told Haldeman, referring to a Nixon supporter with ties to Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States. “Any other way we can monkey wrench it?”
To those who believe the worst of Nixon, Haldeman’s notes provide conclusive proof that Nixon risked thousands of American lives to win the presidency by secretly telling the South Vietnamese government to boycott peace talks. In a lurid headline, the Huffington Post declared: “Proof that Nixon ‘Monkey-Wrenched’ Vietnam Peace Talks.”
But nothing Nixon said that night had the slightest impact on any deal which could have ended U.S. involvement in the war. The undisputed fact is there was no chance for a peace agreement in 1968 which would have been accepted by any American president.
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And Le Duan, the general secretary of the Communist Party in North Vietnam and the real power in Hanoi, would not have settled for anything less than a unilateral American withdrawal from South Vietnam while simultaneously toppling the South Vietnamese regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Just as importantly, Saigon advised Washington four days before Nixon and Haldeman spoke that it would not attend the talks if the National Liberation Front — the South Vietnamese Communist organization created by Hanoi — took part in the Paris negotiations as a separate delegation.
Saigon had made publicly clear since April of 1968 that including the NLF as a separate organization was a non-starter, fearing that would be the first step to a coalition government and the death knell of the Saigon government. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk said privately on Sept. 4, the “NLF is not a real government.”
Western scholars and reporters have made the mistake of trying to figure out who sabotaged what in 1968 strictly through the prism of U.S. politics. But as archives and documents from Hanoi and Saigon have become available, two things emerge: Hanoi hoped a bombing pause would elect Humphrey as opposed to Nixon and Saigon did not make decisions based on what Nixon and his advisers did or did not tell them.
And as for those talks? Those who believe Nixon scuttled the negotiations are at a loss to explain why they were well underway a couple of months later in Paris. The negotiations remained stalemated for the next three and one-half years because of Le Duan’s intransigence, not Nixon’s monkey wrench.
What we do know is the final weeks of the campaign were the stuff of TV thriller. It involved hardball politics, physical surveillance of an American citizen connected to the Republican Party, orders to the FBI by the Johnson administration to check the phone calls made from Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew’s campaign plane, and meddling in the U.S. election by the Soviet Union, Hanoi and Saigon on a scale that might well surpass the 2016 election.
Johnson, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and Averill Harriman, the chief U.S. negotiator in Paris, pressed for a pre-election deal in which the United States halted all bombing in Vietnam in return for serious talks in Paris among the United States, Hanoi, Saigon, and the National Liberation Front. They knew they could not negotiate a peace agreement, but at least they could get Hanoi and Saigon to talk to each directly.
Although Johnson was skeptical, his advisers believed the halt could lead to peace or at the very least test whether Hanoi was serious about talks. But they also knew a bombing pause would undercut Nixon’s chances of winning, with Clifford writing in his memoirs that Harriman “wanted to tell the president that we had to stop the bombing to save the nation from Nixon.”
Johnson’s advisers should have known Hanoi was playing presidential politics with the bombing pause. As early as Sept. 21, the U.S. embassy in Oslo warned that a senior North Vietnamese diplomat told Norwegian officials Hanoi “appeared to be afraid of Nixon and pointed out that according to every evaluation, progress in Paris would work to Humphrey’s advantage.”
That was the background as Nixon spoke to Haldeman on the evening of Oct. 22. Nixon read a memo from Bryce Harlow, one of his top advisers and who had a secret White House source, warning Johnson “is driving exceedingly hard for a deal” with Hanoi and “will accept almost any arrangement,” asserting Clifford and other advisers “still think they can they can pull out the election” for Humphrey “with this ploy.”
Nixon was livid. Johnson personally assured Nixon in a telephone call on Sept. 30 that the U.S. would only halt the bombing if Hanoi agreed to three conditions – Saigon could take part in the Paris talks, the Communists stopped shelling South Vietnamese cities, and Hanoi respected the 17th Parallel dividing North and South Vietnam. (4)
He telephoned Haldeman and issued what he wrote was “a battery of orders.” Nixon ordered Haldeman to keep Chennault “working on South Vietnam” and “insist … on the three Johnson conditions.” He wanted Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., to tell Johnson that Nixon would “blast” the bombing halt without the three conditions.
Nixon warned Haldeman that “they’re selling out South Vietnam,” and forcing the next administration to deal with a Communist Asia, adding “we’d have to go into Thailand.”
In his memoirs, Nixon omitted mentioning Chennault’s name for an obvious reason – for years he denied asking for her help on South Vietnam. Farrell’s research exposed that lie. But a fair reading of Haldeman’s notes is Nixon was talking about “monkey” wrenching Johnson politically as opposed to diplomatic sabotage.
None of that mattered because Saigon was angered by Washington’s willingness to permit the NLF take part in the negotiations.
Saigon’s fears were reinforced when Humphrey announced on Sept. 30 he would stop the bombing as an “acceptable” risk for peace followed on Oct. 12 by former White House National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy urging a bombing halt and withdrawal of some American troops, prompting Clifford to tell his Pentagon advisers “LBJ is absolutely wild at Mac Bundy. He thinks Bundy’s speech screwed it all up! We know from intercepts how Hanoi was elated by Bundy!”
At a Pentagon meeting with Clifford on Nov. 2, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze said “Thieu is scared that Humphrey and Democrats will force a coalition on him and the Republicans won’t and he’s sure this is an LBJ plot at the dying hours of the administration.”
There is some doubt any Chennault messages got to Saigon. In his memoirs, Nyuyen Phu Duc, who served as Thieu’s assistant for foreign affairs, writes that he received every cable from Washington and “never received any message from Mrs. Chennault during the negotiations,” pointedly adding he never “heard Thieu … mention at any time any time any message from Mrs. Chennault via Bui Diem or another intermediary.”
The diplomatic impasse was broken after the election when the Soviets suggested the NLF be marginalized by of all things, using a round table, indicating it was part of Hanoi’s delegation.
Le Duan got exactly what he wanted – a badly needed bombing halt with conditions he had no intention of ever honoring. As a frustrated Clifford complained at a White House meeting in late November, “We have stopped the bombing for 26 days. Now it’s time for them to produce.”
My suggestion is buy Jack Farrell’s book. But just browse the pages on Anna Chennault.
Jack Torry proofread Farrell’s manuscript last year. He is the Washington bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News and the Columbus Dispatch.