Did Nixon sabotage LBJ’s peace agreement in Vietnam?

Of the many books written about Richard Milhous Nixon, by historians, cultural critics, and insiders, one of the most anticipated by political junkies has been one by Patrick J. Buchanan. Buchanan was a loyal Nixon adviser, speechwriter, and confidante — John Dean recently said that, in all the hours of the Nixon tapes that he assiduously studied, there was nary a negative comment from RN about PJB. And Buchanan, in The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority, does not disappoint. What is lost in his polemical works is present in full force in his memoirs — the man can write. He has a fantastic memory of the minutiae of presidential politics, and the reader can go from chuckling softly to himself to marveling at Nixon’s underrated political prowess to showing dismay at the era’s many awful shortcomings, often within pages of one another. Buchanan is also convincing that Nixon really did achieve one of the greatest comeback’s in political history, going from man no national figure wanted to touch after his gubernatorial loss in 1962 to builder of the greatest political coalition since FDR in 1972. To reappropriate Nixon’s campaign slogan, we needed Buchanan’s book — now more than ever.

One fascinating aspect of the book that I eagerly anticipated was Buchanan’s discussion of the Anna Chennault affair. In 1968, as Nixon appeared headed to a convincing victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, President Lyndon Johnson reached an apparent peace settlement between North and South Vietnam. Polls that had slowly creeped toward Humphrey all of a sudden swung in his direction, and the election was wide open. The problem — shortly after Johnson’s announcement, Saigon declared that they would play no part in a peace process and scuttled Johnson’s plans. Rumors flew that Richard Nixon illegally sent an emissary to South Vietnam to report that a better deal would be had under RN.

Buchanan:

Reports that Anna Chennault, widow of the Flying Tigers General Claire Chennault, had contacted Saigon and told Marshal Nguyen Van Thieu to sabotage the talks, as he would get a better deal from Nixon, and that our staff knew and condoned this if we did not orchestrate it, I did not believe then and do not believe now. Humphrey did not believe it. Nixon would never have taken the insane risk of opening a back channel through Mrs. Chennault to Saigon to torpedo a peace agreement negotiated to end the war in Vietnam. Such a revelation would not only have been ruinous to Nixon’s reputation, the revelation of it would have killed his candidacy or poisoned his presidency should he win.

Of Buchanan’s analysis of the wisdom of the supposed sabotage, there is no doubt: the negatives of a potential overture from the campaign to Saigon far outweighed any benefits an incoming Nixon administration would receive. But is Buchanan right?

Larry Berman, in No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam, detailed the process by which Nixon communicated with Saigon: John Mitchell, campaign manager and future attorney general, spoke with Chennault, with Nixon’s blessing, who relayed information to Bui Diem, the South Vietnam ambassador, who would then speak to President Thieu. Vice President Ky remembered, “I had reservations about the support we might get from Humphrey if he became President… Then, out of the blue, Nixon’s supporters stepped into the picture. Approaches were made to Bui Diem, the Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington, to the effect, ‘Hold on! Don’t accept the invitation to go to Paris. If Mr. Nixon is elected President he promises he will increase support for the Vietnam War.'”

Not only does it appear that the affair actually transpired, LBJ knew about it, due to his own illegal wiretaps of the Nixon campaign. Afterward, again according to Berman, an embittered Johnson remarked, “It would rock the world if it were known that Thieu was conniving with the Republicans. Can you imagine what people would say if it were to be known that Hanoi has met all these conditions and then Nixon’s conniving with them kept us from getting it.”

Other historians say the same thing. Robert Dallek, in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, confirmed it, writing that Johnson considered it an act of treason by Nixon. According to Dallek, he only held back from revealing Nixon’s machinations due to a very awkward phone conversation between LBJ and RN in which Nixon denied any involvement in disrupting the peace negotiations. According to a story in the Sunday Times of London, after the phone call ended, “Nixon and his friends collapsed in laughter… It was partly in sheer relief that their victory had not been taken from them at the eleventh hour.”

Conrad Black, in Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, also confirms at least part of the reports, although in a much more flattering light to Nixon. For Black, Nixon may have attempted to communicate with Saigon through Chennault, but Thieu hardly needed convincing — there was no doubt of whom he would prefer between Humphrey and Nixon. Neither was Johnson an innocent party — in addition to the aforementioned illegal wiretapping (seemingly a symptom of the crass politics of the era), Johnson was dangerously playing politics with his proposed peace deal. There was only one presidential candidate that would have been helped had Thieu gone to Paris.

Wishing to know more behind Buchanan’s reasoning for not believing the reports, I contacted him about it and he, very graciously, responded:

The reason I did not go into the Anna Chennault affair was that I had no role in it, was unaware of it at that time, and never investigated it. My friend Tom Charles Huston came to believe there was something to it. My conclusion is based on the fact that this would have been a risky and dangerous thing to do. If exposed, such an intervention in peace negotiations would have caused the final days of the campaign to be focused upon that alone. President Theiu did not need us to tell him Nixon would be better for Saigon than Humphrey, after Humphrey came out for a unilateral bombing halt. And hard evidence for Nixon having anything directly to do with this seems absent. Lastly, LBJ’s initiative was a phony, cobbled together for political reasons. Not until four years later, after Nixon’s bombing of Hanoi and mining of Haiphong did the North Vietnamese grudgingly agree to peace terms. They almost surely preferred HHH, too, one reason for colluding in LBJ’s gambit.

Whatever the truth — and were I to place money on it, I would take a position close to Black’s — this all speaks to politics as practiced in the 1960s and 1970s. As we celebrate (remember? denigrate?) the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation, we would do well to keep in mind that it was hardly an isolated incident, and could pretty much be summed up as politics as usual. Rick Perlstein was wrong. It was not Nixonland. It was simply America.

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