Was Nixon's Derailing of LBJ’S Vietnam Bombing Halt Treason or Politics?

While Pat Buchanan’s new book The Greatest Comeback summarily dismisses the idea that Nixon sabotaged the surprise bombing halt and peace talks launched by Lyndon Johnson days before the 1968 election, historian Ken Hughes' new contribution, Chasing Shadows, due out on July 29, charges the then-presidential hopeful with treason and postulates that the war would have ended had LBJ been uninhibited by Nixon’s maneuverings. Salon’s Paul Rosenberg weighed in with yet another piece charging Nixon with treason as did POLITICO magazine’s John Aloysius Farrell. They all require a correction. I make a different case in my book, Nixon’s Secrets. Here is an excerpt:

By October, Humphrey grew increasingly anti-Vietnam and called for an all-out halt to bombing. Johnson’s infamous “October Surprise” occurred the weekend before the election: Johnson announced a unilateral bombing halt, and even a possible peace deal. The “Halloween Peace” gave Humphrey a boost. Coupled with the late endorsement of the antiwar Senator McCarthy, Nixon and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey were in a dead heat.

Apparently, Nixon and his team expected the "October Surprise." Nixon saw it as a political maneuver that Johnson would try to use to box him in on his “peace talks” proposal. To counter, Nixon and campaign manager John Mitchell had opened back channels of communication with the president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu. They worked through Anna Chennault, the notorious dragon lady whose husband, Claire Chennault, had founded "The Flying Tigers," a volunteer fighter squadron. Chennault was in touch with the South Vietnamese ambassador and passed a discreet message to President Thieu that the South should refuse the three-party talks and hold out for a better deal after Nixon won the election.

Interestingly, the tipoff for Johnson’s move came from Dr. Henry Kissinger, a paid foreign policy advisor to Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a consultant to the Johnson State Department involved in the delicate conversations regarding Vietnam. Kissinger was also formally advising Humphrey, peppering him with memos on how to deflate Nixon on foreign policy. Kissinger must have sensed that Nixon would prevail. A vocal Nixon hater, the duplicitous foreign policy maven knew that Nixon distrusted him, so Kissinger reached out to him through William F. Buckley Jr., according to staff researcher Jeffrey Bell. Kissinger’s gambit would pay off with a role in Nixon’s diplomacy that would make him national security advisor and ultimately Secretary of State. Nixon and his team were ready for Johnson’s phony bombing halt maneuver.

Pat Buchanan says in his book, The Greatest Comeback, that Nixon wouldn’t have risked the exposure of backdoor negotiations with the South Vietnamese. On the contrary, neither the Nixon nor Mitchell campaign national security advisor Richard V. Allen could resist doing something to ensure that Nixon’s meticulously-orchestrated comeback was not thwarted at the last minute by a cheap political trick by the man from the banks of the Perdernales.

Wiretaps clearly catch Mitchell saying to Chennault, “Now you tell our friends, [the South Vietnamese] they just need to hang on.” 

Wiretaps also clearly picked up the South Vietnamese ambassador asking Madame Chennault if “the top man [Nixon] knew?” of their conversation. 

“No, but I spoke to the number two man today in New Mexico.” 

Vice Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew was indeed campaigning in Albuquerque, New Mexico that day. The FBI wiretaps also picked up Senator John Tower telling Chennault, “Your friends will be treated better by Nixon, and LBJ is preparing to bail out on them and leave them to the mercies of the Vietcong.” 

Nixon’s national security campaign advisor Richard “Dick” Allen would likewise be heard encouraging the dragon lady to transmit the message to Thieu. The FBI trailed Chennault to the South Vietnamese Embassy on at least three occasions immediately after Johnson announced the unilateral bombing halt and it became clear publicly that the South Vietnamese would not play ball.

Thieu, sensing a double-cross from LBJ, was happy to comply. The South Vietnamese let it be known that they would not go to the negotiating table with the North and the “peace gambit” quickly fizzled.

Unfortunately, J. Edgar Hoover learned of Chennault’s back channel, wiretapped him through the FBI, and advised Johnson, who was furious. He said on White House tapes that Nixon had “blood on his hands” and labeled the action “treason.” An angry Johnson called Nixon to confront him, but Nixon denied any knowledge of the maneuver. Nixon aide Haldeman later remembered that he, Nixon, and traveling aide Dwight Chapin erupted in hilarious laughter after Nixon hung up. 

A memo from former Deputy FBI Director to the Nixon White House detailed LBJ's actions:

At President Johnson's request on November 12, 1968 the FBI was requested to checkall outgoing telephone calls made by the then Vice Presidential candidate Mr. Spiro Agnew on the date of November 2, 1968 at the time he was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was done.

There were five phone calls made. Three of the calls were from a phone on the plane and two were made from a pay station at the airport near by. Johnson was advised that Mr. Agnew talked to Secretary of State Rusk. Staff member Kent Crane made one call to a Cal Purdy in Texas. A third call was made by Kent Crane to this number in New York (212-288-8444). The FBI office in New York was requested to check it out and I found it was listed to Bruce Friedle, a sculptor.

A fourth call was made to Jim Miller of New York City. Mr. Crane made a fifth call to Mr. Hitt in Washington, D. C. It was a call to the Nixon-Agnew Campaign Headquarters. The phone there was chargeable to Maurice Stans. 

President Johnson call at 4:00 p.m. November 13, 1968 to ask about the progress FBI was making in the matter. He was given all the information listed above plus additional details. President Johnson then instructed that a check be made to determine if the fifth call could have been to Mrs. Chennault. This was done. 

President Johnson then instructed that the FBI check to see if there had been any phone calls from Mrs. Chenault [sic] to New Mexico, Texas of Los Angeles on the date of Nov. 2, 1968. This was done with negative results…………

President Johnson requested FBI put a physical surveillance on Mrs. Chennault for the purpose of developing political information, which could be used against Mr. Nixon. 

On November 7, 1968 Bromley Smith of the White House called the FBI and said that he had just conversed with Johnson, who now wanted the physical surveillance discontinued but the wiretap on the Embassy should be maintained. Mr. Smith said: “...the President was on the opinion that the intelligence obtained by the FBI in this operation was of the highest order. He stated that the facts furnished by the FBI had been exactly what had been needed by the White House and that he and the President were very grateful.”

As I outlined in my book The Man Who Killed Kennedy, that Johnson even dragged out his “October Surprise” in hopes of securing Humphrey the election was questionable and pure power politics. Johnson had no breakthrough in the Paris Peace Talks. The North Vietnamese had agreed to nothing. Johnson was playing politics, cloaked in foreign policy. In fact, rather than enhance the chances for peace, Johnson risked the lives of American soldiers near the DMZ who were vulnerable to North Vietnamese attack. Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet diplomat to Washington recorded in his memoirs that he told Johnson that the North Vietnamese would never negotiate and that the bombing halt would accomplish nothing. LBJ clearly plunged ahead in an effort to boost Humphrey over the top and wrench the presidency from Richard Nixon a second time.

Latter-day authors, such as Robert Parry and Ken Hughes, have charged Nixon with treason and have cited Johnson’s rantings at presidential advisor Walt Rostow about Nixon’s gamesmanship. At the same time, Johnson and Humphrey understood that exposing the Nixon maneuver publicly would require them to admit that they had bugged a private citizen in regular contact with the Republican presidential campaign. Johnson called it treason, but to Nixon it was just politics -- and in this case, the son of the grocer from Yorba Linda outmaneuvered the wily Texan.

When the move failed, Johnson ordered the NSA to maintain surveillance and even wiretap certain members of the South Vietnamese embassy and Nixon campaign. He never revealed what Nixon’s team had done. Neither did Humphrey, who was convinced of his own victory. As the ultimate joke, Humphrey said that they didn’t make Nixon’s campaign’s actions public as an “uncommon act of political decency.”

Indeed, after the 1972 Nixon can be heard on the White House tapes talking to Humphrey, who called to congratulate the President on his 49-state victory:

NIXON: You've been a very statesmanlike man. As I always, just speaking as friends, people ask me very privately to compare this with '68 and I said, “Well, the difference is, that when Senator Humphrey and I were campaigning and we had this terrible issue of Vietnam, we both put the country first.” And I said, “This time, we had a problem where one fellow said any goddamn thing that came in his head.”

HUMPHREY: Yeah.

EXCERPTED from Nixon’s Secrets, by Roger Stone, out August 12 from Skyhorse Publishing.


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