Did Nixon Commit Treason in 1968? What The New LBJ Tapes Reveal.Historians/History
tags: treason, Nixon
A low point in last year’s presidential campaign came when the New York Post published a front-page story claiming that in his visit to Baghdad, Barack Obama had engaged in secret negotiations with the Iraqi government to undermine the Bush administration’s foreign policy. The story was wildly implausible—these “negotiations” would have occurred before a bipartisan Senate delegation and U.S. diplomats—and quickly disproved.
The Post allegations recalled an event from the 1968 presidential election, in which representatives from the presidential candidate of the party out of power did seek political advantage by involving themselves in diplomatic negotiations. The story of Richard Nixon’s surreptitious contacts with the South Vietnamese government is quite well-known: fearful that a last-second peace deal would give Hubert Humphrey the election, Nixon agents—chiefly Anna Chennault—reached out to the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen van Thieu. The message: a peace settlement under a Nixon presidency would be more favorable to the South Vietnamese. The Paris peace talks may very well have collapsed without this Nixonian intervention, but South Vietnamese resistance ensured the doom of the negotiations. While it remains unclear whether Nixon personally directed the Chennault diplomacy, he clearly was aware of it by late October 1968, and seems to have done nothing to repudiate Chennault's toxic message.
The recently released batch of LBJ tapes (from the last eight months of 1968) provide much more detail about the political effects of Nixon’s operation. After Johnson privately deemed Nixon’s actions as treasonous, an extraordinary call occurred between Johnson and Nixon, in which Nixon did enough to satisfy the President’s concerns to prevent Johnson from going public about the Chennault actions.
Johnson had hoped that, to the extent possible, Vietnam would not be an issue in the fall campaign, and that the three candidates (Nixon, Humphrey, and George Wallace) would not interfere with his attempts to achieve a peace settlement before he left office. Reflecting his desire to position himself as a nonpartisan figure, Johnson took the extraordinary step of personally briefing Nixon about foreign policy developments. In this excerpt, from late August 1968, Nixon assured the President of his desire to avoid politicizing Vietnam, but expressed doubts that Humphrey would put the country’s interests ahead of his own.
RICHARD NIXON: As a matter of fact, let me say this, that on this—that I don’t give a goddamn what the politics is, and I hope, I’m sure Hubert [Humphrey] will feel the same way. But . . . And I know how you feel about the whole peace issue. But we’ve got to stand very firm. And I won’t say a damn word that’s going to embarrass you. You can be sure of that.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Oh, I know that. I know that.
[with Nixon concurring] I think, though, that it’s all right for you to say that this concerns you, that it dismays you, and you were always concerned with aggression, that you don’t know the extent of it, and you don’t know the details of it, but the President did call you, and the President did outline to you all the facts he had . . .
And that the President will no doubt have other statements to make, and as he makes ‘em, why, you’ll follow ‘em, and consider ‘em, and so forth, but that you’re not trying to second-guess the thing, and you don’t want anybody to get the idea that there are half a dozen Presidents that are calling the signals here on foreign policy. And that’s what you made clear at Miami [at the Republican convention], and that’s what you’re going to make clear till you’re elected.
RICHARD NIXON: Yeah.
Let me ask you this: can you keep—just talking very candidly—can you keep your Vice President and others to keep them firm in this thing? Because, you know, to hell with the goddamn election, we must all stand firm on this.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: That’s right.
RICHARD NIXON: You know, I don’t think we’re going to go to war, but we’ve got to stand firm.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Very frankly, I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. I just plain don’t know.
RICHARD NIXON: OK.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I have—
RICHARD NIXON: Well, I stand firm.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I have done it up to now. I think it would be the best thing for the country, and I have said to them that. And I have furthermore said that, in my judgment, if they didn’t do that, that you would murder them with it. That you would say—
RICHARD NIXON: I think that’s true.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: That you would say, “There’s a time—here in a time of crisis, you goddamn fellows tried to suck up to these folks.” And when you look at the polls this morning, it’s 61 to 24—
RICHARD NIXON: I—
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: —against stopping the bombing. And I look at my two son-in-laws out there [in Vietnam], and I tell ‘em to lay down your plane, keep it grounded, we won’t let you use it, and they say, “OK, what are you going to take away from them [the DRV]?” And I said, “Nothing; we haven’t talked about that.”
Well, they’ll say, “Screw ya’.”
RICHARD NIXON: That’s right.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: And these boys are coming home someday.
I got 32 applauses in 41 minutes last night [in his Detroit speech]. And I had a standing ovation when we went in; I had a standing ovation about halfway through my speech. I had a standing ovation at the end. I had 31 applauses.
And, by God, there wasn’t a paper in the United States that mentioned it.
RICHARD NIXON: Well, the bastards, you know, like the goddamn New York Times—they don’t print the truth. That’s all.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: That’s right. That’s right.
RICHARD NIXON: They don’t print the truth.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Well, anyway, I think you can . . . You have nothing to be—you can—
RICHARD NIXON: Well, I won’t—
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: —you have every reason to be proud of what—
RICHARD NIXON: Let me say—
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: —your platform—
RICHARD NIXON: I won’t take any advantage of you.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Oh, I know that. I know that. I wouldn’t be—
RICHARD NIXON: Naturally, because we’ve got to do the right thing—
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: I wouldn’t be calling you. I’m going to keep you informed—
RICHARD NIXON: I appreciate it.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: —just as much as I keep anybody informed.
RICHARD NIXON: Yeah.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: And I’m going to tell you everything that affects the country.
Most of the press reports on the tape release ignored the extraordinary hypocrisy of Nixon, having repeatedly promised the President that he would not politicize Vietnam (while at the same time accusing Humphrey of doing so), then turning around and playing politics with the war when Nixon’s lead all but evaporated as Election Day neared. The changed circumstances, of course, partly resulted from a development Nixon had feared: Humphrey broke with the President on Vietnam. The newly released tapes confirm Johnson’s fury with his Vice President’s Salt Lake City address, but the move re-energized Humphrey’s campaign.
Independently of Humphrey’s efforts, the President authorized a bombing pause in early October—persuading the North Vietnamese to concede that South Vietnam could have independent representation at the Paris peace talks. On October 29, Cyrus Vance reported back to Washington that a settlement appeared imminent; Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford urged the President to seize the opportunity.
In Saigon, however, the Thieu regime informed U.S. diplomats that it would not send a delegation to Paris. As it did so, the President learned that representatives of Nixon’s campaign had contacted the South Vietnamese embassy in the United States to encourage Saigon’s recalcitrance. Johnson phoned long-time advisor Richard Russell to inform him of the news. The Georgia senator was gravely ill, however, and this October 31 excerpt showed him ill-suited to give advice.
President Johnson: Well, I’ve got one this morning that’s pretty rough for you.
We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee—our California friend—has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends, both—our allies and the others. He’s been doing it through rather subterranean sources here.
He has been saying to the allies that “you’re going to get sold out. Watch Yalta, and Potsdam, and two Berlins, and everything. And they’re [the Johnson administration] going to recognize the NLF. I [Nixon] don’t have to do that. You better not give away your liberty just a few hours before I can preserve it for you.”
One or two of his business friends divulged it first a couple of days ago, about the time he [Nixon] made the statement that he had rumors that the staff was selling out, but he did not include me in it.
President Johnson: The next thing that we got our teeth in was one of his associates—a fellow named [John] Mitchell, who is running his campaign, who’s the real Sherman Adams [Eisenhower’s chief of staff] of the operation, in effect said to a businessman that “we’re going to handle this like we handled the Fortas matter, unquote. We’re going to frustrate the President by saying to the South Vietnamese, and the Koreans, and the Thailanders [sic], ‘Beware of Johnson.’”
“At the same time, we’re going to say to Hanoi, ‘I [Nixon] can make a better deal than he [Johnson] has, because I’m fresh and new, and I don’t have to demand as much as he does in the light of past positions.”
Now, when we got that (pure by accident, as a result of some of our Wall Street connections), that caused me to look a little deeper.
Richard Russell: I guess so.
President Johnson: And I have means of doing that, as you may well imagine.
President Johnson: Mrs. [Anna] Chennault is contacting their [South Vietnamese] ambassador from time to time—seems to be kind of the go-between, the Chiang Kai-Shek deal. In addition, their ambassador is saying to ‘em that “Johnson is desperate and is just moving heaven and earth to elect Humphrey, so don’t you get sucked in on that.” (He is kind of these folks’ agent here, this little South Vietnamese ambassador.)
Now, this is not guesswork.
Russell: I just . . . I didn’t exactly understand how Taiwan got in it.
President Johnson: Well, Mrs. Chennault, you know—
Russell: I know that, but I didn’t understand just what Chiang has to do with it—
President Johnson: Well, I don’t know that he has anything, except just generally that lobby. It may be [former Minnesota congressman] Walter Judd. I know it’s her.
Russell: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
President Johnson: Mrs. Chennault, you know, of the Flying Tigers.
Russell: I know Mrs. Chennault.
President Johnson: She’s young and attractive. I mean, she’s a pretty good-looking girl.
Russell: She certainly is.
President Johnson: And she’s around town. And she is warning them to not get pulled in on this Johnson move.
Then he [the ambassador], in turn, is warning his government. Then we, in turn, know pretty well what he [Thieu] is saying out there. So he is saying that well, he’s got to play it for time, and get it by the next few days.
Two days later, armed with more information about Nixon’s actions, Johnson telephoned the Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen. In this remarkable call, the President accused the Nixon operatives of “treason” (Dirksen agreed), and threatened to go public with his information unless the GOP representatives ceased contact with the South Vietnamese.
President Johnson: Everett, how are you?
Everett Dirksen: All right.
President Johnson: I want to talk to you as a friend, and very confidentially, because I think that we’re skirting on dangerous ground. I thought I ought to give you the facts, and you ought to pass them on if you choose. If you don’t, why, then I will a little later.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] Both Thieu and Ky stressed on us the importance of a minimum delay [between a bombing pause and the opening of peace negotiations]. Then we got some of our friends involved, some of it your old China [Lobby] crowd.
Here’s the latest information we’ve got: the agent says that they’ve just talked to the boss [Nixon] in New Mexico, and that he says that you must hold out, that . . . Just hold on until after the election.
Now, we know what Thieu is saying to ‘em out there. We’re pretty well informed on both ends.
President Johnson: Now, I’m reading their hand, Everett. I don’t want to get this in the campaign.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason.
Dirksen: I know.
President Johnson: I don’t know whether it’s [Melvin] Laird; I don’t know who it is that is putting it out, but here is the UPI [item number] 48 that came in tonight.
President Johnson: And I’m calling you only after talking to [Dean] Rusk and [Clark] Clifford and all of ‘em, who thought that somebody ought to be notified as to what’s happening.
President Johnson: Now, I can identify ‘em, because I know who’s doing this. I don’t want to identify it. I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.
President Johnson: I don’t want to do that.
President Johnson: But if they’re going to put this kind of stuff out, they ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to, and I know what they’re saying.
President Johnson: Well, now, what do you think we ought to do about it?
Dirksen: Well, I better get in touch with him, I think, and tell him about it.
President Johnson: I think you better tell him that his people are saying to these folks that they oughtn’t to go through with this meeting [in Paris]. Now, if they don’t go through with the meeting, it’s not going to be me that’s hurt. I think it’s doing to be whoever’s elected.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: It may be—my guess—him.
President Johnson: And I think they’re making a very serious mistake, and I don’t want to say this.
President Johnson: And you’re the only one I’m going to say it to.
President Johnson: Now, Everett, I know what happens there. You see what I mean?
Dirksen: I do.
President Johnson: And I’m looking at his hole card.
President Johnson: Now, I don’t want to get in a fight with him there. I think Nixon’s going to be elected.
President Johnson: And I think we ought to have peace, and I’m going to work with him.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: I’ve worked with you.
Dirksen: That’s right.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] But I don’t want these sons of bitches like Laird giving out announcements like this, that Johnson gave them the wrong impression. I gave them the right impression, except I gave it to him decently, when I said that you ought to keep the Mrs. Chennaults and all the rest of ‘em from running around here. Now, you see, I know what Thieu says to his people out there.
Dirksen: Yeah. I haven’t seen Laird.
President Johnson: Well, I don’t know who it is that’s with Nixon. It may be Laird. It may be [Bryce] Harlow. It may be [John] Mitchell. I don’t know who it is.
I know this: that they’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.
Dirksen: That’s a mistake!
President Johnson: And it’s a damn bad mistake.
Dirksen: Oh, it is.
President Johnson: [with Dirksen assenting] And I don’t want to say you, and you’re the only man that I have enough confidence in to tell ‘em. But you better tell ‘em they better quit playing with it. You just tell ‘em that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.
As the Dirksen conversation made clear, Johnson was angry at more than Chennault’s contacts with the South Vietnamese. In the last few days of October, top Nixon advisors had started criticizing the President’s own behavior on Vietnam issues. Perhaps seeking to deflect attention away from Nixon, Wisconsin congressman Melvin Laird (who later would serve as Nixon’s defense secretary) accused Johnson of misleading Nixon in one of their briefings, saying that the President falsely suggested that the South Vietnamese would definitely come to Paris. Nixon himself hinted that unnamed Democratic officials were so eager for a Humphrey victory that they would consent to any peace settlement, even if it didn’t serve the national interest.
Laird’s charge was false, but it enraged Johnson. And while Nixon carefully excluded the President from his claims about politicizing the peace negotiations, the allegations nonetheless hit very close to home.
So, beyond his discussion with Dirksen, the President reached out to retiring Florida senator George Smathers. A conservative Democrat, Smathers was backing Nixon in the election, and was prepared to welcome the GOP nominee to Florida for a campaign visit.
President Johnson: Then our friend—not the Vice President, but the former Vice President—
George Smathers: Yeah.
President Johnson: His folks get into it. And they say that they know how to deal with these communists, and they’re not going to be soft on ‘em. And if they’re elected, they’ll see it right on through with ‘em, and that they’ll get a whole lot better deal with Nixon than they will with Johnson.
Now, first, that comes out of one of his associates, one of his top businesspersons. That was communicated to us by means that we have of knowing it. And it was rather shocking, in the light of what he said. So I started personally watching the traffic myself, and the next day, the traffic shows that that is going in and out of Saigon.
Do you follow me?
President Johnson: I’m not guessing, George. I know what I’m doing, you see. [They said] that Nixon is going to win; therefore, they ought to wait on Nixon.
So what he’s doing—my judgment is, on the surface, he was playing that he didn’t want to undercut me.
President Johnson: Under the table, his people—and this, I think, you can tell him for sure; there’s no doubt about it—his people (a) business-wise, and (b) political-wise were saying that you ought to wait on Dick.
Now, that’s got it pretty well screwed up.
Smathers: Yeah, it does.
President Johnson: That’s a hell of a note, and it’s a sad thing for people that got boys out here [in Vietnam], to have folks leaving these impressions.
President Johnson: They’re going around and implying to some of the embassies that they might get a better deal out of somebody that was not involved in this—the “somebody not involved” is what they refer to as “their boss.”
President Johnson: “Their boss” is the code word for Mr. Nixon.
Smathers: Right. Right.
President Johnson: It’s just this simple: as soon as they say that to ‘em, they go out to Saigon with it. And we know pretty well what goes to Saigon.
President Johnson: Then when it goes to Saigon, he [Thieu] calls his people in, and he gives them instructions. And we know pretty well what happens in that room.
President Johnson: I don’t want you to go into that with Nixon, but . . .
Smathers: I won’t.
President Johnson: That’s what’s hurting the country.
President Johnson: And obviously, it’s so sensitive, I can’t do anything about it, except just say, “Quit it.”
President Johnson: Now, I don’t say that he is doing it—I don’t know that he is. But I know what [Mel] Laird did on the plane a week ago.
President Johnson: And then he [Nixon] comes out and always defends me.
President Johnson: Then [California Lt. Gov. Robert] Finch comes out and defends me. It’s just like Lady Bird saying “Smathers is a crook,” and I say, “I don’t believe what Lady Bird said.”
Smathers and Dirksen both delivered Johnson’s message to Nixon. On November 3, two days before the election, Nixon appeared on Meet the Press. He avoided all criticism of Johnson’s Vietnam policy, and instead went out of his way to express sympathy for the President’s position. He then phoned the President directly.
In a strange, rambling call, Johnson seemed most eager to get on the record the fact that he hadn’t misled Nixon (he repeatedly read transcripts of earlier LBJ-Nixon calls; I haven’t transcribed this section of the call). Nixon seemed most eager to avoid talking explicitly about Chennault’s actions, even if he had to repeatedly interrupt the President to redirect the conversation.
But Nixon also dangled a tantalizing offer for a President eager to conclude his term with a meaningful peace settlement—the hint that a peace deal would be more likely after a Nixon victory, and that Nixon would strongly support Johnson’s diplomatic efforts in the interregnum between the election and the inauguration.
Richard Nixon: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yes.
Richard Nixon: This is Dick Nixon.
President Johnson: Yes, Dick.
Richard Nixon: I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call, and I just went on Meet the Press. I said on Meet the Press that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election, and, if elected, after the election.
And that if you felt, or the Secretary of State felt, that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it. That I felt Saigon should come to the conference table. That I would, if you felt it was necessary, go there, or go to Paris, anything you wanted.
I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly about this, and any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, they certainly have no—absolutely no—credibility as far as I’m concerned.
Richard Nixon: You know, and I know, that within the . . . there’s a hawk/dove complex out there, as there is here. And that everybody’s been saying, “Well, now, after the election, what will happen?” And, of course, there is some thought that Hanoi would rather deal now than deal later.
President Johnson: Oh, yes—
Richard Nixon: They think Nixon will be tougher.
President Johnson: Ye—
Richard Nixon: And I understand that. And I think that’s one of the reasons you felt you had to go forward with the [bombing] pause.
But my point that I’m making is this: that, my God, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table, because basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause. That good God, we want them over at Paris. We’ve got to get them to Paris, or you can’t have a peace.
President Johnson: Well, I think if you take that position, you’re on very, very sound ground, and—
Richard Nixon: That’s what I said—
President Johnson: I think it’s very much in the interest of your—
Richard Nixon: I said that the major thing that the President insisted upon and got was the right of Saigon to be at that conference table.
President Johnson: And, and—
Richard Nixon: They must be at the conference table. And I believe they should be. And then that’s why I said—I just felt that I ought to emphasize it—and I said that, I said, “I know that nobody knows who’s going to win this [election]. But if I do,” I said, “If I’m President-elect, I personally pledge to President Johnson I would do anything.”
“And I want to amplify that, emphasize it, by saying that I will do—if he and Secretary Rusk indicate that my presence in Paris or Saigon”—and incidentally, I want you to know I’ll do that; I’d go out there and talk to Thieu—
President Johnson: Well, we knew we had problems, Dick—
Richard Nixon: You still think he’s going to come?
President Johnson: Well, we don’t see what else he can do. If we stay together—
Richard Nixon: Yeah.
President Johnson: We just think that no people are going to support an effort where a man will not talk to anybody.
Richard Nixon: Yeah. Well, one thing I said, and I thought that you’d be interested in this, I made this point, which I feel very strongly about: that let’s suppose that I should win. Now, all right. Then you’ve got . . . If Johnson and Nixon—and I pointed out that I have stood fairly close to you on this.
As I said in an answer to [Meet the Press host] Larry Spivak, I said, “I’ve disagreed with the conduct of the war, but I agree that”—and I used this term—“that I think President Johnson has gotten a bad rap on terms of the commitment.” I said, “We’re there to try to stop aggression and avoid another war.”
Then I went on to say, I said, “The critical period could be the 60 days before the inauguration. And at that point, if we can present a united front, it seems to me that we might make the breakthrough that couldn’t be made later.” And I honestly believe that.
President Johnson: Yes. I—
Richard Nixon: These people . . . I think you will agree—well, I think you’ve told me, earlier—that these people over in Hanoi, to a certain extent, hold on because they think we’re divided in this country. Now, once we’ve had an election, and you have a Republican—if it’s Nixon—and you have a Republican, and Johnson, a Democrat, it seems to me that’s an awful strong, strong case.
President Johnson: Yes. Dick—
Richard Nixon: I just wanted you to know, I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I mean, I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do. But I’ll do anything. Because anything—
President Johnson: Well, that’s good. Dick. I—
Richard Nixon: We’ve got to get this goddamned war—and I also want you to know this. I said this to our mutual friend George [Smathers] today—I was talking to him; you know, I’m going down to Florida after today.
And I really feel this—and I feel this very deeply—that I think you’ve gotten a bad rap on this thing. I think the war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. And if we can get it done now, fine, that’s what it ought to do. Just the quicker, the better, and to hell with the political credit. Believe me, that’s the way I feel about it.
President Johnson: Well, that’s fine, Dick, and we’ll talk about it right after [the election]. I don’t think they’re going to do anything now.
The important thing is for your people not to tell—
Richard Nixon: Well, I—
President Johnson: —not to tell the South Vietnamese—if they’ll tell them just what you tell me, why, it will be the best for all concerned.
Richard Nixon: I wish you could have seen the program, because most of them thought it was pretty good.
President Johnson: Good. Good, Dick. Well, you just—
Richard Nixon: Well, good gosh, you’ve got people on your own staff over there that don’t—George Ball, some of those guys are saying some God-awful things.
President Johnson: [with an unfriendly laugh] Well, George Ball’s not on my staff.
Richard Nixon: Well, you know what I mean.
President Johnson: Yeah. But what I’ve got—I’ve got both sides. Hanoi will look at one statement—
Richard Nixon: Yeah.
President Johnson: —and the South Vietnamese will look at the other.
You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese—
Richard Nixon: Right.
President Johnson: —that they’re going to get any better deal out of the United States government than a conference.
Nixon’s promise of diplomatic backing for Johnson’s post-election peace efforts, coupled with the Republican’s backing away from his advisors’ criticisms of LBJ, seemed to be enough for Johnson. The President didn’t publicly reveal what he knew about the Nixon operatives and South Vietnam.
Nixon, of course, got the better of this arrangement: avoiding a pre-election bombshell that could very well have swung enough votes in a tight election, he narrowly bested Humphrey. The post-election peace talks, meanwhile, unsurprisingly went nowhere: the Thieu regime, fully confident that it would receive a better settlement from the presumably hard-line anti-communist Nixon, proved no more willing to negotiate after November 5 than before the election. And so, in the end, no one was held accountable for actions that Johnson had labeled “treason.”