Quantcast

Another 'October Surprise' | The Nation

  •  

Another 'October Surprise'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Poor Anthony Summers--he writes a 600-page book on Nixon based on massive and exhaustive research, including interviews with a thousand people and 120 pages of documentation--and all the media care about are the couple of pages he devotes to pill-popping and wife-beating. The same thing happened with his J. Edgar Hoover bio, which is remembered mostly for that unforgettable cross-dressing story.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

Also by the Author

In his new book, John Dean finally offers definitive answers to the questions “What did he know, and when did he know it?”
 

Across the US, student debt is worst at schools with the highest-paid presidents.

But The Arrogance of Power has historical significance. It shows definitively that during the last weeks of the 1968 election campaign--when Nixon was challenging Vice President Hubert Humphrey--Nixon secretly sabotaged peace talks that might have ended the war at that point. Nixon went on to win one of the closest elections in history, after which he kept the fighting going another five years, during which more than 20,000 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese were killed.

The general outlines of the situation were well-known at the time: On October 31, just a week before Election Day, Johnson ordered the bombing halt that the North Vietnamese had said was a prerequisite to their entering into peace talks. Nixon had been eight points ahead in the Gallup poll, but two days after the bombing halt, his lead had fallen to two points. One poll even had Humphrey pulling ahead of Nixon then.

But the talks did not begin, because two days after the bombing halt South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu refused to participate. He had good reasons to prefer a Nixon victory--Thieu's regime was kept alive only by Washington, and Humphrey had told him that prolonged US aid was "not in the cards." Observers at the time, and historians subsequently, have speculated about whether Nixon conveyed private assurances to Thieu in those crucial two days. Of course Nixon denied it, and LBJ's memoirs, published three years later, declared that he had "no reason to think" that Nixon "was himself involved in this maneuvering, but a few individuals active in his campaign were." Among historians, Stephen Ambrose has been the most explicit in making the case, along with Clark Clifford, Defense Secretary for LBJ at the time, in his 1991 memoirs.

But no one had the smoking gun--not until Summers. His chapter on Nixon's maneuver provides a fine example of historical detective work. The key messenger, he argues, was Anna Chennault--the Chinese-born widow of an American World War II hero, 43 years old at the time, a prominent Washington hostess and vice chairwoman of the Republican National Finance Committee and co-chairwoman of Women for Nixon-Agnew. She also had connections to Southeast Asian leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Ferdinand Marcos, as well as those in Saigon. In interviews with Summers, she said she met with Nixon and his campaign manager (and future Attorney General), John Mitchell, who told her to inform Saigon that if Nixon won the election, South Vietnam would get "a better deal."

Meanwhile, President Johnson deployed the full resources of US intelligence to see whether Nixon was telling Thieu not to go to the peace talks. The CIA had a bug in Thieu's Saigon office, the National Security Agency was intercepting South Vietnamese diplomatic cables and the FBI had wiretaps and physical surveillance at the South Vietnamese Embassy.

It's certainly possible that Anna Chennault was exaggerating her historical importance when she told Summers (and hinted to others earlier) about her role. But here's where the smoking gun appears: Summers reproduces an FBI memo he obtained in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act. It's dated November 2, and it reports on the results of a wiretap on the phone of the South Vietnamese ambassador: Chennault had contacted the ambassador and "advised him that she had received a message from her boss"--who was described in the memo as "not further identified." The message was "hold on, we are gonna win." Then follows the most tantalizing line: "She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico." With a little more work, Summers sealed his case: Spiro Agnew made a campaign stop in Albuquerque that day, and the times match. Summers points out that Agnew could not have taken such a crucial step without explicit instructions from Nixon himself.

Summers found that he was not the first to piece this evidence together: Deep in the LBJ Library he found an "eyes only" memo to LBJ showing that national security assistant Walt Rostow had used the same sources to come to the same conclusions. Outraged, Johnson shared Rostow's insight with candidate Humphrey, but they decided not to go public with it in the last days before the election. (They may not have thought the documentation convincing enough and worried that it was too late to have an effect, regardless.) After Election Day, they apparently believed it would be too disruptive of the US political system to reveal what they knew about how the new President had helped himself win.

Wisely, Summers does not argue that his evidence proves Nixon prolonged the war--although he points out that more than a third of all US casualties during the war occurred during Nixon's presidency--a total of 20,763 Americans killed. That was also the period when the most intense bombing occurred, resulting in the deaths of perhaps a million or more Vietnamese. Summers acknowledges that Thieu "very probably" would have balked at peace talks even without prodding from Nixon. However, he argues forcefully and persuasively that it was wrong for a private citizen to interfere with a major diplomatic peace effort for his own political advantage.

Nixon's actions just before the election prolonged the war in a different way: Thieu took credit for Nixon's victory. Thus when Nixon reversed course and tried to push Thieu to the peace table on the eve of the 1972 election, Thieu stalled at the critical moment, arguing that Nixon was in his debt.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size