This week, The New York Times, in an overview of October surprises past, whitewashed the crime that helped put Richard Nixon in the White House. It described that year’s “surprise” as President Lyndon Johnson’s October 31 announcement of a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, as part of talks that promised to end the war. That announcement wasn’t a “surprise”—that is, a Machiavellian intervention designed for immediate political ends—but rather the culmination of long and hard secret talks between Hanoi and Washington in Paris, whereby Johnson, grudgingly, came to realize the United States couldn’t win its war. The real “surprise” came a few days later.
Announcement of a deal by Washington, Saigon, and Hanoi might have pushed Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, who was closing in on Nixon in the polls, over the top. But there would be no deal: The South Vietnamese scuttled the settlement, after hearing from Nixon’s campaign (which was acting on intelligence passed to it from Henry Kissinger) that they could get better terms from a Republican administration: thieu says saigon cannot join paris talks under present plan, ran the above-the-fold headline of the November 2 New York Times. Later that day, Nixon, campaigning in Austin, Texas, said, “In view of early reports this morning, prospects for peace are not as bright as they were even a few days ago.”
Nixon’s people had acted fast. Using Kissinger’s intelligence and working through Anna Chennault (the Chinese-born widow of World War II Lieut. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, she had become a prominent conservative activist), they urged the South Vietnamese to derail the talks, promising better conditions if Nixon were to be elected. President Johnson was informed of the meddling—through wiretaps and intercepts, he learned that Nixon’s campaign was telling the South Vietnamese that he was going to win and “to hold on a while longer.” If the White House had gone public with the information, the outrage might have swung the election to Humphrey. But Johnson hesitated, fearing that “Nixon’s conniving” was just too explosive. “This is treason,” he said. “It would rock the world.” Johnson stayed silent, Nixon won, and the war went on.
On May 14, 1973, just after Johnson’s death, Walt Rostow, Johnson’s national-security adviser, deposited the so-called “bombing halt” file in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. He appended a note that, in part, read: “The attached file contains the information available to me and (I believe) the bulk of the information available to President Johnson on the activities of Mrs. Chennault and other Republicans just before the presidential election of 1968.” Rostow wanted the file to remain classified indefinitely: “After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library…may, alone, open this file.… If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.” Rostow’s instructions notwithstanding, the LBJ Library began declassifying the file in 1994. Despite renewed attention to the Watergate break-in on its 40th anniversary, scholars and reporters—aside from Ken Hughes, in his recent Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, and journalist Robert Parry—have ignored its contents.
Understanding the true nature of 1968’s October Surprise—that is, the one the Times didn’t feel was fit to mention—is key to understanding much of what came next: Having derailed the best chance to end the war, Nixon and Kissinger had to figure out a way to force Hanoi back to the negotiating table. So they began to bomb Cambodia, hoping it would force North Vietnam’s hand. But the bombing was illegal, so it had to be done in secret. Pressure to keep it secret spread paranoia within the administration about leaks to the press—especially after Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers—leading to a series of covert actions resulting in the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall. The war, meanwhile, dragged on pointlessly for years, before finally ending on terms that were pretty much exactly like those on the table in 1968, after costing hundreds of thousands more deaths and the destruction of Cambodia. Some surprise.
Politicians have been wagging the dog—subordinating foreign policy to domestic politics—at least since Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida in 1817 as part of a successful bid to assert slaveholder power over the national government. FDR, JFK, and of course LBJ all used militarism to best domestic opponents. But 1968 marked a fundamental sea change, with extreme political division at home changing the relationship of the domestic to the foreign. The more the Vietnam War—prolonged by Nixon and Kissinger’s maneuverings—polarized American society, giving rise to a growing grassroots conservative movement that would eventually coalesce behind Ronald Reagan—the more war, or at least the drum beat of war, was needed to leverage that polarization to political advantage.
Grenada, Panama, the 1986 bombing of Libya, the first Gulf War, Bosnia, and so on revealed more about domestic politics—especially the need to, if not overcome then at least manage domestic divisions, anti-militarism, and dissent—than they did about global US interests. However self-aware and instrumental such a leveraging of militarism for domestic political gain is, it can only go on so long—Bill Clinton bombed Baghdad, killing civilians, to check his political opponents, who at that moment were trying to impeach him over his sex scandals—before reality itself becomes distorted.
And so we find ourselves confronting the biggest surprise yet: having to act responsibly and vote for the lesser-evil candidate—that is, the one most likely to put back into positions of power those who took us to war in Iraq and want to take us to war with Russia.