By Robert Parry (A Special Report)
May 4, 2010
Forty years ago, the United States took a very ugly turn as President
Richard Nixon escalated the war in Indochina by invading Cambodia,
prompting angry college protests, including a confrontation at Kent
State which ended with National Guardsmen killing four students on May 4, 1970.
With Nixon denouncing protesters as "bums," the President's "silent
majority" was pitted against an increasingly radicalized anti-war
movement. Parents turned against their own children, and "hardhats"
spat on "hippies." Fissures opened in U.S. society that have never
However, those troubled times also marked the Republican discovery of
a winning political strategy: exploit wedge issues. Along with
Nixon's Southern Strategy, which manipulated racial tensions to draw
white Southerners into the GOP, the bitter divisions around the
Vietnam War opened the way toward a broader "culture war," which
attracted many working-class Americans.
Today, looking at the consequences from the resulting Republican
political dominance over much of the past four decades weakened
labor unions, rampant deregulation, a shrinking American middle
class, a swelling national debt, endless foreign wars, crimped civil
liberties, and a deeply polarized electorate the question must be:
did it all have to happen?
And the answer is no. Though little known to the American people
and almost never discussed by mainstream journalists or popular
historians it's now clear that the Vietnam War was on the verge of
ending a year and a half before the Kent State killings.
President Lyndon Johnson, who had decided not to seek reelection so
he could concentrate on ending the war, was much closer to his goal
than has been generally understood. In the closing weeks of 1968,
Paris peace talks were expected to finalize an agreement with North
Vietnam that would lead to a U.S. military pullout.
Johnson's optimism about this settlement can be heard in now-public
audiotapes of his conversations with other top U.S. politicians. But
in the final days of the 1968 campaign, Johnson became aware of an
unexpected roadblock secret contacts between Nixon campaign
operative Anna Chennault and South Vietnamese President Nguyen van
Thieu, promising him a better deal if he derailed LBJ's peace talks.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes
complaining about this Republican political maneuver. His frustration
builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel
contacts between Nixon's campaign and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 just three days before the election Johnson telephones
Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Johnson lays
out some of the evidence and asks Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
"The agent [Chennault] says she's just talked to the boss in New
Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until
after the election," Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon
campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. "We
know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We're pretty well
informed at both ends."
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the
"I don't want to get this in the campaign," Johnson said, adding:
"They oughtn't be doing this. This is treason."
Dirksen responded, "I know."
Johnson continued: "I think it would shock America if a principal
candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this
importance. I don't want to do that [go public]. They ought to know
that we know what they're doing. I know who they're talking to. I
know what they're saying."
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the
movement toward peace in Paris had contributed to a lull in the
"We've had 24 hours of relative peace," Johnson said. "If Nixon keeps
the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that's
going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that's why they're
not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened."
Dirksen: "I better get in touch with him, I think."
"They're contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war," Johnson
said. "It's a damn bad mistake. And I don't want to say so. … You
just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing,
and if they don't want it on the front pages, they better quit it."
The next day, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson and professed his innocence.
"I didn't say with your knowledge," Johnson responded. "I hope it wasn't."
"Huh, no," Nixon responded. "My God, I would never do anything to
encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them
over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can't have a peace."
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and
Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted.
"I'm not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I'll only do
what you and Rusk want me to do. We've got to get this goddamn war
off the plate," Nixon said. "The war apparently now is about where it
could be brought to an end. … The quicker the better. To hell with
the political credit, believe me."
However, the South Vietnamese boycott of the talks continued and
Johnson edged toward publicly exposing Nixon's "treason."
'Good for the Country'
On Nov. 4, Johnson informed Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford
that Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis was working on
a story about the Republican sabotage. Both Rusk and Clifford opposed
going public with LBJ's sensitive evidence.
Clifford reasoned that the disclosure still might not stop Nixon from
defeating Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and
thus could lead to Nixon as President having little legitimacy in the
eyes of many Americans.
"Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I'm
wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the
story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,"
Clifford said in a conference call. "It could cast his whole
administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to
our country's interests."
So, Johnson stayed silent, unwilling to inform the public that Nixon
had put himself in a better position to win the White House by
sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks. With LBJ unable to cite any clear
progress toward ending the war, a significant number of Americans
voted for Nixon because they viewed him as "the peace candidate."
In the end, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000
votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.
In the aftermath of the election, Johnson continued to confront Nixon
with the evidence of Republican treachery, trying to get him to
pressure the South Vietnamese leaders to reverse themselves and join
the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 8, 1968, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and even
described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of
himself in the third person in describing the GOP message to the
"Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey.
They [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not
sell you out like the Democrats sold out China," Johnson said.
"I think they [the South Vietnamese] have been talking to [Vice
President-elect Spiro] Agnew," Johnson continued. "They've been
quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to
just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.
"Now they've started that [boycott] and that's bad. They're killing
Americans every day. I have that [story of the sabotage] documented.
There's not any question but that's happening. … That's the story,
Dick, and it's a sordid story. … I don't want to say that to the
country, because that's not good."
Faced with Johnson's implied threat, Nixon promised to tell the South
Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks.
However, there's no evidence that Nixon pressed Thieu to accept LBJ's
peace deal. In any event, Johnson failed to achieve his hoped-for breakthrough.
Then, instead of finishing up the peace talks and bringing the war to
a swift conclusion along the lines of Johnson's plan, Nixon escalated
the war. He authorized secret aerial bombings of Cambodia and in 1970
sent U.S. troops into Cambodian border areas.
The invasion, in turn, touched off widespread anti-war student
protests across the country, including the fateful confrontation at
Kent State in Ohio.
As the anti-war disruptions spread, Americans moved into polarized
and hostile camps. The images of slaughter from Vietnam provoked more
resistance, such as a momentous 1971 decision by former Defense
Department official Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers
secret history of the Vietnam War.
That, in turn, led to more abuses by an increasingly paranoid Nixon,
who cited national security to justify a massive political spying
operation against his enemies. That pattern of behavior led
Republican operatives to plant bugs on phones of the Democratic
National Committee at Washington's Watergate building in 1972.
Then, after the Watergate operation was exposed on June 17, 1972,
with the arrest of five White House burglars inside DNC offices,
Nixon began citing Johnson's eavesdropping on the Republican messages
to the South Vietnamese as justification for his own activities.
As Nixon took charge of the Watergate cover-up issuing orders,
brainstorming P.R. strategies and trying to blackmail Democrats with
threats of embarrassing disclosures one of Nixon's ploys was to
reveal that Johnson had ordered the bugging of the Nixon campaign in 1968.
Nixon referred back to the Vietnam peace talk gambit, claiming that
he was told by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Johnson had ordered
the bugging of a Nixon campaign plane to ascertain who was
undermining the Paris talks, according to Nixon's own White House tapes.
On July 1, 1972, White House aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon's
musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats
had bugged Chennault's telephones in 1968. Nixon pounced on Colson's remark.
"Oh," Nixon responded, "in '68, they bugged our phones too."
Colson: "And that this was ordered by Johnson."
Nixon: "That's right"
Colson: "And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything
like that you'd have the ..."
Nixon: "Yes. For example, why didn't we bug McGovern, because after
all he's affecting the peace negotiations?"
Nixon: "That would be exactly the same thing."
A Nixon Leak
Nixon's complaint about Johnson bugging "our phones" in 1968 became a
refrain as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972. Nixon wanted to
use the information to pressure Johnson and Humphrey into twisting
Democratic arms so the Watergate investigations would be stopped.
On Jan. 8, 1973, Nixon urged Haldeman to plant a story about the 1968
bugging in the Washington Star.
"You don't really have to have hard evidence, Bob," Nixon told
Haldeman. "You're not trying to take this to court. All you have to
do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press
will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now."
Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman
Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12,
1973, which contains his book's only deletion for national security.
"I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone,"
Haldeman wrote, "and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told
him he was up to date on the thing. ... A Star reporter was making an
inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke
[DeLoach's nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are
going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material --
national security], saying that our side was asking that certain
things be done. ...
"DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson. ... As he
[DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the planes, but was
turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a
tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault]."
Ten days after Haldeman's entry in his diaries, Johnson died of a
heart attack , on Jan. 22, 1973.
That same month, the Nixon administration finally signed a Vietnam
peace agreement in Paris that was much like the one Johnson had tried
to negotiate four years earlier.
In the meantime, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have
died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 U.S.
wounded. The war also had spread into Cambodia with other horrendous
Despite Nixon's efforts to back the Democrats down over the Watergate
scandal, this was one time when most key Democrats held firm,
pressing ahead with effective investigations and pushing impeachment
resolutions to the House floor. Finally, on Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon resigned.
However, Nixon's Vietnam "treason" remained a secret for almost
another decade, leading Nixon and his associates from the 1968
escapade to believe they had gotten away with effectively stealing a
U.S. presidential election.
Many of the same cast of characters, including Nixon's Secretary of
State Henry Kissinger and even Nixon himself, have been linked to
still-murky allegations of another act of political sabotage in 1980,
that Republican operatives went behind President Jimmy Carter's back
to frustrate his negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
Carter's failed negotiations set the stage for Ronald Reagan's
resounding victory. When Iran released the hostages at the moment of
Reagan's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the new President was
immediately hailed as a strong leader who frightened U.S. adversaries.
It wasn't until 1983 that the first significant evidence of Nixon's
Vietnam "treason" surfaced in Seymour Hersh's critical biography of
Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. But the story of the peace-talk
gambit never got much attention from mainstream journalists or historians.
Over the following two decades, in drips and drabs, additional
evidence spilled out. However, it was not until Johnson's audiotapes
were released in December 2008 that it became clear how dramatic the
behind-the-scenes political battle had been.
Still, if you expected the New York Times or CBS News to devote any
significant attention to the audiotapes, you would have been
disappointed. Johnson's tapes drew only cursory treatment from the
big newspapers and TV outlets, mostly references to a brief
Associated Press wire story that handled the disclosure more as a
curiosity than a clue to a dark historical mystery.
The only full-scale account of the LBJ tapes was at
Consortiumnews.com. But our reporting on how Johnson was aware of
Nixon's treachery in real time and agreed to keep quiet out of some
benighted sense of what was "good for the country" quickly
disappeared into the American historical memory hole.
Still, the painful truth is that much of the Indochina carnage that
occurred between 1968 and 1973 and its spillover into the United
States, such as the killings at Kent State, might never have happened
if Johnson had let the American people in on Nixon's secret machinations.
Keeping quiet had turned out not to be very "good for the country."