With proof recently surfacing that Richard Nixon was secretly plotting with South Vietnam to undercut his opponent in the 1968 presidential election, I realized that I’ve now lived through three acts of alleged electoral sabotage by foreign countries conniving with Republicans.
Donald Trump warned us that the system was rigged—he just didn’t say it was Republicans doing the rigging.
There was the aforementioned case in which Nixon plotted with South Vietnam to sabotage the peace talks—you know, because his election was more important than ending the Vietnam War.
There’s the 1980 case where Ronald Reagan’s henchman—William J. Casey—allegedly met with Iranian officials to make sure the ayatollah wouldn’t release 50 U.S. hostages before the presidential election. Just to make sure that President Carter didn’t get credit for solving that crisis.
And, of course, there’s the most recent case where Russian hackers, who may have been under the command of President Vladimir Putin, allegedly tapped into Democratic National Committee computers this summer and released embarrassing e-mails that undercut Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
For the record, Trump vehemently denies he had anything to do with the Russian hack or even that it was a hacking. He even contends that the e-mails may have been leaked by a disgruntled Democratic insider.
Also, for the record, Reagan and his aides denied they were covertly working with Iran to undercut Carter.
And while we’re on the subject of denials, Nixon swore up and down that he had nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with any secret machinations with South Vietnam leading up the November 7, 1968 presidential election. Nixon died in 1994, so he’s not around to get a comment on last week’s revelations by historian John Farrell.
While plowing through the archives at the Nixon Presidential Library in California, Farrell uncovered notes written by Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman regarding a late night phone conversation he’d had on October 22, 1968 with the former president.
According to those notes, Nixon told Haldeman to “keep Anna Chennault working on SVN. . . . Anyway other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN [Nixon] can do?”
That, folks, is what they call a smoking gun—speaking of phrases from the Nixon era. I realize this requires an explanation, so buckle your seat belts.
On the eve of the 1968 presidential election, the United States was up to its neck in a bloody civil war in Vietnam with no end in sight. We were backing the non-communist South Vietnam against North Vietnam, a communist country.
Nixon was running against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, who was getting hammered in the pols because of mounting opposition to the war.
In the months leading up to the election, President Lyndon Johnson was furiously trying to negotiate a deal with the North Vietnamese to end the war and maybe help his vice president get elected.
Thanks to his moles in the Johnson administration, Nixon knew all about Johnson’s negotiations with North Vietnam. So he directed one of his supporters—Anna Chennault—to secretly meet with the South Vietnamese ambassador. He wanted Chennault to deliver the message that South Vietnam would get a better deal if Nixon were elected, so they should not join the peace talks in Paris.
Johnson got wind of Chennault’s dealings, so he had the FBI tap her phone to gather more evidence.
In August 1968 Johnson called Nixon to talk about that matter. I know what they said because Johnson secretly tape recorded White House phone conversations.
The best account of Johnson’s obsession with the Chennault/Nixon machinations is an article by historian Robert Johnson, in History News Network, which has links to LBJ’s recordings.
I urge everyone to check out the article, if for no other reason than it gives you a chance to play one of my favorite games: Presidential Lies. Or, how many lies can we count in just one phone exchange? C’mon, let’s give it a try with this brief exchange from that Nixon/Johnson call.
Nixon: “I don’t give a goddamn what the politics is. . .”
One lie—as we now know from Haldeman’s notes.
Nixon: “And I won’t say a damn word that’s going to embarrass you. . .”
Two lies—Nixon desperately wanted to embarrass Johnson, if only to damage Humphrey.
Johnson: “Oh, I know that.”
Holy Moses, man—it’s a presidential trifecta, three lies in one exchange!
On October 31, Johnson called his old ally—Senator Richard Russell—to bitch about what Nixon and Chennault were up to.
Johnson: “Mrs. Chennault is contacting their [South Vietnam] ambassador from time to time. . . .In addition, their ambassador in Saigon told ’em that Johnson is desperate and is just moving heaven and earth to elect Humphrey.”
Johnson then headed into Trump country with a gratuitous aside about Mrs. Chennault.
Johnson: “She’s young and attractive. I mean, she’s a pretty good-looking girl.”
Russell: “She certainly is.”
Hmm. So if Johnson is Trump in this exchange, that means Senator Russell is Billy Bush.
Eventually, Johnson decided he needed to send a blunt message to Nixon. On November 2, he called our very own Senator Everett Dirksen—he represented Illinois for years. Dirksen, a Republican, and Johnson were old pals.
Johnson: “This is treason.”
Dirksen: “I know. . .”
Johnson: “They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.”
Dirksen: “That’s a mistake.”
Johnson: “And it”s a damn bad mistake.”
Dirksen: “Oh, it is.”
Johnson: “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.”
Apparently, Dirksen conveyed this threat. On November 3, just a few days before the election, Nixon called Johnson to tell he’d talked to Dirksen. Nixon assured Johnson that there was no way he’d ever do anything to sabotage the peace talks, because his prime motivation was service to his country, not winning an election.
Nixon: “Mr. President.”
Nixon: “This is Dick Nixon.”
Johnson: “Yes, Dick.”
I realize this has nothing to do with the narrative, but this brief presidential exchange of pleasantries always cracks me up.
Nixon: “I really feel this—and I feel this very deeply. . .”
You can pretty much guarantee that whatever follows such an introduction will probably be a little untruthful.
Nixon: “My god, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon [South Vietnam] not to come to the table.”
This is probably a good time to mention that Nixon’s nickname was Tricky Dick.
Johnson didn’t take his story to the press. So the American people didn’t realize that their president was withholding evidence that the Republican presidential candidate had allegedly committed treason. Which is probably all for the best, since you never want to overwhelm the American electorate with too much information.
I could listen to LBJ’s secret tapes all day and never get tired. They’re a helluva lot more interesting than, say, Mayor Rahm’s secret e-mails. Good god, I must have killed 2,000 brain cells plowing through those suckers.
Point is, thanks to Haldeman’s notes, we know that Nixon was personally quarterbacking Chennault’s machinations, just as Johnson suspected.
As for the 1980 election, it’s tougher to say what is and isn’t true. The chief source against Reagan was Gary Sick, a former Carter White House aide. In 1991 he wrote a book alleging that Casey met with Iranian officials to cut a deal in which the hostages would not be released until after the election. (Iran didn’t release the hostages until minutes after Reagan was sworn in).
We may have to wait at least another 50 years before we get definitive evidence one way or the other about what Trump knew and when he knew it about the hacking of the Democratic computers.
But here’s one final point: Nixon’s wheeling and dealing didn’t do South Vietnam much good. Yes, Nixon got elected. But under his reign, the war tragically raged on for another four years, spilling into Cambodia, thanks to Nixon’s secret invasion. Thousands and thousands of people on all sides were killed. And in the end, North Vietnam overran the South Vietnam in 1975, as the last Americans hurriedly got the hell out.
Something to keep in mind, President Putin, if you think electing an American puppet did you any good.
Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong date for North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam, which occurred in 1975.