Don't Blame Nixon for Scuttled Peace Overture

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These are intriguing days for Richard M. Nixon and his legion of critics. Four decades after he resigned the presidency in disgrace because of his involvement in the Watergate affair, Nixon is being ritually denounced as a scoundrel who sacrificed the lives of thousands of Americans in his obsessive quest to win the presidency in 1968.

The story, told and retold since the end of that campaign, goes this way: During the final days of the agonizingly close race between Nixon and Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered to end U.S. bombing of North Vietnam in return for Hanoi’s pledge to engage in serious peace talks, which could lead to a rapid settlement of the war.

But the crafty and treacherous Nixon secretly enlisted the help of Anna Chennault, a longtime Republican and widow of U.S. Gen. Claire Chennault. She passed on secret messages from Nixon to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, urging him to resist Johnson’s last-minute peace plan and promising Nixon would provide him with a better deal after the election. When Thieu refused to attend the talks, “Nixon had scuttled the chance for peace in Vietnam in order to win,” Tim Weiner writes in his new book, “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”

In a review last month in the Washington Post of new Nixon biographies by Evan Thomas and Weiner, Carl Bernstein writes that “in his landmark 2014 book, ‘Chasing Shadows,’ Ken Hughes reconstructs Nixon’s spectacularly devious role in scuttling the Paris peace talks of 1968.”

It makes an epic story worthy of Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr – the villainous Nixon willing to sacrifice anything to win the presidency. Nixon critics have called it treason. The problem is that the argument is nonsense.

Nixon did not sabotage a peace agreement in 1968 for one simple reason:  There was no chance for peace in 1968 on any terms that would have been acceptable to any American president, be it Johnson, Nixon, or Humphrey.

Nor was there even a remote possibility Le Duan, the general secretary of the Communist Party in North Vietnam and the real power in Hanoi, would have accepted anything less in 1968 than a unilateral American withdrawal from Vietnam and a promise to topple the Saigon regime. The whole purpose behind the commitment to South Vietnam by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Johnson was to preserve a non-communist government in Saigon.

University of Kentucky historian Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, author of the book “Hanoi’s War,” and who examined Hanoi’s foreign ministry records, told me in an interview this year that Le Duan “wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972” when American airpower and South Vietnamese ground forces smashed Hanoi’s Easter offensive. Professor Nguyen, who is not a Nixon admirer, pointed out Le Duan always believed negotiations at Geneva in 1954 were a mistake that led to the partition of Vietnam, and he did not want to repeat that error.

The irony is Le Duan clearly emerged at the end of 1968 as the winner in this game of high-level political intrigue that involved Washington, Saigon, Hanoi and Moscow. Le Duan outmaneuvered Johnson, gaining a badly needed bombing halt in return for talks that had no chance of success. When Nixon took office in January 1969, he was saddled with a bombing halt he did not want and peace talks in Paris that could not succeed except on Le Duan’s intractable terms.

“In the weeks preceding Election Day,” writes Nguyen, “intrigue permeated the corridors of power not only in the United States, but also in the two Vietnams as leaders in Saigon and Hanoi both tried to manipulate American electoral politics to further their own objectives in the war.”

The late William Bundy, who served as assistant secretary of state in 1968 for Johnson, complained in page after page about Nixon’s perfidy in his book “A Tangled Web,” before lamely admitting “no great chance for peace was lost.”

Here is what actually happened: Johnson and his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Averill Harriman, head of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks, wanted to establish a framework for those talks.

In his memoirs, Clifford acknowledges that by October 1968 “it was clear that it was too late for Johnson to negotiate an end to the long war in Vietnam -- but it was not too late to get negotiations started and it was clear that if such talks began before [Election Day], they would help Humphrey.”

In an oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, the late Philip Habib, who served as an adviser to Harriman, acknowledged “Harriman was very anxious to get this done before the elections to avert, as he put it, the greatest disaster: Richard Nixon. That was the way he felt. So he was doing everything to get Humphrey elected.”

The deal pushed by Clifford, Harriman, former Undersecretary of State George Ball and other LBJ advisers was the United States would cease all bombing of North Vietnam and in return, Hanoi would offer vague assurances not to violate the 17th Parallel dividing the two Vietnams, cease “indiscriminate” attacks on South Vietnam’s cities, and permit Saigon to take part in negotiations in Paris with the U.S., Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, which represented the South Vietnamese communists.

In late October, leaders in the Kremlin, alarmed at the thought of a Nixon presidency, successfully pressed Hanoi to include Saigon in the talks. That seemed to break the deadlock.

In a nationally televised address on October 31, 1968, Johnson announced a cessation of the three-year U.S. bombing campaign. With Americans relieved at the possibility of peace from the bloody and divisive war, polls showed Humphrey moving into a tie with Nixon. But over the weekend, Thieu announced he would not attend the talks, peace hopes vanished, and Nixon narrowly won.

When Johnson announced the bombing halt, he said Hanoi and the NLF would take part and that Saigon was “free” to join the talks -- a not too-subtle hint Saigon had no intention of attending.

In reality, there never was any chance Thieu would participate in the talks in November of 1968 -- no matter what Nixon did or did not tell him. The declassified transcripts of Thieu’s meetings with his top advisers throughout October make clear that he would not agree to four-way talks in Paris with the NLF as “a separate entity.” That was not just some procedural objection on Saigon’s part. By recognizing the NLF as a legitimate government, Thieu was acknowledging it as a potential coalition partner, a stance Saigon consistently rejected throughout the war.

It is true Nixon’s people urged Thieu to stand firm and resist Johnson’s pressure to join the proposed talks in Paris. But that is because they saw Johnson’s bombing halt not as a serious peace plan but as a cynical 11th-hour move to tip the election to Humphrey.

Writing for Politico last year, John Farrell, one of the more scrupulous reporters in Washington and who is working on a Nixon biography, cited a newly released oral history of onetime Nixon adviser Tom Charles Huston, who said “clearly” Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell “was directly involved.”

Those contacts, while improper, were hardly treason and not much different than George McGovern secretly sending Pierre Salinger to Paris in 1972 to meet with Hanoi’s negotiators at a time when Nixon and White House National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were trying to negotiate an end to the war with Hanoi.

But even a cursory examination of the now declassified cables from U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon throughout the middle of October and early November 1968 make clear Thieu and his advisers harbored deep reservations about Johnson’s plant. As early as October 18, Bunker warned the State Department that Saigon’s foreign minister made clear his government would not take part in the talks if they included the NLF “as a separate entity.”

In a prescient cable sent to the State Department on October 12, 1968, Bunker made clear his belief that Hanoi “assumes that if it can get the bombing stopped and keep it stopped until January 20, the next president will find it very difficult to resume the bombing. Meanwhile it will have time to rest and resupply and prepare for a renewed struggle in the spring.”

That is precisely what happened. The Americans stopped the bombing. Paris talks were launched in January when the Soviets offered a compromise: Hanoi, Saigon, the U.S., and the NLF would sit at a round table. That would allow Saigon to maintain its key point that the NLF was a creation of Hanoi, not some separate governmental entity. The talks Nixon was supposed to have sabotaged two months earlier were underway.

As for Le Duan, he pocketed the American concessions and responded with peace terms aimed to produce an American rejection. During the transition after the 1968 election, Nixon told Hanoi he was ready for serious talks. On December 31, 1968, Hanoi privately replied that peace would require the unilateral removal of all U.S. troops and replacing what it called the “Thieu-Ky-Huong clique” in Saigon.

Within a month of Nixon’s inauguration and the commencement of the Paris talks, Le Duan launched a major offensive in South Vietnam in violation of the whole purpose of the bombing halt. Le Duan’s message could not have been clearer: He was not interested in a negotiated settlement unless it left him in control of all Vietnam.

Nixon had good reason for suspecting the bombing halt was in part designed to help Humphrey. Nixon campaign adviser Bryce Harlow told Nixon in mid-October that Johnson, encouraged by Clifford and Ball, would announce a bombing halt on the eve of the election.

In his oral interview with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, Harlow said he “had a double agent working in the White House. I knew about every meeting they held. I knew who attended the meetings. I knew what their next move was going to be.” Harlow said he told Nixon, “Boss, he’s [Johnson] going to dump on you,” to which Nixon replied, “He promised me he would not. He has sworn he would not.”

“They’re having a hell of a time with the Joint Chiefs,” Harlow said he told Nixon. “Lyndon is bringing them around. He's twisting and turning it so that they'll go with it. He's forcing them to go with it. He can't have them repudiate it. That's where it is right now, the chiefs. As soon as he gets them over, and the time is right, he's going to dump. That's the plan.”

Harlow tried to preempt Johnson by leaking the president’s plan to Merriman Smith, the White House correspondent for United Press International. Smith discounted Harlow, saying Johnson had personally assured him he would keep foreign policy out of the election.

After Johnson announced the bombing halt on October 31, Smith telephoned Harlow at 2 in the morning “drunk as a hoot owl. He had that problem. He said, ‘I just want to apologize. The son of a bitch lied to me; he lied to you; he lied to Nixon. He did exactly what you said, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart.’ ”

As for Anna Chennault, her role has been grossly exaggerated. Nixon denied ever telling her to contact Thieu to boycott the proposed peace talks, but any Nixon denial needs to be treated with deep skepticism. Yet Nguyen Phu Duc, who served as special assistant to foreign affairs to Thieu, later wrote he never received any message from Chennault and never heard either Thieu or the South Vietnamese foreign minister mention “any message from Mrs. Chennault via Bui Diem.”

When Johnson learned of Chennault’s contacts with Saigon’s Washington embassy, he was furious. But what could he do? To reveal anything would mean he had ordered the FBI to monitor an American citizen (Chennault) connected to the Republicans.

But the sequence of events suggests that Thieu and his advisers did not need any secret messages from Nixon to fear a Humphrey victory. All they had to do was read the newspapers.

In a highly publicized speech on September 30 in Salt Lake City, Humphrey broke with Johnson on the war. Humphrey pledged “as president, I would stop the bombing as an acceptable risk for peace,” although he pointedly added that Hanoi had to respect the 17th parallel.

Even more alarming for Saigon, McGeorge Bundy, just two years removed from White House national security adviser, proposed on October 12 an unconditional halt to the bombing campaign and the withdrawal of substantial numbers of U.S. forces beginning in 1969.

Saigon was horrified at the two speeches. William Bundy, who was McGeorge’s older brother, called Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, “to tell him in light-hearted key that my brother's remarks reflected no prior discussion with me whatever, had not been known to me in any way before delivery, and did not reflect in any way the point of view of the Administration, or for what it might be worth my own personal point of view.”

In a briefing in March of 1969 for Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Gen. Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs, Bunker said, “There’s no question that they were playing our elections, but also there was the fact that we tried to push them faster than they would go.”

Treason is a brutal word in American politics. As one Republican consultant told me, once you use that word, there is no taking it back. Whatever else Richard Nixon was guilty of, treason was not one of them.

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