Richard Nixon’s telephone calls came regularly during the 1968 campaign. And H.R. Haldeman took meticulous notes, jotting down the instructions he received from the candidate.
Sometimes Nixon needed to blow off steam: demanding that a reporter from The Washington Post or The New York Times be banned from his campaign airplane for writing an offending story. (“Times and Post off,” Haldeman recorded. “Times forever.”) One such call came at midnight, from Nixon’s co-op apartment on Fifth Avenue: Haldeman dutifully noted that the stirring score to the World War II documentary Victory at Sea, which Nixon so enjoyed, was playing on a phonograph in the background.
Other calls were steeped in intrigue. In one series of scribbles, Haldeman reported Henry Kissinger’s willingness to inform on his U.S. diplomatic colleagues, and keep Nixon updated on President Lyndon Johnson’s furious, eleventh-hour efforts to end the Vietnam War.
Haldeman, 42, was Nixon’s campaign chief of staff, a devoted political adjutant since the 1950s. In late October 1968, the two men connected on what came to be known as “the Chennault Affair.” Nixon gave Haldeman his orders: Find ways to sabotage Johnson’s plans to stage productive peace talks, so that a frustrated American electorate would turn to the Republicans as their only hope to end the war.
The gambit worked, and the Chennault Affair, named for Anna Chennault, the Republican doyenne and fundraiser who became Nixon’s back channel to the South Vietnamese government, lingered as a diplomatic and political whodunit for decades afterward.
Johnson and his aides suspected this treachery at the time, for the Americans were eavesdropping on their South Vietnamese allies—(“Hold on,” Anna was heard telling the South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington. “We are gonna win”)—but hesitated to expose it because they had no proof Nixon had personally directed, or countenanced, her actions. Historians scoured archives for evidence that Chennault was following the future president’s instructions, without much luck. Nixon steadfastly denied involvement up until his death, while his lawyers fended off efforts to obtain records from the 1968 campaign.
It wasn’t until after 2007, when the Nixon Presidential Library finally opened Haldeman’s notes to the public, that I stumbled upon a smoking gun in the course of conducting research for my biography of Nixon: four pages of notes his brush-cut aide had scrawled late on an October evening in 1968. “!Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” Haldeman wrote, as Nixon barked orders into the phone. They were out to “monkey wrench” Johnson’s election eve initiative, Nixon said. And it worked.
The following account of the Chennault Affair is the most up-to-date and revealing exposure of Nixon’s intrigue—the product of hours of archival research, open records requests and a little luck. Documenting this cynical maneuver is important for history’s sake, but the fact that it took nearly 50 years for Nixon’s secret to emerge also offers vital lessons for today. It shows how hard it is to find definitive proof of collaboration with a foreign power when officials are determined to hide the truth. It illustrates why a president might hesitate to call out such malfeasance by a candidate from the opposing political party. And it demonstrates the lengths an ambitious politician will go in the pursuit of power—even at the expense of his own country’s interests.
As investigators rush to understand just what President Donald Trump knew about Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election and when he knew it, the Chennault Affair—and how Nixon got away with it—is as relevant than ever.
Nixon was especially anxious on the night October 22, 1968. He had entered the fall campaign with a formidable lead over Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but the polls were narrowing as working-class Democrats returned to their party and Johnson’s efforts to make peace made news. Nixon believed he would prevail, unless a major event reset the political topography. He knew that Johnson knew that too.
As did the Soviet Union. Kremlin leaders had never much liked the red-baiting, anti-communist Nixon. To keep him from the Oval Office, and help Humphrey become president, they were meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign—pressing their clients in North Vietnam to agree to a ceasefire and hold constructive talks to end the war.
According to Haldeman’s notes, Kissinger alerted the Nixon campaign in late September, and again in early October, that something was up. Johnson was willing to halt the U.S. bombing of the North, and with the Soviets applying pressure on Hanoi to meet certain American conditions, the odds were never better for an early settlement of the conflict, which had already claimed 30,000 American lives and torn America apart.
Nixon had no influence in Moscow, or Hanoi. But he was not completely vulnerable to events. He had that pipeline to Saigon, where South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and his associates feared that LBJ was selling them out. If Thieu would drag his feet, and stall the proposed peace talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s failed peace initiative as a desperate political trick. But to do so, Nixon had to get word to Thieu, and tell him to stand firm.
Nixon’s main conduit was Chennault, the Chinese-American widow of Claire Chennault, the American aviator who led squadrons of “Flying Tigers” into battle on behalf of China against the Japanese invaders during World War II. She had many friends in the palaces of South Vietnam, nationalist China and the other pro-Western countries on the Asian rim.
Nixon also told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s devoted secretary, contact another member of the pro-nationalist “China Lobby”—businessman Louis Kung—and have him pressure Thieu as well. She was to get Kung “going on the SVN—tell him hold firm,” Nixon ordered Haldeman.
The Nixon campaign’s sabotage of Johnson’s peace process was successful. Nine days later, Thieu’s decision to boycott the talks headlined The New York Times and other U.S. newspapers, reminding American voters of their long-harbored mistrust of the wheeler-dealer LBJ and his “credibility gap” on Vietnam. Humphrey’s momentum faded.
LBJ was furious. His national security adviser, Walt Rostow, urged him to unmask Nixon’s treachery. Humphrey’s aides told their boss to expose the episode and disgrace their Republican foes. But Johnson and Humphrey balked. They didn’t have proof that Nixon had personally directed her actions.
And so Nixon won the 1968 election, and led America further into carnage in Southeast Asia. In the years that followed, many elements of the Chennault Affair came to light, but Nixon stuck by his denials that he participated in the scheme. The lack of evidence of Nixon’s direct involvement gave pause to historians, and offered his loyalists a platform from which to defend him. But no longer. Haldeman’s notes are the long-sought evidence that Nixon personally intervened to scuttle Johnson’s efforts to end the war. It’s now possible to reconstruct the events of October and November 1968 with the inescapable conclusion that Nixon’s behavior was devious, tragic and, given the lives at stake, arguably more reprehensible than his activities in the Watergate scandal.
How did Haldeman’s notes escape public scrutiny for almost 50 years? When Nixon took office in January 1969, Haldeman was rewarded for his decades of service with the job of White House chief of staff. He built a centralized organization that, in many aspects, remains the preferred model today. No detail—the grocery lists for the president’s vacation home in Key Biscayne, Florida; the wages of the gardeners at the Western White House in San Clemente, California; the supply of toilet paper at Camp David—was beyond his purview. Throughout the Nixon presidency, he spent hours in the Oval Office, recording the president’s instructions on matters great and small.
In the spring of 1972, nearing the end of Nixon’s first term, Haldeman ordered a general reorganization of the White House filing system. His aides selected the most sensitive documents from the White House Central Files and placed them in a group that was called the White House Special Files. The Special Files were like a greatest hits collection of Nixon administration secrets.
When Nixon resigned in 1974, aides to his successor, Gerald Ford, alerted the president, Congress and Watergate prosecutors that truckloads of Nixon’s papers were being shipped to San Clemente. Ford put a stop to the process (infuriating the exiled ex-president) and Congress enacted special legislation that, effectively, seized the documents and the famous White House tapes.
All previous chief executives had retained control of their papers—and then chose to bequeath them to heirs, sell them or store them in a presidential library. Nixon had sound grounds to contest the government’s seizure of his tapes and papers—especially those of a personal, or purely political nature. He went to court, and his legal team scored victory after victory. After one favorable decision, aide Monica Crowley later reported, the elated former president sat down at the piano and banged out “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Nixon fretted, with good cause, about his legacy. By the time of his death, in 1994, he had succeeded in keeping all but a few reels of the White House tapes, and tens of thousands of sensitive documents, from historians and biographers. The tapes began to trickle out in 1996, though some 700 of the 3,600 hours of conversations are still being processed today. Most of the touchy Special Files were opened to researchers in 1987, with the exception of two segments of records categorized as “returned” to Nixon or “contested” by the former president as containing personal or political material.
Storing, preserving and processing tapes and papers costs a great deal of money, however, which has led the various private presidential foundations to reach arrangements with the National Archives to reduce costs. The result is that today’s presidential libraries are chimeras, with donor-funded, hagiographic museum halls for the public to wander and climate-controlled vaults of records, administered by federal archivists, for researchers. And so, after all those years of legal battles, the privately funded Richard Nixon Foundation ultimately surrendered the “returned” and “contested” Special Files to the government. They were opened to scholars beginning in 2007. They include Bob Haldeman’s political files—where I found his notes from the 1968 campaign.
Considering their provenance, the twin collections have drawn surprisingly little attention. Sifting through the files is laborious, for there is much trivia—like memos from Nixon staffers to have secretaries pick up their dry cleaning – but they also contain gems like Nixon’s appointment books, political strategy memos and the Haldeman files, in which he stored his notes from his boss’ stunning comeback in 1968, and the 1962 California gubernatorial race—the one that ended with Nixon’s famous “last press conference,” in which he told reporters “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
The 1962 folders contain notes from a strategy meeting in which Nixon, Haldeman and other top advisers discuss the need to have rival candidates “tailed and tapped.” Long before Watergate, Nixon was fascinated with such sneakery—in yet another file at the Nixon library I found a page of reminders he had written to himself during his first campaign for Congress, against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, in 1946. “Set up … spies in V. camp,” he had scribbled.
Haldeman is known as Nixon’s alter ego; as the highest-ranked White House aide to go to prison for his Watergate era crimes; for participating in the “smoking gun” conversation that incriminated Nixon, and for the meticulous “Haldeman diaries,” published as a best-selling book in 1994. Until the Nixon White House taping system was installed in early 1971, Haldeman’s notes and diary entries formed the best, most candid record of its internal reckonings. His notes from the 1968 campaign are equally essential.
When Nixon’s “Southern strategy” threatened to unravel at the Republican National Convention in Miami, with the South’s delegates yearning to switch to the more conservative Ronald Reagan, Haldeman recorded how Nixon dispatched his campaign manager, John Mitchell, to reassure Peter O’Donnell, the Texas state Republican chairman, with a message to “cool off the Southerners.” They should know, Nixon said, that in choosing a running mate he would not “ram someone down your throat.” They should also know that Nixon “will bring peace” on civil rights and “lay off pro-Negro crap”— the most explicit promise that I found from a candidate who preferred to cloak his position on segregation in euphemistic talk about pushy liberal bureaucrats and the folly of court-ordered busing.
Haldeman also noted Nixon’s musings about how best to deal with the third-party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace. “RN has emotional access to lower middle class white – not fair [to call them] racist – but concerned re crime & violence, law & order,” Haldeman noted. The Roman Catholic minorities – “Irish, Ital, Pole, Mex” – were “afraid of Negroes,” and should be targeted after the convention. “Need stronger N position on this operationally – must do something,” Nixon said. “Must dry up Wallace vote.”
There are early hints of Watergate, too—with Nixon telling Haldeman to leak word to a friendly journalist that Humphrey and his campaign manager, Lawrence O’Brien, had potentially embarrassing ties to the eccentric defense contractor, billionaire Howard Hughes. “Have learned—unimpeachable source,” Nixon told Haldeman. “HH son has been on H Hughes payroll & O’Brien is financed by H Hughes.”
In 1960, John Kennedy’s campaign had effectively exploited news of a Hughes loan to the Nixon family, raising questions of influence-peddling that hounded Nixon for years. His White House files show that his obsession with the O’Brien-Hughes relationship never waned. In 1972, O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee would become a target of the Watergate burglars.
Nice morsels. But the true, groundbreaking notes concern the Chennault Affair.
It is useful to review just how much Nixon feared the disclosure of the Chennault Affair in the fall of 1968. He lied, right from the start, to Johnson—who was trying to keep Nixon, Humphrey and Thieu on board the peace train. “I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table,” Nixon told LBJ in a conversation captured on the Johnson White House taping system.
The denials continued through the years. To his friend and biographer, Jonathan Aitken, Nixon dismissed “the Chennault canard” and insisted he had not participated in any such plot. In his memoir, RN, Nixon never mentioned Chennault. To David Frost, in their celebrated 1977 televised interviews, Nixon was categorical. “I did nothing to undercut them,” he said of the peace talks. “As far as Madame Chennault or any number of other people. … I did not authorize them and I had no knowledge of any contact with the South Vietnamese at that point, urging them not to. … Because I couldn’t have done that in conscience.”
The former president had good cause to prevaricate. Nixon’s actions to sabotage the peace talks were, “highly inappropriate, if true” as Kissinger later put it, and in seeming violation of the law that prohibits private citizens from trying to “defeat the measures of the United States” or otherwise meddle in its diplomacy. As the U.S. code reads:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
Though rarely employed over the years, the Logan Act was enacted by the founders to address just such a situation. It is named for George Logan, who conducted private negotiations with the French government during the administration of President John Adams. Logan, a member of the political opposition, used the notoriety to win election to the U.S. Senate.
By the time Election Day had come and gone, there were far too many interests aware of Chennault’s actions—the White House, the FBI, the South Vietnamese, the Nixon and Humphrey campaigns—to keep a lid on the scandal.
Journalists Drew Pearson, Tom Ottenad, Theodore White, Jules Witcover and Seymour Hersh advanced the story, bit by bit, over the years. So did book-writing Johnson administration officials like Clark Clifford and William Bundy and University of Virginia scholar Ken Hughes, in a 2014 book, Chasing Shadows. Anna Chennault wrote a memoir, divulging some details, as did Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States at the time.
The biggest break came when trustees at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library decided to ignore Rostow’s instructions and make public the tapes and files that LBJ had wanted sealed. The 1994 opening of the so-called X-envelope, which included reports of the FBI’s surveillance of Chennault, and the 2008 release of the Johnson tapes from the 1968 election season caused a sensation. More recently, the Nixon presidential library, fulfilling open records requests that I and other scholars had made, released an oral history and two long written reports by Nixon White House aide Tom Huston, who had been tasked by Haldeman to collect evidence on the episode for potential use against Johnson.
In a February 25, 1970 memo, attached to an 11-page report, Huston warned Haldeman: “The evidence in the case does not dispel the notion that we were somehow involved in the Chennault Affair and while release of this information would be most embarrassing to President Johnson, it would not be helpful to us either.”
What remained, as I started work on a biography of Nixon in 2011, was that one, final and elusive—and most important—piece to the puzzle: evidence of Nixon’s direct involvement. The “returned” White House Special Files provide that proof.
The puzzle begins with Anna, the China-born hostess, Nixon campaign fundraiser and grandee of the China lobby. Some called her the Little Flower, others, the Dragon Lady. She lived in a suite at the Watergate apartment building, and was escorted about town by the crafty Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, who had served in Franklin Roosevelt’s brain trust. As a member of the conservative China lobby, which promoted the interests of the nationalist Chinese against the mainland communists, Chennault was a fixture in Republican circles, and had an official role, organizing women, in the Nixon campaign.
Though they differed on the details, Chennault and Bui Diem agree that sometime in early or mid-1968, they met secretly with Nixon and Mitchell in New York, and Nixon made it clear to the South Vietnamese ambassador that Chennault could speak on the candidate’s behalf.
Haldeman’s files show how, in the weeks leading up to the November election, Chennault was in constant contact with the Nixon campaign. One campaign adviser alone—Nixon’s and Mitchell’s law partner Thomas Evans—recorded eight contacts with Chennault from September 30 to October 31, including a luncheon meeting on October 25. In that same period, the FBI tracked her phone calls and visits to the South Vietnamese Embassy.
“The longer the situation continues, the more we are favored,” Ambassador Diem reported to Saigon. “I am still in contact with the Nixon entourage.”
The Nixon campaign, meanwhile, had moles at work inside the Johnson administration and its diplomatic ranks. Mitchell had informed the campaign that Kissinger was “fully available,” Haldeman noted, but because of the “delicate” position he was in as a foreign policy adviser to Johnson and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, didn’t want the news made public. A week later, former CIA Director John McCone and Kissinger (just back from a visit with American peace negotiators in Paris) each alerted Nixon to a potential breakthrough. Kissinger told Mitchell there was “a better than even” chance Johnson would halt the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam by the middle of October. The Harvard professor was leveraging his knowledge for access to Nixon. “K’s really concerned about moves J[ohnson] will take & expects some before election,” Haldeman noted.
Nixon well remembered the 1966 midterm campaign, when Johnson had flown to Manila on the eve of the election for a conference with Asian leaders and announced a new peace plan to sway voters. Now, Nixon feared, Johnson was at it again. Americans’ frustration with the conduct of the war was one of the Republican campaign’s chief assets: News of peace could sap the electorate’s yearning for change. Nixon had agreed to support Johnson’s negotiating strategy, which posed various conditions that North Vietnam needed to meet. Now, he suspected, Johnson was double-crossing him, and selling the country out.
“RN thnks attempt by LBJ to get pause before election,” Haldeman wrote. “Is attempt to build up idea war is at end.”
In his notes from October 19, Haldeman gives his first account of the Nixon campaign’s backdoor contacts with the South Vietnamese. Mitchell had conveyed word to Nixon that Thieu was feeling “tremendous pressure” from LBJ and that the South Vietnamese wanted the Republicans to take Saigon’s side and determine what the “quid pro quo” would be for their cooperation. “They propose to hold out long as poss,” Haldeman wrote.
Three days later, Nixon’s longtime friend and adviser, Bryce Harlow, reported from a source in the Johnson White House that a bombing halt was imminent, and would be announced with news of promising peace talks, as part of a plot to boost Humphrey’s chances. Harlow’s report, and signs of Humphrey’s rapidly improving position in the polls, prompted Nixon’s late-night call to Haldeman. His notes end any questions about Nixon’s personal involvement in the scuttling of the peace talks.
“! Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN,” Haldeman wrote. Further down, anticipating the political boost to Humphrey, Haldeman reported Nixon asking: “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do” as well as Nixon’s order that Woods call her old friend Kung from the China lobby and get him “going on the SVN.” Nixon himself reached out to Chiang Kai-shek, the president of nationalist China, informing him that Kung would be conveying an important, personal message from him.
Nixon’s mind was racing. He ordered Haldeman to contact Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, the candidate’s good friend, and tell him that Nixon was “mad as hell.” Rebozo was to call Senator George Smathers, the Democrat from Florida, and “have Smathers threaten J[ohnson]” that “N is going to blast him … in major speech on VN” should the president use a bombing halt to help Humphrey. And, finally, Nixon told Haldeman to have his vice-presidential candidate, Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland, confront CIA Director Richard Helms about the peace talks. Helms’ hopes of keeping his position in a Nixon administration depended on his cooperation, Agnew was to say. “Tell him we want the truth—or he hasn’t got the job,” Nixon said.
Another message came in from Saigon on October 31, the day Johnson, in a nationally televised address, announced the bombing halt. Johnson had summoned the U.S. commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, back to Washington and obtained the general’s personal support for the plan. Chennault conveyed a different report. “D. Lady says Abrams screamed like stuck pig,” Haldeman wrote.
Throughout, Nixon and his aides viewed Johnson’s actions as a crude ploy by the president to help Humphrey. “They’re selling out SVN—leave new admin to hdle make a communist Asia,” Nixon told Haldeman. They didn’t have access to, or put faith in, the information the Soviets were supplying the White House.
But the records from the Johnson presidential library demonstrate that LBJ and his advisers believed they had a viable opportunity to bring an end to the war.
“My colleagues and I think—and we have grounds to do so—that complete cessation by the United States of bombing and other acts of war … could contribute to a breakthrough,” the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, had written Johnson.
“The Russians are obviously trying very hard to pull this off—and in a hurry,” Rostow told the president on October 22.
And after midnight, on October 28, after leaving a dinner meeting at the White House with Johnson, and conducting a final late-night session with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Rostow composed a heartfelt letter to the president.
“There were four people in that room at dinner tonight, aside from yourself, who have lived Vietnam, with all its pain, since January 1961: [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk, [General Maxwell] Taylor, [General Earle] Wheeler and myself. All of us know that, with all its uncertainties, we have the best deal we now can get—vastly better than any we thought we could get since 1961,” Rostow wrote. “If we go ahead we know it may be tough. But with military and political determination we believe we can make it stick … None of us would know how to justify delay.”
President Johnson resolved to take the risk. It was with considerable irritation that he discovered (via banker Alexander Sachs, who lunched with Rostow’s brother Eugene and passed on the latest scuttlebutt from Wall Street insiders) that the Nixon campaign was in league with Saigon and out to wreck the peace plan. Johnson ordered government surveillance of Chennault, the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, and Thieu’s offices in Saigon, and his irritation turned to anger.
On October 30, the president muttered darkly about Chennault’s activities with Senator Richard Russell, the Democrat from Georgia. The next day, Johnson announced the bombing halt. That night, he was beside himself, raging about Nixon’s actions in a telephone call to Senator Edward Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican leader in the Senate. “It’s despicable. … We could stop the killing out there,” Johnson insisted. “But they’ve got this … new formula put in there—namely, wait on Nixon. And they’re killing four or five hundred every day waiting on Nixon.”
The FBI surveillance traced the Little Flower’s activities. “Anna Chennault contacted Vietnam Ambassador Bui Diem,” one report noted, “and advised him that she had received a message from her boss … which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was … ‘Hold on. We are gonna win. … Please tell your boss to hold on.’”
With such transcripts in hand, Johnson blamed Nixon for strangling a chance for peace. He lashed out at Dirksen.
“I’m reading their hand, Everett,” Johnson told his old friend. “This is treason.”
“I know,” Dirksen said mournfully.
Dirksen reported the conversation to Harlow, who relayed the gist of it to Haldeman. “LBJ called Dirksen—says he knows Repubs through D. Lady are keeping SVN in present position if this proves true—and persists—he will go to nation & blast Reps & RN. Dirksen very concerned,” Haldeman wrote.
Nixon’s advice to Haldeman was to rally congressional Republicans against the Democrats and “kick them hard … [saying] this is a political gimmick” that could “risk Am lives w/o any return.”
The election was now only a day away. On Monday, November 4, Johnson held a conference call with Rostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clifford to decide if they should make Nixon’s treachery public. But Johnson did not have Haldeman’s notes—or other “absolute proof,” as Clifford put it, of Nixon’s direct involvement. And Nixon had denied it all in his November 3 phone call with the president.
Rostow had urged Johnson to “blow the whistle” and “destroy” Nixon if the undermining did not stop. But exposing the Republican campaign’s perfidy, on the eve of the November 5 election, meant revealing the Johnson administration’s surveillance of both a wartime ally and the domestic political opposition. The resulting scandal would taint the next presidency and might cause a fatal break with South Vietnam, and neither Johnson nor Humphrey was willing to pay that price. Even Rostow admitted there was then “no hard evidence that Mr. Nixon himself is involved.”
Johnson faced a situation like that which confronted President Barack Obama in the summer and fall of 2016, as U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that the Russians had hacked and published Democratic Party emails with the intent of helping Republican Donald Trump.
Without proof of Trump’s knowledge or collusion, Obama appears to have made the same decision that Johnson reached in 1968. Releasing such stunning allegations in an election season, without collaboration, would itself be unseemly.
Nixon had taken a great risk, and won. The news of the bombing halt had erased his lead, but his ability to raise doubts about Johnson in the final days allowed him to pull through. He won, in the three-way race, with 43.2 percent of the popular vote. Humphrey received 42.7 percent, and Wallace 13.5 percent.
Now Nixon was the president-elect, sharing responsibility with the Johnson administration for the outcome of the war. Prodded by Johnson, he changed his tune.
In a bracing phone call, Johnson told Nixon that “folks close to you … Mrs. Chennault” were telling Thieu to drag his feet. He reminded Nixon of the cost of such intrigue. The delay was “killing Americans every day,” Johnson told his successor.
Just as alarming, for Nixon, was the warning from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, reflected in Haldeman’s notes, that LBJ had the bureau tapping phones.
So Nixon changed course. He instructed a new go-between, veteran American diplomat Robert Murphy, to inform the South Vietnamese that they should cooperate with Johnson. They must not look, Murphy was to tell Saigon, that they were blocking peace at Nixon’s behest.
Chennault grew bitter as, in the weeks between the election and Nixon’s inauguration, word of her role leaked to the press, and the men in the incoming administration distanced themselves.
In December, 1968 she wrote a long letter to Nixon, asking the president-elect to make her his special adviser on Asian affairs, and gave it to Evans to deliver by hand. A few weeks later, Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary, wrote the transition personnel director, Peter Flanigan, saying that hiring Chennault “would be a disaster,” and that “the sooner we can keep her as far away as possible from the administration the better.”
Chennault did not get the job. Several months passed and Nixon adviser Harlow reported her discontent in a private note to Haldeman. “Seems she is being cut up by press etc. for her alleged activities during the campaign involving South Vietnam. Certain aspects of this you and I know; she asserts that everything she did was with the full knowledge of John Mitchell” and other Nixon aides, Harlow wrote. “She feels forsaken … as she is subjected to severe criticism for activities which she insists were undertaken at the direct request of the Nixon campaign group.”
In 1973, Chennault’s friend Tommy Corcoran visited Nixon in the Oval Office. In the conversation, captured on the White House tapes, Corcoran solicited a favor for her, reminding the president how she “kept her mouth shut” on Nixon’s behalf when the press dug into the Chennault Affair. “Oh yeah,” Nixon said.
What was the cost of Nixon’s scheming?
Looking back in May 1973, as the Watergate scandal exploded in the press, Rostow concluded that the success of the Chennault Affair gave Nixon and his aides a taste for illegal conniving and a false sense of confidence, which led them to their destruction in the Watergate affair.
“The election of 1968 proved to be close and there was some reason for those involved on the Republican side to believe their enterprise with the South Vietnamese and Thieu’s recalcitrance may have sufficiently blunted the impact on U.S. politics of the total bombing halt and agreement to negotiate to constitute the margin of victory,” Rostow wrote, in a private memo to his files.
“They got away with it,” he continued. “As the same men faced the election of 1972 there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off; and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit—or beyond.”
Nixon’s meddling was not the singular element that cost the United States the opportunity to end the war in the fall of 1968, saving tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives and four years of excruciating political division at home. The stubbornness displayed by both North and South Vietnam that fall, and in future negotiations, and history’s analysis of the internal political machinations and external pressures at play in Saigon and Hanoi preclude such an easy verdict.
“Any judgment must be tentative,” wrote the Democratic national security expert William Bundy in his book A Tangled Web, an examination of Nixon’s foreign policy that includes a dissection of the Chennault Affair. “There is no way to prove beyond doubt that the [Nixon-Chennault] operation was decisive in Saigon.”
“Immediate and serious peace negotiations might have produced useful concessions. Yet … complete negotiations would have taken months, and Hanoi might have reverted to a very hard line,” Bundy wrote. “My conclusion is that probably no great chance was lost.”
Yet Bundy wrote with hindsight. What can also be said is that Nixon’s signals bolstered Thieu’s inclination to drag his feet. In the end, the Chennault episode shut a window that, with the help of the Soviet Union, Johnson and his aides thought they had opened. A moment of genuine hope, and a chance—however slight—to settle this ugly war was stolen.
Bundy raised another troubling issue, with relevance today, as we debate Trump’s potential beholdedness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Having conspired with Nixon to scuttle Johnson’s peace process, Thieu was in the position to blackmail the new American president. Thieu emerged from the Chennault Affair “convinced that Nixon owed him a great political debt” and “attached great weight to it throughout” the Nixon years, Bundy concluded. It was “the most important legacy of the whole episode.”
When Nixon and Kissinger reached their own peace accord with Hanoi in 1972, Thieu employed much the same stalling tactics he used in 1968 to try and get a better deal. To clinch Thieu’s agreement, Nixon ordered Air Force B-52s to attack North Vietnam in what came to be known as “the Christmas bombing,” and secretly promised Thieu that the United States would come to Saigon’s aid, with “full force,” if Hanoi violated the accord. Nixon had obtained no public or congressional support for such a vow, and when the time came to do so, in the spring of 1973, he failed to deliver.
Two years later, Saigon fell. By then, Nixon had resigned from office, the last casualty, as he told David Frost, of the war he had prolonged.
Thieu fled his country ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese armies and died in exile in 2001.
Chennault lived on, for many years, at the Watergate. She kept her bruised feelings to herself until the publication of her 1980 memoir, which she entitled: The Education Of Anna.