The BBC reports that in the final weeks of the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon, the Republican challenger, deployed Anna Chennault, a journalist, anti-communist activist and Republican operative, to disrupt peace talks among the United States, Saigon and Hanoi at the very moment that a deal had been reached to end the war.
Based on the assumption that his chances of winning the presidency would be ruined if the Democratic administration successfully ended the unpopular war, Nixon secretly dispatched Chennault to kill the peace deal.
Chennault was successful in convincing the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal from Nixon, were he to be elected. Within days after Pres. Johnson had announced that “peace was at hand,” the South Vietnamese abruptly rejected the terms that had been negotiated by the U.S. government.
Nixon was elected a few weeks later with just 0.7 percent of the vote — 43.4 percent for Nixon and 42.7 percent for Vice Pres. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. (Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the Southern racist independent candidate, received 13.5 percent of the vote.)
But after Nixon took office in January, it became clear that the promises relayed to the South Vietnamese by Chennault on his behalf were lies. There was no better offer for them. He had no plan for ending the war. As a result, it would drag on for five more years, until the United States and South Vietnam were defeated by the communist North.
In tape recordings of Pres. Johnson’s phone calls with congressional leaders made in the Oval Office that fall, LBJ described what Nixon did as “treason” — a hanging offense in this country. He also predicted that Nixon would have “blood on his hands,” according to the BBC.
LBJ was right. During the five years of war after Nixon derailed the peace deal, 15,000 Americans — over a quarter of all 58,000 U.S. fatalities in the war — would die in Vietnam. The deaths of all those soldiers are directly attributable to Nixon’s interference in the peace process for the sole purpose of achieving his own political ambitions.
Here is a transcript of what Pres. Johnson told Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), chair of the Armed Services Committee:
LBJ: Good morning. how are you, my friend?
SEN. RUSSELL: Fine.
LBJ: I’ve got one that’s pretty rough for you. We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both. He’s been doing it through rather subterranean sources here, and he has been saying to the allies that you’re going to get sold out. You better not give away your liberty just a few hours before I can preserve it for you. Mrs. Chennault is contacting their ambassador. This is not guess work. She’s young and attractive. She’s a pretty good-looking girl. She’s around town, and she is warning them to not get pulled in on this Johnson move.
Chennault, who is in her late eighties now, was caught on tape telling the South Vietnamese peace negotiators to “hang on” until the election. In 1980, she confirmed that she worked for Nixon and his campaign to influence the peace talks:
In her own autobiography, “The Education of Anna,” Chennault acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
(Mitchell, who went on to serve as Nixon’s attorney general, would be convicted on charges related to the Watergate conspiracy in 1975 and serve 19 months in prison.)
In a conversation with Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Johnson characterized Nixon’s interference as treason. Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, agreed:
LBJ: … And they oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.
SEN. DIRKSEN: I know.
LBJ: I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.
SEN. DIRSEN: Yeah.
Johnson was prevented from going public with the information on Nixon’s treasonous activities because he had obtained the intelligence via illegal wiretaps of Nixon and Chennault.