In one of the greatest acts of American treason since Benedict Arnold, this U.S. president knowingly sacrificed the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers.
Richard Nixon may be best known for the Watergate scandal and the consequences his administration suffered due to his recording of White House conversations. However, Nixon wasn’t the first president to record conversations.
As BBC reports, Nixon got the idea from Lyndon Johnson, his predecessor, who believed he had an obligation to allow historians to be able to eavesdrop on his presidency.
“They will provide history with the bark off,” Johnson told his wife, Lady Bird.
The final batch of Johnson tapes released by the Johnson Library in 2013 cover 1968 and detail Richard Nixon’s greatest act of treason – he knowingly sacrificed the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers to win an election.
The Smithsonian reports:
In 1968, the Paris Peace talks, intended to put an end to the 13-year-long Vietnam War, failed because an aide working for then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon convinced the South Vietnamese to walk away from the dealings, says a new report by the BBC’s David Taylor. By the late 1960s Americans had been involved in the Vietnam War for nearly a decade, and the ongoing conflict was an incredibly contentious issue, says PBS.
Nixon was campaigning for president in ’68 on a platform that opposed the war and needed the war to continue. As BBC reports,
Nixon feared a breakthrough at the Paris Peace talks designed to find a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam war, and he knew this would derail his campaign. […] In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris – concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared.
As the History News Network reports (HNN)
Throughout the 1968 campaign, the Republican nominee promised not to interfere with the Paris talks. “We all hope in this room that there’s a chance that current negotiations may bring an honorable end to that war,” he told the Republican convention in Miami, “and we will say nothing during this campaign that might destroy that chance.” Publicly, Nixon claimed to put the quest for peace above his own quest for votes, although it was clear that any negotiating breakthrough by Johnson before Election Day would help Vice President Humphrey’s campaign.
However, a week before the election Johnson got a tip from Alexander Sachs that Nixon was trying to sabotage the negotiations. Johnson considered Sachs a credible source as he had earlier predicted the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, and the imminent threat of Nazi Germany building a nuclear bomb – a revelation to the President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, which led to the Manhattan project.
Once LBJ received the warning from Sachs, he took a closer look at diplomatic intelligence collected by the National Security Agency (which intercepted cables from the South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem in Washington, DC, to his home government in Saigon) and Central Intelligence Agency (which bugged South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s office). “[I am] still in contact with the Nixon entourage, which continues to be the favorite despite the uncertainty provoked by the news of an imminent bombing halt,” Ambassador Diem cabled President Thieu on Oct. 28, 1968. “I [explained discreetly to our partisan friends our] firm attitude.” The president ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to put a wiretap on the embassy’s phone and tail one of “our partisan friends,” Anna Chennault, the Republican Party’s top female fundraiser.
The Smithsonian confirmed those newly released Johnson tapes from 1968 “detailed that the FBI had indeed ‘bugged’ the telephones of the South Vietnamese ambassador and Chennault. Based on the tapes, says Taylor for the BBC, we learn that in the time leading up to the Paris Peace talks, ‘Chennault was despatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal.’”
HNN then reports that
Three days before the election, the bureau sent the White House this wiretap report: “Mrs. Anna Chennault contacted Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem and advised him that she had received a message from her boss (not further identified) which her boss wanted her to give personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are gonna win’ and that her boss also said, ‘Hold on, he understands all of it.’” That day, President Thieu had announced that the South would not send a delegation to Paris, rendering any settlement of the war impossible for the time being and stalling Humphrey’s surge in the polls.
The Atlantic Wire, reports of the tapes:
In the recently released tapes, we can hear Johnson being told about Nixon’s interference by Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. The FBI had bugged the South Vietnamese ambassadors phone. They had Chennault lobbying the ambassador on tape. Johnson was justifiably furious — he ordered Nixon’s campaign be placed under FBI surveillance.
The Atlantic Wire goes on to report that Johnson passed along a note to Nixon advising him he knew about his treason and advised Nixon’s opponent, Democrat Hubert Humphrey as well.
The Democratic campaign decided they were close enough in the polls to not release the information. A treason accusation could potentially damage the country’s security, they thought, before Humphrey lost a narrow election.
Johnson had concerns about keeping the information secret, but like Humphrey and the Democrats, he had greater concerns regarding security:
Johnson felt it was the ultimate expression of political hypocrisy but in calls recorded with Clifford they express the fear that going public would require revealing the FBI were bugging the ambassador’s phone and the National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting his communications with Saigon.
So they decided to say nothing.
Nixon went on to win the election by a narrow margin, and as BBC reports:
Once in office he escalated the war into Laos and Cambodia, with the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives – quite apart from the lives of the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese caught up in the new offensives – before finally settling for a peace agreement in 1973 that was within grasp in 1968.
Featured Image: By Dover Air Force Base, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=942903