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A Calculated Risk

With the publication of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate only a week away (7/29), author Ken Hughes is suddenly in great demand, so we appreciate his taking the time to answer a few questions about his book. Chasing Shadows shows how the covert activity that would eventually bring Nixon down had its roots in the 1968 presidential campaign, when the Republican nominee involved himself secretly in the Paris peace talks. One of the fascinating aspects of Hughes's book is the interaction between Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who was only months away from his self-imposed retirement. It is a complex—not to say controversial—story, and in the following interview Hughes sheds much light on these two master politicians and the remarkable events they were at the center of.

Q: With the 40th anniversary of the resignation looming, there are a number of books being published at roughly the same time on the subject of Nixon and his downfall. What sets Chasing Shadows apart from the rest of this barrage of books?

A: Chasing Shadows is shorter! It doesn’t try to explain the entire era or every aspect of the man. Instead, the book answers one question: What was the motive behind the only break-in that we know for a fact Nixon personally ordered (because his own secret recording system captured the order on tape)? It’s a simple question with a complex, twisty answer that winds up illuminating a lot about one president’s rise and fall.

Q: Your book leaves little doubt that Nixon interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968. It isn't exaggerating to say this was a treasonous act. Having said that, do you think Nixon affected the process substantially? In other words, was there the glimmer of a chance that the war could have changed its course at that point? And if not the war itself, do you think Nixon's actions impacted the election?

A: The State Department certainly defines violations of the Logan Act as treasonous. Interestingly enough, most writers think South Vietnam would have boycotted the Paris peace talks before Election Day 1968 even if Nixon had not secretly encouraged them. Saigon, after all, preferred Nixon, the premier anti-Communist politician of the Cold War, to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Democrat who had opposed Americanizing the Vietnam War in the first place. The South Vietnamese knew that boycotting the talks would hurt Humphrey and help Nixon. They also feared (correctly, as it turned out) that the peace talks would become a cover for American withdrawal from the war. In the conventional interpretation of events, Nixon could have achieved the results he wanted by doing exactly nothing.

If that were true, then taking the enormous risk of breaking the law by sabotaging the peace talks would have been the act of a political numbskull, not a political genius, which Nixon truly was.

I think the conventional view is mistaken. Writers tend to overlook the reason why South Vietnam, right after the election, reversed course and agreed to take part in the peace talks. President Johnson got President-elect Nixon to privately issue an ultimatum from both of them to Saigon: if it didn’t take part in the negotiations, it would lose the support of the American government. That threat had teeth. South Vietnam depended on American support for its very survival. The ultimatum worked because it came from the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, so South Vietnam realized it had no alternative. Saigon immediately assured the United States it would send a delegation to the Paris talks, although it did drag its heels a bit more.

During the campaign, in his public statements, the Republican nominee had said repeatedly that he wanted the South to take part in the peace talks. If Saigon had believed him, it would have thought it had no choice. The whole point of Nixon’s secret messages to the South Vietnamese during the campaign was to make sure they knew that he didn’t really mean what he was telling American voters. This gave Saigon room to maneuver that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sabotaging the peace talks wasn’t some dumb mistake on Nixon’s part. It was a calculated risk he took, knowing that the bigger risk to his campaign would have been to allow peace talks to start before Election Day.

Of course, once the sabotage succeeded, Nixon had to worry about covering his tracks. And that’s the best explanation for why as president he ordered the burglary of a think tank. He’d been led to believe it had secret documents on events leading up to the start of the peace talks. Once again, it was a calculated risk. A break-in would involve the risk of impeachment and imprisonment, but exposure of his political interference in the peace talks would have been a bigger threat.

The peace talks never did produce peace. Hanoi was unwilling to give up on taking over the South militarily, and neither Nixon nor Johnson nor any of their military and civilian advisers ever came up with a strategy to make it give up. The only way to prevent a Communist takeover was to keep American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam. Johnson wasn’t going to let them win the war in the last three months of his presidency. President Nixon wasn’t going to let them win until after he had secured his own reelection in 1972. In the end, Nixon got Hanoi to sign the (misnamed) Paris Peace Accords by secretly assuring it, through China and the Soviet Union, that it could overthrow the South Vietnamese government without fear of American intervention as long as it waited a “decent interval” after he withdrew the last American troops. And it did.

Q: How exceptional were Nixon's maneuverings? Can you put them in some sort of historical context? How do you think it compares to other abuses of power by trusted leaders?

A: Nixon’s defenders stick to the line that everybody does it, he just got caught. They launch a flurry of counter-charges against LBJ and other presidents. The problem is that the counter-charges they make about the 1968 election at least don’t withstand scrutiny. They claim Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam before the election to help Vice President Humphrey win. The declassified negotiating record proves this is not true. What really happened is that in June 1968 Johnson set three conditions for halting the bombing: Hanoi had to (1) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, (2) accept participation by the South Vietnamese government in the peace talks, and (3) stop shelling civilians in South Vietnamese cities. Month after month, Hanoi insisted that the bombing halt be unconditional. Johnson wouldn’t budge. Finally, in October 1968, Hanoi accepted all three of his demands. Johnson didn’t choose the timing of the bombing halt. Hanoi did. Nixon’s defenders also claim there was something illegal about the surveillance by which Johnson found out about Republican interference with the peace talks. Yet they never say which law they think was broken. The CIA had a bug in the office of the president of South Vietnam. That may have violated South Vietnamese law, but not American law. The NSA intercepted cables from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, DC, to Saigon. The CIA and NSA surveillance both were part of diplomatic intelligence-gathering to find out what an allied government’s position on peace talks really was. Again, this doesn’t violate American law.

Johnson ordered an FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy phone. At the time, all that required was the OK of his attorney general, which he got. The wiretap overheard a prominent Nixon campaign fundraiser, Anna Chennault, deliver a message to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem from “her boss (not further identified)” urging Saigon to “hold on”—that is, to stay away from the Paris talks. We know for a fact that Chennault introduced the ambassador to Nixon at a meeting in New York that Nixon kept secret from almost all of his campaign aides and from the Secret Service detail assigned to protect him. According to Chennault, at that meeting Nixon designated her “the sole representative” between his campaign and Saigon.

LBJ didn’t know about that secret meeting, and his lack of proof that Nixon was involved was one of the reasons he didn’t go public with the evidence he had of Republican sabotage.

Many presidential candidates have been accused of violating the Logan Act, but I have yet to see a case against any of them that is as good as the case against Nixon. And once Nixon was president he set up an illegal, unconstitutional secret police unit operated out of the White House to carry out the one break-in we know he ordered. There’s no evidence any other president committed that particular abuse of power. Whenever you hear the everybody-does-it excuse, it’s best to ask for the evidence. The compensatory accusations Nixon’s defenders make against other president don’t all withstand scrutiny.

It’s important to note, however, that there still isn’t “smoking gun” proof of Nixon’s involvement in the Chennault Affair. In history, you look for the explanation that best fits the facts. The actions Nixon took as candidate and president make sense if he was guilty; if he wasn’t guilty, then a lot of what he did makes no sense at all.

Q: Readers will be struck by the almost jovial tone between Johnson and Nixon. He's warmer with Nixon than he is with his own vice president. Is this a quality of an older, less partisan era in politics (it's hard to imagine Obama and Boehner sharing so many laughs), or is this partly a smokescreen? Does LBJ have motives for sharing info with Nixon, beyond courtesy?

A: Johnson was a consummate phone artist. I hope everyone who reads the book goes to and listens to some of the Johnson tapes as well as the Nixon ones. Johnson had practical reasons for reaching out to Nixon. He wanted to make sure that none of the presidential candidates undermined his negotiations with Hanoi by offering to stop the bombing for anything less than his three conditions. He thought Hanoi would wait until after the election if one of the candidates offered a better deal than his. That’s why he kept Nixon as well as independent candidate George Wallace briefed on the negotiations—so they wouldn’t undercut him. It was easy to get their support for his demands, since Nixon didn’t want a bombing halt, and Wallace wanted a bombing surge.

But his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came out in favor of a bombing halt without insisting on all three of LBJ’s conditions. Johnson was furious and thought that Humphrey had destroyed his chances of getting peace talks started. He was mistaken. Within weeks, Hanoi accepted all three of LBJ’s demands. But Johnson was so angry with Humphrey that he went so far as to secretly advise the Republicans on how to campaign against the nominee of his own party.

Q: You must have been a grade-school kid when the Watergate saga was unfolding. What do you remember about it? Did you come from a Nixon household?

A: I entered kindergarten the year Nixon entered the White House, 1969, and he’s the first president I remember. My mother was a New Deal Democrat, my father an Eisenhower Republican. They both voted for the Eisenhower/Nixon ticket in the 1950s, but they voted for JFK over Nixon in 1960. I can’t say for sure how they voted in 1968 or 1972; memories differ, and my understanding of things at the time was understandably limited.

Watergate was completely unavoidable, no matter what age you were. It took over daytime television on all the networks once the congressional hearings started in 1973 and simply dominated conversation—including playground conversation—for over a year. It was too big for kids to ignore and too complex for us to fathom. I remember having lots of questions. Now I finally have some answers.

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate will be released on July 29.

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