By David Kurlander
The New York Times on June 10th reported that the Trump-era Department of Justice subpoenaed Apple for metadata belonging to Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell. On Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman placed these revelations within a type of presidential corruption that uses “the machinery of government to enable one’s own faction to stay in power.” They used as an historical example the only break-in that President Nixon ever directly ordered: his June 1971 demand for aides to rob a safe at the Brookings Institution that Nixon believed contained compromising information on his predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam bombing halt. Nixon’s Brookings gambit was just one dramatic episode in the half-century of presidential corruption allegations that continue to swirl around the halt.
On Halloween 1968, President Johnson went on national television to announce that “all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam” would cease the following morning. Johnson hoped that the decision would lead to “prompt, productive, serious, and intensive negotiations in Paris,” where American diplomats W. Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance and leaders from North and South Vietnam had been in deadlock for months. The timing was also auspicious—a week before the tight presidential contest between Republican nominee Nixon and Johnson’s own Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Any signals of peace would be a boon to Humphrey.
Throughout election season, Nixon had signaled public support for Johnson’s halt and the hope of achieving peace in Vietnam. As initial whispers of substantial progress in Paris hit the airwaves, however, Nixon began to sour. On October 25th, he offered reporters a somewhat backhanded endorsement of Johnson’s efforts: “I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical, last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Humphrey. This I do not believe.”
Here’s where the most intense allegations of corruption come into play. Two days before the halt announcement, on October 29th, Johnson’s National Security Advisor Walt Rostow received information from Lehman Corporation head Alexander Sachs: Republican Wall Streeters were abuzz with gossip that figures in the Nixon camp were trying to sabotage the peace talks.
Johnson’s team soon zeroed in on the central Nixonite meddler: Anna Chennault. Chennault was a passionate, Chinese-born anti-Communist and the widow of iconic World War II Pilot Claire Chennault. She was a prolific Nixon fundraiser who had long been opposed to bombing halts in Vietnam. In a 1967 television interview, she had said, “Every time we stop the bombing it only gives the other side the opportunity to rebuild their military installations.”
In the days immediately following the halt announcement and immediately before the November 5th election, Chennault made explicit overtures to Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., telling him to wait for peace until Nixon was in the Oval Office. On November 2nd, she told South Vietnamese representatives that they would get “a better deal” from Nixon. The same day, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu pulled out of the Paris peace talks. Humphrey’s surge that followed the halt announcement faded and Nixon won the White House three days later.
In his 1973 memoir Before the Fall, Nixon speechwriter William Safire laid out the central question that plagued Johnson and has continued to vex politicians and historians ever since: “Did Anna Chennault act as an agent of Candidate Nixon to urge South Vietnam’s leaders to refuse to come to the peace table under the terms offered by President Johnson just before Election Day?”
Johnson was convinced that the answer to this question was “yes”—Nixon had known about Chennault’s intervention. Yet his hands were also tied. He only knew the specifics of Chennault’s conversations with Diem because of legally dubious FBI wiretaps on Chennault that he ordered after receiving the Wall Street gossip. After the peace talks fell apart, Johnson privately told Senator Everett Dirksen that he considered the Nixon camp’s meddling to be “treason.” During tortured conversations with his aides on election eve and in the following weeks, however, he decided that going public with the Chennault news would give the Nixon camp an overture to highlight the wiretapping and would send the already-violent domestic political climate into further tailspin. He told Humphrey, who agreed.
In January 1969, a few weeks before Nixon took office, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tom Ottenad began digging into Chennault’s involvement. He called Rostow, who refused to speak with him. Ottenad published an article entitled “Was Saigon’s Peace Talk Delay Due to Republican Promises?” The article, in conjunction with similar speculation made later in 1969 in journalist Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1968, got some attention. By 1970, though, Chennault’s actions had largely dropped from the political conversation.
After Nixon took office, however, he ordered his aide Tom Huston to prepare a report on documentation of Johnson’s wiretapping. Huston tracked down some proof of FBI involvement, but in his 11-page memo included the warning, “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.”
Even with Huston’s caution, however, Nixon was still preoccupied with getting more information on Johnson’s wiretaps and the larger political rationale for the bombing halt. On June 17th, 1971, amid anxiety over the release of the Pentagon Papers, Haldeman brought up the still-elusive “Bombing Halt file,” suggesting to Nixon: “You can blackmail Johnson on this stuff.” Nixon responded emphatically, telling Haldeman to go into Brookings “on a thievery basis” and to “blow the safe and get it.” This order was a precursor to the more ambitious “black bag” operations that Haldeman would help to orchestrate over the following year, and thus a direct link between the bombing halt angst and the Watergate scandal.
Over the years, the extent of both Nixon’s involvement in the Chennault Affair and the expansiveness of Johnson’s illegal wiretapping dripped into public consciousness. Several major declassifications, however, brought the imbroglio back to the front pages. In 1994, the LBJ Library released Rostow’s file on Chennault, dubbed the “X File.” This file—probably some version of what Nixon was hoping to track down in the Brookings safe—provided the first hard evidence of Johnson’s tapping and surveillance of Chennault, in a slew of yellow memoranda from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover detailing Chennault’s movements in the final days of the campaign, accompanied by fevered commentary by Rostow (“The latest on the Lady,” et cetera).
In 2007, the Nixon Library released Haldeman’s 1968 notes. Only in late 2016, however, did a smoking gun of sorts come to light within these files. Nixon biographer John A. Farrell announced that he had found in the Haldeman files a handwritten memo that Haldeman took during a late-night October 1968 phone call with Nixon: “Keep Anna Chenault working on SVN [South Vietnamese]!” Haldeman seemed to transcribe from his boss. Farrell’s detective work seems to have confirmed Johnson’s worst suspicions.
The precise nature of Nixon’s communications with Chennault and Johnson’s rationale for the FBI wiretaps (and the bombing halt itself) are still crystallizing 53 years later. Writing in 1973—and as a fervent Nixon defender, no less—William Safire already recognized that the event represented a corrupt usage by both men of what Heather and Joanne called “the machinery of government.” At the conclusion of his section on Chennault, Safire stated simply: “It was not one of American politics’ finest hours.”
Farrell wrote a fantastic 2017 Politico article describing his discovery of the Haldeman memo. He also includes a section on the Chennault Affair in his subsequent biography, the 2017 Richard Nixon: The Life. Johnson aide William Bundy offered a fascinating inside look at the Affair in his 1998 A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon White House.
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