Monday, February 24, 2014

LBJ on Nixon

I tend to love hearing Presidents' opinions of each other and this article states that LBJ believed Nixon committed treason to win the 1968 election:
On June 17, 1971, (one year to the date before the Watergate arrests, by impure coincidence) Nixon ordered his inner circle to break into the Brookings Institution. “Blow the safe and get it,” the president said. “It” was a file of secret government documents on the 1968 bombing halt.“

What good will it do you, the bombing halt file?” asked National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger seconds after the president ordered his top aides to commit a felony.“

To blackmail him,” Nixon replied. President Lyndon Johnson had halted the bombing of North Vietnam less than a week before Election Day. Nixon claimed LBJ did it for political reasons, to throw the election to his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Kissinger knew better, since he had inside information about the talks. Having worked on an abortive bombing halt deal for Johnson in 1967, Kissinger used his connections with LBJ’s negotiators then to gain access to the Paris talks in 1968 -- access he used as a secret informant to the Nixon campaign.

“You remember, I used to give you information about it at the time,” Kissinger reminded the president. “To the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October. I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [Ambassador Averell] Harriman,” the chief U.S. negotiator in Paris. (Kissinger’s words on tape contradict his later claim that he didn’t even have access to classified information at the time.)Nixon had his own reasons to realize that the bombing halt file didn’t contain blackmail material on Johnson. He knew from classified briefings during the campaign that Johnson had remained unwavering in demanding three concessions: If Hanoi wanted a bombing halt, it had to (1) respect the DMZ dividing Vietnam, (2) accept South Vietnamese participation in the Paris peace talks, and (3) stop shelling civilians in Southern cities. Throughout the negotiations, LBJ didn’t budge from these three demands. Hanoi remained equally adamant, insisting on an “unconditional” bombing halt -- until October 1968. Then Hanoi suddenly reversed course and accepted all three. Johnson didn’t decide the timing of the bombing halt; Hanoi did

.If the bombing halt file didn’t contain dirt on Johnson, what made Nixon want it desperately enough to risk impeachment and prison? Over the decades, evidence has slowly accumulated that Nixon had a far more compelling motive: the fear that the bombing halt file contained dirt on him.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.

One week before Election Day, Johnson got a tip that Nixon was trying to sabotage the negotiations. It came from a highly credible source, the legendary Alexander Sachs.

Sachs entered world history when, clutching a report from Albert Einstein, he warned Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 that Nazi Germany could corner the world uranium market and build an atomic bomb, a warning that led to the Manhattan Project. Sachs was also credited with predicting the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, so he was not someone whose warnings could be safely ignored.

Sachs, chief economist for Lehman Corporation, informed Johnson that he had learned from Wall Street colleagues “closely involved with Nixon” that the Republican nominee “was trying to frustrate the president, by inciting Saigon to step up its demands, and by letting Hanoi know that when he took office ‘he could accept anything and blame it on his predecessor.’

”By that point, North Vietnam had already accepted Johnson’s terms. So had South Vietnam, privately, in meetings with the U.S. ambassador.

But America’s allies in Saigon saw risk and opportunity in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The risk was the election of Hubert Humphrey, a dove who had urged LBJ not to Americanize the war in the first place and whose supporters hoped he’d withdraw from Vietnam quickly if elected. The opportunity was to elect the premiere anti-Communist politician of the Cold War, Richard Nixon. All Saigon had to do to tip the election to their preferred candidate was refuse to take part in the Paris talks. No talks, no peace -- there could be no settlement of the war if one side of it refused to even negotiate. The hopes for peace stirred by the bombing halt would evaporate.

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.

It didn’t take long for the FBI to strike pay dirt. 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.

A furious president telephoned the highest elected Republican in the land, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and declared, “This is treason.” He wasn’t exaggerating. The Logan Act of 1799 prohibits private citizens (including presidential candidates) from interfering with negotiations between the U.S. and foreign governments.

Nevertheless, Johnson decided not to go public with what he’d learned. He had many reasons, one of which remained secret until his own White House tapes were released in the twenty-first century. The others trickled out faster: LBJ didn’t want to compromise U.S. diplomatic intelligence sources, didn’t want to cripple Nixon’s presidency before it began, and didn’t have “smoking gun” proof that Nixon himself had broken the law.

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