Here’s a singular historical moment that has long fascinated me: the lack of public outcry over the fact that during the 1968 presidential campaign, the man who won the election, Richard Nixon, possibly committed treason.
It’s long been known that in the fall of 1968 the Nixon campaign was directly involved in an effort to dissuade the US-backed South Vietnamese government from attending peace talks in Paris intended to end the US war in Vietnam. On Oct. 31, 1968, days before Americans went to the polls, President Johnson announced a bombing halt in Vietnam and the commencement of talks between the two sides. Nixon feared that such an “October Surprise” would ensure the victory of Johnson’s vice president and the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Days later, the South Vietnamese announced they wouldn’t go to Paris, scuttling the talks. Nixon would be elected president — and over the next four and a half years more than 20,000 US soldiers would die in Vietnam.
What’s long been unknown is Nixon’s direct involvement in the affair, and while it always seemed unimaginable that Nixon would be left out of the loop on such a sensitive mission, historian John A. Farrell has finally settled that question. Writing this week in The New York Times, Farrell reveals that notes found from top Nixon aide H.R Haldeman show he was instructed by Nixon to “monkey wrench” the talks. Haldeman was also told to “keep Anna Chennault working on” the South Vietnamese. Chennault, a longtime Republican fund-raiser and prominent player in the domestic China lobby, has long been identified as the back channel between the Nixon camp and the South Vietnamese.
Farrell’s evidence, however, points to a larger conspiracy than previously known. Nixon told Haldeman to have his private secretary, Rose Mary Woods, call another nationalist Chinese figure, businessman Louis Kun, to put pressure on the South Vietnamese. Haldeman’s notes also appear to confirm the involvement of Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice presidential candidate, in the affair.
Whether Nixon’s involvement scuttled the talks — and decided the election — is less clear. After all, the South Vietnamese surely understood they’d be better off with the more hawkish Nixon as president than Humphrey. And even if the talks had taken place, there’s little guarantee they would have led to an earlier end to the war.
Did South Vietnam’s refusal to go to Paris end Humphrey’s chances of victory? Humphrey lost in ’68 by 500,000 votes. In a race that close everything could have mattered — including a last minute indication that peace was at hand in Vietnam..
What if Johnson or Humphrey had gone public before Election Day with what they knew about the Nixon campaign’s involvement?
Johnson and most of his aides believed Nixon would win, and the thought of him being publicly charged with actions that bordered on treason gave them pause. For Humphrey’s part, he feared releasing the information would make him look desperate and could potentially backfire.
Nonetheless, even if they weren’t decisive, it’s impossible to defend Nixon’s actions. As then-secretary of defense Clark Clifford later put it, they were a “gross, even potentially illegal, interference in the security affairs of the nation.” Johnson used a different word — “treason.” It’s hard to disagree.
All of this has important relevance to today’s politics. Back in 1968, bits and pieces of this story were known, but it was never fully investigated. Over the years, the story trickled out, but long after the damage had been done.
Indeed, the brazenness of Nixon’s contacts with the South Vietnamese and the involvement of key aides would provide an unfortunate preview of his administration’s shameless disregard for the rule of law. Would exposure and a full investigation of what happened have prevented Watergate and the pattern of illegal behavior that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation? Could America have dodged the bullet of Nixon’s criminal presidency? We may never know, but 16 days before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, these are questions that suddenly take on much greater urgency. After all, candidates who break the law, violate democratic norms, and flagrantly lie to the American people tend to continue those practices once they take office.Michael A. Cohen, whose column appears regularly in the Globe, is author of “American Maelstrom,’’ about the 1968 election. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.