TORONTO — The BBC recently had a story prompted by the declassification of Lyndon Johnson’s presidential tapes. It managed to be simultaneously interesting and strange, even tendentious.
One of the items had to do with Johnson’s desire to re-enter the presidential race in August 1968, despite having abandoned it under pressure five months earlier. Apparently driven by images of the televised chaos at the Democratic convention, Johnson phoned Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to ascertain whether the delegates would re-nominate him if he showed up and threw his hat into the ring. Daley allegedly said they would, but the plan was abandoned after the Secret Service warned that they couldn’t guarantee Johnson’s safety.
It’s an astonishing story.
Having been pushed out of the race by an internal revolt, Johnson’s sudden re-entry would surely have compounded the split within the party. It would also have obliterated whatever prospect the Democrats had of salvaging the impending presidential election. With Johnson manoeuvring his way back amid the violence and inflamed emotions that accompanied the convention, the party would have gone down to a catastrophic defeat in November.
If Johnson’s intent was really serious — rather than just the private venting of a proud, angry and humiliated man — one has to wonder about his degree of detachment from political reality. As for Daley, who would have been Johnson’s facilitator in effectively hijacking the convention, the combination of cynicism and chutzpah almost beggars belief. Then again, Daley was never short of nerve.
However, the item that the BBC chose to highlight was what the headline subtly described as Richard Nixon’s ‘treason.’ As they put it, Johnson caught Nixon — who was then the Republican presidential candidate — "sabotaging the Vietnam peace talks."
The gist of the story is simple. Fearing the impact that a breakthrough would have on his campaign, Nixon had used a connected woman named Anna Chennault to establish a clandestine back-channel to the American allies — the South Vietnamese government in Saigon.
And when such a breakthrough appeared imminent, Chennault told the South Vietnamese to wait it out. If elected, Nixon would ensure them a better deal. So the South Vietnamese declined to play ball.
And how did Johnson discover this? The FBI had bugged the South Vietnamese ambassador’s phone.
Still, the BBC’s story is strange in a couple of respects.
For one thing, the Chennault episode isn’t exactly news. It’s been in the public domain for years, decades even. Presidential campaign chronicler Teddy White referred to it as early as 1969, Chennault published her own memoir in 1980, and various others, including Nixon biographers, have grappled with it over the years.
But what’s particularly odd about the BBC piece is the lack of context. If Nixon was playing politics with Vietnam, then he wasn’t the only one vulnerable to that accusation.
Naturally paranoid at the best of times, Richard Nixon was convinced that he’d been illegitimately deprived of the presidency in 1960. In his view, Democratic ballot shenanigans in Texas and Chicago had allowed John F. Kennedy to literally steal that razor-thin election from him. So he wasn’t going to be caught short again, which implied taking precautions against any stunts or surprises.
Hence the Chennault back-channel. After all, a sudden last-minute breakthrough, whether real or contrived, might shift momentum towards the Democrats on election day.
Sure enough, on October 31, 1968, just five days before the election, Johnson went on national television to announce a breakthrough, including both expanded peace talks and an order that "all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam cease as of 8 a.m. Washington time, Friday morning." Two days later, the South Vietnamese punctured the peace euphoria by formally announcing that they wouldn’t "participate in the present exploratory talks."
So was Nixon "sabotaging" the talks for personal gain? Or was he merely attempting to ensure that matters of war and peace weren’t cynically manipulated to his disadvantage?
And why should we believe that the South Vietnamese briefly staying away from the talks wrecked the prospects for peace? After all, Johnson’s bombing halt wasn’t a ceasefire. The fighting went on. And it wasn’t until January 1973, years after the South Vietnamese joined the talks, that a peace agreement was finally struck.
Mind you, such complexities aren’t nearly as sexy as the BBC’s "treason" spin.
Columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.