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Over the weekend, a BBC report on declassified tapes depicted as fresh news how President Lyndon Johnson privately labeled Richard Nixon treasonous for his back-channel efforts to sabotage peace talks with the North Vietnamese in 1968. But while the BBC report did provide interesting information about LBJ briefly plotting to hijack the Democratic Convention that year by landing in a helicopter on the roof of the Chicago Hilton to announce himself a candidate for reelection, the treason stuff is hardly fresh. That was reported widely when declassified tapes became public in 2008. And the back-channel stuff has been known publicly practically since it occurred.

Missing from the BBC story is something long ago reported. This was that the Johnson administration itself actively suppressed a story the Christian Science Monitor was prepared to publish about the Nixon campaign's activities.

When 42 hours of White House tapes from 1968 were declassified four decades later, The New York Times ran the headline In Tapes, Johnson Accused Nixon’s Associates of Treason on Dec. 4, 2008. The next day, a video of the ABC report on the matter was headlined on the network's website LBJ Tapes Implicate Nixon With Treason.

LBJ tells Dirksen Nixon campaign treasonous
To be sure, the reporting in the Big Old Media at the time the tapes were released was sparse. But a month later, in January 2009, Brooklyn College Professor Robert "KC" Johnson at the History News Network provided some details, including some transcripts and excerpts from the tapes themselves. What Prof. Johnson pointed out were four conversations, with Democratic Sen. Richard Russell, Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, Democratic Sen. George Smathers, and with Richard Nixon himself, all caught on audiotape.

Without saying so directly, LBJ makes it pretty clear in this late August 1968 conversation with Russell that he's having monitored the conversations of Anna Chennault, an ultra right-wing Republican senior adviser of the Nixon campaign team, and Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States [emphasis added]:

Now, when we got that (pure by accident, as a result of some of our Wall Street connections), that caused me to look a little deeper.

Richard Russell: I guess so.

President Johnson: And I have means of doing that, as you may well imagine.

Russell: Yes.

President Johnson: Mrs. [Anna] Chennault is contacting their [South Vietnamese] ambassador from time to time—seems to be kind of the go-between, the Chiang Kai-Shek deal. In addition, their ambassador is saying to ‘em that “Johnson is desperate and is just moving heaven and earth to elect Humphrey, so don’t you get sucked in on that.” (He is kind of these folks’ agent here, this little South Vietnamese ambassador.)

Now, this is not guesswork.

It certainly wasn't guesswork. The FBI was wiretapping everything coming out of the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington under Johnson's orders.

Please read more about Nixon's "treason" below the fold.

It wasn't just the South Vietnamese being watched. "Overheard" conversations had also revealed John Mitchell, Nixon's campaign director who would soon be attorney general, to be suggesting that Hanoi also be contacted and told the North Vietnamse could get a better deal with Nixon as president. In his call to Dirksen, President Johnson laid it out:

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what [Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then renewed his thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

A year ago, Robert Parry at Consortium News wrote in detail about the taped conversations, including candidate Nixon's phone call to LBJ denying that he would do anything to sabotage the talks:
[Nixon:] “I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

Armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

He could have called Nixon a fucking liar at that moment. But he didn't. While some believe that Nixon's running mate, Spiro Agnew, may have been the campaign's "cut-out," nobody, including Johnson, believed the orders to Chennault were coming from anybody other than Nixon. But the fears of Johnson and his top aides spurred them to keep the information to themselves and to urge the Christian Science Monitor not to publish it. Parry wrote:
So, Johnson consulted with [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk, [National Security Adviser Walt] Rostow and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

As more cables from Anna Chennault were intercepted after Nixon won the election, Johnson phoned president-elect to remind him of his pledge to push the peace talks forward or at least not block them. Without directly accusing him, Johnson threatened Nixon with letting the media know about the interference, and mentioned Agnew's reputed role as intermediary. But the talks were stalled now. The Nixon campaign's effort had succeeded. In his piece last March, Parry wrote:
Columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson noted in a Nov. 17 column that Johnson “learned that Saigon’s Ambassador Bui Diem had been in touch secretly with Richard Nixon’s people. There were unconfirmed reports that South Vietnamese leaders had even slipped campaign cash to Nixon representatives.” [...]

But Johnson’s White House remained tight-lipped about its knowledge of Nixon’s treachery. According to the documents in “The ‘X’ Envelope,” the first detailed press inquiry about the peace-talk sabotage came from St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tom Ottenad who contacted Rostow on Jan. 3, 1969, just 17 days before Johnson would leave office.

Ottenad outlined the activities of Anna Chennault on behalf of the campaign and pressed Rostow to confirm that the administration was aware of the subterfuge. Rostow responded, “I have not one word to say about that matter.” [...]

As published, Ottenad’s article began, “A well-known top official of committees working for the election of Richard M. Nixon secretly got in touch with representatives of South Vietnam shortly before the presidential election. It was in connection with an apparent effort to encourage them to delay in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a better deal if the Republicans won the White House.”

There wasn't much follow-up, although several biographies have briefly mentioned the story. Chennault later admitted her role.

The consequences of the failure of the peace talks? Another 22,000 dead Americans, and millions more dead Vietnamese, dead Laotians, dead Cambodians.

Richard Nixon did not start America's involvement in that war. Nor did he invent the Gulf of Tonkin lie that spurred everyone but two senators in Congress to authorize the use of conventional military force in Vietnam. Nor did Nixon, like Johnson, send wave after wave of soldiers to kill and be killed even while full well knowing, along with Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara, that the war could not be won. But even as troops were withdrawn, Nixon prolonged the war in Vietnam, bolstered a tiny, rag-tag band of extremist Maoists called the Khmer Rouge into a formidable and soon-to-be genocidal force, and eventually negotiated in peace talks what could, at the very least, have been done half a decade before had winning the election not been worth spilling so much blood.

But dead traitors can't be tried.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Sun Mar 17, 2013 at 05:44 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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