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Richard Nixon

Worse Than Watergate: Nixon’s Greatest Treachery

Image: Richard Nixon's presidential portrait | Public Domain

Evil Genius with Russell Kane delves into the biographies of five polarising figures from the past in order to ask the question, 'Are they Evil or Genius?' In each episode, Russell is joined by a panel of three celebrity guests to interrogate the reputation of a famous figure, including Richard Nixon. The show airs Mondays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.

Richard Nixon’s name is already synonymous with disgrace. After all, Watergate was a political outrage so huge that every ensuing scandal tends to be labelled “-gate” in its dubious honour. And Nixon will always be known as the only person to have resigned the presidency.

But what if there was more? What if "Tricky Dicky" committed treason during his presidential campaign, and orchestrated something that makes Watergate seem like mere parlour games by comparison?

For decades, it’s been something of an open secret among Washington’s elite that Richard Nixon, while running for the White House as a Republican in ’68, deliberately sabotaged Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam. Johnson was spearheading complex peace talks in Paris between the North and South Vietnamese forces, and there was a real chance of halting further bloodshed.

But Nixon was afraid that if the peace talks worked and peace came to Vietnam, the Democrats would gain massive goodwill among the electorate, and cause him to lose against his Democrat rival for the presidency, Hubert Humphrey. Therefore, the peace process had to be stopped.

President Johnson described this as out-and-out “treason”, as “despicable”, and tantamount to mass murder. So why didn’t it destroy Nixon’s reputation at the time, and stop him from winning the 1968 election?

The Smoking Gun

It is only relatively recently that a definitive “smoking gun” has emerged, proving Nixon’s direct interference in the peace talks. Publicised by John A. Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, this incendiary evidence is in the form of some seemingly innocuous, handwritten notes made by Nixon minion, and future White House Chief of Staff, HR Haldeman.

While on the phone to Nixon on 22 October 1968, Haldeman jotted down his orders. The presidential candidate was clearly furious about the developments in Paris, instructing Haldeman to find a way to “monkey wrench” the peace talks. He specifically wanted the South Vietnam representatives to walk away from the talks, telling Haldeman to “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN”. This is the key phrase in the Haldeman notes, which – in the words of John A. Farrell – reveal this was beyond mere political skulduggery, and “worse than anything he did in Watergate.”

The Chennault Connection

So who is Anna Chennault, mentioned so prominently in Haldeman’s notes? In many ways, she’s the most fascinating and mysterious figure in an episode of US politics that’s straight out of an espionage thriller. Anna Chennault, now in her 90s, was a charismatic Washington society hostess, plugged into the very heart of the Republican power nexus. Dubbed the “Dragon Lady” by some, this Chinese-American socialite was the widow of legendary aviator and war hero Claire Lee Chennault – a fact which gave her serious prestige among the top brass in the capital.

Chennault’s connections made her a secret tool in Nixon’s arsenal of intrigue against Johnson. She became his secret channel to the South Vietnamese, literally telling the South Vietnam ambassador to back off from the Paris process and wait for the Nixon administration to come in before engaging further in more peace talks. Wiretaps by the FBI reveal she told the ambassador that he just had to “hold on” because “we are gonna win” – “we” being the Nixon campaign.

White House insider Tom Johnson, who’d go onto become the boss at CNN, has said that “it is my personal view that disclosure of the Nixon-sanctioned actions by Mrs. Chennault would have been so explosive and damaging to the Nixon 1968 campaign that Hubert Humphrey would have been elected president.”

The Cover-Up

The peace process of 1968 fell apart and Nixon was elected president. Things turned out exactly as he wanted, but how did he evade the later allegations of dirty tricks around the Paris talks? Simple: he denied everything. He rejected the very idea of a Chennault connection to journalists, and even to Lyndon Johnson, saying to the former president, “My God, I would never do anything to encourage… [the South Vietnamese]… not to come to the table.”

And he had good reason to deny it. His actions would likely have been regarded as illegal, a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids any unauthorised citizens to negotiate with foreign powers who are in dispute with the United States. In the words of Clark M. Clifford, a veteran White House advisor, “the activities of the Nixon team went far beyond the bounds of justifiable political combat… The activities of the Nixon campaign constituted a gross, even potentially illegal, interference in the security affairs of the nation by private individuals.”

Even though Johnson knew full well what was going on, the decision was made to sit on the story. Partly because the Democrats believed they’d win the election anyway, and partly because revealing the truth would have also exposed the wiretapping and surveillance between the rival parties – the blow to the public psyche would have been too much to bear.

As for whether the war would have ended without Nixon’s interference… the jury is out. Many experts believe the peace talks would have broken down anyway, as there was too much hostility between the North and South Vietnamese. But the fact remains there was a chance, however slim, to end the conflict, before so many more soldiers would perish. And it set a precedent for incredible skulduggery that would later prove Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.