The LBJ Library has released what reportedly will be the last in the series of audio taped conversations made during the Johnson presidency. This batch, covering the last tumultuous days from May 1968 to January 1969, sheds new light on critical events such as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the presidential election between Humphrey and NIxon. In addition to that treasure trove of revealing insights the general public has also recently been given access to another series of insider tapes recorded during 1972 in the Nixon White House. These nuggets of history give us a rarely seen glimpse into the inner workings of our government, and as is usually the case when the curtain is pulled back, it’s not a pretty picture.
Historians, investigative journalists, not so investigative TV journalists, and even government prosecutors will find plenty to chew on while sorting through these fascinating little jewels. Of particular interest to me are some new revelations about the 1968 presidential campaign:
1) LBJ was furious with Nixon, audiotapes of telephone conversations now show, over the likelihood that Nixon meddled with Johnson’s attempts to get negotiations moving to bring the Vietnam war to a swift conclusion in 1968. In a heated diatribe, when referring to Nixon’s actions during the waning days of the ’68 presidential campaign, LBJ tells Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, “This is treason (click here to listen) .” In a separate, historically key conversation, LBJ directly warns Nixon that his “people” appeared to be bent on sabotaging LBJ’s peace overtures to Hanoi. In a conversation on November 3, 1968, two days prior to the presidential election, Johnson confronted Nixon on the issue, but Nixon told LBJ point-blank, “I’m not trying to interfere.”
The mp3 audiotape of Nixon and LBJ talking is linked here. I urge you to listen. It’s 15 minutes of historical gold:
Hindsight, surprise, has pretty much shown that Nixon was being less than truthful with the old man on that day. What we know is that Nixon had campaigned on the promise that he had a “secret plan” for ending the war; meanwhile, GOP activists worked behind the scenes to convince Vietnamese diplomats that “Nixon will do better by you” if they only delayed peace talks until Nixon was in office (whether Nixon orchestrated this subterfuge is the rub of the dispute in the phone conversation between the two titans and has been contentious ever since). A Nixon supporter, Anna Chennault, apparently played a key role:
Wikipedia summarizes from Christopher Hitchens’ book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”:
Chennault played a crucial role on behalf of the Nixon campaign in the wrecking of the 1968 Paris peace talks which could have ended the Vietnam War. She arranged the contact with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem whom Richard Nixon met in secret from July 1968 in New York. It was through Chennault’s intercession that Nixon advised Saigon to refuse participation in the talks, promising a better deal once elected. Records of FBI wiretaps show that Chennault phoned Bui Diem on November 2 with the message “hold on, we are gonna win.” President Nguyen Van Thieu obliged and the talks achieved almost no progress by the time Johnson left office.
For a more detailed discussion of Anna Chennault’s role, and also that of Henry Kissinger, in this shady episode click here for more from Hitchens.
OK, so big deal, it’s all ancient history right? True, but it’s worthwhile to recognize the precedent that Trcky Dick set right there in 1968; for example, fast forward to the 1980 run-up to Reagan’s election, when the GOP launched the secret dealings with Iran even as President Carter sought to bring home American hostages. The hostages were released as Reagan was sworn in.
2) A second piece of news that has come to light for the first time with the tapes, at least that I know of, is that LBJ suggested that Hubert Humphrey name Hawaiian WWII veteran Sen. Daniel Inouye as his running mate in the 1968 campaign. Watch CBS news video excerpt.
I have only scratched the surface of what is available in these tapes– there is plenty more, like Nixon and Kissinger scheming over escalation and the 1972 xmas bombing campaign, Nixon’s high anxiety/paranoia over supposedly ubiquitous enemies, and the use of the IRS as a retaliation method against those perceived enemies like Clark Clifford. Yes indeed, they were a great bunch. Accountability for presidents and presidential candidates has been in short supply for decades. This is a chance for journalists and historians to update the legacy files and more importantly confront the still-living. Phone call for you Dr. Kissinger— the man says it’s important…