Big Media's Curious Nixon Judgment
When Richard Nixon’s presidential library this week released tapes of him making bigoted remarks about blacks, Jews and various ethnic groups, major American news outlets jumped at the juicy details, recounting them on NBC's Nightly News, in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Which is all well and good. It was also worth knowing that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, himself a German-born Jew, would express nonchalance at the prospect of the Soviet Union putting its Jewish population in gas chambers.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger remarked in a taped conversation on March 1, 1973. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” (Maybe?)
“I know,” President Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.” [See NYT, Dec. 11, 2010.]
But the Nixon-Kissinger Realpolitik wasn’t limited to such an unlikely prospect as the Soviets undertaking a Jewish extermination campaign. More shocking was the powerful evidence released two years ago by Lyndon B. Johnson’s library corroborating long-held suspicions that Nixon and Kissinger conspired to sabotage the 1968 Vietnam peace talks to ensure their ascension to power.
In that case, however, the major U.S. news media looked the other way. Except for a brief reference to an Associated Press dispatch, the New York Times and other leading news outlets apparently didn’t regard as newsworthy that Nixon and Kissinger had consigned more than 20,000 American soldiers and millions of Indochinese to their deaths in order to win an election.
By extending the Vietnam War for those four years, Nixon and Kissinger also ripped apart the social and political fabric of the United States – turning parents against their children and creating hatreds between the American Left and the Right, which continue to this day.
One might have thought that the LBJ Library's evidence, which included a dramatic pre-election confrontation between President Johnson and then-Republican presidential candidate Nixon over what Johnson had termed Nixon’s “treason,” would be worthy of some serious attention. But none was forthcoming. (It fell to us at Consortiumnews.com to provide a detailed account of these exchanges.)
As has happened with other high-level scandals – such as the CIA’s admissions about cocaine trafficking by Ronald Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels – the major U.S. news media shies away from evidence that puts the national Establishment in too harsh a light or that suggests the preeminent U.S. news organizations have missed some monumentally important story.
For the mainstream media, it’s safer to focus on the foibles of an individual like Nixon than to accept that respected members of the ruling elite in the United States are so corrupt that they would sacrifice the lives of ordinary citizens for the achievement of some political or foreign policy goal.
So, we get to learn from the new Nixon tapes that he made bigoted assertions about “abrasive and obnoxious” Jews, Irish who get “mean” drunk, Italians without “heads screwed on tight,” and blacks who would need “500 years” and have to “be, frankly, inbred” to become useful contributors to the nation.
The Peace Talk Gambit
As offensive as those remarks are, however, they pale in newsworthiness to the now unavoidable conclusion that Nixon, aided by Kissinger, struck a deal with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu in fall 1968 to block Johnson’s negotiated end to the Vietnam War.
The significance of Nixon’s “treason” was that – while 500,000 U.S. soldiers were serving in Vietnam – Nixon’s campaign assured Thieu that Nixon would, as U.S. president, continue the war to get a better deal for Thieu. That left Nixon little choice but to extend the war and expand the fighting because, otherwise, Thieu would have been in a position to expose Nixon’s treachery to the American people.
Yet, what was also stunning to me about the “treason” tapes when the LBJ Library released them in December 2008 was how much Johnson knew about Nixon’s sabotage and why the Democrats chose to keep silent.
Right before Election Day 1968 – with the Paris peace talks in the balance and with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey closing the gap on Nixon – Johnson considered allowing the White House to confirm the facts of Nixon’s gambit to Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis who had gotten wind of the story.
Johnson raised this possibility in a Nov. 4, 1968, conference call with Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. However, both opposed going public, with Clifford – a pillar of the Establishment – arguing that the disclosure risked national disorder.
“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.”
So, instead of confirming the story, Johnson agreed to maintain his public silence. He stood by as Nixon’s narrowly won the presidential election over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.
Still, four decades later, when the Johnson library released the audiotapes, they offered a dramatic story: an embattled president angered over intelligence intercepts that revealed emissaries from Nixon’s campaign, including right-wing China Lobby figure Anna Chennault, urging the South Vietnamese government to boycott peace talks in Paris.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican maneuver. However, his frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon operatives and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2, 1968, just three days before the election, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks. That same day, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen to lay out some of the evidence of Nixon’s treachery and to ask Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
“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 in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
Dirksen responded, “I know.”
Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the war's violence.
“We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”
Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”
“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. …
“You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”
The next day, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson and haltingly professed his innocence, while also acknowledging that he knew how close Johnson was to negotiating an end to the war.
“I didn’t say with your knowledge,” Johnson responded. “I hope it wasn’t.”
“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary Rusk wanted.
“I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do. We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon said. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. … The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.” [Emphasis added]
But the South Vietnamese boycott continued, leading to Johnson’s conference call about going public with the story of Republican sabotage, before he was dissuaded by Rusk and Clifford.
In the aftermath of the election, Johnson continued to confront Nixon with the evidence of Republican treachery, trying to get him to pressure the South Vietnamese leaders to reverse themselves and join the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 8, 1968, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.
“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey. They [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.
“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.
“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. … That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. … I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”
Faced with Johnson’s implied threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, the die was cast for more war. Thieu could not be pressured because he had the leverage over Nixon; Thieu could go public even if Johnson didn't.
The U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years (including its expansion to Cambodia) at a horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Indochina. Before the conflict was finally brought to an end, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded.
At home, the growing resistance to the war also led to more abuses by Nixon, who routinely cited national security to justify a massive political spying operation against his enemies.
That paranoia led to the White House “plumbers unit” breaking into the Democratic National Committee at Watergate in 1972, planting bugs but eventually getting caught. The Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation two years later.
However, it took almost another decade before the story of Nixon’s “treason” began to reach the American public.
Journalist Seymour Hersh sketchily described the initiative in his 1983 biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. Hersh reported that the Nixon campaign had benefited from back-channel communications from Kissinger who was working as a consultant to the Johnson administration.
U.S. intelligence “agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President Thieu in Saigon,” Hersh wrote. “The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress.”
Hersh noted that in her own autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault had acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell (who became Nixon's Attorney General) as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
However, Kissinger had powerful defenders in Washington, including inside the upper echelons of the news media, people such as Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s influential “Nightline” program, and Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post and Newsweek.
So, Hersh’s reporting came under a barrage of criticism and his account of Nixon’s 1968 peace-talk gambit was treated as a dubious conspiracy theory.
Gradually, however, more evidence bubbled to the surface. Reporter Daniel Schorr added some details in a Washington Post “Outlook” article on May 28, 1995, citing decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that “many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm.” On Oct. 27, he wrote, “The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. … I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage.”
Anthony Summers’s 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power, filled in more of the blanks, including a reference to the debate within Democratic circles about what to do with the evidence.
Both Johnson and Humphrey believed the information – if released to the public – could assure Nixon’s defeat, according to Summers.
“In the end, though, Johnson’s advisers decided it was too late and too potentially damaging to U.S. interests to uncover what had been going on,” Summers wrote. “If Nixon should emerge as the victor, what would the Chennault outrage do to his viability as an incoming president? And what effect would it have on American opinion about the war?”
Summers quoted Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
As it turned out, however, the country was in terrible trouble anyway. Not only did the Vietnam War continue for four more years – before Kissinger negotiated a settlement along the lines of what Johnson had hammered out in 1968 – but the Republicans discovered that key Democrats would stay silent even if GOP candidates sabotaged Democratic presidents.
In 1980, faced with a similar opportunity as President Jimmy Carter struggled to resolve a crisis over Iran’s holding of 52 American hostages, Republican operatives, including Kissinger and other veterans of the 1968 gambit, interfered again. [For details on the so-called October Surprise case of 1980, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though much of this history about the electoral scandals of 1968 and 1980 has now been painfully pieced together, the major U.S. news media continues to look the other way, either ignoring the evidence as it emerges or disparaging those who have put the pieces together.
Apparently, it’s one thing to note that individuals within the Establishment have personal weaknesses but it’s another to question the integrity of the Establishment as a collective body. Then, the defenses come up and inconvenient history gets shoved into the memory hole.
The contrast between the coverage of Nixon’s bigoted remarks and his role in sabotaging peace talks that could have saved countless lives is further proof that the U.S. national press corps is more comfortable commenting on a politician’s flaws than on crimes of state.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which, along with Neck Deep, are now available as a three-book set for the discount price of $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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