A darker cloud falls over Nixon [Commentary]

In the flurry of new books on the Nixon tapes, another allegation worse than Watergate against the late president has been revisited by a researcher at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, reviving charges of a possible treasonous act by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam war.

Ken Hughes, in "Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair and the Origins of Watergate," makes the case that a planned break-in of the Brookings Institution in Washington, which Nixon urged as a blatant "thievery," sought to find and get rid of such evidence.

Mr. Hughes argues that Nixon feared a report on LBJ's halt of bombing over North Vietnam in 1968, mistakenly believing it was at Brookings, would reveal his conniving to keep the South Vietnamese from scheduled peace talks in Paris on the eve of the 1968 presidential election, on grounds they would get a better deal from Nixon after his anticipated election.

In mid-June, 1971, Nixon told his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to "implement on a thievery basis" a shelved plan of young aide Tom Charles Huston to break into Brookings and other target offices of suspected subversion, specifying: "Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it."

The affair revolves around the behavior of a Nixon ally, Anna Chennault, widow of World War II Flying Tigers hero Gen. Claire Chennault, who is said to have encouraged South Vietnamese leaders to pull out of the talks. The "Dragon Lady" or "Little Flower," as she was called, had met with Nixon that summer and asked that she be designated his "sole representative" to the Saigon regime. When she visited the South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington that fall, LBJ had her put under surveillance.

Johnson turned over the evidence acquired to his vice president, Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, telling him Nixon's actions, if true, amounted to "treason," and urging Humphrey to make the evidence public at the election's 11th hour. But Humphrey surprisingly declined, out of fear of backlash for releasing classified information, or of himself being accused of playing a desperate dirty trick to snatch victory from defeat in that razor-close campaign.

In Humphrey's memoir, "The Education of a Public Man," he wrote: "I wonder if I should have blown the whistle on Anna Chennault and Nixon. He must have known about her call to (SVN President) Thieu. I wish  I could have been sure. Damn Thieu. Dragging his feet this past weekend hurt us. I wonder if that call did it. If Nixon knew. Maybe I should have blasted them anyway."

On an LBJ taped conversation at the time with then Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, Johnson told him of the Chennault affair: "They ought not to be doing this. This is treason. It would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important. If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from this conference table."

In a separate taped conversation, when LBJ confronts Nixon on the matter, he says: "My God, I would never do anything to encourage the South Vietnamese not to come to that conference table." He insists he is not involved in "somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon attitude...Good God, we want them over in Paris. We've got to get them to Paris or you can't have peace."

The Logan Act of 1799 prohibits any American citizen from carrying out any "intercourse with any foreign government or officer or agent" regarding "any disputes or controversies with the United States or to defeat (its) measures." It carries with it a fine or imprisonment of up to three years.

Johnson's close White House aide, Joseph Califano, wrote in "The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson" that Humphrey's refusal to make public what LBJ had given him "became the occasion for a lasting rift" between the president and his vice president.

Hughes' linking of the Huston break-in plan to Chennault's activities provides a credible new rationale to the allegation that Nixon was indeed involved in the caper that could have cost Humphrey the 1968 election--and had it come to light earlier, denied Nixon the White House.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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