"After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. ... If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated."
Opening the File
Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn't wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the process of declassifying the contents. (Some documents, including what appears to be the oldest document in the file -- an Aug. 3, 1968, "top secret" memo from White House national security aide Bromley Smith to Johnson -- remains almost entirely classified even today.)
Still, the dozens of declassified documents revealed a dramatic story of hardball politics played at the highest levels of government and with the highest of stakes, not only the outcome of the pivotal 1968 presidential election but the fate of a half million U.S. soldiers then sitting in the Vietnam war zone.
Relying on national security wiretaps of the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and surveillance of right-wing China Lobby activist Anna Chennault, Johnson concluded that Nixon's Republican presidential campaign was colluding with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to derail the Paris peace talks and thus deny a last-minute boost to Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
At the time, Johnson thought a breakthrough was near, one that could have ended a war which had already claimed the lives of more than 30,000 American troops and countless Vietnamese. Nixon, like Humphrey, was receiving briefings on the progress as the negotiations gained momentum in October 1968.
The Johnson administration was encouraged when North Vietnam agreed on a framework for peace talks. However, America's South Vietnamese allies began to balk over details about how the negotiations would be conducted, objecting to any equal status for the South Vietnamese Viet Cong insurgents.
"Top Secret" reports from the National Security Agency informed President Johnson that South Vietnam's President Thieu was closely monitoring the political developments in the United States with an eye toward helping Nixon win the Nov. 5 election.
For instance, an Oct. 23, 1968, report -- presumably based on NSA's electronic eavesdropping -- quotes Thieu as saying that the Johnson administration might halt the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as part of a peace maneuver that would help Humphrey's campaign but that South Vietnam might not go along. Thieu also appreciated the other side of the coin, that Johnson's failure would help Nixon.
"The situation which would occur as the result of a bombing halt, without the agreement of the [South] Vietnamese government ... would be to the advantage of candidate Nixon," the NSA report on Thieu's thinking read. "Accordingly, he [Thieu] said that the possibility of President Johnson enforcing a bombing halt without [South] Vietnam's agreement appears to be weak." [Click here and here.]
By Oct. 28, 1968, according to another NSA report, Thieu said, "it appears that Mr. Nixon will be elected as the next president" and that any settlement with the Viet Cong should be put off until "the new president" was in place.
The next day, Oct. 29, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow received the first indication that Nixon might actually be coordinating with Thieu to sabotage the peace talks. Rostow's brother, Eugene, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, wrote a memo about a tip from a source in New York who had spoken with "a member of the banking community" who was "very close to Nixon."
The source said Wall Street bankers -- at a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest -- had been given inside information about the prospects for Vietnam peace and were told that Nixon was obstructing that outcome.
Eugene Rostow wrote...
"The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term. The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem ... to block. ...
"They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) -- a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future."