What to Do?
In a 1:54 p.m. phone conversation with Secretary of State Rusk about the messages from the Nixon camp to the South Vietnamese leadership, Johnson said, "I don't think they say these things without his knowledge."
Rusk: "Well, certainly not without Agnew's knowledge ... some cutouts somewhere."
Johnson: "Well, what do we do now? Just say nothing?"
Rusk: "I would think we ought to hunker down and say nothing at this point."
However, on Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks.
The FBI bugging of the South Vietnamese embassy picked up a conversation involving journalist Saville Davis of the Monitor's Washington bureau, seeking a comment from Ambassador Bui Diem about "a story received from a [Monitor] correspondent in Saigon." Rostow relayed the FBI report to Johnson who was still at his Texas ranch.
The "eyes only" cable reported: "Davis said that the dispatch from Saigon contains the elements of a major scandal which also involves the Vietnamese ambassador and which will affect presidential candidate Richard Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it. He speculated that should the story be published, it will create a great deal of excitement."
Davis also approached the White House for comment about the draft article, which had arrived from correspondent Beverly Deepe. Her draft began: "Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu's refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks -- at least until the American Presidential election is over."
The Monitor's inquiry gave President Johnson one more opportunity to bring to light the Nixon campaign's gambit before Election Day, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.
So, Johnson consulted with Rusk, Rostow and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.
"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."
Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, "Obviously I'm not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form," according to another "eyes only" cable that Rostow sent Johnson. The cable added:
"Saville Davis volunteered that his newspaper would certainly not print the story in the form in which it was filed; but they might print a story which said Thieu, on his own, decided to hold out until after the election. Incidentally, the story as filed is stated to be based on Vietnamese sources, and not U.S., in Saigon."
Rostow's cable also summed up the consensus from him, Rusk and Clifford:
"The information sources [an apparent reference to the FBI wiretaps] must be protected and not introduced into domestic politics; even with these sources, the case is not open and shut.
"On the question of the 'public's right to know,' Sec. Rusk was very strong on the following position: We get information like this every day, some of it very damaging to American political figures. We have always taken the view that with respect to such sources there is no public "right to know.' Such information is collected simply for the purposes of national security.