Of the 58,000, U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam more than 20,000 died during Nixon's presidency. Possibly a million more Vietnamese died in the Nixon years. But, in the end, Nixon accepted a peace deal in late 1972 similar to what Johnson was negotiating in 1968. And the final outcome was not changed. After U.S. troops departed, the South Vietnamese government soon fell to the North and the Vietcong.
The Missing File
Several years ago, I located the missing file at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. Before leaving office in January 1969, Johnson had ordered his national security adviser Walt Rostow to take the top secret material out of the White House with instructions to hold it until after Johnson died and then decide what to do with it.
Rostow labeled the file "The X-Envelope" and retained possession until after Johnson's death on Jan. 22, 1973, just two days after Nixon began his second term. Eventually, Rostow decided to turn over the file to the LBJ Library with instructions to keep it sealed for at least 50 years. However, library officials decided to open "The X-Envelope" in 1994 and began the process of declassification.
The documents -- many based on FBI wiretaps -- show that Johnson had strong evidence about Nixon's peace-talk sabotage, particularly the activities of campaign official Anna Chennault who passed messages to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem in Washington urging the South Vietnamese leaders to maintain their boycott of the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 2, the FBI intercepted a conversation in which Chennault told Bui Diem to convey "a message from her boss (not further identified)," according to an FBI cable. Chennault said "her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to 'hold on, we are going to win' and that her boss also said, 'hold on, he understands all of it.' She repeated that this is the only message ... 'he said please tell your boss to hold on.'"
That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure.
Several years ago, the National Archives released tape recordings of Johnson's phone calls further clarifying the depth of Johnson's knowledge -- and anger. On the night of Nov. 2, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and urged him to intercede with Nixon.
"The agent [Chennault] says she's just talked to the boss ... and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election," Johnson said. "We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We're pretty well informed at both ends."
Johnson then issued a thinly veiled threat to go public. "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."
Though Johnson personally spoke with Nixon about the Chennault issue, Nixon simply denied doing anything wrong and the peace stalemate continued through the final days of the campaign. On the day before the election, Johnson had one last chance to expose Nixon's "treason" when the White House was asked by the Christian Science Monitor to respond to a Saigon-datelined article drafted by correspondent Beverly Deepe who had discovered the Republican obstruction from her South Vietnamese sources.
Johnson consulted with Rostow, Secretary of State Dean Rusk 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 their judgment. An administration spokesman refused to confirm or deny the story, leading the Christian Science Monitor's editors to spike Deepe's scoop.
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