In a conference call, Johnson consulted with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Walt Rostow. All three advisers recommended 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 an "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."
Thus, the American electorate went to the polls on Nov. 5 with no knowledge that Johnson's failed peace talks may have been sabotaged by Nixon's campaign. Nixon prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.
After Nixon's victory, Johnson tried to get the peace talks back on track. He appealed directly to Nixon in another phone call on Nov. 8 and again raised the implied threat of going public with his growing file on Republican contacts with the South Vietnamese:
"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 peace-talk 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 threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to join the peace talks. However, nothing changed. For LBJ, there would be no peace.
As Inauguration Day approached, an embittered President Johnson ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to remove from the White House the file containing the secret evidence of this "sordid story," a decision that would have its own unintended consequences.
After taking office, President Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Johnson's wiretaps. But Hoover gave Nixon the impression that the bugging was more intrusive and widespread than it actually was. Nixon launched an internal search for the file containing the secret wiretaps, but to no avail.
For Nixon, the missing file emerged as a deepening concern in June 1971 when The New York Times began publishing excerpts from the leaked Pentagon Papers, a study of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967 that revealed U.S. government deceptions especially by the Johnson administration.
But Nixon knew something that few others did, that there was a potential sequel to the Pentagon Papers, a file on his campaign's treachery in undercutting Johnson's peace initiative and in extending the ruinous Vietnam War.
Just four days after the Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, one of Nixon's Oval Office tapes -- on June 17, 1971 -- records him demanding extraordinary measures to locate the missing file. Nixon's team referred to it as related to Johnson's Vietnam bombing halt of Oct. 31, 1968, but it encompassed LBJ's failed peace effort and more importantly the apparent Republican sabotage.
In the wake of the public outrage over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon clearly would have understood the danger to his reelection campaign if the second shoe had dropped, the revelation of Nixon's role in extending the war to help win an election.