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The Price of Political Purity

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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Hung/Schecter recounted Thieu explaining Nixon's assurances in a later meeting with Taiwan's leader Chiang Kai-shek. "He promised me eight years of strong support," Thieu told Chiang. "Four years of military support during his first term in office and four years of economic support during his second term. "

"By the time most of the Americans have withdrawn, so will the North Vietnamese; by then Saigon should be strong enough to carry on its own defense with only material support from the United States."

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Nixon's plan proved unsuccessful. Yet, having allegedly made his secret commitment to the South Vietnamese regime, Nixon kept searching for violent new ways to get Thieu a better deal than Johnson would have offered. Seeking what he called "peace with honor," Nixon invaded Cambodia and stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam.

Before U.S. combat participation in the war was finally brought to a close in 1973 -- on terms similar to what had been available to President Johnson in 1968 -- a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died. Those four-plus years also cost the lives of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded.

On to Watergate

The failure of Johnson and the Democrats to call Nixon out on his possible "treason" also left Nixon with a sense of invulnerability, like a gambler's confidence after succeeding at a high-stakes bluff.

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When it came to his 1972 re-election campaign, Nixon pushed more chips onto the table. Feeling that he had snookered the savvy Johnson, why not rig the entire democratic process by spreading dissension among the Democrats and hoodwinking the Democrats into selecting the weakest possible opponent?

But Nixon also fretted about his possible vulnerability to undisclosed information that the Democrats might have on him. After entering the White House, Nixon worried about Johnson's file on the peace-talk gambit and those fears led Nixon into a frantic search for its location. He didn't know that Johnson had ordered Walt Rostow to take the file out of the White House when Johnson departed on Jan. 20, 1969.

So, the search continued. On June 17, 1971, upon hearing the file might be in a safe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Nixon ordered a break-in by operatives under former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt. The order apparently marked the start of Nixon's "plumbers' operation," which led to the failed Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee exactly one year later. [See's "The Dark Continuum of Watergate."]

Though the investigations of Nixon's Watergate-related dirty tricks forced him to resign in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974, his legacy of ruthless politics lived on, in part, because he and his cohorts were never held accountable for their interference in the Vietnam peace talks. In fact, there was never an official inquiry into their actions.

Arguably, Nixon, the master political strategist, also succeeded in driving a permanent wedge into the Democrats' New Deal alliance. By dragging out the Vietnam War for four more years, Nixon managed to cleave the Democratic Party in two, carving away many "hard-hat" white voters from what they saw as "hippie" anti-war activists and their minority allies.

Reflecting on the consequences of the 1968 election -- and after seeing the latest evidence of Nixon's Vietnam "treason" -- Sam Brown said he regrets his decision to rebuff appeals for his support of Humphrey, especially since he thinks endorsements from former McCarthy activists might have erased Nixon's narrow victory margin.

"In '68, there was plenty of blame to go around," Brown said. "You had to forgive us somewhat."

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Still, Brown acknowledged that American democracy could have gone in a much more positive direction if Nixon had been defeated. "What he did to our politics," Brown lamented. "He was every bit as duplicitous as people said he was, maybe more so."

On a personal level, Brown said his decision in 1968 still causes him pain and embarrassment. "I'm not proud about what I'm about to tell you," Brown said, adding that he cast his ballot for a minor third-party candidate as "a throwaway vote."

Brown said he justified his choice because he was living in Iowa, which was expected to go for Nixon anyway. However, in retrospect, he called his rationalization "a cop-out" and told me, "I wish I had voted for Humphrey even in a place that didn't count. ... In retrospect, everybody should have been for Humphrey."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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