Cross-posted from Consortium News
President Richard Nixon addresses the nation about his bombing of Cambodia, April 30, 1969
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Tom Charles Huston, the national security aide assigned by President Richard Nixon to investigate what President Lyndon Johnson knew about why the Vietnam peace talks failed in 1968, concluded that Nixon was personally behind a secret Republican scheme to sabotage those negotiations whose collapse cleared the way to his narrow victory -- and to four more years of war.
"Over the years as I've studied it, I've concluded that there was no doubt that Nixon was -- would have been directly involved, that it's not something that anybody would've undertaken on their own," Huston said in an oral history done for the Nixon presidential library in 2008 and recently released in partially redacted form.
Huston, who is best known for the 1970 Huston Plan to expand spying on the anti-Vietnam War movement, said he was assigned the peace-talk investigation after Nixon took office because Nixon was told by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that President Johnson had learned of Nixon's sabotage through national security wiretaps.
Those wiretaps had revealed that Nixon's campaign was promising South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal if he boycotted the Paris peace talks, which Thieu did in the days before the U.S. presidential election in 1968.
"I think clearly there was no doubt that the Nixon campaign was aggressively trying to keep President Thieu from agreeing," Huston said in his oral history [To see the transcripts, click here and here.]
Johnson's failure to achieve a breakthrough stalled a late surge by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and enabled Nixon to prevail in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. Nixon then expanded the war with heavier strategic bombing over Indochina and with an invasion of Cambodia before winding down U.S. troop levels by 1973.
In those Nixon years, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded. The war also bitterly divided the United States, often turning parents against their own children.
Hoover's Double Game
According to Huston, Hoover briefed Nixon on his potential vulnerability regarding Johnson's wiretap evidence even before Nixon took office. "That goes back to the meeting that Nixon had with Hoover at the Pierre Hotel in New York after the election, at which Nixon made it clear to Hoover that he was going to reappoint him, which is what Hoover wanted.
"But, you know, Hoover was a piece of work. I mean, at the same time that pursuant to instructions from Lyndon Johnson he's got his agents scurrying all over the damn Southwest, you know, trying to dig up dirt on the vice president-elect [Spiro Agnew for his purported role in the peace-talk sabotage], [Hoover]'s sitting with the President-elect and telling him that Johnson had bugged his airplane during the '68 campaign," a specific claim that was apparently false but something that Nixon appears to have believed.
Faced with uncertainty about exactly what evidence Johnson had, Nixon ordered up a review of what was in the files, including whatever obstacles that the peace talks had encountered, an area that Huston felt required examining the issue of Republican obstruction, including contacts between Nixon campaign operative Anna Chennault and senior South Vietnamese officials.
"I wasn't really asked specifically to address Chennault, but you couldn't really look at [Johnson's] bombing halt and the politics of the bombing halt without -- at least in my judgment, without looking at what Johnson was looking at," Huston said. "What Johnson was looking at was this perception that the Nixon campaign was doing whatever it could to sabotage his efforts to achieve a bombing halt."
Huston found that nearly all the national security files at the White House had been packed up and shipped to the Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas, so Huston began piecing together the material from records recovered from the FBI and other federal agencies. According to the National Archives, Nixon, as the sitting president, would have had relatively easy access to the material shipped to Austin if he had wanted it.
But Johnson had taken no chances that Nixon's team might recover the file containing the evidence on what Johnson called Nixon's "treason." As Johnson was leaving the White House in January 1969, he ordered his national security aide Walt Rostow to take that file and keep it in his personal possession. Rostow labeled the file "The X-Envelope," although it has since become known to Johnson archivists as the "X-File."