In late October 1968, Beverly Deepe, a 33-year-old Saigon correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, came upon a story that could have changed history. A six-year veteran covering the Vietnam War, she learned from South Vietnamese sources that Richard Nixon's campaign was collaborating behind the scenes with the Saigon government to derail President Lyndon Johnson's peace talks.
On Oct. 28, Deepe sent her startling information to her Monitor editors in the United States, asking them to have the Washington bureau "check out a report that [South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States] Bui Diem had sent a cable to the Foreign Ministry about contact with the Nixon camp," she told me in a recent e-mail exchange.
At that moment in 1968, the stakes surrounding Nixon's secret contacts could hardly be higher. With half a million U.S. soldiers serving in the war zone -- and with more than 30,000 already dead -- a peace deal could have saved countless lives, both American and Vietnamese. Progress toward a settlement also could have meant defeat for Nixon on Election Day, Nov. 5.
History was at one of those forks in the road. A peace agreement could have brought the divisive war to an end before the social fabric of the United States was thoroughly torn apart. Besides the lives and treasure that could have been saved, decades of political recriminations could have been averted.
The possible election of Vice President Hubert Humphrey could have given LBJ's Great Society a chance to work, alleviating the nation's poverty and reducing racial tensions. Johnson himself might have been viewed quite differently, recognized more as the President who enacted landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare, rather than the leader forever stained by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and the divisions that it created at home.
Also, the course of the Republican Party and modern American politics might have been very different. The darkly paranoid Nixon might not have had the chance to infuse the GOP with his win-at-all-cost ethos. His campaign's brazen attempt to ensure his victory in 1968 by sabotaging peace talks was so shocking then that Democrats shied away from discussing it publicly even after they found evidence.
In other words, much was at stake on Oct. 28, 1968, when Deepe cabled her source information to her Christian Science Monitor editors. But she heard nothing back, even after the South Vietnamese government surprisingly backed out of attending planned peace talks in Paris.
Finally, on Nov. 4 in Saigon (and Nov. 3 in Washington), she fashioned her information into an article and submitted it for publication. Her draft began: "Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President [Nguyen van] Thieu's refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks -- at least until the American Presidential election is over."
In her e-mail to me, Deepe (who now uses her married name Keever) recalled that "The Monitor deleted those references [to collaboration between the Nixon team and the Saigon government] and picked up much of the rest of my article" for stories that were published.
The editors told "me that my lead had been 'trimmed and softened' because the editors could get no confirmation and thus without it, they could not print such sweeping charges before the election," Deepe said in the e-mail.
But Deepe had no idea how high up her story had gone and how close it had come to changing history.
What happened to Deepe's scoop remained a mystery to her for more than 43 years -- until I published a story on March 3, 2012, after reviewing tapes of previously secret White House phone calls and accessing a onetime classified file at the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Texas. [I subsequently tracked down Deepe, who now lives in Hawaii, and sent her the article.]
In those White House calls and in the file, which Johnson's national security adviser Walt Rostow labeled "The X Envelope," was the back story of what happened to Deepe's scoop as LBJ personally wrestled with whether to confirm her information before the 1968 election.
It turned out that at about the same time Deepe was hearing about Nixon's gambit from South Vietnamese sources, Johnson was learning about it from American sources and from FBI wiretaps of the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.