Ken Burns, President Nixon, and Vietnam: Two More Looks at What Happened

From a cover story, by Judith Viorst, in the September 1969 Washingtonian:

Anna Chennault says someday she’ll write a book about Vietnam. Maybe then we’ll find out whether or not this exotic Oriental beauty really did try to stall the peace talks in Paris long enough to give Richard Nixon the Presidency.

Meanwhile, the story remains one of those titillating tales which, along with the latest reports on her celebrity-studded parties and the VIP men in her life, help keep Anna Chennault in the news.

There is no doubt that, in the publicity sweepstakes, Anna has a lot going for her. She is a hero’s widow, an effective Republican fundraiser, a successful businesswoman, author, and lecturer. She has money, charm, good looks, and friends in high places….

There are two or three versions of the Vietnam story, but they always star Anna as the mystery woman who, after LBJ made his reelection move to halt of bombing of North Vietnam and get the peace negotiations going, quietly persuaded Saigon to delay participation in the Paris peace talks until after November 5, thus taking the peace initiative away from the Democrats.

The argument she presumably made to her friends in South Vietnam was that a slowdown in peace negotiations would guarantee a Republican victory, and that Saigon would get a better deal from Nixon than from Hubert Humphrey….

In his recent book, The Making of the President 1968, author Theodore White reports that Hubert Humphrey was well aware of Mrs. Chennault’s sabotage efforts but chose not to expose them. “I know of no more essentially decent story in American politics,” write White, “than Humphrey’s refusal to do so; his instinct was that Richard Nixon, personally, had no knowledge of Mrs. Chennault’s activities; had no hand in them; and would have forbidden them had he known.”

One of Humphrey’s aides, however, offered a more hard-headed explanation of Hubert’s failure to exploit the Chennault intrigue. “Anna’s activities,” he pointed out, “surfaced as the result of a wiretap. How were we going to explain that?”…

Tommy Corcoran, who probably knows Anna longer and better than any other gentleman in town, was asked by both Lyndon Johnson and Clark Clifford to find out exactly Anna was up to with the peace negotiations. But, says Corcoran, “I was very careful not to ask her.” He adds, however, noting her deep concern with the fate of Asia, that “if I had been Anna I’d have done what they say she did. But I’d have been goddamn careful I didn’t do it without orders from the top.”
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From a May 2014 Washingtonian story by Norman Sherman, Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary in 1968:

As we approached election day, Vietnam peace talks went on in Paris. President Johnson had softened his hard-line attitude, and there seemed hope for a change in policy leading to peace. But Anna Chennault, a Chinese charmer who had married an American World War II hero, was a major fundraiser for Nixon and assumed, or more likely was assigned, the task of preventing any peace agreement before the election.

Theodore White, the writer-chronicler of presidential elections, later wrote that Anna Chennault “had undertaken most energetically to sabotage (the peace talks). In contact with the Formosan, the South Korean and the South Vietnamese governments, she had begun early, by cable and telephone, to mobilize their resistance to the Paris agreement—apparently implying that she spoke for the Nixon campaign.” The South Vietnamese President repudiated any peace agreements.

Humphrey, although he knew what was happening, would not say anything about Chennault’s activities because the information was based on intelligence sources. Had Johnson informed him, given Humphrey a heads-up, we might have been able to speak out just enough to make a difference. But we heard nothing. I begged Humphrey to let me tell all of this to the press. I was certain that Americans of both parties would be outraged at what was a treasonous act by Nixon and that we would get the final boost we needed. I told him that if it rebounded against us, he could fire me as the unauthorized leaker.

Teddy White concluded: “Fully informed of the sabotage of the negotiations by our negotiators (secretly and without White House knowledge) and the recalcitrance of the Saigon government, Humphrey might have won the Presidency of the United States by making it the prime story of the last four days of the campaign. He was urged by several members of his staff to do so. And I know of no more essentially decent story in American politics than Humphrey’s reluctance to do so.”

Comments

  1. barney collier says:

    Dear Jack,

    How quaint is it that an era when there was barely a whiff of decency to a time like ours when there is no decency at all? To stall peace talks to favor a presidential candidate, a mere peccadillo of a more innocent time.

    Do you think decency still has any place of significance in real life America? Is it too rare to bother about?

    I read three print newspapers (The New York Post, the New York Times, and the Financial Times) daily, and the stories of decency are outnumbered 50 to 1 by stories about indecency.

    I don’t think decency is the dreaded “good news.” It’s under-covered news.

    Barney

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