This Is What Nixon Told a Sympathetic Biographer About the Charge He Sabotaged the Vietnam Peace Talks in 1968

tags: Nixon, Vietnam Peace Talks

Ray Locker is the Washington enterprise editor of USA TODAY and author of "Nixon's Gamble: How a President's Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration," to be published in October.

Former President Richard Nixon, in a 1991 letter to a British politician and author, denied interfering with the 1968 Paris peace talks seeking an end to the Vietnam War.

"Once you win an election you will find any number of people who will insist that they played a decisive role in the victory," Nixon wrote Jonathan Aitken on May 29, 1991. "In the case of Anna Chennault, she along with any number of others, used to bend John Mitchell's ear as to what was going on in Vietnam and what our position should be. Mitchell would puff his pipe, listen respectively [sic], and pass on information only when he thought it might involve important facts which I did not have from other sources. Incidentally, to his great credit, he very seldom bothered me with this massive information and information which came to his attention."

The letter from Nixon was recently made available by the Nixon presidential library and is a rare comment by Nixon about the so-called Chennault affair in which Chinese-American political activist Anna Chennault acted as a conduit for information between Nixon's presidential campaign and the South Vietnamese government. Nixon did not mention Chennault at all in his 1978 memoirs.

Mitchell, Nixon's former law partner, was his campaign manager in 1968 and 1972 and attorney general during Nixon's first term as president.

The Nixon campaign, Nixon told Aitken, did not need to tell South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that going along with any peace deal in 1968 was a bad idea for South Vietnam. Thieu knew that already, Nixon wrote.

"Coming to the substance of the Chennault canard," Nixon wrote, "I did not and I am confident Mitchell did not ever considered [sic] using Chennault as a channel to get to Thieu. The important point to remember is that Thieu didn't need to hear what Chennault claims she told him. Thieu knew that I was hardline and that I was very skeptical of North Vietnamese intentions and had opposed previous bombing halts."

The role of the Nixon campaign in the 1968 Paris talks has attracted more attention in recent weeks because of a letter signed by 47 Republican senators to the leader of Iran warning that any deal on that nation's nuclear program could be overturned by the next president. Opponents of the senators have called the letter a violation of the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits private citizens from negotiating with a foreign power in a dispute with the United States. Nixon's role in 1968 is a much more apparent violation of the Logan Act than the senators' letter, which was published publicly.

Nixon's role, meanwhile, was done surreptitiously and only discovered through National Security Agency taps on the communications of South Vietnam's ambassador to the United States back to Saigon. Despite his denial to Aitken, there is plenty of evidence tying Nixon to the Chennault Affair.

Throughout much of 1968, then-President Lyndon Johnson had some success at the talks in Paris aimed at ending the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese and the Soviet Union, their main ally, wanted the United States to stop the devastating bombing of North Vietnam that had started in 1965. Johnson wanted South Vietnam to be admitted as a full member of the talks, something the North Vietnamese had refused.

The Soviets told Johnson that ending the bombing would invigorate the chances of the Democratic Party to keep control of the White House in the 1968 election and stop Nixon, whom the Soviets considered a dangerous extremist. Dovish members of the Johnson administration also believed the bombing halt would help them politically.

Johnson agreed to stop the bombing if the North Vietnamese met three conditions — that the North Vietnamese respect the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, allow the South Vietnamese to join the Paris talks, and stop the artillery barrages on southern cities. They did. Johnson stopped the bombing.

Nixon had known since Oct. 7, 1968, that Johnson was looking for a way to stop the bombing, because Johnson told him in a telephone call that day. "I think everybody is pushing for a bombing pause," Johnson said. "I think you are. I think I am. I think everybody is." "But for the right deal," Nixon said.

Johnson spelled out the conditions he needed for the bombing halt but added the caveat that it would be meaningless if the South Vietnamese did not participate. He also told Nixon that if the North Vietnamese violated the conditions for the halt, "we would have to respond." "Yes," Nixon said. "Well, that makes sense. We wish you well."

Nixon knew the bombing halt was a reality, that it would help the Democrats and possibly cost him the election. Despite his denial to Aitken, a Tory member of the British Parliament, Nixon would frequently worry about any disclosure of interference in the Paris talks, often, as he did with Aitken, justifying it by saying the Soviets were trying to skew the course of the U.S. elections.

In the end, Nixon would become a willing negotiator with the Soviets, reaching comprehensive deals on nuclear arms control and achieving a reduced level of tensions on many issues. Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, would win a Nobel Peace Prize for reaching a secret peace deal with North Vietnam that was signed in 1973. And that peace deal was also one that was resisted vigorously by Thieu, who worried that it would mean the end of his government.

South Vietnam fell to the communists in April 1975. Thieu fled, first to Taiwan, then to London and finally moved to Foxborough, Mass. He died in 2001.

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