The GOP's Long, Sordid History of Shameless Hostage-Taking
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Johnson learned of Nixon’s gambit, which the President called “treason” in one phone conversation. Johnson even confronted Nixon over the phone about the sabotage, but Nixon simply denied the accusations, leaving Johnson with the choice of whether to release the evidence before the 1968 election.
Johnson consulted with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford on Nov. 4, 1968. Both advised against going public out of fear that the evidence of Nixon’s treachery might reflect badly on the United States.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said in a conference call. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
So, Johnson relented, agreeing to stay silent for the “good of the country,” while Nixon exploited the stalemated peace talks for the edge that ensured his narrow victory.
However, since Nixon’s side had promised South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal than Johnson was offering, Nixon had little choice but to continue the war – for four more years, with the deaths of 20,000 more U.S. soldiers and a million or so more Vietnamese. [See “The Significance of Nixon’s ‘Treason’.”]
Madman and Watergate
Desperate to show some results from the additional years of war, Nixon also tried out a version of his hostage-taking strategy on the North Vietnamese, devising what was called the “madman” theory of letting Hanoi think that he was crazy enough to use nuclear weapons unless they gave in. In effect, he was taking their whole country hostage.
However, the North Vietnamese called his bluff and ultimately negotiated a peace accord in Paris in 1972, along the lines of what Johnson had hammered out four years earlier. (In 1975, the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies routed Thieu’s South Vietnamese army, with him going into exile in the United States.)
Still, Nixon’s political success in 1968 encouraged him to continue pushing the envelope of what he could get away with, apparently trusting that when push came to shove the Democrats would retreat as Johnson did. Nixon’s political hubris finally undid him in the Watergate political spying scandal.
Yet, despite Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the Republicans were not inclined to change their ways. The imprint of Nixon’s “scorched-earth” brand of politics had been burned deeply into their psyches, evidenced in their harsh rhetoric, their questioning of other people’s patriotism and a readiness to coerce adversaries.
As longtime Democratic congressional aide Spencer Oliver observed years later: “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.”
In other words, the Republicans got to work building their own media infrastructure and expanding their activist organizations to make sure that if the Democrats called the Republicans out on a future political scandal, it would be the Democrats who suffered more, that the Republicans would have their flanks covered.
It’s also important to realize that even though Nixon left the White House in disgrace, he remained an important adviser to Republican politicians, including a young “bomb-thrower” from Georgia named Newt Gingrich. Nixon often urged Republicans to play the sort of hardball games that he had perfected.
In 1980, Nixon and some of his key aides, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were background figures in what looked like a reprise of Nixon’s 1968 gambit, when President Jimmy Carter’s reelection was held hostage by Iranian radicals holding 52 Americans hostage.