The Liberal's Enduring Dilemma: Whether To Vote For Disappointing Centrists?
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“The campaign in a formal way reached out to those who had supported McCarthy,” Brown recalled. The campaign’s emissary to about a dozen activists was Vermont Gov. Philip Hoff, who had “cred” because he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, Brown said.
But Hoff faced a hard sell. “We were so bitter about Johnson that we weren’t going to listen to Humphrey,” Brown said about himself and some of the other activists. “It can’t be just, ‘he’s a good guy, trust us.’ You had to give us something to believe in. … There needed to be some lifeline thrown.”
The anti-war activists also thought they might be able to use Humphrey’s outreach to pry him away from his pro-war position. “We had a little leverage now to move Humphrey,” Brown said. “It’s sounds pretentious. I had just turned 25 years old” but simply endorsing him “would have given up all the leverage we had to move Humphrey on the war.”
Brown was one of the McCarthy people who ultimately withheld support for Humphrey as the Vice President continued to balk at repudiating the war. So, as Nixon built up an imposing lead in the presidential race, Brown returned to his home state of Iowa to work for anti-war Senate candidate Harold Hughes.
Humphrey waited until Sept. 30 before he gave a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, calling for a unilateral U.S. bombing halt. “Humphrey didn’t break with the President until way too late,” Brown said. “It was just too late to turn that ship around.”
However, Humphrey’s speech helped close the gap against Nixon. There also was more happening on a possible peace deal behind the scenes. In October 1968, the North Vietnamese began to show flexibility toward Johnson’s peace overtures and Johnson started pressing the South Vietnamese government to come onboard and join peace talks in Paris.
Johnson kept the leading presidential candidates informed of the progress. Even though few Americans knew how close Johnson was to ending the war, Nixon was told and grew alarmed that a breakthrough on peace would put Humphrey over the top, another heartbreaking loss for Nixon.
Yet, while Nixon was in the know on the Paris peace talks – also getting tips from Henry Kissinger, an informal adviser to the negotiations – Johnson was largely in the dark about Nixon’s own channels to the South Vietnamese leadership.
Nixon’s early outreach to Saigon included a private meeting with South Vietnam’s Ambassador Bui Diem at the Hotel Pierre in New York City on July 12, 1968, attended by Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell and one of his top fundraisers, China Lobby figure Anna Chennault.
At the end of the meeting, “Nixon thanked me for my visit and added that his staff would be in touch with me through John Mitchell and Anna Chennault,” Bui Diem wrote, in his 1987 memoir, In the Jaws of History.
According to Chennault’s account of the same meeting, Nixon also told Bui Diem that as president he would make Vietnam his top priority and “see that Vietnam gets better treatment from me than under the Democrats.” [See The Palace File by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter.]
After the meeting with Nixon, Bui Diem said he grew more alienated from President Johnson and the Democrats as they pressed for peace talks to end the war.
“As the Democrats steered with all due haste away from the Indochinese involvement they had engineered, I was increasingly attracted to the Republican side,” Bui Diem wrote. “By October  I was back in touch with Anna, who was now co-chairman of Nixon’s fundraising committee, and Senator John Tower, chairman of the Republican Key Issues Committee. I also got together with George [H.W.] Bush and other Republicans from whom I was trying to elicit support for a strong Vietnam policy.”