The Liberal's Enduring Dilemma: Whether To Vote For Disappointing Centrists?
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Bui Diem acknowledged sending cables to Saigon, conveying the interest of the Nixon campaign in having President Nguyen van Thieu resist pressure to join the peace talks.
“I found a cable from October 23,” Bui Diem wrote, “in which I had said, ‘Many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged us to stand firm. They were alarmed by press reports to the effect that you [President Thieu] had already softened your position.’
“In another cable, from October 27, I wrote, ‘I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage,’ by which I meant Anna Chennault, John Mitchell, and Senator Tower.”
Bui Diem also noted that Chennault “had other avenues to Thieu, primarily through his brother, Nguyen Van Kieu, a South Vietnamese ambassador to Taiwan.”
President Thieu’s fullest account of the peace-talk gambit was recounted by his former aide, Nguyen Tien Hung, in The Palace File (coauthored with Jerrold Schecter). Hung/Schecter reported that “Anna Chennault visited Saigon frequently in 1968 to advise Thieu on Nixon’s candidacy and his views on Vietnam. She told him [Thieu] then that Nixon would be a stronger supporter of Vietnam than Humphrey.”
Thieu also bypassed his Washington embassy for some of his messages to Chennault, Hung/Schecter wrote. “He relied heavily on his brother Nguyen Van Kieu” and that “Mrs. Chennault often sent messages to Thieu through aides to his brother.”
Based on interviews with Chennault, Hung/Schecter reported that she claimed that John Mitchell called her “almost every day” urging her to stop Thieu from going to the Paris peace talks and warning her that she should use pay phones to avoid wiretaps.
Hung/Schecter wrote: “Mitchell’s message to her was always the same: ‘Don’t let him go.’ A few days before the election, Mitchell telephoned her with a message for President Thieu, ‘Anna, I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that clear to them.’”
Chennault said, “Thieu was under heavy pressure from the Democrats. My job was to hold him back and prevent him from changing his mind.”
As Hung/Schecter wrote: “Throughout October 1968 Thieu tried to delay the Johnson bombing halt decision and an announcement of Paris Talks as long as possible to buy time for Nixon.”
For his part, Johnson gradually became aware of the double game being played by Thieu and Nixon. As the days counted down to the election, Johnson was hearing sketchy reports from U.S. intelligence that Thieu was dragging his feet in anticipation of a Nixon victory.
For instance, a “top secret” report on Oct. 23, 1968, report – presumably based on National Security Agency’s electronic eavesdropping – quotes Thieu as saying that the Johnson administration might halt U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as part of a peace gesture that would help Humphrey’s campaign, but that South Vietnam might not go along.
“The situation which would occur as the result of a bombing halt, without the agreement of the [South] Vietnamese government … would be to the advantage of candidate Nixon,” the NSA report on Thieu’s thinking read. “Accordingly, he [Thieu] said that the possibility of President Johnson enforcing a bombing halt without [South] Vietnam’s agreement appears to be weak.” [For the document, click here and here.]
By Oct. 28, 1968, according to another NSA report, Thieu said “it appears that Mr. Nixon will be elected as the next president” and that any settlement with the Viet Cong should be put off until “the new president” was in place.