The Liberal's Enduring Dilemma: Whether To Vote For Disappointing Centrists?
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“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted, including going to Paris himself if that would help. “I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it; I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do,” Nixon said, recognizing how tantalizingly close Johnson was to a peace deal.
“We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon continued. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”
Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced by Nixon’s denials. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.
Still professing his innocence, Nixon told Johnson, “The main thing that we want to have is a good, strong personal understanding. After all, I trust you on this and I’ve told everybody that.”
“You just see that your people that are talking to these folks make clear your position,” Johnson said.
According to some reports, Nixon and his aides were gleeful after the conversation ended, believing they had tamped down Johnson’s suspicions. However, privately, Johnson didn’t believe Nixon’s protestations of innocence.
A Last Chance
On Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks.
Saville Davis of the Monitor’s Washington bureau approached Ambassador Bui Diem and the White House about a story filed by the Monitor’s Saigon correspondent, Beverly Deepe, regarding contacts between Thieu’s government and the Nixon campaign.
Deepe’s draft article began: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks – at least until the American Presidential election is over.”
The Monitor’s inquiry gave President Johnson one last chance to bring to light the Nixon campaign’s gambit before voters went to the polls, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.
So, Johnson consulted with Rostow, Rusk and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. The advisers were unanimous that Johnson shouldn’t go public, citing the risk that the scandal would reflect badly on the U.S. government.
“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. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to another “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “ The Almost Scoop on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]
The next day, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.