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The Liberal's Enduring Dilemma: Whether To Vote For Disappointing Centrists?

The choice of voting for Obama, a third-party candidate, or sitting out is nothing new. And neither are the stakes.
 
 
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In 1968, Sam Brown, like many of his youthful contemporaries, was disgusted by the Vietnam War which had already claimed more than 30,000 American lives and killed countless Vietnamese. So, he poured his energy into Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for the Democratic nomination, serving as McCarthy’s Youth Coordinator.

Then, after McCarthy lost to Hubert Humphrey at the tumultuous Chicago convention, the 25-year-old Brown faced a tough choice: whether to sit out the general election in protest of Humphrey’s support for President Lyndon Johnson’s war policies or accept Humphrey as superior to his Republican rival, Richard Nixon.

Brown’s 1968 dilemma also has recurred periodically for Democrats as some on the Left prefer to cast votes for third parties or simply not vote to protest some shortcoming of the Democratic nominee – even if the Republican alternative is likely to pursue more warlike policies and roll back programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class.

In 1980, many on the Left abandoned Jimmy Carter because of his tacking to the political center, thus clearing the way for Ronald Reagan. In 2000, nearly three million voters cast ballots for Ralph Nader (who dubbed Al Gore “Tweedle-Dum” to George W. Bush’s “Tweedle-Dee”), thus helping Bush get close enough in Florida to steal the White House (with further help from five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court). Today, some on the Left are turning their backs on Barack Obama because he has disappointed them on health-care reform, the Afghan War and other policies.

It seems that on the Left – even more than on the Right – there is this quadrennial debate over whether one should withhold support from the Democratic nominee out of a sense of moral purity or hold one’s nose and accept the “lesser evil,” i.e. the major-party candidate who will inflict the least damage on Americans and the world.

Yet, as intensely as some on the Left disdain President Obama’s actions and inaction today, the cause for anger in 1968 was much greater. After running as the “peace” candidate in 1964, President Johnson had sharply escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with Vice President Humphrey loyally at his side.

Then, in 1968, the bloody Tet offensive shattered U.S. assurances of impending victory; Johnson confronted a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy and decided not to seek reelection; Sen. Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, but was assassinated (as was civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.); and the Democratic convention in Chicago descended into chaos as police clashed with anti-war protesters on the streets.

Appeal to the McCarthy Youth

It was in that maelstrom of tragedy and anger that Sam Brown, like other McCarthy (and Kennedy) supporters had to decide whether to line up behind Humphrey, who was admired for his support for social and economic justice (even if he was condemned for his loyalty to Johnson), or to stay on the sidelines (and risk Nixon’s victory).

In a recent interview, Brown told me that he was on the fence about which way to go, saying his decision depended on Humphrey making a clean break with Johnson on the war. There was a widely held view at the time that Johnson was so psychologically “owned by the war” — and his responsibility for the terrible bloodshed — that he couldn’t take the necessary steps to make peace, Brown said.

Humphrey did not want to betray Johnson but understood that his campaign depended on his reuniting the shattered Democratic Party. So, Humphrey sent emissaries to approach Brown and other anti-war activists.

“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.

Nixon’s Back-Channels

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 [1968] 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.”

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.”

Thieu’s Version

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.

Wall Street Intrigue

The next day, Oct. 29, national security adviser Walt Rostow received the first clear indication that Nixon might actually be coordinating with Thieu to sabotage the peace talks. Rostow’s brother, Eugene, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, wrote a memo about a tip from a source in New York who had spoken with “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”

The source said Wall Street bankers – at a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest – had been given inside information about the prospects for Vietnam peace and were told that Nixon was obstructing that outcome.

“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” Eugene Rostow wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem … to block. …

“They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) – a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”

In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers, though Nixon’s original Wall Street contact is not named and remains unknown to history.)

In a later memo to the file, Walt Rostow recounted that he learned this news shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.” Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance.”

That same day, Johnson ordered FBI wiretaps of Americans in touch with the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and quickly learned that Anna Chennault was holding curious meetings with South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem.

Working the Phones

Johnson began working the phones contacting some of his old Senate colleagues, including Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen, to urge that they intercede with Nixon to stop his campaign’s peace-talk sabotage.

“He better keep Mrs. Chennault and all this crowd tied up for a few days,” Johnson told Dirksen on Oct. 31, 1968, according to a tape recording of the call released in 2008.

That night, Johnson announced a bombing halt intended to ensure North Vietnamese participation in the talks. The Democrats were finally taking the action that Brown and other anti-war activists wanted, but it was late in the game and many voters remained dubious over whether Johnson was serious or was engaging in a political stunt.

“The President had no credibility,” said Brown. “When he said, ‘I’m ending the war,’ the assumption was that we’d bomb them back to the Stone Age.”

However, the historical evidence now indicates that Johnson was serious about ending the war. Indeed, he apparently felt a powerful responsibility to do so before leaving office, possibly thinking that it was the only way to salvage his legacy. But he discovered that Nixon’s operatives continued to obstruct the process.

On Nov. 2, 1968, Johnson learned that his protests had not shut down Nixon’s gambit. The FBI intercepted the most incriminating evidence yet of Nixon’s interference when Anna Chennault contacted Ambassador Bui Diem to convey “a message from her boss (not further identified),” according to an FBI cable.

According to the intercept, Chennault said “her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are going to win’ and that her boss also said, ‘hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message … ‘he said please tell your boss to hold on.’ She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.”

In quickly relaying the message to Johnson at his ranch in Texas, Walt Rostow noted that the reference to New Mexico “may indicate [Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro] Agnew is acting,” since he had taken a campaign swing through the state.

That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure. That night, at 9:18, an angry Johnson from his ranch in Texas telephoned Dirksen again, to provide more details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene more forcefully.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then renewed his thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence. “We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”

Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”

“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. … You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”

A Worried Nixon

After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. At 1:54 p.m. on Nov. 3, trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released in 2008 by the LBJ Library.

“I feel very, very strongly about this,” Nixon said. “Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

However, armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28 when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”

“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 Consequences

The next day, Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.

On the day after the election, Rostow relayed to Johnson another FBI intercept which had recorded South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem saying, prior to the American balloting, that he was “keeping his fingers crossed” in hopes of a Nixon victory.

On Nov. 7, Rostow passed along another report to Johnson about the thinking of South Vietnam’s leaders. The report quoted Major Bui Cong Minh, assistant armed forces attaché at the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, saying about the peace talks: “Major Minh expressed the opinion that the move by Saigon was to help presidential candidate Nixon, and that had Saigon gone to the conference table, presidential candidate Humphrey would probably have won.”

Johnson continued to hope that Nixon, having won the election, would join in pressing for Saigon’s participation in the peace talks and achieve a breakthrough before Johnson left office on Jan. 20, 1969. But the breakthrough was not to be, and Johnson went into retirement in silence about Nixon’s “treason.”

Johnson did, however, instruct Rostow to take with him the secret file of wiretaps and other evidence, which Rostow labeled “The ‘X’ Envelope.” (It remained unopened until the mid-1990s and has gradually been declassified since then.)

Contrary to the hopes of many Americans – including some anti-war voters who cast their ballots for Nixon thinking he had a “secret plan” to end the war – the new President had no intention to end the war quickly.

When Nixon met Thieu on Midway Island on June 8, 1969, in their first face-to-face sit-down since the election, Nixon unveiled his plan for a gradual “Vietnamization” of the war, while Thieu sought more U.S. guarantees of military assistance, according to The Palace File.

Hung/Schecter recounted Thieu explaining Nixon’s assurances in a later meeting with Taiwan’s leader Chiang Kai-shek. “He promised me eight years of strong support,” Thieu told Chiang. “Four years of military support during his first term in office and four years of economic support during his second term. …

“By the time most of the Americans have withdrawn, so will the North Vietnamese; by then Saigon should be strong enough to carry on its own defense with only material support from the United States.”

Nixon’s plan proved unsuccessful. Yet, having allegedly made his secret commitment to the South Vietnamese regime, Nixon kept searching for violent new ways to get Thieu a better deal than Johnson would have offered. Seeking what he called “peace with honor,” Nixon invaded Cambodia and stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam.

Before U.S. combat participation in the war was finally brought to a close in 1973 — on terms similar to what had been available to President Johnson in 1968 — a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died. Those four-plus years also cost the lives of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded.

On to Watergate

The failure of Johnson and the Democrats to call Nixon out on his possible “treason” also left Nixon with a sense of invulnerability, like a gambler’s confidence after succeeding at a high-stakes bluff.

When it came to his 1972 reelection campaign, Nixon pushed more chips onto the table. Feeling that he had snookered the savvy Johnson, why not rig the entire democratic process by spreading dissension among the Democrats and hoodwinking the Democrats into selecting the weakest possible opponent?

But Nixon also fretted about his possible vulnerability to undisclosed information that the Democrats might have on him. After entering the White House, Nixon worried about Johnson’s file on the peace-talk gambit and those fears led Nixon into a frantic search for its location. He didn’t know that Johnson had ordered Walt Rostow to take the file out of the White House when Johnson departed on Jan. 20, 1969.

So, the search continued. On June 17, 1971, upon hearing the file might be in a safe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Nixon ordered a break-in by operatives under former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt. The order apparently marked the start of Nixon’s “plumbers’ operation,” which led to the failed Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee exactly one year later. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Dark Continuum of Watergate."]

Though the investigations of Nixon’s Watergate-related dirty tricks forced him to resign in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974, his legacy of ruthless politics lived on, in part, because he and his cohorts were never held accountable for their interference in the Vietnam peace talks. In fact, there was never an official inquiry into their actions.

Arguably, Nixon, the master political strategist, also succeeded in driving a permanent wedge into the Democrats’ New Deal alliance. By dragging out the Vietnam War for four more years, Nixon managed to cleave the Democratic Party in two, carving away many “hard-hat” white voters from what they saw as “hippie” anti-war activists and their minority allies.

Reflecting on the consequences of the 1968 election – and after seeing the latest evidence of Nixon’s Vietnam “treason” – Sam Brown said he regrets his decision to rebuff appeals for his support of Humphrey, especially since he thinks endorsements from former McCarthy activists might have erased Nixon’s narrow victory margin.

“In ’68, there was plenty of blame to go around,” Brown said. “You had to forgive us somewhat.”

Still, Brown acknowledged that American democracy could have gone in a much more positive direction if Nixon had been defeated. “What he did to our politics,” Brown lamented. “He was every bit as duplicitous as people said he was, maybe more so.”

On a personal level, Brown said his decision in 1968 still causes him pain and embarrassment. “I’m not proud about what I’m about to tell you,” Brown said, adding that he cast his ballot for a minor third-party candidate as “a throwaway vote.”

Brown said he justified his choice because he was living in Iowa, which was expected to go for Nixon anyway. However, in retrospect, he called his rationalization “a cop-out” and told me, “I wish I had voted for Humphrey even in a place that didn’t count. … In retrospect, everybody should have been for Humphrey.”

There is a larger lesson from his youthful choice, Brown believes, understanding the danger of political purity. Brown, who later in his career ran the government ACTION agency for President Jimmy Carter and headed the U.S. mission to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe for President Bill Clinton, worries that a return of this attitude among young activists could lead to Mitt Romney defeating President Barack Obama in 2012.

Brown said that on every important issue, “this guy [Obama] is 100 times better than the alternative” and that activists should put aside whatever disappointments they feel about Obama – and not repeat the mistake of 1968.